Bad land pastoralism: Land use and the biocultural landscape in Great Plains fiction

Date of Completion

January 2007


Literature, American




This dissertation examines fictional narratives that chronicle the dialectical engagement between culture and nature on the Great Plains. I explore literary treatments of a chronological succession of biocultural transitions on the Great Plains, from the Euroamerican conquest of the "Indian wilderness" in the nineteenth century to the Buffalo Commons phenomenon in the twentieth. Ultimately, this study traces a strain of what I call bad land pastoralism, a persistent effort to confront and transcend the losses accrued during the ongoing attempt to inhabit a bioregion defined by motion and transience. ^ The first chapter explores two historical romances about the Euroamerican conquest of the Indian wilderness. I highlight how both James Fenimore Cooper and James Welch address the disruptive environmental and cultural consequences of Euroamerican expansion into the hunting-grounds of the Plains Indians. In chapter two, I examine how Winifred Eaton and Conrad Richter employ the metaphor of marriage and illegitimate children to negotiate the ideological, cultural, and ecological impact of the enclosure of the open cattle ranges near the turn of the twentieth century. ^ Chapter three focuses on Willa Cather's treatment of the rise and fall of the homesteading era. Through a comparative analysis of O Pioneers! and A Lost Lady I underscore the ambivalence of Cather's pastoral imagination as she attempts to reconcile her persistent romanticism with a growing disillusionment concerning the future of rural Nebraska. ^ In chapter four I examine how Tillie Olsen and Frederick Manfred approach the crisis of the Dust Bowl from two separate angles while positing strikingly similar imaginative visions that locate a renewed hope in the pastoral ideal, even as they build upon and recognize the tragic failure of this ideal in a postfrontier context. The final chapter analyzes how Annie Proulx and Thomas King draw on the metaphorical power of the Buffalo Commons proposal put forth by Frank and Deborah Popper in 1987. Both Proulx and King incorporate the return of the buffalo as a central trope in their narratives and employ it as the centerpiece of a revised mythology of the Plains. ^