The Description of a Place: The Plains, the Prairies, and the Humanities

This was the second annual Nebraska Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities, delivered in 1997. In revisiting his boyhood through literature, especially Great Plains novels, Marty discusses features of life in their landscapes.


When I was in high school during World War II, the Book-of-the-Month Club sent me a volume of philosopher and poet George Santayana’s autobiography, Persons and Places. It helped serve as an approach to otherwise remote worlds. Two short paragraphs in the book were so appropriate to the quest for identity and viewpoint that they became part of my way of looking at the world ever since.

Santayana, who spent his years relating the Harvard of his professional existence to the many “persons and places” of his rather rootless life, described the concept of a place to stand from which to view the world:

I was scarcely three years old when we moved to Avila, and I was nearly seventy when it ceased to be the centre of my deepest legal and affectionate ties. That these ties, albeit the deepest, should have left me so remarkably free was a happy circumstance for my philosophy. It taught me to possess without being possessed, yet it gave me a most firm and distinctive station. For the freest spirit must have some birthplace, some locus standi from which to view the world and some innate passion by which to judge it. Spirit must always be the spirit of some body.

The same thing, by another happy chance, might be said of my other principal point of attachment, namely Boston, and Harvard College. The extreme contrast between the two centres and the two influences became itself a blessing: it rendered flagrant the limitations and the contingency of both.

Most of us need two such places for “affectionate,” if not always “legal,” reference: one the landscape of childhood and the other of later residence. But literature can help provide almost anyone such a locus standi, no matter what his or her actual experience of place has been.

Following the notion of a polarity of places that form biographical experience and are informed by literary imagination, I choose to illustrate this place-to-stand theme by reference to what has been a life-time hobby for me–reading and collecting Great Plains and Prairie fiction.

In the literary world that is our subject there are evidences that should inspire caution even in Nebraskans and ex-Nebraskans. For example, when novelist Willa Cather used the Great Plains landscape as the setting for some of her books, an eastern literary critic kept his distance. Cather remembered him writing: “I simply don’t care a damn what happens in Nebraska, no matter who writes about it.”

For those who lived in the Great Plains before the middle of the twentieth century and then moved away, I often compare notes and find that the measurements of population density, size of buildings, attitudes of inhabitants, and almost anything else tend to get measured against these elements as they were acquired and adopted in childhood. When I describe my locus standi as a specifically Nebraska childhood, to a largely Nebraska audience, I know this is a little harder for the evocation of the imagination because you’re in the place and not the description of the place. Were I describing Tibet, or Cape Town, or Patagonia, it would be a good deal different. But Nebraska is there, it’s a clean landscape.

I left Nebraska with its and my West Point and Battle Creek (plus summers at Columbus and Leigh) at age sixteen and have had fairly rare opportunities to go back. I am not a novelist who can turn this landscape into literary material. I am an historian who can write a 500-page history of American religion dealing with over a 500-year span only to be told at the end that I had found no reasons even to mention Nebraska. It was not by any means the only neglected state, but it was mine! Not much that shapes the destiny of others has happened there, many would say; it lacks a Plymouth Rock, an Independence Hall, or even a Haymarket Square. One can assume that few distant readers will have reason to care to have recounted the blizzard of 1880—81 or the birth of the unique unicameral legislature.

The flatness of the landscape, which at best rises to sandhills and is punctuated by lonely Scottsbluff National Monument, and the very eventlessness of the historical scene in Nebraska can be assets, however. I will suggest that the physical, mental and moral landscape of any childhood may play a large part in providing both perspective and a dimensional reference to employ through life. Even if we do not live in the place, we live by reference to the description of the place.

Those who experienced dust bowl and drought and the Depression in Nebraska in childhood recall the days of literal horse-power and kerosene lamps. Provincialism and even localism in my case prevailed in a setting that made for a happy childhood. As for transactions with the world which literary philosophers today describe as the place of what they call the “Other”–the different people–they appeared only on a subtly shaded scale.

The county of my birth, Cuming County, unlike that of the metropolis of my professional years, included not a single African-American, Asian, Jew or Muslim. The nearest Muslims were in Ross, North Dakota, the site of the first mosque in America, and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the next county there was an Omaha and Winnebago Indian reservation; its Native Americans truly represented “otherness,” but they might as well have been in New Mexico for all we encountered them, just once a year on the high school basketball floor. In the 1990 religious census, Cuming County’s population was 100.2 percent churched. For me to describe this setting to my graduate students today, each of whom comes from such a place and thinks the world is like the place where they grew up, it would be as remote as that of the moon with a peoplescape as precious and bizarre as anything from Kurdistan.

Commuting mentally between such a place and the metropolis involves constant acts of translation and updating. Chicago was the cosmopolitan city to which we and our authors related, not only because its livestock markets determined the economy of lesser places like Omaha and thus of my neighbors, or because our radios brought us the Chicago Cubs. Our elementary school geography, which served several grades in a two-room school where I went, was very important to me. A magazine once asked numbers of us to name the ten books that had the greatest influence on our lives, and I listed my grade school geography right there next to Augustine’s Confessions, because it so strongly reinforced Wallace Stevens’ idea that we live not in a place but in the description of a place, and it described so magnificently the Chicago of my dreams. I’ll always remember Figure 251–an airplane view looking northeast across the downtown district of Chicago toward the outer harbor. That little book taught you how to get on an elevator and what a revolving door was, because some day you might see one.

What personal memory and experience cannot sustain, literature can and does. That is one of the reasons why the humanities–history, religion, literature, for me–are important. The best definition, I think, came from the National Humanities Commission report of some years ago. It suggests why state humanities councils and commissions put energy into the types of literature that connect people with places and times beyond their immediate experience, as does the literature as it describes the plains and the prairies. [Editor’s note: see the end( of this document for the text of this definition.]


Willa Cather and the Place with Its Human Drama

Willa Cather, the familiar author who provides the classic starting point for most people who would ponder the prairie imagination in literature, was born in Virginia in 1873 and moved with her parents to Webster County in 1883. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, she left the state, but returned for occasional visits throughout her life. When dealing with friends in eastern cities, she sometimes lost patience. She told Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant about the distance between their two worlds: “You could not understand. You have not seen those miles of fields. There is no place to hide in Nebraska.”

Rather than hide, Cather looked, and wrote of what she saw and remembered. O Pioneers! is a supreme reflection on the landscape and the people who make up its plots. The novelist invented a character named John Bergson, who thought he could tame the land but had to learn that “its genius was unfriendly to man.” At the end of Bergson’s life it still remained to him “an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces.”

In The Song of the Lark, Cather’s second prairie novel, Thea Kronhorg served as a model for those of us who connected the description and experience of the prairie with the imagination of the city of Chicago. Kronborg made her way as a budding artist to Chicago. There she heard Dvorak’s New World Symphony:

This was music she could understand, music from the New World indeed! Strange how, as the first movement went on, it brought back to her that high tableland above Laramie; the grass-grown wagon-trails, the far-away peaks of the snowy range, the wind and the eagles, that old man and the first telegraph message. . . . Here were the sand hills, the grasshoppers and locusts, all the things that wakened and chirped in the early morning; the reaching and reaching of high plains, the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands. There was home in it, too.

It is My Ántonia, however, which is best remembered as Cather’s reflection on land and landscape, on the described place where she had lived as a child. It can serve as our case study. Cather sees the world through the eyes of her narrator, Jim Burden, who late in the novel and much later in his life is a lawyer in New York, where he leads an apparently unfulfilling existence. He visits Nebraska, where he again finds Ántonia, a Czech immigrant girl now a grandmother. Decades before, Burden had come as an orphaned ten-year-old to live with his grandparents; if you’ve ever read about the night of his arrival you can’t forget it. He saw “nothing hut land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” He felt, as did so many, “that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.”

Cather, through Burden, recalled that growing up in a little prairie town “was a kind of freemasonry.” Jim and the slightly older Antonia had shared a childhood, one which showed how the common experience of the small town and the prairie bonded people. Antonia to him had meant “the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.” But in this as so many other cases, the author used a particular place to reach toward the universal. In his return years later, Burden saw in the image of a battered, aged Antonia “immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true.”

In one scene at a picnic with “hired girls,” Burden tells a story which was going around those days and which he believed, contrary to the evidence, about how Coronado’s expedition had reached up into Nebraska. Why had Coronado come so far? What was their country then like? Jim does not know. He “only knew the schoolbooks said the Spaniard ‘died in the wilderness, of a broken heart.'” Ántonia, who had lost her father there, responded, “More than him has done that.” There seemed little more to say, as they watched the sun set. And then the most famous descriptive scene in all her novels: “The curly grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river:”

Presently we saw a curious thing. There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share-black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

But the sun was to set; “the ball dropped and dropped” and soon “that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.” This contrast accented the littleness of the people who inhabited the prairie, those who inspired complex plots where the landscape was simple and spare.


Wright Morris and the Place of the Plains

Wright Morris, the novelist and photographer who spent only his adolescent years in Nebraska but used its landscape and people for a sequence of novels, made it clear that the plains and the prairie formed his locus standi: they “conditioned what I see, what I look for, and what I find in the world to write about.” Paralleling the image of the plotted novel against a plotless landscape, Morris said that “the plain is a metaphysical landscape. . . . Where there is almost nothing to see, there man sees the most.” His landscape features an occasional house and is peopled. The houses dot “the plain as if [they] had been ordered by mail and delivered.” They evidence “the mood of space and loneliness with which the plainsman must come to terms.” They provided the background to his plots, for in them he had to address, he said, “what draws some men to the plains, and what drives some women crazy.”

A typical Morris novel begins:

In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow. West of the 98th Meridian–where it sometimes rains and it sometimes doesn’t–towns, like weeds, spring up when it rains, dry up when it stops. But in a dry climate the husk of the plant remains. The stranger might find, as if preserved in amber, something of the green life that was once lived there, and the ghosts of men who have gone on to a better place. The withered towns are empty, but not uninhabited. Faces sometimes peer out from the broken windows, or whisper from the sagging balconies, as if this place–now that it is dead–has come to life. As if empty it is forever occupied.

Some critics have seen in Morris and others who employ the prairie imagination a nostalgic impulse, a sentimental attraction to a world that never was. As an historian, I have to say it is not nostalgia; nostalgia is the rust of memory, it’s the ’40s with the Andrews Sisters without World War II, but in writers like Morris it is all there. In a Holiday magazine essay, the novelist elaborated:

. . . I have spent most of my life puzzling over the lines on the map of my childhood. In what sense, it might be asked, have I been away? The high plain lies within me. It is something I no longer try to escape. If I stand at the window where the Grandfather stood, I see what he saw. The dream that appealed to him still appeals to me. The tall corn still flowers, the golden grain still waves, skyscrapers now rise where the dust blows and the Oklahoma Sooners won forty-seven consecutive games.

But the prevailing temper, the dominant note, is not struck by these triumphs, however deserved, but by the seat of the harrow that lies buried like a shield in the storm cave mound. The enduring mood is pathos, the smallness of man and the vanity of his passing triumphs in the face of the mindless forces of the plains. . . . . There is more than room enough for a man both to find and lose himself. There is neither shelter from the passions of nature, nor from the nature of man.


Mari Sandoz and the Ambiguity of Plains Places

A third novelist, less known beyond Nebraska, is Mari Sandoz. Her prairie imagination also focused on Nebraska; she spent more time here than did Cather or Morris. Hers was a love-hate relation which many writers shared with the setting. On the one hand, she encouraged authors to make use of the landscape and human material while on the other she warned them that the contemporary inhabitants did not appreciate and would attack those who dealt honestly with them. This was certainly the case with Sandoz herself. Her novels were criticized for the sandhills language they used, for her “too much digging in manure piles,” “wandering afield in the direction of the sewage disposal plant,” and for her treatment of characters whom her neighbors recognized.

In a 1937 speech, Sandoz tried to convince the members of Chi Delta Phi, an honorary women’s writers’ society, of “Nebraska’s Place in the New Literature.” The state, she argued, could have provided material for a Tolstoy, a Balzac, a Hardy. “No matter where you may come from in Nebraska there is always someone near you who has seen the Indians moved out and the settlers rush in.” And she set forth her grand theme:

Here within one lifetime, we have assembled the conflicts of nationalities and races from all over the world, from the first settlers who came in by way of Bering Straits to the last Mexican, perhaps smuggled in only last night . . . society from the stone age to the present, one whose processes are not lost in antiquity. . . . For me the most important themes of Nebraska will always be those of the farmer and his dispossession.

Of course, the interaction of nationalities and races was more intense in many other states and regions. The presence of European pioneers who had seen the Indians move out and settlers rush in was a phenomenon that would end with Sandoz’s generation. Therefore, the raw material would soon be expended; Baton Rouge or Baltimore or Boston would have made better capitol subjects for Aristophanes than did Lincoln, Nebraska. But with her colleagues, Sandoz was trying to do what novelists so regularly do: ponder how to take a particular scene and address the universal.


John G. Neihardt and the Poetry of the Plains

The writer nearest my childhood scene was poet John G. Neihardt, whose study, a tiny white house, has become a poetry shrine near Bancroft, Nebraska, next to the Omaha Indian reservation. Neihardt, later a Missourian, had been named Nebraska’s poet laureate in 1921, a fact that made him an Olympian in the eyes of a boy who thought he also would like to be a poet. Neihardt is best remembered for his free rendering of the talk of Black Elk and Native American spirituality, a rendering that won the poet fame in the counter-culture of the 1960s, when he was nearing ninety, and an enduring place among those who would capture something of Indian spirituality.

Native American writer Vine Deloria Jr. has drawn passages from Neihardt to show how the poet saw an interaction of prairie landscape and the human story on an epic scale. Like Cather, Morris, Sandoz and all the rest, Neihardt was struck by the vastness and emptiness of it all. “If I write of hot-winds and grasshoppers, of prairie fires and blizzards, of dawns and noons and sunsets and nights, of brooding heat and thunderstorms in vast land, I knew them early.” And well.

He was best, I think, when he stuck to the souls of the pioneers.

The monotony of the landscape was depressing. It seemed a thousand miles to the sunrise. The horizon was merely a blue haze and the endless land was sere. The river ran for days in the succession of regularly curving right-angle bends north and east, . . . until at last we cried out against the tediousness of the oft-repeated story, wondering whether or not we were continually passing the same point, somehow slipping back to pass it again.

Deloria compared Neihardt’s use of landscape to that of Margaret Mitchell in the South, Ross Lockridge in the Midwest, and Robinson Jeffers in the far West; for the three of those there was only “inert nature, a nature whose only role in the drama is to remain silent and confident until the puny human drama on its surface has finished and the characters are put away.” With Neihardt, however, and I would add for Morris and Sandoz, there was what Deloria called “a vital and active landscape, a landscape I would characterize as having a ‘potential’ and therefore in a sense being a ‘passive-active’ character,” as it was in the prairie novelists.

This “description of a place” was also to be the act of an imagination, a self, a soul. Such describing and telling occurs when we read William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor about the South; a Richard Wright work about black Chicago; an Isaac Singer fiction about the ghetto or the shtetl or the modern city; a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book on a Latin American city: here, as always, if you listen to the humanities, the provincial and the cosmopolitan meet, and never let go of each other.


Ole Rolvaag and the Dark Place

In one last illustration of describers of places I shall cross state boundaries to the Dakotas and Minnesota, to the prairie frontier of Norwegian-American novelist Ole Rolvaag. He was enduringly useful and important as I appraised his locus standi, because he wrote out of the severe context of Midwestern Lutheranism. Harold P. Simonson has seen Rolvaag’s work as an internalization of the landscape, and names his work on Rolvaag’s “tragic trilogy,” Prairies Within. They’re in his soul.

Rolvaag left Norway in 1876 for America, where he became a teacher at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Few grasped better than he the loneliness of prairie life, far from the peopled mountainscape of his Old World home. The character Per Smevik, used as a pseudonym for the author in Letters from America, writes in reply to a letter from his father announcing the death of his mother:

After I read your letter, I put on my hat and coat and walked far out into the country to a lonely place. I had to be alone. There I sat down and read your letter one more time. And then, finally, the dam broke and I wept like a little boy who has had a whipping. It wasn’t very manly of me; but manliness would scarcely have given Mother back again. When I went home after a while, I felt as if a secret place in the innermost recesses of my heart had suddenly become locked and could never again be reopened. The worst of it was that in that inner room I had hidden everything that was beautiful and precious and worth preserving.

Rolvaag, Simonson argued, shrouded his own real feelings by making the wife and mother of his trilogy, a woman named Beret, the “key, even the room itself” when the novelist described the place, when he made the prairie the locus standi. Neil T. Eckstein stressed the point of Rolvaag’s “marginality”: he “stood as a stranger not in the land he called his new home but on the edge of it.”

Is that not what Cather and Morris also did, when they wrote of their childhood mental world in a physical distance from the place? The locus standi itself keeps being moved, or one commutes uneasily between it and another place.

Simonson relates this uprooting to the sense of the sacred:

This fundamental truth that Rolvaag paid dearly for is one Mircea Eliade describes as the consequences of living without roots, of stepping into unconsecrated space and inhabiting a world in which nothing connects with the axis mundi. Something primal is at issue. . . . Everyone shares a thirst for being, the essence of which is relationship or connection. We require a place (house, temple, village) that serves as a symbolic extension of the world’s axis, a paradigmatic cosmos in which we are at home because we exist in a place made sacred by its connection to the axis. Thus, as Eliade explains, settling somewhere represents a serious decision because one’s very existence is involved. Likewise, changing habitation is serious business because such a move means the abandonment of one’s world and the threat of cosmic alienation and nonbeing.

I think that is one reason why, late in this century the search for roots is strong for people who have moved often, and very often you find roots through the humanities, through the description of the place.


Chicago as the Metropolitan Place for Plains People

For Cather and Morris and more, Chicago represented the “Other” of their prairie people, the characters of their writings. Morris, semiautobiographically, writes in God’s Country and My People:

For my father, up ahead was Chicago. He never mentioned New York. The map on the wall of the small-town depot and the map on the wall of the big-city lobby showed the chicken-track lines, tangled like mop strings, that led to and away from Chicago. That’s where everything seemed to come from, and most things ended up.

In Chicago, little if anything needed to be explained. Small towns proved to be where everybody was from. The bigger the man, as a rule, the smaller the town. With that understood, the smallest town of all was the town of the man to whom you were speaking. . . . It seemed impossible to believe that a town so big could be put together out of places so small. One thing leads to another, but once you’re in Chicago everything leads back to where you came from, wherever that was.


Wright Morris and the Future of the Plains

Finally, what of the future? Wright Morris, we recall, had written that “the land was free of the house. But it could not soon be free of the inhabitants.” He did not foresee, even a few decades ago, what was to happen to the prairie and Great Plains landscapes. The family farm is disappearing as agribusinesses work what is still worth working of the fields. Many argue that the plow that broke the plains violated a surface which should have been grazed, never planted. The great water reserves underneath the prairies will one day be used up, thus limiting most possibilities of irrigation. In any case, public subsidy of private farming, it is sometimes argued, is too wasteful. Spotty mining and oil-drilling marred the landscape here and there, but the underground reserves did not keep producing. The small towns die by the hundreds as railroads abandon them, as do many of their children. The Cathers and Morrises, the Sandozes and Neihardts, and Rolvaags left and often leave for the cities and the universities, as do many of the prairie town young who find no livelihood in the landscape they cherished. The skyscrapers of the Chicagos have beckoned too many.

So it is that some serious people who are ready to meet reaction from plains inhabitants have begun to propose that the prairie humanscape be allowed to lose its people. The fields, they say, should grow new native grasses and the buffalo can return. Here and there, they say, alongside the Omahas and Lincolns and Wichitas, let a thriving town remain to thrive, perhaps as a tourist haven for those who would visit the enormous new “Buffalo” park. The venture would represent a near turning-back to the origin of the landscape which once had terrified and inspired the characters of Cather and her kind. The ghost towns and houses would eventually fall back to the earth. The place would be what it was before European peoples came. The heirs would take their chances in the Chicagos and their metropolitan counterparts, now particularly in the sunbelt.


Willa Cather, the Incommunicable, and the Imagination

If such places would someday be abandoned, left behind as physical environments, the descriptions of the places would survive, however, thanks to the humanities, in the literature which by then would depict a remote, seldom personally experienced, barely remembered landscape. If a Cather with her My Ántonia or O Pioneers! will then be revered and criticized, she’ll be read 500 years from now, in classroom and libraries and thus in imaginations. That will suffice; it will have to. And through their pages one can supplement the sense of a locus standi from which to view the many worlds that make up modernity and what will follow it.

Some might hear or read this Governor’s Lecture not as an exercise in empathic imagination but in solipsism: the experience of each of us is not simply transferable. Others make less than I have of birthplace and childhood, or they remain where they were. Others find nothing to put the imagination to work in the realism of another workplace, for example, in Chicago. But literary productions make possible, if not the experience of a place, then the imagination of what would otherwise be inaccessible, what would not be communicated, and that is enough.

I will close as Cather did with an account of Jim Burden’s conclusions at the end of My Antonia. He looks back at the old road he first traveled with Antonia, picturing life as a circle which pulls one back to beginnings.

This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand.

I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.



Definition of the Humanities

From the Report of the Commission on the Humanities, The Humanities in American Life © 1980, The Regents of the University of California:

The humanities mirror our own image and our image of the world. Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: what does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope and reason. We learn how individuals or societies define the moral life and try to attain it, attempt to reconcile freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship, and express themselves artistically. The humanities do not necessarily mean humaneness, nor do they always inspire the individual with what Cicero called “incentives to noble action.” But by awakening a sense of what it might be like to be someone else, or to live in another time or culture, they tell us about ourselves, stretch our imagination, and enrich our experience. They increase our distinctively human potential. . . .

The essence of the humanities is a spirit or an attitude toward humanity. They show how the individual is autonomous and at the same time bound, in the ligatures of language and history, to humankind across time and throughout the world. . . . Intensity and breadth in the perception of life and power and richness in works of the imagination betoken a people alive as moral and aesthetic beings, citizens in the fullest sense. . . . They are sensitive to beauty and aware of their cultural heritage. They can approach questions of value, no matter how complex, with intelligence and goodwill. They can use their scientific and technical achievements responsibly because they see the connections among science, technology, and humanity.

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