Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Harvesting Willa Cather's Literary Fields

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Harvesting Willa Cather's Literary Fields

Article excerpt

Literary geography examines relationships between landscape and its portrayal in literature. Virtually all scholarly work in the field cites the humanistic interpretation of perceived landscape: individuals experience, perceive, and then conceptually re-create space (Tuan 1977). Interpretations vary because individuals bring different mind-sets and affinities to the same landscape. Writers transform geographical facts into literary symbols through topophilia, the bond or sentiment between people and place (Tuan 1974). Human-land relationships are the inspiration and impetus for invented landscapes; people best express that which they know and feel. Authors use invented literary settings, the where of a story, to represent landscape symbolically. Literary geographers examine an author's conceptual sense of place to enhance understanding and to enrich readers' geographies.

Sensitive to gender in spatial issues, feminist geographers agree that women are important subjects for geographical research (Monk 1984; Domosh 1991; Kay 1991) and that feminist geographical practices should be grounded in theory (McDowell 1988, 1989). For literary geography I propose a theoretical foundation called feminist criticism. Currently, there is general agreement that research in literary geography is a humanistic endeavor that uses subjective assessment of creative literature to clarify relationships between individuals and their spatial environment. With abundant text and thought, literary geography is indeed a field ready to harvest with respect to content and methodology. Assuming that literary landscapes are open to interpretation, authors are both cognizant of and influenced by their social milieu in their use of setting to express perceived conditions of society. I proffer this theoretical approach as a beginning of literary-geographical theory and criticism. I then analyze "O Pioneers!" by novelist Willa Cather in this framework.


The purpose of feminist criticism is to produce a reading of gendered space in literary text. It interprets women's experience with the environment as expressed in woman-centered fiction. This viewpoint concurrently dislodges traditional masculinist ideologies and celebrates the uniqueness of the female perspective. Feminist criticism analyzes the female author's subjective view of reality. Her portrayal of landscape is truthful in that it represents her feelings and attitudes about a place. When the transparent, surface meanings of settings are accepted as author-intended landscape descriptions, the different viewpoint can be understood and appreciated. Such a reading of literary setting descriptions elucidates an author's geography, her sense of place.

Women use and interpret language in unique and different ways (Tannen 1990). Their metaphors and free associations reflect their sense of connection as they relate ideas, people, and places to themselves (Gilligan 1982). It is important to look for recurring landscape symbols in women's writings to uncover their intended, yet hidden meanings. On walking through a wooded glade and witnessing a wild sow suckling her young in the lush greenery, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings referred to her fertile Floridian lakeside hammock as "the universe," "the cosmic life" (Rawlings 1942, 39). To Sarah Orne Jewett (1886), an elusive white heron symbolized freedom in the Maine woods. Significantly, she used a girl-child to keep the location of the heron's nest a secret from a male hunter. Though poor, the girl understood and valued freedom above the handsome monetary reward the hunter would have paid her for the information.

Here, too, it is important to consider how an author symbolizes women in a landscape and the image of women that this produces. These symbols may indicate women's cultural roles. For example, when Meridel Le Sueur (1991) was pregnant, she likened herself to a curling-branched pear tree, heavy with ripening fruit. …

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