Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

Civilizando la Tierra Virgen: El Destino Manifiesto Y El Culto a la Domesticidad En the Great Meadow, De Elizabeth Madox Roberts

Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

Civilizando la Tierra Virgen: El Destino Manifiesto Y El Culto a la Domesticidad En the Great Meadow, De Elizabeth Madox Roberts

Article excerpt

Planting Civilization in the Wilderness: The Intersections of Manifest Destiny and the Cult of Domesticity in Elizabeth Madox Roberts's The Great Meadow

Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way; The four first Acts already past, A fifth shall close the Drama with the Day; Time's noblest Offspring is the last. (George Berkeley 1955: 373)

The Manifest Destiny of the nation unfolds logically from the imperial reach of woman's influence emanating from her separate domestic sphere. Domesticity makes manifest the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race, while Manifest Destiny becomes in turn the condition for Anglo-Saxon domesticity. (Kaplan 1998: 597)

A most popular writer in her day, Elizabeth Madox Roberts has not fared well on literary history's roller coaster ride of critical opinion. Her first novel, The Time of Man (1926), was an instant success with readers and reviewers alike. (1) It was praised by notable writers such as Sherwood Anderson, who said about it: "A wonderful performance. I am humble before it" (in Campbell and Foster 1956: 46). (2) Ford Madox Ford signaled it as "the most beautiful individual piece of writing that has as yet come out of America" (in Slavick viii). The novel was chosen in October 1926 as a BookoftheMonth Club selection and later published in England and translated into Swedish, German, Norwegian, Danish, Spanish and French. From the early 1930s onwards, though, sales of Roberts's books fell dramatically, and her popularity plummeted further still following the publication of He Sent Forth a Raven in 1935. In the 1950s Roberts's work enjoyed a revival, led by Edward Wagenknecht, who in his Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952) wrote that "her kind of poetic insight is the very thing that is needed to save the novel from its exhausted naturalism and sentimentalism" (1952: 396). Interesting reevaluations of Roberts's achievement include Harry Campbell and Ruel Foster's Elizabeth Madox Roberts: American Novelist (1956), (3) containing valuable biographical information and extensive reference to Roberts's journals and papers in the Library of Congress, and Earl H. Rovit's Herald to Chaos: The Novels of Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1960), which remains the most insightful study of Roberts's major works. One contributing factor to the renewal of interest in this Kentucky writer was the unprecedented fascination with modern southern literature by readers and critics. Willard Thorp reviewed her work extensively in the chapter 'Southern Renascence' in American Writing in the Twentieth Century (1960) and placed The Time of Man and The Great Meadow "among the classics of our literature" (1960: 240). In his introduction to the 1982 University of Kentucky Press edition of The Time of Man, William Slavick joined the ranks of Roberts's admirers, asserting that this novel made her "the first major novelist of the Southern renascence" (1982: vii), and expressed his confidence that renewed interest in feminism and southern art would guarantee its ultimate success. But so far none of these studies have had a lasting impact, and neither have their predictions proven true. The current relegation of Roberts to the margins of American literary history is even more surprising in light of the recent feminist enterprise of reclaiming and celebrating the regenerative and ritualistic dimensions of domesticity and traditional female culture, dimensions which are central to both The Time of Man and The Great Meadow, Roberts's most successful works.

The Great Meadow was Roberts's fourth novel, but was first conceived of in 1915, even before she went to the University of Chicago to study English (Rovit 1960: 48). Set in the late-eighteenth-century settlement of Kentucky, the characters are intended to resemble the author's own pioneer ancestors, who came to Kentucky along the Wilderness Road at a time when the West was free from the commercialism that would later assail it. The novel spans the years 1774 to 1781, the period when the lush region in today's central Kentucky, called 'The Great Meadow' in the eighteenth century and later known as the Bluegrass, became a magnet that pulled thousands of people from Virginia and the Carolinas across the Appalachians to settle along the Cumberland and the Kentucky rivers. …

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