Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination

By Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

Modernist Space
Willa Cather's Environmental
Imagination in Context

GUY REYNOLDS

The organization of space represents the meeting point between the writer and her environment. One of the things that Cather's writing teaches us is that space, especially “natural” space, is always mediated, always shaped. Even if humankind has not yet worked on the landscape (in terms of agriculture or landscaping or settlement), the imagination has already shaped that environment by means of the symbolic language brought to that space. Indeed, as we have understood since Henry Nash Smith published Virgin Land in 1950, the discovery and making of America represents perhaps the most extreme example of this process, as Europeans projected an interlocked array of Utopian concepts and constructs onto the “empty” space of the New World.

Cather's own framing of nature was informed by some very specific, historically particular ideas. These ideas constituted a distinctive, American theory of space, and the human being in its environment, emergent at the start of the last century. Here, Cather takes her place alongside figures such as Gertrude Stein, William James, and Frank Lloyd Wright. My intention is to position Cather in this context, a context forged out of a comparison with other American modernists and, specifically, with the pragmatism of James. Ronald Berman's 1997 book, The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald's World of Ideas, suggested a context for

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