A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West

By Nicolas S. Witschi | Go to book overview

7
Literary Cartography of the Great
Plains

Susan Naramore Maher


The Plains as a Contact Zone

Along the Interstate 80 corridor in central Nebraska sits John Raimondi’s once controversial artwork, Erma’s Desire, part of a bicentennial sculpture project in the 1970s that brought modern art to the masses. A series of steel spears or lightning bolt-like cages, Erma’s reclined body sinks into the grassy landscape, while abstract arms and legs point suggestively across many dimensions, vertical and horizontal. Writer John Janovy, Jr. interprets Erma’s geography in this way: “The combination of points and directions, emphases and bases, settings and an infinite number of ephemeral contexts, from which finally emerges the luxury of a new idea, a single message – these things say Erma’s Desire to me” (1981: 5). A solid, fixed presence, Erma also paradoxically aligns herself with mobility, with the freedom of the road and of the day. Her stationary figure has become an ironic icon of the interstate, a goddess figure of restlessness and unsettled energy. Erma’s very complexity engages the imagination and forces one to grasp the matrices of land and sky that frame her, the human intelligence that forged her. She exists in relation to the Plains geometry (see Figure 7.1).

I begin my essay with Erma’s Desire, a familiar landmark for travelers east and west across the Great Plains, because this sculpture’s multiple axes have become a trope for me of the literary culture that I study. One should not study Great Plains literature without considering the landscape that defines it, in all of its real and imagined dimensions. Literary scholars of the Great Plains agree upon one thing: the land is primary, is “fact,” in Robert Thacker’s assessment. The Great Plains of North America cover nearly 1.4 million square miles of land extending from northern Mexico

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