Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Land Before Her

Sod house in Nebraska. Housekeeping in one of these was a real bear, but at least you stayed warm in winter.

Title: The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1984).

Annette Kolodny. See previous post.

Returning to her emphasis (see The Lay of the Land) on the role of "fantasy" in construction of ideas about land, Kolodny proposes to examine how fantasies about western settlement allowed women to "enact relational paradigms on strange and sometimes forbidding landscapes" (xii). What she finds is not radically "environmental", and still partakes in the profit motive of capitalist expansion, but she does like the fact that "in the women's fantasies, at least, the garden implied home and community, not privatized erotic mastery" (xiii). The scope of the book is limited to the "women who write" during this time period, meaning, as she admits, that the fantasy amounts to "a distinctively middle-class invention: a vehicle for projecting the Victorian values of a genteel east onto an imagined bourgeois west" (xiv). Kolodny promises to write another book incorporating the voices of black women from the frontier - a book which, so far as I know, has not yet been written.

Wisconsin prairie.


Book One: From Captivity to Accomodation, 1630-1833

1. Captives in Paradise:
Mary Rowlandson's A True History of the Capitivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) introduces Kolodny's theories about the captivity narrative and its function for Puritan society as "an example of God's chastening followed by His merciful deliverance" (23). Kolodny points out that although the bloody story of Hannah Dustin did not fit into ideas of meek womanhood, Cotton Mather presented it in a way which supported this lesson. The captivity narrative of Hannah Swarton, also publicized by Mather, drives home the lesson that those who decide to move far away from town (and thus, from their ministers) bring trouble upon themselves. Here Kolodny also begins to make the argument that for women, captivity narratives might have been a metaphor for their anger at feeling as though their husbands had bound them and dragged them off into the woods against their will (33).

2. Gardens in the Wilderness:
One way that women dealt with their displacement was by planting gardens, making the very landscape familiar through acceptable female labor. Elizabeth House Trist, who traveled with a female slave from Virginia to Mississippi right after the Revolutionary War, was unable to enjoy the landscape in its "unspoiled state", but only when she saw that it had been cultivated. Eliza Lucas, who managed several plantations for husbands and fathers, planned and executed several large gardens - activities which she saw fit to detail in correspondence, even while downplaying her own sizable role. All in all, gardening, for Kolodny, is an activity through which "women shared with one another both their right and their capacity to put their personal stamp on landscapes otherwise owned and operated by men" (48).

3. The Lady in the Cave:
A discussion of a popular narrative from 1788 in which an author, pseudonymously named "Abraham Panther", supposedly discovered a woman who had been abducted by Indians, slipped her bonds, and spent nine years living in a cave. Kolodny uses this examplar to illustrate how Americans attempted to accomodate to the spectre of white women living in the "wilderness", arguing that ultimately, although the narrative "offered a positive image of the white woman's capacity to survive and plant gardens in that same wilderness", "the nation took to its heart the heroic mythology of the wilderness hunter, eschewing the hybridized romance of the wilderness cultivator suggested by the Panther Captivity" (67).

4. Mary Jemison and Rebecca Bryan Boone: At Home in the Woods:
Here Kolodny examines James Everett Seaver's 1824 A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison and Timothy Flint's 1833 Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone, asking whether either of them presents the image of a woman at home in the wilderness in the same way in which Boone himself - or Leatherstocking - was perceived to be. Ultimately, Kolodny sees Jemison, who lived with and married into the Seneca tribe, as being painted as overly "Indian" (and thus unacceptable as a model), and shows that Boone, as seen through Flint's conceptualization, has her role reduced dramatically to the point where she is not seen as a actor in her own story, but rather, a dim part of her husband's more famous life.

Book Two: From Promotion to Literature, 1833-1850

5. Mary Austin Holley and Eliza Farnham: Promoting the Prairies:
Many women found that the hardest thing about emigrating was leaving their families back East. Mary Austin Holly, in her book about Texas (1833), and Eliza Farnham, in her Life in Prairie Land (1846), about Illinois, both sought to ameliorate female fears about these separations by addressing specific female concerns, and by picturing the development of an alternative community in the western setting. Kolodny writes that these books laid the groundwork for the literary efforts of women invested in domestic fantasies.

6. Margaret Fuller: Recovering Our Mother's Garden:
The eminently interesting Margaret Fuller wrote a book about Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory (Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, published 1844). This book recast the captivity narrative, characterizing the landscape as appealing, but pointing out that the woman often found herself trapped inside the walls of a house, unable to interact with it. En fin, Fuller "began to perceive that the demands of frontier life also thwarted the fantasies of women" (104).

7. The Literary Legacy of Caroline Kirkland: Emigrants' Guide to a Failed Eden:
Kirkland tried to convince readers to substitute a more realistic idea of the American frontier for their romanticized, European fantasies of the cottage-with-trellis. In her A New Home - Who'll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life (1837), Kirkland created what Kolodny calls "the first realistic depiction of frontier life in American letters" (133), complete with swindlers, unfinished houses, and disorder. Kolodny points out that this book was "derived...from a woman's need to reject the available male fantasies" (157).

Ms. Caroline Kirkland.

Book Three: Repossessing Eden, 1850-1860

8. The Domestic Fantasy Goes West:
Troubling effects of industrialization and slavery upset female novelists of the sentimental era, who sought a new background for their family romances, one which would not be tainted by the problems of Eastern society. In the West of these novelists, Kirkland's realistic vision is submerged by scenes of domestic tranquility, where men and women shared separate-but-equal roles in creating a new Eden.

9. Alice Cary and Caroline Soule: Book Ends:
Alice Cary's Clovernook; Or Recollections of Our Neighborhood in the West (1852), which described the Ohio Valley, made the important move of describing the effects of industry on a landscape previously described in glowing terms. Here Cary describes slaughterhouses, in 1853, years before The Jungle! (See page 186.) Caroline Soule's The Pet of the Settlement (1860) rejected this realistic/environmentalist turn, focusing instead on the possibility of "a prairie Eden converted into a human social garden", through the agency of a female main character (194).

10. E.D.E.N. Southworth and Maria Susanna Cummins: Paradise Regained, Paradise Lost:
E.D.E.N. Southworth (not a rapper, though she plays one on TV) saw the West as a place where a human community could be renewed, "without the blot of slavery" (207). Her novel India: The Pearl of Pearl River (1856) situated a Southern aristocrat who has come to believe in abolition in a life-giving Western locale which allows him to synchronize his beliefs with his labor (abetted, of course, by a pure-hearted female consort). Maria Susanna Cummins, in her Mabel Vaughn (1857), created a new kind of ideal Western man: one willing to forge the characteristics of the iconoclast hunter and the stay-at-home agriculturalist. Kolodny holds that these new men were intended to counteract the influence of the Leatherstocking archetype, which was fundamentally hostile to the female.

Texas mesquite prairie.

In the Pacific Historical Review, Julie Roy Jeffrey was occasionally unconvinced, pointing, among other things, to chronological confusion (which I felt too), but ultimately called the book "important." In the Western Historical Quarterly, Cynthia Sturgis wrote that she found this book an "effective complement" to Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land, and added that the emphasis on garden imagery really shaped the book. American Quarterly had Anne Goodwyn Jones review the book, writing that the author was satisfyingly attentive to subtlety, methodologically daring, and that the book was brilliant in general. Jones wanted more attention to the differences, as Kolodny sees them, between "fantasy" and "raw experience".

Vocab words: "peltry" ("undressed skins, esp. of animals valuable for their furs; furs and skins prepared for sale; pelts collectively"); "factotum" ("a man of all-work; also, a servant who has the entire management of his master's affairs" - this often has negative connotations, I think); "calenture" ("a disease incident to sailors within the tropics, characterized by delirium in which the patient, it is said, fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it" - awesome! - or, more broadly, "fever; burning passion, ardour, zeal, heat, glow").

Books to follow up on:
Primary: Margaret Atwood, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970)

Secondary: Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (1977); John Seelye, Prophetic Waters: The River in Early American Life and Literature (1977)

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