Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The term literary architecture can be defined in a number of ways. Three definitions can serve as points of reference on a continuum. The first definition focuses on architecture– structural design–in Great Plains literature. The structures that people live in are frequently a concern, especially in stories of the first European settlers. The dugouts and sod houses originate out of necessity, not preference. The settlers' wives especially resist living in the ground itself. Their reluctance springs not only from the inconveniences associated with setting up housekeeping in dark, leaking, bug-infested structures but, more important, from their cultural antipathy to living like burrowing animals and thereby becoming beastlike, uncivilized. O. E. Rölvaag's novel Giants in the Earth (1927) is a classic example of this aspect of literary architecture. As Per Hansa pursues his grandiose dreams of a prairie kingdom, his wife, Beret, equates their sod house on the open prairie with cultural isolation and psychological erasure.

A second definition refers to works in which the design and building of a house form a central theme. In some instances, the conflict centers on the woman's dream of the amenities realized in a clean, fashionable frame house, while the man focuses on the acquisition of land and the equipment necessary to realize financial security. Ironically, once the family's homestead is established and the fine house is built, the structure often becomes a symbol not of fulfillment but of entrapment or pride, as in Frederick Manfred's novel This Is the Year (1947). The grand house begins to crumble as soon as it is completed, a reminder of European Americans' misplaced confidence in their ability to control natural forces in the Great Plains. In other novels, the house becomes a trap or a garrison that not only protects the characters from the threatening landscape but also isolates them from social contact with the developing community, as in Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese (1925). In some instances, the fortresslike structure provides a site for predation and greed, as in Mari Sandoz's novel Slogum House (1937). This theme of enclosure is reworked by authors such as Wright Morris in The Home Place (1948) and The World in the Attic (1949) and by Larry Woiwode in Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975).

A third definition focuses on the literary structure of Great Plains works themselves. Most Great Plains writers are aware of the complex relationship between the geography of place and the social structures that people create around themselves and in their communities. Although there are many variations, the conflicts–and characters' reactions to them–fall into some familiar patterns. The most common conflict juxtaposes a character who focuses on the land's promise of abundance or wealth against another's insistence on the primacy of societal values: home, family, community. Because Great Plains literary works are about a place that seems spare, the style of Great Plains fiction is also deceptively plain, but, like the intricate roots of prairie grasses, this plain style is often the result of the deliberate planning of a literary work's structure. Willa Cather codified this definition of literary architecture in her essay "The Novel Démeublé" (1922). In the "unfurnished" novel, Cather declared, the artist's aim is not to re-create a realistic world but to select material and present it by a "suggestion rather than by enumeration." A work of art should enable the reader to "feel what is on the page" without having it specifically named. In Great Plains literature, the focus on the elemental struggle to survive and the parallel need for personal fulfillment within a community has created a body of carefully designed works. Cather's own novels are perhaps the best illustration of this third definition of literary architecture. Her deceptively simple stories reveal, upon examination, layers of "felt" but unarticulated realities. Other authors, most notably Wright Morris, have recast this unfurnished style in the postmodern age, relying on the reader's knowledge of the region's apparently simple surface and its underlying complexities as well as the Great Plains literary tradition to provide the framework for an appreciation of the region's literary architecture.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Giants in the Earth .

Diana Dufva Quantic Wichita State University

Lutwack, Leonard. The Role of Place in Literature. Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984.

Quantic, Diane Dufva. The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Thacker, Robert. The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

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