Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The predominant critical response to Great Plains writing has been, to paraphrase Henry Kreisel, the effect of the landscape upon the European American imagination. In the United States, the 1920s saw the publication of two studies–Dorothy Dondore's The Prairie and the Making of Middle America (1926) and Lucy Lockwood Hazard's The Frontier in American Literature (1927)–that identified texts and used them to trace a regional imaginative history derived from Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis. Similar work was done (though with little reference to the frontier theory) in Canada by Edward McCourt, whose The Canadian West in Fiction (1949; revised, 1970) laid the basis for the two major Canadian studies, Laurence Ricou's Vertical Man/Horizontal World (1973) and Dick Harrison's Unnamed Country (1977). Both are nationalist studies that largely ignore material from south of the forty-ninth parallel, and both argue the primacy of the Prairie landscape in informing and shaping a distinctly Canadian point of view, one derived from imaginative interaction with the land itself over time.

Written partially as a response to them, Robert Thacker's The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination (1989) is an analysis of the European and European American aesthetic and literary response to the Great Plains landscape from Cabeza de Vaca during the 1530s to Sharon Butala during the 1980s. His conclusion, following Cather in O Pioneers! is that "the great fact" is "the land itself." Central to all three post-1970 studies is Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow (1962), a volume that has achieved classic status in Canada owing to its Saskatchewan setting. Beyond these central studies, other recent critical works either adopt individual themes or assert a new critical perspective. Carol Fairbanks's Prairie Women (1986) is an instance of the former, as is Steven Olson's The Prairie in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (1994). Arnold E. Davidson's Coyote Country (1994) advances a Canadian exceptionalist argument informed by postmodern theory in a treatment of a group of writers succeeding those offered by Ricou, Harrison, and Thacker. Similarly, and despite an attempt to treat Canadian writers along with American ones, Diane Dufva Quantic offers an American exceptionalist argument in The Nature of the Place (1995). So too does Joni L. Kinsey in Plain Pictures (1996). Kinsey analyzes painted and photographed images in a way that attests to the ongoing pull of the Great Plains landscape upon the imagination.

Robert Thacker St. Lawrence University

Harrison, Dick. Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1977.

Ricou, Laurence. Vertical Man/Horizontal World: Man and Landscape in Canadian Prairie Fiction. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1973.

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

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