Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


From the very first incursion of European Americans into the Great Plains (the Spaniard Cabeza de Vaca, about 1534), the memoir has been a preeminent form for the region's writers. Confronted with an unfamiliar and treeless landscape peopled by culturally alien Natives and roamed over by buffalo (an animal he was the first recorded European to have seen), Cabeza de Vaca recalled his experiences and then wrote and published his Relación (1542). It began an autobiographical memoir tradition that continues today through volumes such as Ian Frazier's Great Plains (1989), William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth (1991), and Sharon Butala's The Perfection of the Morning (1994). So pervasive is the form that two of the region's best-known novels–Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1918) and Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House (1941)–adopt the illusion of memoir for fictional purposes. This was nothing new: when James Fenimore Cooper first used the Great Plains as the fictional setting in his The Prairie (1823), his primary source for landscape description was Edwin James's memoir of Major Stephen Long's 1819-20 expedition to the Rocky Mountains.

Cabeza de Vaca's account was followed by Pedro de Castañeda's Narrative (1896) of the Coronado expedition of 1540–42, and, as the Great Plains was visited by other explorers through the early nineteenth century, numerous other accounts were written and published. On the Canadian Plains the British furtrading companies sponsored the explorations –and ultimately the writing–of early figures such as Henry Kelsey (c. 1667–1724), Anthony Henday (who journeyed through the Plains in the mid-1700s), and David Thompson (1770– 1857); of these, Thompson's Narrative is the best known and most detailed.

As the United States expanded onto the Great Plains before the Civil War, several aesthetically shaped memoirs appeared: Washington Irving's account of his trip to the Indian Territory, A Tour on the Prairies (1835), was but one of three western books published by America's then most acknowledged man of letters. This period also saw Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies (1844) and painter George Catlin's Letters and Notes (1841). (Catlin's Canadian counterpart, Paul Kane, published Wanderings of an Artist in 1859.) The single most significant memoir of the prewar period, however, is Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail (1849). The young historian was determined, during his overland trip to the Rockies in the summer of 1846, to see and describe Native Americans, their landscapes, and their ways of life.

After the war, as exploration gave way to settlement, pioneering memoirs–both unpublished and published–supplanted travelers' accounts. Of these, Hamlin Garland's various autobiographical memoirs–especially A Son of the Middle Border (1917) and A Daughter of the Middle Border (1921)–are representative and may be read within the contexts of Garland's fiction. Like such fiction– and that by Cather, Wallace Stegner, Wright Morris, Robert Kroetsch, and others–the Great Plains memoir since settlement has focused on understanding the region–in Morris's phrase–as "home place." Of these, three autobiographical memoirs stand out particularly. Frederick Philip Grove's Over Prairie Trails (1922) recounts the author's weekly struggle traveling through the Manitoba bush to reach his family, who lived some distance away. The other two, Mari Sandoz's Love Song to the Plains (1961) and Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow (1962), marry each author's personal feelings for the Plains with a recounted history of the region. Wolf Willow, the most sustained and complex Great Plains autobiographical memoir, is a profound articulation of the recalled meanings made and found in a single landscape, felt by a single person: "If I am native to anything," Stegner sees at one point, "I am native to this." And, because the Iowaborn Stegner wrote about the Plains borderland region of south Saskatchewan where he grew up, Wolf Willow remains better regarded in Canada than in the United States. It need not be, for the book is a paradigm of the Great Plains autobiographical memoir, capturing its most frequently seen characteristics.

Robert Thacker St. Lawrence University

Grove, Frederick Philip. Over Prairie Trails. Toronto: Mc- Clelland and Stewart, 1991.

Parkman, Francis. The Oregon Trail. 1849. Edited by E. N. Feltskog. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Stegner, Wallace. Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. New York: Viking Press, 1962.

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