Excerpt: Great Plains Literature

The following is an excerpt from Great Plains Literature by Linda Ray Pratt (Bison Books, March 2018).

From Chapter One: Under Spacious Skies

One of the most beloved patriotic songs of the United States, “America the Beautiful,” paints this iconic image of the nation:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

In 1893 the expansive view of the Great Plains from atop the “purple mountain,” Pikes Peak, inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write the poem that became the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” This Wellesley College English professor with a summer teaching job at Colorado College took a train across the “amber waves of grain” of Kansas to Colorado Springs and climbed Pikes Peak, the pink granite mountain dotted with blue columbine flowers. This description of the Great Plains is sung so often that the actual reference is largely lost in the rote performance.

Despite being enshrined in our national hymn to America’s majestic landscape, many people don’t much care for “spacious skies” and “amber waves of grain.” In contemporary parlance, this landscape is sometimes dismissed as “the flyover zone.” The irony of the reverence for the images in the song and the disregard for the actual view is emblematic of the misunderstandings and mixed messages about the history and culture of the real place. For some, the region is just empty space where nothing much ever happens.

Yet four things stand out in American history as defining experiences whose impact continues to shape the culture today: the American Revolution; slavery and the Civil War; the settling of the frontier; and the conquering of the Indian nations. Two of these, the settling of the frontier and the conquering of the Indian nations, played out their most dramatic chapters on the Great Plains. In Canadian history, the westward movement into the plains and the defeat of French interests in the Seven Years’ War (1754–63), known in the United States as the French and Indian War, are important defining episodes that influenced Canadian development, including relations with the indigenous people. The region holds within its history and cultures some of the nation’s most bitter and inspiring stories of triumph and betrayal, democracy and intolerance, wealth and poverty.

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The demarcations of the Great Plains are often drawn by mountain ranges and rivers. In Canada the great forests are another border. In places, the plains are visually dramatic, as they were for Bates at Pikes Peak. Landing at the Denver airport from the east, you see below you the barrenness of the plains, dotted here and there with green circles of center-pivot irrigation; rising ahead of you are the Rocky Mountains. Descending from Glacier National Park on the Going-to-the-Sun Road toward East Glacier Park Village, Montana, the mountains suddenly end, and the Great Plains spread before you as far as the eye can see. In 1804 Lewis and Clark met with the Otoe Indians on what they called the Council Bluffs. From this Iowa hill they could look over the Missouri River to the Great Plains that lay ahead of them.

Not all the lines of demarcation are so precise—that is, unless you are traveling the territory at ground level. One of the enchantments of the Great Plains is that once you have seen them, you will always know when you are there. Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri are not the Great Plains; the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas are. How can a river, even a wide one like the Missouri, make such a topographical change? The hills on the east side are often higher, the rocks bigger, the trees more plentiful, the creeks and streams more frequent. The glaciers did not have their way with them as easily as they cut through the plains. The earmarks of the Great Plains are aridity, wind, few trees, wind, grasses, empty spaces—did I mention wind? Nature is all extremes—in wind, in drought, in hot, in cold. In dazzling sunsets, in vast blue skies, in blinding blizzards, in tornadic clouds. How could we not love it? As the poet Mark Sanders wrote, “Were the weather any different / it would not be ours” (“Plain Sense”). Perhaps the ironies and contradictions in the history and culture cut so deeply because plains people live in a zone in which nothing much sets up the barriers that might moderate the extremes.

A region so sharply defined by its geography and history was bound to produce a literary  culture absorbed in telling its stories. There is a difference between a region being a setting and the region driving the story. This commentary on the literature of the Great Plains will focus on those writers whose work has an integral relationship to place and history. The reader who has picked up this book is assumed to have a curiosity about the Great Plains as a place and an interest in what the literature tells us about the region. There is a rich bounty of such Great Plains literature, especially when we consider how relatively short in historic time there has been a culture that could produce literary work. Many of the region’s most distinguished authors knew people who remembered the events narrated in their novels. The literature discussed in this study was written in the twentieth century, though much of it is set in the nineteenth. Black Elk’s memories are of events in his youth and climax in his account of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. Willa Cather was born in 1873, Ole Rölvaag in 1876, and John Neihardt in 1881. In the Canadian Prairie Provinces, novelist Margaret Laurence attempts to recapture the past through the myths and memory of characters who recall, and invent, an earlier time. Cather’s first novel is published in 1912. Rölvaag’s epic trilogy of the settlement of the Great Plains begins to appear in 1927.

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