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Owning America: American Literature, ecocriticism, and the attempt to redefine land ownership

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2011
Dissertation
Author: Scott Cannon Cameron
Abstract:
This dissertation explores the ways American authors redefine land ownership to satisfy their need for a sense of belonging in a new world. In examining the relationships forged between characters and the land through ownership, this study builds on ecocritical methodology while offering two critiques of that methodology. First, contrary to ecocriticism's lionizing of untouched wilderness, the authors I study envision a natural world that encourages human presence. Second, in adopting tenets of modern environmentalism, ecocriticism has ignored the way American authors connect people and nature through land ownership. Chapter one argues that contrary to recent ecocritical readings of Henry David Thoreau, which herald his prescience in promoting the preservation of untouched wilderness, Thoreau actually sought a middle ground where wildness and domesticity could coexist. Though Thoreau is often openly critical of the concept of ownership, his works from Walden to the posthumously published Wild Fruits redefine ownership as a concept to allow multiple people as well as animals to own land through personal use (including uses ranging from occupancy to aesthetic enjoyment) instead of basing ownership on exclusive use rights and legal title. Chapter two demonstrates that Willa Cather's O Pioneers! promotes a progressive relationship between humanity and the land grounded in land speculation and use of technological advancements. Cather is often considered nostalgic in her depictions of the prairie, but her heroine, Alexandra Bergson, thrives because of her progressive understanding of the land's market value. Alexandra's connection to the land minors the transformation of ownership enacted by the Homestead Act. Congressional debate surrounding the act created a route to establish ownership through physical labor in addition to traditional means of purchase payment for land. Chapter three enters a debate surrounding Faulkner's place in the environmental canon, arguing for Faulkner's environmental integrity based not on the mimetic accuracy of his wilderness depictions but on his stylized depictions of nature that allow characters to connect with and own the landscapes they encounter. In spite of Ike's relinquishment of his inheritance, Go Down, Moses ultimately demonstrates that a re-envisioned form of ownership is necessary to promote human responsibility for the land.

Contents Introduction 1 1 Embracing the House Habit: Thoreau's Attempts to Rethink Nature and Ownership 46 2 Developing Deep Roots through Speculation and Ownership: O Pioneers! and the Redefining of Labor and Property 116 3 Rejecting Relinquishment: Go Down, Moses and Faulkner' s Search for a New Form of Ownership 174 Works Cited 251 Curriculum Vitae 269 viii

Introduction As I begin writing this introduction, I am worried about birds: a pair of nesting killdeer to be precise. This year, when April turned colder and snowier than March and February combined, my family and I retreated indoors for two weeks, and in our absence this nesting pair of killdeer chose a slight divot in the ground amid the tangle of raspberry bushes lining the back of our property as the place for their nest. While the cold lasted, we didn't even know the killdeer had nested; but when April decided to be April again, which in Southeastern Idaho means somewhat consistent forty-degree weather, my family and I ventured outside, and their presence quickly became apparent. For two days the killdeer's cries echoed our movements, playing repeatedly in the back of our minds, heard but not fully registered. Finally, after two days of the sharp cries and repeated sightings of killdeer emerging from our raspberry canes and running frantically into the neighbor's backyard, it dawned on me that they must have a nest. I started to watch carefully as mother and father would leave the raspberries in a rushed frenzy for fifteen feet and then squat and droop their wings. In an instinctual dance the killdeer took turns feigning a broken wing, daring us to follow their pretended vulnerability away from the nest. Ironically, it was through this ritual that I finally spotted their nest—a simple affair of a small depression in the dirt and three mottled eggs flecked like a Jackson Pollock canvas. Over the past two weeks we have entered into an uneasy agreement. The killdeer seem to tolerate my children on the swings, and my wife and I can putter about the backyard, weeding as long as we remain at least twenty feet from their nest. A step too

2 close and the cries of alarm arise in panic, and we hastily retreat. But I'm worried the eggs won't survive the twenty-eight day gestation without damage—our children have shown the neighbor kids the nest; the sprinklers set to run three times a week send the killdeer into early morning panic; and at night wandering cats and the occasional skunk cross through our yard. The killdeer have not only altered our daily routines, but they have worked their way into my thoughts. Their frequent calls have reminded me that we are more closely connected to the natural world than we tend to think. Their presence suggests that boundaries we have created, which seem so rigid, can be called into question by things as fragile as a nest and eggs. These small birds, for instance, have forced me to question the tenuous boundary we draw between civilization and nature. At what point does my typical suburban backyard become a manifestation of our civilized domesticity, and at what point is it part of the natural world, a place for nesting birds? Can it be both? What about the wildflower seed mix we have strewn? What about the grasshoppers that bound freely between the neighbors' weeds and the garden we have planted? What about the killdeer that have in an act of domesticity built a temporary home? Are they wild or civilized? The killdeer and their nest, a taste of nature invading our civilized suburbia, also remind me that nature often behaves unnaturally: consider the grizzly bear that my uncle swears walked off with his fishing waders that he had left to dry in the sun, or the marmot that hitched a fifty-six-mile ride at nearly seventy miles per hour in the engine compartment of my Toyota Prius as I left a night in the woods to return early to work, or

3 the red-tailed hawks that I have seen building a nest on unused fire escapes at Boston University. Because they are performed by wildlife, are these acts wild? Are they natural? Questioning the dividing line between nature and culture, wild and domestic may seem purely theoretical, but these questions lead to other questions with practical implications. The nesting killdeer have forced me to rethink more physical boundaries: the literal property line defining the end of our property from our neighbors', for example. The nest is just inches away from this invisible line that marks the end of our neighbors' unlandscaped yard from our grass and hopeful garden, a line that we scrupulously eyed as we laid sod, planted seeds, and weeded; but one that the killdeer's nest and daily activities demonstrate is actually rather capricious and fluid. Their free passage suggests that the property line is more the arbitrary parceling of the previous landowner (a farmer who owned the entire subdivision) than any topographical distinction. His decisions regarding lot sizes were dictated by financial prospects rather than geography. This fluid boundary has, however, had real consequences for us, effectively shaping our yard and landscaping, but the property line means nothing to the killdeer. These boundaries staked by a surveyor but invisible to onlookers have also been instruments of habitat change. We were the first family to move into our third of the subdivision, a house surrounded by empty lots. As we have watched houses fill in the gaps, we have seen native sunflowers and bull-thistle give way to nicely manicured Kentucky Bluegrass lawns and garden beds with petunias, coneflowers, and salvia. The

4 finches that used to fly through by the dozens, hiding their black and yellow feathers amidst the sunflowers and eating thistle seeds, have become rarities, a passing migration with a handful of sightings rather than a repeated presence throughout the summer. Killdeer which used to nest abundantly in these fields have become surprise visitors rather than the norm. Simultaneously, these boundaries are more fluid than we imagine but still potent factors for creating change. These types of questions about boundaries are central to my dissertation. At the most basic level, my dissertation is concerned with exploring the ways American literature has understood and tried to redefine land ownership. From the earliest records of Euro-American settlers to contemporary American novels, American literature has almost obsessively returned to a desire for a sense of belonging in a new world, and frequently, this need to belong has necessitated the realignment of boundaries to solidify claims to the land. In the case of the Pilgrims, the need to feel at home meant redrawing the line between wilderness and civilization as they transformed a "hidious and desolate wildernes" (Bradford 78) into homes and farmed fields.1 This transformation of the landscape renegotiated both physical and theoretical boundaries. The Pilgrims acquired legal charter from the King of England to settle the land as well as negotiated physical boundaries with native inhabitants; in the shadows of the dark woods, they also felt the 1 Whether the land that the Pilgrims encountered at Plymouth was wilderness or civilization has recently been called into question. In The Wild and the Domestic, Barney Nelson points out that although the Pilgrims struggled through a bleak first winter, the landscape they first encountered bore the clear marks of civilization: "a great deal of the coastal plain from the Saco River to Narragansett Bay had been cleared for agriculture before the Pilgrims ever arrived" and "the first 'savage' they had contact with walked into their camp speaking broken English" (2).

5 need to create a mental dividing line between what is wild and what is civilized. Hawthorne, writing about his puritan ancestors, frequently considers how these mental dividing lines shaped attitudes and actions, questioning what might happen when both the physical boundaries as well as the more theoretical ones between wilderness and civilization are transgressed. The redrawing of boundaries to establish both belonging and ownership repeatedly surfaces in American literature as authors ranging from Henry David Thoreau to Mary Austin and characters ranging from James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo to Willa Cather's Alexandra Bergson to John Steinbeck's George Milton and Lennie Small all express the need to create a home for themselves in the natural world, albeit in George and Lennie's case, the natural world is "a little house and a couple of acres an' a cow and some pigs" (14). In exploring how American literature has grappled with ownership, my dissertation specifically focuses on the ways Thoreau, Cather, and Faulkner have tried to establish a connection to the land by rethinking and redefining what it means to own land. In tracing the connections between literature and ownership, people and land, my dissertation stems from the roots of ecocriticism. Like many ecocritics, I argue that literature is more closely connected to the natural world than we often think and that recognizing that connection to the natural world is crucial for reading literature, American literature in particular. In looking specifically at the theoretical boundary between nature and culture and the more physical boundaries of ownership and real property, however, my work also critiques ecocriticism in two significant ways.

6 First, because ecocritics are deeply invested in proclaiming the need to preserve wilderness untouched by human presence, they tend to sever the connection between nature and humanity.2 As William Cronon deftly argues, such examinations of wilderness claim that "wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural" and consequently "by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings" (81). This separation not only poses a paradox for those who want to preserve nature through human action, but it also tends to misrepresent the way many American writers understand and depict the environment. Thoreau's time at Walden Pond, for instance, was not a dismissal of civilization, but an attempt to establish "the connecting 2 A note on terminology: the defining line between wilderness and nature is hard to draw. While the two terms denote two distinct concepts, in contemporary culture as well as in ecocriticism, the terms are at times used almost synonymously. While in other instances, the terms are used very differently, and at times the various meanings for each term alone can be incredibly broad. Natural resources policy scholar James Rasband points out that while most Americans are in favor of preserving wilderness areas, the way that they define wilderness varies widely: "one person's 'wilderness' yearnings may be satisfied by a walk through Central Park" while another's "only by a week long backpacking trip through a roadless area" (555). In my dissertation, the term wilderness typically refers to the concept as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which states that wilderness "is recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean ... an area of undeveloped ... land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation" ("The Wilderness Act of 1964). I use "nature," on the other hand, as a more inclusive term to refer to the land itself, inanimate naturally occurring objects like rocks and rivers, and to living things like trees and animals, including humans. This definition is intentionally broad in part because the term varies widely among ecocritics, other literary critics, and environmental writers. I also broadly define nature to suggest along with environmental historians William Cronon and Richard White that as opposed to "wilderness," nature must be redefined to include humanity and human actions. While I have tried to maintain a distinction between wilderness and nature in most instances, at times the distinction is blurred to demonstrate the ways the terms have been understood and/or misunderstood by other writers and critics as well as to demonstrate the consequences of seeing the two concepts as interchangeable. For other important discussions of nature as a concept see Kate Soper's What is Nature, and Jonathan Bate's chapter "The State of Nature" in The Song of the Earth.

link between wild and cultivated fields," a middle ground at once wild and domestic {Walden 126).3 Also, in promoting a wilderness that separates humanity from nature, ecocritics have either missed or largely ignored that many environmentally minded American writers present an abiding desire to lay claim to the natural landscape, and this claim is not simply a desire for an emotional connection but the hope for a physical ownership. Because ecocriticism has readily adopted the tenets of modern environmentalism, which frequently pits environmental health against private ownership, ecocritics have failed to recognize that American authors actively express a desire to own the natural world. My dissertation seeks to remedy this failure by demonstrating that Thoreau, Cather, and Faulkner all grapple with the desire to own nature by redefining what it means to own land. In doing so, I am not suggesting that these writers should be disqualified from consideration as part of an "environmental canon," but that the ecological integrity of their writing stems from an understanding of the natural world that is at odds with some environmentalist and ecocritical assumptions about nature and the wilderness. The purpose of this introduction is to flesh out these main critiques as well as provide necessary background for the dissertation chapters that follow. 3 Rasband has also noted that Thoreau's "vision of the wilderness was actually more of a middle landscape, a life alternating between wilderness and civilization or residence in 'partially cultivated country'" (555). While I agree with Rasband that Thoreau did oscillate between different environments, I would argue that what Thoreau ultimately sought was not the ability to move back and forth between the two environments but rather a way to weave the two environments together, to live in a civilized wilderness or wild civilization.

8 Ecocriticism and the Disconnecting of Humanity and Nature At its core, ecocriticism seeks for connection. As a methodology for literary criticism, ecocriticism began in the early 1990s as literature professors with an avowed love for the natural world sought to connect both of their passions by considering "the relationship between literature and the environment" (Glotfelty xviii). Scholarly studies examining connections between literature and nature were not particularly new: Leo Marx's masterful The Machine in the Garden was published in 1964, and Raymond Williams's The Country and the City in 1973; both rely heavily on literature as source material for exploring the concepts of nature and wilderness and their relation to civilization; however, as Lawrence Buell argues in The Environmental Imagination, Marx and Williams are ultimately more concerned with "the clash of economic, political, and class interests than with landscapes as such" (13). Ecocriticism, on the other hand, sought to bring the environment into literary studies not as an elaborate backdrop for other issues, but as a key concept that not only opens avenues for reading literary works in new ways but also demonstrates that these works are aware of the importance of the environment and the need to preserve it. Though "individual literary and cultural scholars [had] been developing ecologically informed criticism and theory since the seventies" literary practitioners of ecocriticism "were not recognized as belonging to a distinct critical school or movement" until the early nineties, which marked the first attempts to bring scholars of literature and the environment together to explore common practices, host environmentally themed conference panels, and to form a literary association (ASLE: The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) for exploring

9 literature from an environmental or "ecocentric"4 perspective (Glotfelty xix). Ecocriticism as a methodology gained full momentum in the mid 90s with the publication of Buell's The Environmental Imagination (1995), Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm's The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), and Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammels's Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature (1998) as well as some works published by environmental scholars in other fields like William Cronon's Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (1996), which is a collection of essays written by scholars in a number of academic disciplines and Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory (1995), which provides a lengthy intellectual history of human engagement with the natural world. Exploring the relationship between literature and the environment not only connected the personal interests of nature-loving literature professors, but also sought to reground literary criticism by putting it in contact with the physical world. Poststructuralist theory tends to separate literary texts and the outside world by claiming that the words on the page are a world of their own with no recourse to referents outside of the text; consequently, under poststructuralism's long shadow, literary criticism of the 1980s remained nearly silent on the matter of the environment. In The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005), Buell specifically notes that "a number of early 4 The term "ecocentric" has become commonplace for ecocritics. The term originally appears in Timothy O'Riordan's book Environmentalism, but Buell has been instrumental in popularizing the term among ecocritics. In The Environmental Imagination, Buell uses the term to denote any mode of thinking or artistic representation that places the concerns of the environment above the concerns of humanity. In essence, ecocentric thinking relies on an acknowledgement that humanity is just one part of the larger environment. Buell discusses the concept of ecocentrism numerous times in The Environmental Imagination; see pages 1, 143, and 216-18.

10 ecocritics looked to the movement chiefly as a way of 'rescuing' literature from the distantiations of reader from text and text from world" that high theory promoted (3). Ecocritics saw literary criticism grounded in the environment "not as another new theory but as an alternative to Theory" (Welling 465).5 In addition to theory's "distantiations," ecocritics were also troubled by literary criticism's relative silence regarding environmental issues, particularly since the beleaguered environment had pushed its way to the forefront of politics as one of the most pressing concerns of the day.6 As Cheryl Glotfelty points out in the introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader, in the 1980s the natural world didn't even make a blip on literary theory's radar: If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth's life support systems were under stress. Indeed you might never know that there was an earth at all. (xvi) To remedy this, ecocriticism sought to demonstrate how literature depicted the natural world as well as how it offered prescient statements about the importance of preserving nature. Consequently, to engage in ecocriticsm was simultaneously a way to reject the abstractions of poststructuralism and a way to root literary criticism in a practical cause. 5 Like Buell, in Writing the Environment, Richard Kerridge also notes that ecocriticism was born in part by an attempt to define itself against post-structuralism (8). For a critique of ecocriticism's avoidance of poststructuralism see Dana Philips' The Truth of Ecology, 135-84. 6 Greg Garrard notes that "Ecocriticism is ... an avowedly political mode of analysis" and that "ecocritics generally tie their cultural analyses explicitly to a 'green' moral and political agenda" (3).

11 Connecting literature and literary studies with the natural world, however, relies on an even more fundamental connection: the connection between humanity and nature. The subtitle of Cronon's book Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, for instance, demands that the natural world be re-envisioned such that it leaves some place for humanity. Similarly, Glotfelty claims that while ecocritics vary largely in methodology, they share as a "fundamental premise that human culture is connected to the physical world" (xix). And some critics have even argued that dividing nature from humanity is an impossibility: Schama suggests that "even the landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection to be its product" (9). Contrary to the age-old nature/culture divide, ecocritics seem to openly declare that the two spheres are not mutually exclusive but constantly shaping each other. Although the connection between humanity and nature has been labeled a "fundamental premise" of ecocriticism, what the connection entails is only loosely defined by Glotfelty and others. The "connection" ecrocritics promote seems to mean a number of things all at once. First, the connection suggests a realization that humanity and nature have a greater influence on one another than we typically think. The creation of wilderness spaces has tended to suggest that nature and humanity are and should be separated in large part by physical distance, but ecocriticism tends to suggest that this distance should be lessened both by visiting wilderness spaces as well as by calling attention to nature much closer to home—the stand of birch trees outside a window or the river running through a major city. Second, the connection implies the understanding that nature helps to shape human culture and is reciprocally shaped by human culture. Finally,

12 the connection entails creating or maintaining human respect and care for the environment with the expectation that humanity will be enriched by the encounter. The connection ecocritics propound has also been reinforced by contemporary nature writers. Even though these writers typically make a living by venturing out into and writing about the distant wilderness, they frequently end up trying to carve out some ground for humanity within these wilderness areas. Terry Tempest Williams' book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, for example, makes a titular gesture toward connecting her family and a natural place she has grown to love, which in this case is the Bear River Bird Refuge in northern Utah. She argues throughout the book that her family's history is irrevocably "tied to the land" (14). In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez makes a similar point but about a landscape much further from home; he examines the arctic as one of the wildest landscapes left on the earth, but interestingly his study of this remote landscape leads him to the belief "that people's desires and aspirations were as much a part of the land as the wind, solitary animals, and the bright fields of stone and tundra" (xxii). David Quammen, on the other hand, begins Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by stating that "Wild places, in the ordinary sense of that phrase, are in preciously short supply on our planet" but then suggests that his book will explore a "broader sense" of wildness that includes humanity, a wildness that exists "in any geographical or emotional context that remains unpolluted by absolute safety and certainty" (12). For Quammen, wildness is different from wilderness. It is not necessarily a matter of remote regions of the globe untouched by humanity; instead, he sees wild places as potentially

13 much closer to home—ski resorts, Los Angeles, Manhattan, anywhere humanity recognizes its lack of complete control. The suggestion that humanity is simply one part of nature may seem to be quite clear for ecocritics and nature writers, but to declare humans as part of nature can stretch the meaning of nature or wilderness beyond recognition. If humanity is somehow part of nature, are all of man's inventions natural? Is there anything that is not natural?7 Similarly, connecting the two contradicts the way the United States has legally defined "wilderness." The separation of humanity and nature is crucial to the way Congress defined wilderness (and, in turn, crucial to the way environmentalists imagine nature) in the Wilderness Act of 1964: wilderness is "in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape"; it exists only where "the earth and its community ... are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain" (The Wilderness Act of 1964). Such a definition necessarily limits the types of connections between humanity and nature, allowing human visitors to stand as voyeurs, looking from the outside but not physically altering the natural world through their presence. To work or live in nature, or even to recreate in ways that visibly alter the natural world's virgin character, are prohibited.8 Preserving the wilderness, then, 7 Garrard makes a similar point, arguing that incorporating humanity into nature can stretch the definition of nature until it becomes nearly all inclusive. He points out that "if any building or machine, however technologically advanced, must be made by evolved animals (Homo sapiens) of materials of natural origin in accordance with natural 'laws' of mechanical physics, then it follows that all our vaunted cultural constructions are, in a sense, natural constructions" (10). 8 Jonathan Bate explains that this tension between humanity and nature is central to nearly all definitions of nature as well. He suggests that the "paradox" of such definitions and "the dilemma of environmentalism" is the fact that as humans "we are both a part of and apart from nature" (33). While these are concerns that

Full document contains 281 pages
Abstract: This dissertation explores the ways American authors redefine land ownership to satisfy their need for a sense of belonging in a new world. In examining the relationships forged between characters and the land through ownership, this study builds on ecocritical methodology while offering two critiques of that methodology. First, contrary to ecocriticism's lionizing of untouched wilderness, the authors I study envision a natural world that encourages human presence. Second, in adopting tenets of modern environmentalism, ecocriticism has ignored the way American authors connect people and nature through land ownership. Chapter one argues that contrary to recent ecocritical readings of Henry David Thoreau, which herald his prescience in promoting the preservation of untouched wilderness, Thoreau actually sought a middle ground where wildness and domesticity could coexist. Though Thoreau is often openly critical of the concept of ownership, his works from Walden to the posthumously published Wild Fruits redefine ownership as a concept to allow multiple people as well as animals to own land through personal use (including uses ranging from occupancy to aesthetic enjoyment) instead of basing ownership on exclusive use rights and legal title. Chapter two demonstrates that Willa Cather's O Pioneers! promotes a progressive relationship between humanity and the land grounded in land speculation and use of technological advancements. Cather is often considered nostalgic in her depictions of the prairie, but her heroine, Alexandra Bergson, thrives because of her progressive understanding of the land's market value. Alexandra's connection to the land minors the transformation of ownership enacted by the Homestead Act. Congressional debate surrounding the act created a route to establish ownership through physical labor in addition to traditional means of purchase payment for land. Chapter three enters a debate surrounding Faulkner's place in the environmental canon, arguing for Faulkner's environmental integrity based not on the mimetic accuracy of his wilderness depictions but on his stylized depictions of nature that allow characters to connect with and own the landscapes they encounter. In spite of Ike's relinquishment of his inheritance, Go Down, Moses ultimately demonstrates that a re-envisioned form of ownership is necessary to promote human responsibility for the land.