Desert Places: Wilderness in Modernist American Literature 1900-1940

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Gregory Lee Byrd (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Karen Kilcup

Abstract: Focusing on representations of wilderness in selected works of Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Robinson Jeffers, Jack London, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the dissertation seeks to understand the ways in which modernist and proto-modernist writers use wilderness in their fiction and poetry. In part I explore the anachronism of modernists’ focus on wilderness in the first part of the twentieth century: when one considers that the American frontier closed before the turn of the century, it would only be logical to assume that wilderness would cease to have much relevance to American literature and American writers in the period under consideration. Although I am far from arguing that all modernist writing is concerned with wilderness or even with nature, significant works by canonical and non-canonical modernist writers do make explicit use of the wilderness to advance their plots and character development. Moreover, Modernism values the use of myth and archetypes, concepts often connected to wilderness. Modernism focuses on the alienation of the self from society, a situation that takes on concrete meaning in the wilderness, where the individual is physically separate from society. I contend that wilderness serves for Modernist writers as an external and concrete representation of their alienated inner world. For Modernist writers, wilderness constitutes an alternative to fractured society, a place where Modernist characters and speakers may find meaning and experience epiphany, where they might become, in Frost's words "whole again." My methodology draws from the criticism of standard wilderness and ecocritical scholars such as Paul Shepard, Lawrence Buell, Leo Marx, Roderick Nash, Max Oelschlager and the voices represented in Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm’s Ecocriticism Reader. In addition to this obvious approach, I extrapolate from scholarship by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, myth scholar Joseph Campbell and Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin to argue that for Modernist writers the wilderness exists as much as a state of mind or a reflection of the inner self as a concrete phenomenon.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2001
ecocriticism, wilderness, ecopoetry, frost, Hemingway, wild, Hurston, Cather, Tuan, Rawlings, Oeslschlager, Nash, Florida, Marx, London, Kolodny, Kilcup, Jeffers, Glotfelty, Eliot, Chopin, Campbell, American, modernism, modernist, nature

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