My own journey to ecocriticism transpired via a series of environmentally preoccupied conference papers on Willa Cather. After working the ground in Cather's fiction for several years I felt the need to formulate a general critical manifesto, which I presented with some trepidation at the 1989 Western Literature Association conference in a paper entitled "Toward an Ecological Literary Criticism," coincidentally the same year that Glen Love delivered the wla Presidential Address, entitled "Revaluing Nature: Toward an Ecological Criticism." Both Glen and I urged that the time had come for literary scholars to respond more actively to the environmental crisis. Glen speculated that literary studies have remained indifferent to the environmental crisis in part because "our discipline's limited humanistic vision" has led to a "narrowly anthropocentric view of what is consequential in life" (229). He recalled that Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It was rejected by a New York publisher on the grounds that "'These stories have trees in them'" (225), and he recommended that the profession learn to revalue nature-oriented literature, literature that can redirect us from "ego-consciousness" to "eco-consciousness" (232). While Glen urged his colleagues to rethink pastoralism and to pay more attention to nature-oriented literature, I argued for an ecological critical method, proposing the term ecocriticism for a critical practice that would take as its subject "the interconnections between human culture and the material world, between the human and the nonhuman" (4).
I suggested that Elaine Showalter's model of the three developmental stages of feminist criticism might provide a useful scheme for cataloguing three analogous efforts in ecocriticism. The first stage in feminist criticism, the "images of women" stage, is concerned with representations, concentrating on how women are portrayed in literature. Analogous efforts in ecocriticism study how nature is represented in literature—virgin land, Eden, Arcadia, howling wilderness. The second stage Showalter distinguishes, the women's literary tradition stage, rediscovers, reissues, and reconsiders literature by women. In ecocriticism, similar efforts recover and describe the genre of nonfiction nature writing and, in addition, identify and study ecologically oriented fiction, poetry, and drama. Showalter's third stage is the theoretical phase, which raises fundamental questions about the symbolic and linguistic construction of gender and sexuality. Similar work in ecocriticism examines how literary discourse has constructed the human. This critique questions dualisms prevalent inWestern thought that separate mind from body, men from women, and humanity from nature.
What was curious, from the point of view of this manifesto calling for the "greening" of literary studies, is that much ecocritical work had, in fact, already been done. When I drafted a working bibliography of ecocriticism, it grew to 330 titles. Behold, ecocriticism already existed. What didn't exist was any institutional presence of this vibrant field of study—no journals, no jargon, no jobs. Thus began a tremendously collaborative effort to create a scholarly community and put ecocriticism "on the map." The result is that today, as an anthology released just this month notes, ecocriticism "boasts a national organization, a journal, Modern Language Association (MLA) affiliation, a proliferation of courses across the land, and a lengthening shelf of book-length studies" (Harrington and Tallmadge ix). The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) was established in 1992 and now has one thousand members, with chapters in Japan and England, biennial conferences, a scholarly journal (ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment), a newsletter, an annual bibliography, a graduate mentoring program, special regional symposia, and a superlative web site (www.asle.umn.edu). The ecocritical movement has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the London Times, the Utne Reader, PMLA, and elsewhere. As Lawrence Buell, chair of the English Department at Harvard and author of The Environmental Imagination, recently observed in a special ecocritical issue of New Literary History, "the study of literature in relation to environment" has "begun . . . to assume the look of a major critical insurgency" (699).
Perhaps the new visibility of literature and environment studies inspired this year's Cather seminar theme. Reviewing recent and emerging ecocriticism of Willa Cather reveals a strikingly variegated palette of green readings. I should warn you that some of these treatments fault Cather for being unenvironmental. I believe that such attacks do not endanger Cather's reputation as a major writer but, rather, confirm it. Critics of neglected authors must necessarily highlight the strengths of their subject; it is only when a writer's canonical status is secure that he or she begins to attract heated scholarly debate. Thus, I view these skirmishes as a healthy sign in Cather studies.
Louise Westling, in a chapter on "Willa Cather's Prairie Epics" in her 1996 book The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction, concurs with a 1990 essay by Mike Fischer entitled "Pastoralism and Its Discontents: Willa Cather and the Burden of Imperialism." Westling reads Cather as writing from "imperialist nostalgia" (80) in the tradition of the pastoral poet Virgil, "sentimentalizing . . . colonized space" (72) and "encod[ing] a benign version of the conquest of the Plains, erasing its violence" (81). Thus, buffalo slaughter and Indian wars—the precursors to immigrant settlement—form no part of Cather's prairie epics. ForWestling, despite Cather's feminist sympathies and strong female characters, her prairie novels ultimately "remain part of a male semiotic economy of heroic action that inscribes the individual will upon the face of the earth" (81). The "love and yearning" that Alexandra in O Pioneers! feels toward the wild land serves to romanticize the fact that what she will do is "buy up" (59) the land of her bankrupt neighbors and plow it under for profit and property. In a pattern that Westling finds present throughout American literature, "Cather has inscribed a kind of Manifest Destiny for her entrepreneurial Amazon, masking Alexandra's aggrandizement as joyous eroticism" (68). In creating prairie epics that leave the violence offstage, Cather performs the "cultural work" (72) of "grant[ing] literary validation to the process of exploitation that the railroads set in motion" (59).
Susan Rosowski's 1999 Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature shares Westling's interest in Cather's prairie epics and is also keenly attuned to gender issues in American literature, but this study of "national identity and the American West" (ix) reaches very different conclusions. Rosowski traces expressions of desire in Cather's writing about the West, beginning with her earliest published work, proceeding through the short stories and on to O Pioneers!, culminating in My Ántonia. Rosowski charts a progression that moves from "an untamed nature to be conquered to a wildness within to be freed" (67). She argues that "[r]ather than writing about a virgin land waiting to be despoiled, Cather conceived of the West as female nature slumbering, awakening, and roaring its independence" (79). In Rosowski's reading of Cather, then, the land is never subdued; it retains its wildness and generativity, which is closely allied with the wildness in women. Rosowski concludes that in prairie epics such as O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, Cather "sent Adam packing and claimed paradise for women, restoring to them a psychosexual identification with nature and appropriating for them the promise of nature's wildness" (79).
Gerard Dollar, discussing The Professor's House, disagrees. In his 1998 essay "Misogyny in the American Eden: Abbey, Cather, and Maclean" he notes a disturbing tendency in American nature writing to "define women out of paradise" (97-98). Dollar interprets the Blue Mesa scenes in The Professor's House as a version of "the western Eden—or, the wilderness Edenic" (98) and, in the vein of Annette Kolodny's The Lay of the Land, he finds that nature is "a site for men both to escape women and to bond with other men" (98). In this male "quest for a sacred space in nature" (99), one finds the paradox that the highest spiritual development, through contact with nature, is found alongside what Freud would surely label arrested development. The male's affirmation of a wilderness self comes at the price of denying or repressing a sexual self and a social self; it is as if the natural world becomes the man's true spiritual mate—an idealized womanly Other who makes flesh-and-blood women at best an irrelevancy, at worst a temptation away from "pure" male self-fulfillment. (99) Thus, Dollar concurs with Westling's contention that Cather is writing squarely within the American male literary tradition.
While gender-conscious ecocritical readings produce certain patterns of findings and create particular kinds of debates, readings that take a more androgynous or gender-blind view of Cather and her characters tend to focus on philosophical or formal issues rather than feminist ones, thus engaging a different set of questions and opening up yet another way to understand Cather's environmental imagination. Judith Fryer's 1987 essay "Desert, Rock, Shelter, Legend: Willa Cather's Novels of the Southwest" finds similarities between Cather and painter Georgia O'Keeffe, artists who found the Southwest to be "felicitous space," a term coined by Gaston Bachelard in his The Poetics of Space, referring to spaces that create a feeling of being centered and safe. As artists their challenge is to craft works of art in which desire is "concentrated within form" (29). For Cather, this meant "paring down language so that words exist as objects—physical things implying spiritual connectedness" (Bachelard 29). Fryer's version of ecocriticism studies the formal properties of Cather's work, showing how the desert landscapes of the Southwest influenced her prose style.
Carol Steinhagen, in a 1999 article entitled "Dangerous Crossings: Historical Dimensions of Landscape in Willa Cather's My Ántonia, The Professor's House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop" takes a philosophically inflected approach to some of the same Southwestern texts. Steinhagen identifies characters who yearn for the "all" feeling, a dissolution of ego, a melding with nature. Of course, there is a danger to this "crossing": dissolution of the ego means death of the individual self. Achieving a sense of oneness with nature depends upon experiencing an ahistorical nature, a land before landscaping. Even to think of land as landscape implies a distance and separation from it, which is a historical development tied to rationalism. In Death Comes for the Archbishop Cather comes the closest to making the dangerous crossing into prelandscaped land in that she gives the underground river scene great power, she respects the Native way of dissolving into the landscape, and she shows Bishop Latour at the end of his life embracing the fresh morning air. Yet in her next novel, Shadows on the Rock, Cather retreats back into history, praising the settlers' transformation of the land into civilization. Being "beyond landscape" finally posed too much of a conflict for Cather, "who used her pen to create a country of 'the material out of which countries are made'" (80). In other words, Steinhagen points out, writing itself is a form of landscape making.
Ecocritics of Cather's work are quickly establishing what might be called a "canon" of environmental scenes, which have become critical meccas. One of these passages describes Alexandra's "new consciousness of the country" and appears on the poster of this seminar. Another takes place in Grandmother Burden's garden in My Ántonia when young Jim leans back against a warm pumpkin and experiences a moment of unity with the universe: "that is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great," which, incidentally, are the words engraved on Cather's tombstone. Steinhagen began her reading of Cather with this scene, and William Howarth in "Ego or Ecocriticism? Looking for Common Ground" (1998) also gravitates to it, but rather than pondering its metaphysics, he looks at its physical grounding. Howarth questions why this mystical insight takes place in a prairie draw, of all places. He points out that the dynamic process of erosion and deposition that created the draw and made it so fertile—such a fit place for a garden—contrast sharply with the grasslands on the levels, which were ultimately ploughed under and planted with monoculture crops, depleting the soil, drying it out, and exposing it to winds that blew it away, leaving the grasslands today a depressed and depopulated region. In his analysis of this single moment in the novel, Howarth draws upon the sciences of ecology, geology, and biology, thus illustrating one of his principal tenets that ecocriticism be interdisciplinary.
Turning now to emerging ecocriticism on Cather, I note two dominant trends as well as a constellation of concerns that might foretell the future of scholarship in this area. By far the most frequently repeated word in articles and presentations on Cather's ecological imagination is place, as in "Sense of Place," "Function of Place," "Representations of Place," "Use of Place," "Reading in Place," "Experience of Place," "Erotics of Place," "Legacies of Place," "Hierarchy of Place," "Voices of Place," "Theory of Place," "Place as Agency," and "Placing Cather." Clearly, as one recent paper is entitled, "Place Matters" in Cather studies, suggesting the power of one way of understanding ecocriticism as "add[ing] place to the categories of race, class, and gender used to analyze literature." A second favorite word is garden, as in "Willa Cather's Gardens," "Eve's Garden," "Creation Garden," "Old and New World Gardens," "Regionalism's Writers of the Garden," and "Poetics of Gardening." Indeed, gardens are crucial to the signifying system of Cather's writing and will reward closer attention; the topic might make a nice special issue of Cather Studies.
Other topics mirror emerging trends in ecocriticism itself. Lawrence Buell in his 1999 NLH article "The Ecocritical Insurgency" maps five areas of flourishing ecocritcal activity. First, as Howarth has forecast, Buell notes a strong contingency of science-oriented ecocritics, those who synthesize literary studies and environmental sciences. Correspondingly, recent papers have appeared with titles such as "Conservation," "Flora and Fauna," "Field Guides," "Contested Waters," "Organic Modernism," and "Interdisciplinary Convergences." Second, Buell finds in today's ecocritical discourse what he calls "theory anxiety," manifested by both hostility to and engagement with social construction theory. This area of study is reflected by papers on "Constructing Environments," "Construction of Race," "Ecological Realism," and "Dialogic Environmentalism." Third, Buell notes a proliferation of studies of landscapes, regions, and places, and of particular landscapes such as wetlands, mountains, rivers, watersheds, forests, and deserts. Landscape in Cather has received much notice in the past and continues to attract attention with papers on "The Prairie," "Panther Canyon," "Virginia," "Rural Nebraska," "Desert Landscapes," "The Great Plains," and "The Divide." Buell's fourth area describes various recent critiques of anthropocentrism and androcentrism, directing attention to representations of human/nonhuman relationships and issues of dominance, a topic often treated by ecofeminists. In this vein, one finds papers on topics such as "Land as Other," the "Human and Nonhuman," "Heidegger," the "Gaze," and "Crossing Boundaries." Finally, Buell acknowledges activity in environmental rhetoric, in "unpacking modes of articulacy across every expressive genre" (709). This kind of cross-generic work is featured in papers on "Eco-Candor" in Cather's letters, Cather's "Comedies of Survival," and Cather's relationship to essayists such as Montaigne, Emerson, and Thoreau, and poets such as Wordsworth. It would appear, then, that despite the relative lack of a Cather presence in ASLE, Cather scholars are in synch with current trends in the study of literature and environment.
To conclude this tour of ecocriticism, I'm going to list some ecocritical projects that I'm hoping Cather scholars will pursue in the coming years. I'm not greedy—there are only a thrifty seven items on this list: Bibliography, Cities, NeglectedWritings, Other Disciplines, Bodies, Animals, and Literary Ecosystems.
We need a good bibliography and review essay of ecocritical scholarship on Cather, including work that predates the term ecocriticism. In the late 1980s, when I was doing research for my dissertation, I found a multitude of such studies, some of them published as early as the 1920s. In the absence of a thorough inventory of environmentally valenced Cather criticism, not only are we doomed to reinvent the wheel, but we will fail to give credit where credit is due.
An excellent new critical anthology, edited by Michael Bennett and David Teague, is entitled The Nature of Cities: Ecocriticism and Urban Environments. Bennett and Teague point out that "ecocriticism has come to be associated with a body of work devoted to nature writing, American pastoralism, and literary ecology" (3), and they see this as unnecessarily limiting the potential of the movement. The essays they collect, "explore the theoretical issues that arise when one attempts to adopt and adapt an environmental perspective to analyze urban life" (10). Their five subheadings include Urban NatureWriting, City Parks, Urban "Wilderness," Ecofeminism and the City, and Theorizing Urban Space. Although Cather's most famous work takes place in thinly populated Western landscapes, she chose to live in New York City, and, in fact, set several of her works in cities. I suggest entering this critical avenue via the Bennett-Teague anthology.
Ecocritical work on Cather has tended to focus on her Midwestern and Southwestern novels. Very little has been done on Shadows on the Rock or Sapphira and the Slave Girl—equally rich novels from an environmental standpoint—not to mention Alexander's Bridge, One of Ours, My Mortal Enemy, The Old Beauty and Others, and Cather's poetry, nonfiction, and unpublished documents. Wasn't it ecologist Aldo Leopold, referring to microorganisms in the soil, who said that "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering"? Cather's so-called minor works are important pieces of the puzzle, and these works will open up in new ways and teach us new things if we revisit them from an ecocritical perspective. Several of the strongest Cather studies chart the evolution of her talent and subjects, treating her books as chapters in the development of her imagination. In this spirit, it would be interesting to chart her choice of settings over the course of her career, speculating on the complex relationship between setting, story, and biography.
We've seen above how William Howarth brings the natural sciences to bear in his reading of the pumpkin scene in My Ántonia. Interdisciplinary analysis could illuminate her other work as well. The different words we use to designate land have affinities with specific disciplines; thus, place suggests an approach informed by geography, nature by philosophy, landscape by art and history, ecosystem by the natural sciences, environment by political science, and earth by theology. Important work remains to be done in each of these areas. Another project in this category would be to read the scientists that Cather read in order to place her in the scientific climate of her time. For example, Sue Rosowski tells us that Cather was profoundly influenced by the work of Charles Bessey, a botanist, and Frederic Clements, the founder of modern ecology. How, then, is their influence felt in her fiction and aesthetic principles? What are the connections?
In a recent critical anthology entitled Reading the Earth (1998), Deborah Slicer, a philosophy professor, contributes a wonderfully thought-provoking essay called "The Body as Bioregion," in which she regrets that "[m]ost environmentalists, including the bioregionalists, have little to say about the body" (113). In her view the body is an ecosystem: "To be 'home' is first to inhabit one's own body.We are each, as body, a biological ecosystem as complex, efficient, and as fragile as the Brooks Range, the Everglades, a native prairie" (113). She quotes from Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: "'While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth'" (Slicer 113). Ecocritical attention to corporeality in Cather's writing would become aware of the bodies that Cather gives to her characters; it might also study representations of hands, aging, race, health and illness, diet, hygiene, physical disability and deformity, and physical labor.
Recent years have witnessed a stampede of criticism and theory about animals. Animal studies become a means of examining construction of species; exploring the boundaries between human and nonhuman; thinking about the literary tropes of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism; interrogating cultural practices such as zoos, pet ownership, and filet mignon; studying processes of domination, demonization, and domestication; and raising fundamental questions about subjectivity and identity.We know that Cather's earliest writing was about animals. Her first piece of extant writing, probably composed when she was about thirteen, is an essay in which she argues that dogs are better than cats. Her high-school graduation speech defended animal experimentation.  Ivar, in O Pioneers!, is thought to be "crazy" in part because he treats animals humanely. What else has Cather written about animals? How have they figured in her life and work? Of particular interest in such a study would be border characters such as Marek Shimerda in My Ántonia, the boy who has webbed fingers and who barks like a dog and whinnies like a horse. What is going on here? What anxieties are being played out in this character?
A book I really admire is Diane Quantic's The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction (1995). In this ambitious synthesis, Quantic decides not to devote chapters to individual authors but, instead, after years of reading Great Plains literature, she constructs thematic chapters, centered around particular myths. Quantic's study is a fine example of organic ecocriticism, namely, a critical methodology arrived at "inductively" (xx) after thorough immersion in a region's literature. Cather figures as a recurring example in readings drawn from a wide selection of her novels and short stories; however, rather than treating Cather in isolation or on a pedestal, Quantic views her in a web of literary relationships—a "literary ecosystem"—in which Cather's is one voice in an energetic, place-based conversation. This relational approach is true to the spirit of ecology, which looks at systems and interactions rather than isolated individuals or single works. One can imagine a large number of different literary ecosystems in which Cather participates and that would repay study. For example, how about looking at Cather with other between-thewars writers, or including her work in a study of childhood or aging in literature, or amongst other writers on migration and immigration, or with writers on aesthetics, or perhaps in a green cultural study of foodways? The contexts are limitless.
As you can see, some extraordinarily fertile soil waits to be tilled. If the last decade of Cather studies has been the "gender and sexuality" period, the new millennium may well begin with a fruitful ecocritical decade. As Alexandra said to her brothers, predicting a bountiful future for the Divide, "'I know, that's all . . . you can feel it coming'" (67).