English, Department of


Date of this Version

March 2003


Presented March 25, 2003, at the Plains Humanities Alliance Research & Region Seminar, Great Plains Art Collection, 1155 Q Street, Lincoln NE


Willa Cather remains a central figure in literary regionalism because she puts the central tenets of regionalism under intellectual pressure. One of the most familiar ways of thinking about American regions has been to think about an opposition between ‘section’ and ‘region’. Region tends to be used to define a geographical area, whereas a section denotes political or cultural identity. Cather is almost a sectionalist in her focus on the cultural and intellectual distinctiveness of the Nebraskan Commonwealth; but the very term itself links Nebraska to Virginia, rupturing a simple sense of section. Cather has a geographer’s sense of regional identity—the ‘black soil’ of the prairies; but this is regionalism with a twist, since the terrain is so lacking, apparently, in distinctive features. Cather’s definitions turn and inflect the definitions brought forward by regionalist thinkers. Finally, the lesson that Cather teaches us about regional thinking is that we need ever more supple, inflected, nuanced definitions in order to understand the complexities of the inter-connections between writing and place.