Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 20-30.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Looking at different viewpoints about the landscape of middle America is like seeing the Japanese movie Rashomon: it all depends on who is telling the story. We tend to forget, for example, that American origins are intertwined with an agricultural world view. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the United States was predominantly a nation of farmers, and to all appearances it would continue so indefinitely. (It was not until the early twentieth century that more Americans lived in cities than on farms.) The future successful course of America seemed to depend upon vast and open tracts of good farmland that was virtually free; otherwise the republic was in peril. This was Thomas jefferson's rationale, in part, for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

But the first exploratory experiences with ffiiddle America were negative. When the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase, J ames Monroe complained to Jefferson that he had bought a perpetual wasteland. As late as 1821 an Illinois settler complained that "books are written in the east to prove the wretchedness of the prairies." This judgment was based in part on a widely accepted belief that harked back to the clearing of land in early medieval Europe: good agricultural land comes from forested land; where there was only grass and no woods, the land could not support farming. It would take another generation to dispel this hardy myth.

But no farmer could long stay away from the rich, black, six-feet-deep soil ofIllinois and Iowa. Settlers welcomed the fact that the prairie land did not have to be laboriously cleared of trees and stumps before planting. Soon descriptions of the prairie sod were dominated by positive rather than negative statements; it was "fertile," "benign," "salubrious," "verdant," and "lush." The extraordinary success of prairie farmers emerged as a major symbol of American self-identity that still persists today. Despite contemporary urbanization, the agricultural heartland is taken to be a powerful and permanent feature of the American character and American nationhood. My purpose here is to explore the reasons for the power of this fundaIl1ental symbol in the American experience. My essay draws on approaches from several disciplines and includes nonAmerican viewpoints as well as representative American interpretations.

The virgin prairie of middle America was soon praised for its productivity and recognized as familiar landscape. Europeans had over the years invented a model landscape: the idyllic natural garden-park that could be transformed into a classic agrarian setting. Dutch landscape paintings of the seventeenth century, for eXaIl1- pIe, idealized the familiar scene of the small self-sufficient farm: a cluster of houses framed by fields, a stream or lake, and woodlots. This vision, centered on the successful agrarian traditions of plowing, sowing, harvesting, and husbandry, became an important ideal of western civilization. The Dutch view was followed by the romanticized portrayals by Gainsborough and Turner, and more recently the French Impressionists.

Many nineteenth-century American artists, including the Hudson River School and western wilderness painters like Thomas Moran and the transplanted Albert Bierstadt, were unabashed nature-romantics. An American booster of the West, William Gilpin, later described a gardenpark as a grasslike lawn with scattered trees and a winding stream or small lake. The similarity between this idealized landscape. and western places like the floor of Yosemite Valley, Hayden Valley in Yellowstone, and the meanders and meadows of Rocky Mountain National Park, is not coincidental.