The Role of Grassland in American Literary Works


Throughout American literature, there is a recurring theme of the role of grassland and its significance in shaping the identity, culture, and landscape of the nation. From novels to poetry, writers have portrayed the vast plains of grassland as a symbol of freedom, possibility, and the American dream. In this article, we will explore the role of grassland in American literary works and how it has captured the imagination of writers throughout history.

Grasslands, also known as prairies, cover nearly 30% of the United States. They span from the Great Plains in the west to the Mississippi River Valley in the east, and from Texas in the south to the Canadian border in the north. These vast expanses of grass have been a dominant feature of the American landscape for thousands of years, shaped by fire, wind, and grazing animals. For Native American tribes, the grasslands were integral to their way of life and provided a source of food, shelter, and spiritual significance. With the arrival of European settlers, the grasslands took on a new meaning and became the setting for some of the most iconic literary works in American history.

One of the first writers to incorporate the grassland into his work was Walt Whitman. In his masterpiece “Leaves of Grass,” he celebrates the diversity of the American landscape, including the vast grassy plains. Whitman saw the grass as a symbol of democracy, equality, and individualism. He writes, “The prairie-grass dividing, its special odor breathing, I demand of my brother and sister whether they do not perceive it to be their privilege to think away from the traditional and scriptural.” Whitman’s transcendentalist view of the grassland as a source of inspiration and freedom set the foundation for its representation in American literature.

However, it was not until the 19th century that the grassland took center stage in literature. Writers such as Willa Cather, O.E. Rolvaag, and John Steinbeck depicted the harsh realities of life on the prairie. In novels like “My √Āntonia,” “Giants in the Earth,” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” they captured the struggles, triumphs, and dreams of the people who inhabited the grassland. They portrayed the land itself as a character, with its sweeping vistas, unpredictable weather, and relentless challenges. Through their depictions of the grassland, these writers showcased the resilience and spirit of the American people and their enduring connection to the land.

The role of grassland in American literature is not limited to novels. Poets, too, have been captivated by its vastness and beauty. Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility” draws upon the imagery of the endless prairie to evoke a sense of boundless opportunity and freedom. She writes, “I dwell in Possibility – A fairer House than Prose” and compares the freedom of her poetic imagination to the boundlessness of the grassland. Similarly, in her poem “Prairie Spring,” Willa Cather celebrates the rejuvenation and growth of the land in the spring, a metaphor for the resilience of the American spirit.

The influence of the grassland in American literature goes beyond its representation in fiction and poetry. Many non-fiction works, such as travelogues, memoirs, and essays, also touch upon the role of grassland in shaping American identity. For instance, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” argues that the endless prairie served as a blank slate for the American people to build a new nation and explore new ideas. Turner’s frontier thesis became a cornerstone of American historiography and has been referenced by countless writers and historians.

In conclusion, the role of grassland in American literary works is multifaceted and far-reaching. It is both a physical landscape and a symbol that has captured the imagination of writers throughout history. From Whitman’s celebration of democracy to Cather’s depiction of resilience, the grassland has been portrayed as a source of inspiration, freedom, and identity. It continues to be a prevalent theme in literature, reflecting the enduring connection of the American people to their land. As the country continues to evolve and face new challenges, the grassland remains an essential part of the American literary canon, reflecting the nation’s past, present, and future.