Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2011

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Round, Phillip

First Committee Member

Bolton, Linda

Second Committee Member

Eckstein, Barbara

Third Committee Member

Hill, Matthew

Fourth Committee Member

Mangum, Teresa


The prairie ecosystem of the American Midwest has long been depicted as a "lost landscape." Two-hundred years of Euro-American settlement has degraded the ecological prairie through systematic removal of native grasses and forbs, replacement with nonnative and invasive plant species, disruption of longstanding disturbance regimes (such as prairie fires), and the fragmentation of ecosystem connectivity. The prairie's depiction in art, literature, history, politics, and our national environmental discourse, collectively referred to in this study as the "cultural prairie," has not fared much better. Beginning in the early nineteenth-century, explorers and soldiers, writers and artists, settlers and promoters perpetuated an image of the "vanishing prairie" in travel narratives prolifically published for consumption by a burgeoning American readership. As the "vanishing prairie" emerged as the accepted image of the prairie, narratives depicting its disappearance from the landscape became self-fulfilling prophecies. Language, and narrative in particular, thus contributed to the degradation of the ecological prairie.

Narratives of the "vanishing prairie" are characterized by what Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor terms "absence, nihility, and victimry." One remedy to these fatalistic narratives is Vizenor's notion of "survivance," which he defines as "an active sense of presence over absence, deracination, and oblivion; survivance is the continuance of stories" ("Aesthetics of Survivance," in Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, ed. Gerald Vizenor [Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008], 1). Though Vizenor uses the term survivance principally to recover the stories, traditions, and identities of Native American cultures from Euro-American "simulations of dominance," his critical inquiries are more broadly applicable to the exploitation of the environment by many of the same policies, agents, strategies, and technologies that were put to use to propagate and promote state-sponsored ideologies of uniformity, homogeneity, and monoculturalism throughout the American Midwest. "Prairie survivance" is thus an attempt to make the prairie a presence, not an absence, in mainstream environmental discourse and debate, including the study of American literature and the fields of environmental criticism (or ecocriticism), place studies, and cultural geography.

My argument begins with a critique of Euro-American travel narratives popularized throughout the nineteenth-century by the likes of Washington Irving, George Catlin, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and others. These travel narratives perpetuated the trope of the "vanishing prairie" by employing stock images and narrative techniques, none more pervasive than the bison hunt. Specifically, the dramatic hunt sequences of these travel narratives reinforced the eradication of the bison from the ecological prairie. However, the consequences of these narratives are not limited to the time of their writing; instead, the "lost landscape" image of the prairie remains persistent to this day as a direct result of its misrepresentation in the travel literature of the nineteenth century. The second half of my argument entails a reading of counternarratives that envision a much different past, present, and future for the prairie. The bison's recovery in narratives by Luther Standing Bear, James Welch, N. Scott Momaday, and Mary Oliver is one example in which the fate of the prairie is not limited to its inevitable demise. Moreover, I have coined the term "aesthetics of restoration" to describe the prairie's presence in the work of Aldo Leopold, Paul Gruchow, Annie Proulx, and Linda Hogan (among others), each of whom overturns nihilistic images of the prairie as a "lost landscape" by writing about its restoration and permanent return to the landscapes of the American Midwest. Narrative's potential for healing is realized in these examples, a cornerstone of narrative ethics.


Cultural Geography, Ecocriticism, Place Studies, Prairie, Restoration Ecology, Travel Literature


vi, 230 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 214-130).


Copyright 2011 Matthew Michael Low