The Midwestern Landscapes of Willa Cather and Mary Austin

April 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

Many authors have been inspired to write by their environments, beautifully rendering their scenery with their words. Willa Cather and Mary Austin are two examples of such authors, who recreate the vast expanses of the Midwest’s grassy fields and rolling hills. Cather and Austin were both Modernist authors, telling their stories with less concern for one connected plot and focusing more on developed prose and writing styles. Both Cather’s and Austin’s writing styles are characterized by long, periodic sentences and liberal usage of commas; however, Austin’s Land of Little Rain has a slightly more formal tone than Cather’s My Antonia, due to its non-fiction genre and lack of dialogue. While both authors recreate the landscapes in which their stories take place using visual imagery, Austin’s care in describing the types of flora and fauna of the Country of Lost Borders establishes Land of Little Rain’s setting more clearly and effectively than My Antonia’s, as Cather must focus both on the plot of protagonist Jim Burden’s memoir and on describing the setting of the novel while the bulk of Austin’s focus is on describing her surroundings. Because of this disparity, Austin’s descriptions of the setting of her story are more effective in illustrating the Midwestern landscape than Cather’s are.

Cather’s and Austin’s long, comma-filled sentences typify the Modernist style and help reconstruct the long, flowing fields and rounded hills of the Midwest in which both their books take place. The use of such long sentences employs a slower, looser rhythm that almost reflects the rolling hills and calm nature of the landscapes of the Midwest: “East away from the Sierra, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders” (Austin). The rhythm of this periodic opening sentence of Land of Little Rain establishes that slow rhythm, and as each comma is added the sentence stretches on longer and longer just as the Midwest’s sprawling fields do. The Midwest is often described as flat, monotonous, and expansive, and in using longer sentences, both authors reflect that expansiveness.

Cather and Austin both employ imagery in their descriptions of the Midwest, but Austin fleshes out her scenery by adding detailed descriptions of the desert flora and fauna throughout the passage. In My Antonia, Cather describes the setting of her novel by writing of the “never-ending miles of ripe wheat” and how “everywhere, as far as the eye could reach” there is “nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass.” This illustrates the vast expanse of the Midwestern fields with visual imagery, capturing the seemingly endless grasslands that typify the landscape. She intersperses this imagery throughout My Antonia in order to bring the reader fully into the events that take place in the novel, but the bulk of her novel focuses on Jim Burden’s recounting of his childhood friend Antonia. The descriptions of the setting are simply a backdrop for the events of the novel. Similarly, In Land of Little Rain, Austin recounts the “hills, rounded, blunt, burned,” and while she focuses less on the general look of the scenery, her more specific illustrations of the plants and animals that inhabit the Midwest end up elevating her recreation of the dry, grassy landscape above Cather’s. Both of the authors’ descriptions of the Midwestern terrain are similar, but Austin describes plants as well as the general countryside, pointing out succulents and cacti like “creosote…this immortal shrub” and other plants like “yuccas, cacti, low herbs, a thousand sorts.” These descriptions take up the majority of Austin’s passage, and while Cather also describes some animals of the Midwest such as “bull-snakes” and “badgers,” her descriptions take up less space in My Antonia than Austin’s descriptions do in Land of Little Rain. In this sense, due to her lack of specificity and her focus on characterization and dialogue, Cather’s depiction of the Midwest falls just slightly short of Austin’s.

The writing styles of Cather and Austin are extremely similar, and descriptions of the environment are present throughout both Land of Little Rain and My Antonia. However, these descriptions play a much larger role in Austin’s Land of Little Rain, and in making the landscape the main focus of the passage, she devotes more lines to fleshing that landscape out well. The landscape described by Cather in My Antonia serves mostly as a background for the recountings of Jim Burden, and play the role of the setting rather than the main part. Because of this, Austin’s recreation of the landscape is more effective than Cather’s. The Midwest is a vast, plain expanse, and in their effective uses of literary devices, both authors manage to capture that landscape with words and immerse the reader in the scene.

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