Historical and Literary Great Plains Scholarship

The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century (2011) by R. Douglas Hurt


Description from The Big Empty, back cover: “This an important book because it dares to take on--with much success--a topic, a region, and indeed a state of mind, none of which can defined without considerable ambiguity or controversy. Hurt approaches the Great Plains primarily through social history, but also incorporates environmental, economic, and political history masterfully in this sythesis.” - David Vaught, author of After the Gold Rush: Tarnished Dreams in the Sacramento Valley

From a review of The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century in The Western Historical Quarterly by Kurt E. Kinbacher (2012): "Fittingly, [The Big Empty] is a big narrative. The broad story it tells, however, is packed into a small book that is held together by thoughtful thematic organization. . . The work’s eight chapters proceed roughly chronologically, but they are not constrained by artificial temporal devices. . . The result is a nuanced discussion where the big plow-up runs beyond World War I, economic downturn among rural peoples began in the mid-1920s and spread unevenly across the region, and the dust bowl—as devastating as it was—was only one facet of a greater crisis that forced farmers to find other livelihoods."

“January 1, 1900 dawned with a customary chill that seemed ordinary across the length and breadth of the Great Plains.” (Hurt 1) The first line of R. Douglas Hurt’s The Big Empty is fitting in its unassuming nature to introduce readers, familiar and foreign, to the “who”, “what”, “when”, and “where” of one hundred years of life on the Great Plains, as it is settled, struggled with, and reshaped by American society. Certainly, this is no small task; the fact that it is accomplished in one book, rather than a multi-volume set, makes Hurt’s completion of the task even more impressive.

The “where” of The Big Empty is the Great Plains region itself. Defining this region can be quite contentious and countless distinctions can and have been made as to what falls inside of and outside of the Great Plains. The geographic range of the Great Plains definition can stretch “approximately fifteen hundred miles from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and covering between two hundred and nearly a thousand miles from east to west.” (xi) For this work, Hurt personally defines the Great Plains as: “the ten Great Plains states with the eastern border following the political bounday of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma before angling downward to Dallas and San Antonio, then stretching northward through Roswell, New Mexico, to Albuquerque and then along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains through Denver, Colorado, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Billings and Great Falls, Montana.” (xii)

As a work of regional history, the “what” of The Big Empty focuses on the “environmental, social, economic, and political” events of the Great Plains region as it moves from frontier to middle America. (xi) Hurt’s method for addressing this breadth of approaches is “to synthesize [Great Plains] scholarly literature and [to add Hurt’s] own primary research to give narrative form to the region’s history.” (xiii) The book also addresses the players in these events, the “who” of the Great Plains. This category is not limited, as some would expect, to male homesteaders from white society and the families they brought with them. Rather, Hurt also looks at Great Plains society from historically present but less commonly recognized voices, including women, migrant workers, Native Americans, and other minorities and the way they were affected by and, in turn, affected the Great Plains. 

Hurt’s depiction of the Great Plains is ultimately of a region characterized by conflict and transition. Through the historical span of the book the Great Plains is a place where the new butts up against the old, where the line between rural and urban can be impossible to draw, where the only way to survive is to toe the line between preserving the land and struggling against it, and where promise is equalled only by despair. According to Hurt, “I hope that anyone wanting an overview of the Great Plains in the twentieth century will find this book a useful place to begin.” In capturing the conflicting experiences of many walks of life across the “big empty” that is the Great Plains region, Hurt has done just that.

The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction (1995) by Diane Dufva Quantic</li></li>

One of the principal tenants of Quantic’s approach to analyzing and understanding the perception of the Great Plains and the fiction that the area has inspired is her recognition of the “effect of place upon point of view.” (xi) In reference to point of view, Quantic, is uniquely qualified to analyze the nature of the Great Plains; as a lifelong Kansas resident Quantic has always experienced the Great Plains from within the area itself. 

In this book Quantic specifically focuses on the Great Plains through the lenses of various myths that have arisen at different times as attempts to “come to terms with the physical reality and the psychological significance” of the Great Plains. (xv) The form these myths take are heavily dependent on the dichotomy of viewing the Plains either from within, as Quantic does, or from without. In her introduction to The Nature of the Place, Quantic defines “myth” as “first, the preconceptions settlers brought with them and, second, to the collective world-view of a society, a composite of the legendary, religious, political, even economic concepts a society shares.” Quantic goes on to say that these myths, because they were created from outside the Great Plains, did not match the reality of the area. Great Plains fiction then often deals with humanity’s attempts to reconcile these myths to the facts of their experiences, either by changing the land or changing themselves.

The principal myths which Quantic examines include the Great Plains as: the Garden of the World, the Great American Desert, the closed frontier, Manifest Destiny, the safety valve, and a democratic utopia. These myths all, to some degree, express both truths and falsehoods about the Great Plains. The ability of the Great Plains to simultaneously accept and reject the application of these mythic labels - to be both a breadbasket and a wasteland - is another reason categorizing the Great Plains can be so challenging and Great Plains literature can be so rich and complex. 

Description from The Nature of the Place, back cover: “The Great Plains has long been fertile ground for literature.The Nature of the Place is a comprehensive study of novels and stories by such Plains writers as Willa Cather, Wright Morris, Mari Sandoz, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frederick Manfred, Wallace Stegner, and Bess Streeter Aldrich. Throughout, Diane Dufva Quantic is aware of the region’s collective social and cultural history—aware of the immensely fruitful clash between that complex history and Plains myth (such as ‘Garden of the World’ and ‘Great American Desert’). In the vast and changeable Great Plains, as Wright Morris once remarked, ‘Many things would come to pass, but the nature of the place would remain a matter of opinion.’”  
From a review of The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction by Melody Graulich, University of New Hampshire (1997): “... I admire the way [Quantic] establishes her relation to “place” in the book’s first line: ‘My mother grew up in Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the contiguous forty-eight states.’ As she makes clear, Plains literature and history have often been told by passers-through, or, worse yet, from afar, leading to the series of myths Quantic sees as informing the literature. Many of the myths Quantic explores are familiar ones: will ‘rain follow the plow’ into the ‘Great American Desert,’ for instance, creating a ‘safety valve’ for refugees from the ‘ancien regimes,” where they can create a democratic utopia’? Quantic’s real contribution is the way she sees the myths, like the land and the settlers, as constantly on the move, in flux, transforming in relation to each other. She ‘explore[s] the various manifestations of the myths of westward expansion in Great Plains Fiction and the transformation of the assumptions implicit in the mythic images that became necessary whaen the land was claimed, communities were formed, and life began in real time.’”</li>

The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Cultures: The Great Plains Region, edited by Amanda Rees</li></li>

The Great Plains Region, edited by Amanda Rees, is one of eight volumes that make up The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Regional Culture, a “rigorous reference collection on the many ways in which American identity has been defined by its regions and its people.” In the most basic terms, the purpose of this text and the greater body of work to which it belongs is to show how the nature of a place influences the way in which people live on it. In other words, where Hurt’s The Big Empty explores the who, what, when, and where of the Great Plains experience and Quantic’s The Nature of The Place discusses the various why’s, The Great Plains Region analyzes the how of Great Plains life. 

The Great Plains Region is an excellent pairing with Hurt’s The Big Empty because it sheds light on the corners left dark by Hurt’s tour through Great Plains history. In scholarship on the Great Plains so often the focus is upon the struggle between man and nature for survival that the additional elements that make up human existence. The difficulty faced by many settlers during the birth of the region is so impressive that often the culture these settlers brought with them and combined with others in order to establish a uniquely Great Plains culture are ignored in favor of focusing on the former. It is impossible to fully understand the Great Plains experience then while focusing exclusively on this exclusionary viewpoint and not integrating the additional facets of Great Plains life. By adding an understanding of the cultures that have and do exist on the Great Plains, one can take a more informed approach when analyzing the Great Plains experience.

The Great Plains Region approaches the task of understanding the Great Plains culturally by analyzing Great Plains culture as the result of interactions between varying groups within the region and also between the Great Plains region itself, other regions, and the country as a whole. To fully understand the Great Plains region the text requires that “three characteristics need to be appreciated: first, the region’s environmental context; second, the ways in which the region’s populations have been in flux since prehistoric settlement; and finally, the ways in which regionalism itself and the Great Plains region have been understood and studied in the twentieth century.

Description from The Great Plains Region, back cover: “The Great Plains region has cast an idelible image on the panorama of Amrican culture/ The vast expasnes of land encom[assed in Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and surrounding areas have been home toan often overlook cultural diversity. The Sun Dance of the Kiowan tribe, the folk ballads of Woody Guthrie, the fiction of Willa Cather and Louise Erdrich, the Great Plains school of architecture, bierocks (a.k.a. “savory pie” sandwiches), Buffalo Soldier fashion, Territory Jazz and Native American hip-hop--all these elements and countless others have contributed to the patchwork of Great Plains regional cultures.”

Additional Secondary Sources of Great Plains Scholarship

Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth

Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden 

James Shortridge, The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture

Matthew J.C. Cella, Bad Land Pastoralism in Great Plains Fiction

James Hurt, “Writing the Prairie.” Writing Illinois: The Prairie, Lincoln, and Chicago

Katherine Fry, Constructing the Heartland: Television News and Natural Disaster

Janet Galligani Casey, A New Heartland: Women, Modernity, and the Agrarian Ideal 

Regional Scholarship

As the Great Plains region has entered the 21st century it is only fitting that the region assumes a role in defining its own past and present. This responsibility has been admirably accepted by a number of entities and academic institutions within the region that exist as a testament to the abilties of individuals who have gone before to thrive and provide for the betterment of the region. For further scholarship on the Great Plains region the works listed below and other similar outlets of academic scholarship will provide ample information:

University of Nebraska - Lincoln - Lincoln Center For Great Plains Studies

University of Nebraska - Lincoln - Great Plains Quarterly

University of Nebraska - Lincoln - Great Plains Related Websites

University of Iowa Press "Land and Life" Series

Emporia State University - Center For Great Plains Studies

University of Kansas Libraries - Kansas Collection
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