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Title:The Metaphor of The Prairie in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry
Author(s):Olson, Steven Douglas
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Literature, American
Abstract:The metaphor of the prairie reveals the paradoxical characteristics of a burgeoning democracy. In the metaphor the conventional ideals of freedom, hope, equality, future prosperity, and a leading place in world history are juxtaposed with destructive tendencies. As the white civilization encroaches on the natural order of the wilderness, the new political and social order overruns the natural order. The values of the wilderness are threatened by overpopulation and cultivation. In short, the idea of a democracy threatens man's idea of self-worth, as self-worth is defined by man's place in and relationship to nature. Democracy threatens man's idea, that is, of his natural, essential self.
This opposition between democracy and the individual becomes manifest in two distinct poetic voices that are associated with the metaphor. The overwhelming, popular enthusiasm for Manifest Destiny asserts itself in the popular voice. The ideals of the incipient democracy--freedom, equality, hope, etc.--reverberate in the prairie poems of William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the lesser poets of the West who wrote chiefly for magazine publication. Dickinson and Melville, however, in their individual versions of the private voice of the American poet, question this oversimplification of the prairie metaphor. Melville challenges the optimistic version of the metaphor and ironically offers its inverse. To him the prairies represent the moral and spiritual degeneration of America. Whitman then reconciles these opposing poetic voices as he combines the popular with the individual artistic voice and uses the prairie metaphor to promulgate and celebrate the unity of America. The prairie metaphor, therefore, as it is developed collectively by these poets, tells of an ambiguous America and an incipient American poetry.
Issue Date:1986
Description:250 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1986.
Other Identifier(s):(UMI)AAI8701583
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-12-15
Date Deposited:1986

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