'The Best Days Are the First To Flee': Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson, and the Pastoral Ideal of America's Midwest

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Schupack, Carrie
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University of the South , English Department , Sewanee Senior Honors Theses 2024 , Nineteenth Century , Pastoral Ideal , Midwest
The pastoral as a literary subgenre offers unique insight into the subjects it depicts. While characterized by their focus on the rhythms of rural life and agrarianism, pastoral works are most frequently written by those who have limited experience with actual forms of agrarian labor. The pastoral as it has been presented in American literature has a rich lineage, with writers like Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Robert Frost typifying the literary ideal of nature, landscape, and all that those things entail. In this essay, I will examine how two works of modern American literature, My Antonia, published in 1918 by Willa Cather, and Gilead, published in 2004 by Marilynne Robinson, expand on the tradition of the pastoral and make it relevant to a modern audience. My Antonia, which takes on themes such as the consequences of gendered labor and the rise of industrialization in the rural Midwest, paves the way for Gilead, written nearly a hundred years later. Gilead also dwells on a rapidly changing rural America, although its focus is less overtly agricultural. Both novels explore what it means to live in America's heartland, and what the moral implications of globalization and mechanization are. Gilead especially examines the influences and consequences of Christianity on rural America, while My Antonia takes into account the immigrant perspective, and what that discloses about society at the end of the nineteenth century.