John T. Price’s anthology of prairie writing, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, goes on sale in June—just the right time to enjoy Iowa’s wild beauty! Editor Holly Carver talked to him about the book. Come back in a few days for the end of the interview.
Holly Carver: Your introductory essay to each piece provides biographical information and context. Taken together with the introduction to the anthology and the placement of the various chapters, you create a conversation among your writers, not just about each writer, which is a fairly notable achievement. How did you make these connections?
John T. Price: From the very beginning, I tried to think of this anthology as a kind of ecosystem, and ecosystems are all about connections and interrelationships. As I read and researched the various authors and works of literature, I kept track of recurring themes and questions, as well as certain places and natural features, and tried to select a diversity of responses to them. For instance, I became fascinated with the effect that the tallgrass had on those who spent their childhoods near it—an experience that is relatively rare nowadays. So I included such accounts by Mark Twain, Francis La Flesche, William Quayle, John Muir, and Hamlin Garland. I also included Dakota tribal author Zitkala-Ša, who, though not writing directly of her childhood in the essay included here, writes about a spiritual connection forged by her childhood spent on the prairie, “as free as the wind that blew my hair.”
It was fascinating to observe how literary representations of certain aspects of prairie ecology had evolved over time, as more scientific knowledge emerged. You can see this with fire, for example. It is portrayed by George Catlin and other nineteenth-century writers as a force that, though beautiful in its own way, was mostly terrifying and destructive. Later in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, fire is portrayed as an ecological force of health and healing. Certain prairie stories and observations of wildlife, such as the indigenous lore of prairie flowers as told by enthnobotanist Melvin R. Gilmore, seem to take on a life of their own, popping up in later works, shaping those perspectives in recognizable ways. Whether or not the “outside” world has been paying attention to the literature of the tallgrass prairie, the writers here have been reading and influencing each other for a long time.
HC: I won’t ask you to comment on contemporary writers, but which nineteenth-century writers are your favorites? Which deserves to be more widely read?
JTP: In the nineteenth century, I was fascinated by Eliza Woodson Farnham and Elizabeth B. Custer. Eliza Farnham, who lived in a farming community in Illinois during the 1830s, wrote some of the most stunningly beautiful descriptions of the prairie and its wildlife I’ve ever read. Elizabeth Custer’s work was interesting because one of her key motivations for writing her western memoirs was to glorify the memory of her famous husband, but her detailed descriptions of the grasslands environment itself—whether during a flood in Kansas or a blizzard in South Dakota or a romantic excursion riding horseback across the open prairie—kept stealing the spotlight. If I might be permitted to go a little ways into the twentieth century, William J. Haddock’s A Reminiscence: The Prairies of Iowa and Other Notes, self-published in 1901, provides a powerful before-and-after portrayal of the destruction of the tallgrass prairies and the profound impact that destruction had on those who witnessed it. This should be required reading for anyone studying environmental literature, not just those interested in the tallgrass prairies.