Harte, Chopin, Zitkala-Sa and the Beauty of Landscape Description

“Landscape description was once an important element in novels not only to give meaning and shape to the story but for its strange ability to carry the reader deeply and intimately inside the fiction, to establish the fiction’s truth” (Katz 6). I find this sentiment to be true, especially regarding the last bit, fiction’s truth. But fiction is made up, right? Fiction is merely a creation of one’s imagination, yes? While this is true, there still must be truth in it for the reader to have trust, trust in the author, and trust in the story.

“This use of landscape as a massive presence in a novel to shape and control the content, direction, plot, and the character’s psychological profiles distinguishes it from mere regionalism or local color” (Katz 7). In Bret Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” we can see how the landscape directs the plot perfectly. In the beginning, we are given a visual of red dust coating the boots of gambler John Oakhurst. It could well be interpreted that John Oakhurst is wiping away the hypocritical sin of Poker Flat, the sin represented by the color red, when he wipes his boots before being exiled by the growing “morality” of the citizens of Poker Flat. As the Norton Anthology mentions of Harte, he was known to “…ridicule religious hypocrisy” (352).

Not only does Harte describe the dusty atmosphere of California, but the magnificent mountains as well: “The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley” (Harte). But while Harte captures the beauty and majesty of the landscape, he also describes the danger: “As he stirred the dying fire, the wind, which was now blowing strongly, brought to his cheek that which caused the blood to leave it–snow!” (Harte). The mountains and the peril the California Sierra offers through its snow storms are pivotal for the plot.

While the dust of California’s Poker Flat begins the story, the pure white snow of California’s mountains ends it. “And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned” (Harte). While it was nature and the land which resulted in the demise of the “sinners” of Poker Flat, it was also what brought forth the best in them and eventually redeemed some of them.

Among other local color writers was Kate Chopin. The Norton Anthology explains, “Chopin, who wrote about her own time, did not concern herself with the prewar South, but her depiction of the present revealed the unhappy residues of an outdated social ideology” (551). In Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby,” the residue is portrayed powerfully in the relationship between Desiree and her adoring husband, Armand Aubigny, who are both respectable white folk. Armand falls madly in love with Desiree and insists on marrying her even against the words of caution that Desiree’s past is unknown: “What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?” (552).

Chopin paints a forceful and compelling scene when Desiree realizes she is mixed. “The baby, half naked, lay asleep upon her own great mahogany bed, that was like a sumptuous throne, with its satin-lined half canopy. One of La Blanche’s little quadron boys-half naked too-stood fanning the child slowly with a fan of peacock feathers.” It is through this contrast that Chopin makes between Desiree and her baby lying in luxury and the half-naked boy right before Desiree that the reader makes the jarring realization that Desiree and her baby are both mixed. Having been blinded by the purity of her love for her baby, Desiree had not seen it before. Armand, having been blinded by his racist inclinations, had seen it, and ultimately his prejudices triumph over his “love” for Desiree, and she leaves.

Zitkala-Sa, perhaps to me, is the most beautiful and lyrical of the three authors. Perhaps it is because she is a Native American that her words seem to flow so naturally. When I read her words, I am there in her story. In “The Trail Path,” the opening lines draw me into this time, place, and people that existed long before me: “It was an autumn night on the plain. The smoke-lapels of the cone-shaped tepee flapped gently in the breeze. From the low night sky, with its myriad fire points, a large bright star peeped in at the smoke-hole of the wigwam between its fluttering lapels, down upon two Dakotas talking in the dark. The mellow stream from the star above, a maid of twenty summers, on a bed of sweetgrass, drank in with her wakeful eyes. On the opposite side of the tepee, beyond the centre fireplace, the grandmother spread her rug. Though once she had lain down, the telling of a story has aroused her to a sitting posture.” I am lying on the floor of the teepee, and I am looking out through the smoke hole. I can feel the tradition of her people.

The Norton Anthology reminds us, “though often suffused with nostalgia, the best work of regionalists renders convincing details of a particular time and investigates psychological character traits from a broad perspective” (13). From the California mountains and the newfound hypocritical morality of the mining camps to the Louisiana South and the ever-pervasive prejudice that kills love, to the beauty and intrigue of Native American life, all three stories illustrate how using the landscape and characteristics of an area can deepen the characters, plot, and experience the reader has.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Harte, Bret. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Selected Stories. n. p. 17 Dec. 2012. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

Zitkala-Sa. “A Warrior’s Daughter.” American Indian Stories. n. p. 3 Dec. 2003. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 Feb. 2016

Mahoney, Timothy, Katz, Wendy. Regionalism and the Humanities. University of Nebraska. 2008. Print.

Categories: Essays

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