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[Detail] The David Hilton family near Weissert, Nebraska. 1887.

Themes in Literature

The Prairie Settlement collection and the literature of the Midwest can be linked in innumerable ways. The Midwest has quite arbitrary boundaries, and literary scholars debate who, truly, should be considered a Midwestern writer. Literary historian George Day, for example, argues that literature concerning Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin is undoubtedly Midwestern. Further, he adds:

Though there is topographical variety within them, these states share the most prominent feature of the inland empire: the broad, rolling plains, which before the coming of the white man were a vast, almost treeless grassland two million square miles in extent. This remarkable physical feature, "the most eloquent symbol of space and unity in America," has had a profound effect on those who originally lived in it and their descendants and those who later came to it. (George Day. A Literary History of the American West, J. Golden Taylor, ed., Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1987, pp. 636-37).

Several themes emerge repeatedly from Midwestern literature: the land and the climate, rapid change, and settlement and farm life. The latter theme is clearly illustrated in Prairie Settlement. The evidence about settlement and farm life from the Oblinger family letters can be compared with the themes developed in such works as the following:

  • Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads (1891), a novel that provides a realistic and vivid view of Midwestern farm life during the homesteading years.
  • Ole Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (1927), described by some as the greatest farm novel, at least up to 1965.
  • Willa Cather, O Pioneers (1913) and My Antonia (1918), novels whose view of the pioneer experience is more positive than most and whose protagonists are strong pioneer women who help settle the Nebraska prairies.
  • Mari Sandoz, Old Jules (1935), in which the author describes the life of her Swiss immigrant father as he settled in Nebraska in the late 19th century.
  • William Cullen Bryant, in his poem “The Prairies,” tells of the broad, open landscape and reflects nostalgically on the colorful past of the region.
  • John Greenleaf Whittier used the prairie as the setting for several poems, including “The Kansas Immigrants.”
  • James Russell Lowell, in “The Pioneer,” treats the plains as the ideal home of those who would wish to be free.
  • Walt Whitman admired the pioneer inhabits of the Midwest, as can be seen in his poems “Pioneers, O Pioneers!” and “The Prairie States.”

Use the following questions to guide comparison of the selected literary work(s) and the Oblinger letters:

  • How does the literary work depict settlers' lives on the farms of the Midwest, particularly the Great Plains?
  • Does the literary work portray the lives of men, women, and children equally well? Give examples from the text that support your position.
  • How are the land and climate described in the literary work? List some of the most evocative words that the author uses to describe these natural elements of the story.
  • What is the theme of the literary work? Does the author have a point of view about life on the plains that he or she is trying to convey?
  • What, if any, evidence from the Oblinger family letters supports the literary work's depiction of settlers' lives? How do the letters support the author's theme?
  • What, if any, evidence from the Oblinger family letters contradicts this depiction? How do the letters contradict the author's theme?