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Wendy Harding, The Myth of Emptiness and the New American Literature of Place

Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014, 244 p.
François Gavillon
p. 207-210
Bibliographical reference

Wendy Harding, The Myth of Emptiness and the New American Literature of Place, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014, 244 p.

Full text

1In her new book, The Myth of Emptiness and the New American Literature of Place (2014), Wendy Harding sets out to expose "the falsity of the myth of empty space" (ix), a myth which, she suggests, has been prevalent in American culture since the early seventeenth century; concomitantly she shows how a new American literature of place is now debunking this myth. This double approach, cultural as well as literary, is what makes Harding's demonstrations both new and enlightening.

2Six writers have been selected for analysis: Rick Bass, Charles Bowden, Ellen Meloy, Jonathan Raban, Rebecca Solnit, and Robert Sullivan. All have in common the questioning of the dichotomous representations of space as either "zones of plenitude" or "zones of emptiness" (xiv). Harding's study is primarily literary. It means to show how the "crisis in representation" (xx) brings about new modes of writing committed to correcting the distortions of dualistic thinking and "to reconnect[ing] the social and the natural" (xxi).

3The first chapter is crucial in establishing the definitional boundaries of Harding's object of analysis, the "new literature of place," and in showing how this new literature departs from other conventional forms of nature writing (3-20); it also delineates the stylistic characteristics of "scripting," (as Harding calls it) a mode summoned by the necessity of expressing complexity, hybridity, mutability, in relation to geohistory (20-26). The new literature of place, Harding argues, expresses three concerns: it does not dwell on celebrated and iconic places, but rather on disinherited places; it questions the polarizations between culture and nature, emptiness and inhabitation; it reinscribes the land and our relation to it in a historical perspective (6). These writers are, Harding says with a sure sense of formulation, "the new griots for an amnesiac nation" (20). In order to break away from the either/or approach and to better suggest the hybridity and historicity of place, these writers adopt "an aesthetic of complexity" (196). This literary form invites, indeed requires, the reader’s participation in constructing novel ways of interpreting the connectedness between people and place. Scripting is defined as being bimodal: it disrupts and connects, deconstructs and reconstructs. Scripts form multicentered, multifaceted and multilayered texts that resist fixity, authority, and teleological orientation. "In [the new writers'] postmodern and postcolonial explorations of space-time, a patchwork of discordant, partial, fragmented stories displaces the official national accounts" (25).

4The second chapter produces a very convincing rereading of American geohistory in the light of the empty/full dichotomy. The overview revisits American history and illuminates canonical texts and authors from the early seventeenth century onward: Smith, Bradford, Jefferson, Crevecœur, Tocqueville, O'Sullivan, Emerson, Thoreau, Turner, Leopold, Stegner. Parts two and three leave theory for demonstration. They propose to illustrate the way the works of contemporary authors disprove the myth of empty space. In her discussion of Rick Bass's Winter, Harding shows how the "dream" script of emptiness evolves into scripts of lessons learned, adjustment and emplacement. The tone itself adjusts to the self-reflexive frame of mind which oscillates between playfulness and plenitude, doubts and loss. With its emphasis on social contact and its unromantic insistence on tools and machines, hard work and hard life, the memoir departs from traditional solitary nature writing. The narrative is no longer that of an Emersonian transparent observer. "The Yaak is not an empty space of projection found in earlier nature writing but an existential testing ground whose dense reality demands human interaction. The writer […] represents himself in Winter as a molting, changing individual who becomes increasingly clear about his objectives in life—the aim is neither escape nor self-aggrandizement but integration, commitment, and responsibility" (75-76).

5Charles Bowden's Frog Mountain Blues recounts the settling and occupation of the Santa Catalinas Mountains, north of Tucson. The account is nonlinear and made of a plurality of scripts, "a maze of traces gathered from oral accounts, from documents, and from the land itself" (77-78). Unlike Bass's Winter, Bowden's emphasis is on the past and the palimpsestic nature of place. Bowden's prose resists the often scientific environmentalist prose "dressed up in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes" (81 [127]) and offers "his more personal, idiosyncratic scripts as both an antidote and a complement" (81) to institutional discourse. A "meshwork structure," "a braid of scripts" eventually emerge, that shape­—in Leopoldian fashion—a sense of responsibility towards the nonhuman world.

6The Last Cheater's Waltz is a cryptic title for a book in which Ellen Meloy, in Harding's words, stages "the shift from the impossible dream of an unchanging, pristine desert to the reality of humanity's continuous relations in and with the land. This discovery necessitates a shift from the fantasy of a solitary waltz with a beloved place to the recognition that the desert is not faithful to her alone­—it is a cheater" (102). Meloy's scripting records man's pervasive exploitation and desecration of the land—with the atomic age looming large on the book, as it did and still does on the arid Southwest and its nuclear test sites. Ultimately trying to suture the split worlds of culture and nature, Meloy's book is an exercise in reconciliation with the impure. Acceptance of contradictions (destruction and vitality, sublime and monstrous) is a necessary step towards finding a new form of habitation and moving toward healing.

7As a complement to part two, which focuses on individual engagement with the land, part three explores collective, and national, interpretations of the American territory, by focusing on less celebrated places and more upsetting histories. In Bad Land: An American Romance, Jonathan Raban evokes the history of immigrant families settling in eastern Montana. The unromantic, postlapsarian irony contained in the title suggests that Raban's story is one of failure, not of success. In fact, it captures "the traumatic failures of the homesteading system" (129). The book explores the social and political machinery, the propaganda, surrounding the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 and the resulting commodification of space and expropriation along the abstract lines of the federal Land Office's grid.

8Harding shows how Raban, himself the alien émigré, the greenhorn, learns to see beyond the illusion of empty (137), how "ekphrasis" becomes "a form of apprenticeship" (138). In Raban's analysis, Harding says, the immigrant families who endured tremendous adversity have forged a strong attachment to the land and have developed an authentic form of habitation based on interaction and mutual shaping. Also at odds with post-Transcendentalist nature writing, Rebecca Solnit's Savage Dreams "relates the quest to uncover the realities beneath the layers of forgetfulness, indifference, falsification, and myth that surround the American West. To pursue this objective, Solnit investigates two sites that represent extreme cases of what are collectively recognized as empty spaces" (148): Yosemite National Park and the Nevada Test Site. Solnit's analysis highlights the mythical and biblical dimension in the collective representation of Yosemite (as simulacrum of Eden) and the Nevada Test Site (as Armageddon). Solnit's quest for understanding, and the writing thereof, does not follow straight lines; on the contrary it privileges movement and rambling, is attentive to ongoing changes, unfinished mutations and improvisations in the American occupation of space. Her epistemology is peripatetic (see also Solnit's 2000 Wanderlust: A History of Walking). Whereas the "wild dreams of sanctity or destructiveness" that humans project on the land are signs of their dissociation from it, the new emplacement that Solnit envisions and enscripts is nomadic, unfixed, unproprietary.

9Ironically (or perhaps not so), Harding chooses to end her ecocritical survey by examining a book that takes its readers back East, and more precisely to a place which is a metonym for urban relegation and pollution—a critical gesture that somehow mirrors Robert Sullivan's ironic inscription of the New Jersey Meadowlands in the literature of place. Sullivan's The Meadowlands is "a discovery of America in reverse" (173). It borrows the codes of Romantic travel literature and applies them to the description of a new environmental space­, "the strange new hybrid of the wild and the industrial" (173). The burlesque mock naturalist vein, however, does more than just pastiche canonical texts like Lewis and Clark's Journals or Walden. It is also a powerful tool to bring ecological concerns into focus. This "reverse commute" back to "America's first West" (Sullivan's phrases and emphasis), Harding describes as "a writerly act of reclamation" (174). In his own parodic way, Sullivan's narrative suggests how the New Jersey Meadowlands, like so many other places disdained or simply ignored, illustrate the deleterious effects brought about by the spatial division that William Cronon critiques in Uncommon Ground.

10Harding's book's logical organization is faultless, with its systematic micro-introductions and—conclusions. Formulation is always precise, often clever. The bibliography offers a wealth of theoretical European and Anglo-American references, rich in themselves, but also capable of opening yet new investigatory trails. Harding's essay, clearly on the postmodern side of ecocriticism and highlighling the postmodern leanings of the six writers analyzed here, amply succeeds in validating its initial proposition that a new literature has emerged in contemporary American conception and representation of place—a new literature of place which now places "empty" under the sign of myth.

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Bibliographical reference

François Gavillon, « Wendy Harding, The Myth of Emptiness and the New American Literature of Place », Caliban, 53 | 2015, 207-210.

Electronic reference

François Gavillon, « Wendy Harding, The Myth of Emptiness and the New American Literature of Place », Caliban [Online], 53 | 2015, Online since 24 August 2015, connection on 16 January 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

François Gavillon

Université de Bretagne Occidentale.

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Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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