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November 1996
A New VIsion To The New World

Book Review by Jia-Yi Cheng-Levine

The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction
by Louise H. Westling. The University of Georgia Press: Athens (1996). $29.95 cloth. 199 pages

Louise H. Westling's gripping ecofeminist analysis, The Green Breast of the New World, provides a full account of the history of the gender-biased literary landscape, before dissecting the works of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner to uncover a portrayal of Nature where Nature is seen as alien, corrupting, and conquerable. She compares this view with the literary worlds of Willa Cather and Eudora Welty, where Nature often symbolizes spirituality, positivity, community, rebirth and love.

The title, of course, comes from the The Great Gatsby , when Nick Carraway meditates on a once untouched, seductive Long Island landscape. The provenance of such a sexualized and feminized imagery is, Westling argues, long. It can be traced back to the Sumerian fertility myth of the goddess Inanna and Paleolithic art, where the human image is depicted as a female with a large belly or full breasts. The migration of Indo-European warrior cultures displaced "the goddess-centered cultures with aggressive masculine cosmologies." By the early Renaissance, in Westling's brief history, Nature is still depicted as feminine, but the Great Mother of pre-history has become a female being whom, to quote Francis Bacon, can be "forced out of her natural state and squeezed and molded" by man and science.

When Europeans came to America, they saw a potential Eden, although one bordered by a "wilderness" that held deep terrors. The wilderness was a feminized world to be conquered and tamed by propertied males. For Cotton Mather, the settlers were new vines to "fill the land," while for Thoreau, "Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome." For Emerson, "Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate."

Westling compares this mindset with that of Willa Cather, who in both the early work O Pioneers!, and late Death of the Archbishop continues the destructive gender oppositions and imperialistic nostalgia endemic in the white male tradition. For Westling, Cather never truly reconciles her ambivalence about her own sexuality or her depictions of a fecund natural world with her "notion of wild landscape as inert material to be shaped into usefulness by European man." However, to Westling, Cather complexifies this identification by also associating nature with female companionship and domestic values.

In contrast, Nature to Hemingway's Nick Adams, the representative hero of many stories, is a place to purge and rid himself of social entrapment, again associated with effeminacy. Nick feels the need to leave society for the woods to make his own comfortable "place," indulging himself with nothing but fishing, camping and cooking. Nick's feeling of being married to fishing and camping is an effort to replace the female role in the male's life - something also evident in The Old Man and the Sea. Unlike Cather, Hemingway has his hero seek solitude. When Nick feels at one with Nature it is, to Westling, not "to extend or broaden concepts of human possibility or participation in the building of community, but rather to narrow and exclude." Hemingway's hero cannot afford to acknowledge the balance between life and death or "the centrality of all the fecundity that has been traditionally coded as feminine."

Her observation also applies to the landscape in Faulkner's depictions of Yoknapatawpha County, specifically in Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses. For Faulkner, says Westling, the earth is "wet, fecund, teeming - 'the supreme primal uterus' - and women are its avatars." In Flags in the Dust, for instance, Faulkner's female characters are explicitly linked with nature: Narcissa Benbow, as her first name suggests, is a delicate flower. Belle Mitchell is "flowered like a hothouse bloom, brilliant and petulant and perverse." Yet this richness includes a soiled quality- especially in menstrual fluid or "womanfilth" as one Faulkner character puts it.

The ambivalence over women and landscape is also present in the male writers' depictions of Native Americans. Hemingway proudly claimed his father had Indian blood and held a romantic notion of Indians all his life. But in his Nick Adams stories, Indians are a degraded group: Nick's first love, an Indian, turns out to be promiscuous; in "Fathers and Sons," an Indian hunting companion, Billy, offers his sister's sexual favors to Adams; and in "Indian Camp," Adams remembers with horror watching a childbirth as a little boy. Likewise, Faulkner, while critical of white men, particularly in Go Down, Moses defines an all-male wilderness where, according to Westling, he exposes his "confused identification of Indians, blacks and animals with the feminine and with 'evil'."

Welty, with her Mississippi landscape of hills and alluvial bottomland, is similar to Faulkner in the richness of her descriptions of earth and landscape. Yet the heat, the same thick smell of honeysuckle and the rich Delta soil that threatens Faulkner's ease, for Welty mean peace, pleasure and intimacy. "The Delta Wedding" and many of her short stories are discussed in detail. Westling argues that the literary tradition in female authors pioneers the way for Welty in connecting domesticity with Nature. Westling contrasts Faulkner's horror of the body and the feminine with Welty's tactful use, in stories such as "Delta Wedding," of "food as a medium of exchange between people, connecting them to each other and to the fertility of the landscape."

As Westling herself claims, none of the writers she studies breaks out of "the archaic gendered sense of the human relation to the landscape and its life." She concludes the book by integrating ideas from ecologically-sensitive writers, anthropologists, postmodern theorists, and others. This is an attempt to reassure us that Nature portrayed by women who speak from their connection to the body, animals, and the land itself, is a very different Nature than that seen by white male writers. In addition, Westling also examines other social issues - such as racism and colonialism - and uses the writing of African Americans such as Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler and Native American Louise Erdich as examples of an integration of the social and the ecological.

Westling's impressively comprehensive book provides new and insightful analysis of the gendered landscape usually left unacknowledged in critiques of Hemingway and Faulkner. She also provides confirmation of Cather's and Welty's feminine and nurturing landscapes. The Green Breast of the New gives anyone who is concerned about how environmental issues are portrayed or neglected in literature a starting point and a meeting ground. The book also offers alternative reading for a freshly defined American understanding of Nature.

Born and raised in Taiwan, Jia-Yi Cheng-Levine teaches English writing and literature courses at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her area of specialty is postcolonial theory, with an emphasis on postcolonial ecology. Her recent research has been focused on ecofeminism and multicultural perspectives on ecology.


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