Sand, Water, Salt: Managing the Elements in Literature of the American West, 1880-1925

Jada Ach’s scholarship in Sand, Water, Salt: Managing the Elements in Literature of the American West, 1880–1925 seeks to reevaluate the Progressive Era’s environmental legacy. Taking an ecocritical approach to turn-of-the-century literature set in the American West, Ach interrogates texts by asking what kinds of environmental, national, and cultural stories the elements have to tell about land and oceanic management. Sand, Water, Salt investigates managerial engagements with dynamic ecologies in three particular Western environments: the arid deserts, the semiarid high plains, and the Pacific Ocean.

At different times, and to varying degrees, Americans have deemed these environments economically unproductive, incompatible with Anglo-American settlement, and/or highly unmanageable. Despite these varied complaints, the United States has also intensely desired these “wasteland” spaces, perceiving them as sources of both national wealth and elite pleasure. Sand, Water, Salt moves through a variety of novels, memoirs, and cultural artifacts from the 1880s to the 1920s, including L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank Norris’s McTeague, Mary Hunter Austin’s The Land of Little Rain, The Virginian by Owen Wister, Life among the Piutes by Sarah Winnemucca, as well as Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf and Yone Noguchi’s The American Diary of a Japanese Girl.

Ach ultimately asks what we gain by looking back at fin-de-siècle American literature with a queer, ecological justice-oriented eye, a particularly invigorating conversation that uniquely uses the elements as foci.

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