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ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment





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The following argument began simply in our curiosity over Willa Cather's naming of flowers, particularly in her late work. Looking at these acts of naming, however, led us quickly to the beginnings of a more general historical/theoretical framework for thinking about her long relationship with natural science. Cather is of course well known as an acute botanical observer and literary user of the floral or vegetative world, as pastoral backdrop, as ornamental illustration, or as emblem. Susan Rosowski has moreover suggested a foundational "ecological dialectic" in all of her art, originating in her early university experiences with the pioneering Nebraska botanists Charles Bessey, Roscoe Pound, and Frederic E. Clements. But we believe that Cather's work more specifically reflects directly the dominant paradigms of early American plant ecology as Clements developed them after 1900. Furthermore, it manifests signs of an internal theoretical struggle in that emergent academic discipline, a struggle finally over the limits of science's explanatory and predictive powers (as opposed to its classificatory, categorizing, or "naming" functions). In effect, we find it useful to treat Cather not only as a literary flower-lover, but as herself a theorist of nature, engaged throughout her career with the conceptual complexities that formed modern plant science.

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