The disabled pastoral ideal in early twentieth-century American literature and culture

Charlotte Rene Willis, Fordham University


The disabled pastoral ideal is the belief that spending significant lengths of time in pastoral areas like farms, gardens, and parks holds the power to neutralize or efface disabilities and, conversely, that urban areas have a disabling effect on their residents. In this formulation, working outdoors is perceived to be the main avenue of achieving the effacing effect. Socioeconomic class and land ownership prove to be other key factors. I have coined this term in an effort to codify a pattern of thought with roots stretching at least to the Colonial era in the United States. The primary critical intervention of my dissertation is the identification of this concept and an analysis of some of its iterations in American literature and culture. Considering this theme as a unifying thread in American literature facilitates an investigation of the cultural construction of the appeal of the rural for people with disabilities, exposing an important linchpin in the constructedness of disability in American culture in the early twentieth century. Works of early twentieth-century American literature with disabled characters often make claims about the importance for people with disabilities of spending time in and preferably living in pastoral areas. Sometimes this literature is explicitly about pastoral life set in an agricultural area, as in Helen Keller’s early twentieth-century essays, memoir, and poetry and in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Sometimes it is set in urban locations and features more isolated scenes of pastoral retreat, as in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933). In the chapters that follow, I argue that Keller embraces and advocates the disabled pastoral ideal (as does Franklin Delano Roosevelt) while West and Steinbeck incorporate it into their fiction as part of the American mythos and examine its effects on urban and rural residents. Ultimately, I contend that attention to the disabled pastoral ideal reveals that these early-twentieth-century authors complicate notions of Americanness by exposing the hegemony of the normative body and mind in the United States in the early twentieth-century.

Subject Area

Biographies|American studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Willis, Charlotte Rene, "The disabled pastoral ideal in early twentieth-century American literature and culture" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10013439.