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May 8, 2012

DWU professor presents on Dakota Territory journalism and literature

MITCHELL — Life in the early Dakotas has been captured on film, in art, music and also in the abundance of literature dedicated to early Plains living.

Dr. Derek Driedger, chairman of the department of English at Dakota Wesleyan University, attended the 38th interdisciplinary symposium sponsored by the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Homestead National Monument of America and the National Park Service. 

This year’s conference, “The Making of the Great Plains: 1862-2012,” celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act, the Pacific Railroad Act and the act that established the United States Department of Agriculture. 

At the conference, Driedger presented “Dakota Territory Visions, Corrections, and Nostalgia in Newspapers and Fiction.”  His paper examined how major newspapers in New York, Washington and Boston depicted Dakota Territory between 1862 and 1889.  Newspapers would report on public speeches about Dakota Territory, interview residents or visitors, send correspondents out to Bismarck, N.D., report on severe weather, investigate corrupt American Indian agents, and share stories about women’s first impressions of the territory after marrying a Dakota man. The newspaper articles suggest how the most populated and literary area of America in the 19th century would have imagined Dakota Territory.

Since literature about Dakota Territory followed the division into North and South Dakota, the second half of Driedger’s paper argues that literature of the territory-era regularly derives from nostalgia.

Early attempts to challenge nostalgic imagination of the Homestead era by writers such as Hamlin Garland were not appreciated by Northeastern audiences. The long-term popularity of nostalgia in regard to Dakota Territory is best shown in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1939 novel “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” 

“Readers wanted literature to match their imagined view of Dakota Territory, not necessarily how it actually was,” Driedger said. 

He states that the idea for the project came from his fall 2011 Great Plains literature class. 

“Through our class discussions we noticed a cycle in the literature. The texts from one generation would present dreams and then the next generation would present a much harsher view of life on the plains,” he said. “It appeared that literature was not only a correction to boosterism, but also previous works of literature.” 

It also appears that Dakota Territory and Great Plains weather may have influenced the transition from romance to naturalism in American literature, he added. Tragic weather events showed readers how quickly the natural environment could wipe out potential and hope.

“Many characters in early naturalism are criticized for their irrational and destructive behavior with no reasonable root cause. However, when considering that these characters may channel the forces of nature, the characters don’t appear as remnants of a gothic tradition or as overwritten by the author,” Driedger said. “I enjoyed researching the project because it’s very important to learn as much as you can about the history of the place you live in.”

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