Gene Stratton-Porter and me, Introduction and the Song of the Cardinal

I have been working on several approaches to talking about the writing of Gene Stratton-Porter, one of the most fascinating and idiosyncratic American writers of the early 20th century.  I clearly can’t write reviews, so I’ll just talk about her fictional oeuvre.

She loved nature and was purely self-taught, not even finishing high school.  She wrote romantic fiction novels often called “sentimental” these days so that her publishers would let her put out the nature books.  Her fiction is mostly available in ebook form, so I’ve read nearly all of it that way, but I haven’t purchased the picture books or her later in life religious work and poetry.  She was very influential in the nature-worship sort of Christianity that one can see little strands of through the decades in America.  It is part of the frontier mythos.

She was one of the many intense, idiosyncratic women of the frontier generations who wielded a huge influence on American feminine culture that got memoryholed by both liberal and conservative sides of the aisle.  She is currently only known for being omgraciss in one of her later fictional books (which is super awesome and funny and has AMAZING recipes, and in which anti-Japanese sentiment is one minor subplot) and for being a nature-lover who saved vast tracts of her beloved Indiana swamps and forests.  She died unexpectedly in 1924 in her early 60s when her car was hit by a trolley.

But this post will be about her first official fiction book, which doesn’t even feature a human couple being romantic.  (She published something else anonymously, but I haven’t read it and I like to read things in publishing order, and it wasn’t published under her name until after her death).

  • The Song of the Cardinal (1903).  It’s a short little novella length story of a young cardinal looking for love.  It’s also about the animals and plants she adored in her native Indiana, and about people having love for the wild things and protective feelings towards them as they try to farm the land but also keep safe spaces for the wild things.  It is very charming and is a word picture of what later became her preferred work, elaborate nature books with excellent photos and illustrations.  It’s interesting that she started out this way, with the love story being between two young cardinals.  It allows her to get highly descriptive about their lifecycle (and accurate too), and she begins to introduce the humans as people bonded to nature, almost like nature spirits.  She straddles that line between pagan sentiment and Christian faith and this is a major ongoing detail of her work.  In this early work, she doesn’t tip over too much, possibly because she’s talking about animals as the main protagonists, with the people as observers.
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