All but forgotten today, Gene Stratton-Porter was—in the early 20th century—an immensely popular novelist, essayist, naturalist, photographer, and film producer. Damning her with faint praise, Yale critic William Lyon Phelps took her (with Zane Grey and Harold Bell Wright) as the basis for an essay called “The Virtues of the Second-Rate.” Her best-known novel, A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), may initially seem to be a sentimental coming-of-age story. Yet the author’s commitment to ecological preservation, woven through her Midwestern romance plot, gives the novel a continuing relevance that is quirky and unexpected.
Far more than just a sequel to Stratton-Porter’s 1904 Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost tells the story of a second-generation settler girl growing up near the Limberlost Swamp, a vast northeastern Indiana wetland that was at that moment being busily drained for timber, farming, and oil drilling. Elnora Comstock is a diamond in the rough, a country girl trying to make good by attending high school in the nearby “city” (actually a small town). Stratton-Porter captures the burning shame and awkwardness of poverty, but doesn’t let Elnora linger long in it. She has pluck, and friends to help her, though most of all she has the swamp itself. The natural world provides not only comfort but also (unexpected plot twist!) economic subsistence in the form of the moths she sells to collectors.
As a coming-of-age story, A Girl of the Limberlost can be a little too blunt in its didacticism. But prescient ecological consciousness ensures that its pleasures aren’t all spun sugar and sunlight: butterflies feast on carrion, birds may remain undisturbed when photographed, but moths are collected. When the Bird Woman uses the word, Elnora replies, “That ‘collected’ frightens me. I’ve only gathered.” But making a collection to instruct the world about the beauties of nature requires a killing jar. The other things Elnora gathers and sells are artifacts: “stone axes, arrow points, and Indian pipes.” The book (like the very name Indiana) is haunted by the memory of indigenous people driven off their land in the preceding century. In the world of the Limberlost, the gloom of the swamp—named, after all, for a man who lost his life there—and the sumptuousness of its beauties intermingle just as human violence and human goodness do.
One reason the book has stuck with me since childhood is that the place of nature’s bounty in Elnora’s story poses some ethical dilemmas that are subtler than they first appear. The novel is shaped by the conflict between a melodramatic plot of advancement (by way of education, romance, and arrival into conventional bourgeois adulthood) and a more ambivalent impulse toward stasis, the maternal desire to freeze things as they are. The palpable tension within this stasis—between an impulse toward preservation and the penumbra of death that necessarily accompanies it—is cast into stark relief by the impeding presence of Elnora’s mother, Kate Comstock. Kate lives in a past of her own making, refusing to give her love fully to her daughter because she holds her responsible for the death of her husband.
Cultivation—when it means coddling, petting, and shielding—is not the same as care.
At the same time, Kate is being urged to sell her property for timber and oil—and she refuses. The swamp is being cleared all around them, but Mrs. Comstock holds firm. It’s not because she wants to preserve wild nature. Rather, her preservationist impulse arises from her unwavering and wrongheaded devotion to the memory of a husband who died in the swamp.
Somewhere in Kate’s refusal, though, is a kind of restraint that wins a surprising amount of sympathy from the kindly neighbor Margaret Sinton, a surrogate parental figure for Elnora. As Margaret puts it: “S’pose we’d got Elnora when she was a baby, and we’d heaped on her all the love we can’t on our own, and we’d coddled, petted, and shielded her, would she have made the woman that living alone, learning to think for herself, and taking all the knocks Kate Comstock could give, have made of her?” Her husband Wesley objects that “you can’t hurt a child loving it” and that Elnora didn’t have to suffer “like a poor homeless dog.”
Margaret counters that Elnora has a naturally good character but wonders, “As we would have raised her, would her heart ever have known the world as it does now? … Living life from the rough side has only broadened her.” Writ large, Margaret’s suggestion is that the right approach to living beings, human or not, might not just be a matter of the proper tending and cultivation of the natural world. Cultivation—when it means coddling, petting, and shielding—is not the same as care.
The limit case for this overdone cultivation is Chicago, home of Elnora’s love interest, Philip Ammon. Here, Chicago figures as a place of spoilage irredeemably linked to a sickness of mind and body that afflicts the city’s hothouse flowers. By contrast, we could call Kate’s excessive and unrepressed love for her dead husband a wild love. Indeed, Kate has let Elnora be wild, much as she has protected the land by not cultivating it, and simply allowing it to be. Later we learn that her apparent neglect has had the same effect on her money. Refusing to spend (even on her daughter’s school needs) because she assumed she was always on the edge of financial ruin, Kate leaves her deposits to grow untended and they unexpectedly flourish. Elnora might not admit it, but she follows the same principle in her romance: she insists on letting her beau go, to be sure he is choosing her freely. This is not just melodramatic convention; she treats him like wild nature.
Wild nature, though, is being frayed away over the course of the story. Just as Elnora recognizes that she needs to sell more natural specimens to pay for graduation expenses, she finds that
The swamp was broken by several gravel roads … and the machinery of oil wells … Wherever the trees fell the moisture dried, the creeks ceased to flow, the river ran low, and at times the bed was dry. With unbroken sweep the winds of the west came, gathering force with every mile[,] and howled and raved; threatening to tear the shingles from the roof, blowing the surface from the soil in clouds of fine dust and rapidly changing everything … butterflies became scarce in proportion to the flowers, while no land yields over three crops of Indian relics.
Elnora’s scruples about “collecting” versus “gathering” are ultimately outweighed by the imperative to tell the world what’s being lost. Loss in turn necessitates collecting the rarities of the wild to preserve them in books and teachings.
This, too, was Stratton-Porter’s own mission. She presents the reader with jewels of life-forms and lifeways being lost. More world-builder than plotter, she lets characters like Pete Corson and Freckles, or the Swamp Angel and the Bird Woman, slip in and out, existing in their own world of which we catch but a glimpse, with no fussy summary of previous episodes to fill us in.
Even William Lyon Phelps could not withhold grudging admiration for Stratton-Porter’s acquaintance with “every bug, bird, and beast in the woods”; she “lives in a swamp,” he wrote, “arrays herself in man’s clothes, and sallies forth in all weathers to study the secrets of nature.” By knitting ecological fable together with sentimental romance, Stratton-Porter created an unexpectedly haunting tale, resonant with ethical questions still posed today: What is the human duty of care to the world around us? What is the difference between waste and wildness? When neither option can any longer be considered pure, how do we decide between intervention and letting things be?
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.
Featured image: Eric Vollrath Beetle Collection. Photograph by Justin Sewell / Flickr