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Green Pastures of Plenty: Ecocriticism and Citizenship in Bound for Glory

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Abstract:

Woody Guthrie’s semi-fictional 1943 autobiography Bound for Glory has long been examined as a protest work, a vivid chronicle of the Dust Bowl, and a proto-Beat travelogue. What has been overlooked up until now is its power and relevance as an ecocritical text. What Bound for Glory advocates, ultimately, is neither Romantic pastoralism nor a “green” Utopia, but rather a reciprocal sustainability between working people and the land.

To illustrate the stark dialectic between sustainability and rapaciousness, citizen and subject, Guthrie employs the trope of the Ghost Town. Using his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma as a synecdoche for the nation, Guthrie lambasts the civic irresponsibility of oil companies, who pollute the environment with their hit-or-miss wildcat drilling, deplete the region of its natural resources, and leave despair and economic disaster in their wake. As the book’s protagonist “Woody” wanders a seemingly endless highway of lifeless Ghost Towns abandoned by oil speculators, Guthrie shows us fear in a townful of dust.

When his journeys take him West out of oil country into California, Guthrie discovers a similar system of exploitation toward migrant fruit pickers. Guthrie, whose guitar was emblazoned with the legend “This Machine Kills Fascists,” draws clear parallels between the European fascist and the American corporation that strips the most vulnerable laborers of their identity and rights. As migrant workers are herded into makeshift camps amid squalid conditions, they are systematically robbed of the three necessities William Morris outlines in his 1884 essay “Art and Socialism”: honorable and fitting work, decency of surroundings, and leisure. With little recourse but to sacrifice their health and overtax their land for a substandard wage, the migrant-citizens in Bound for Glory still cling to hopes of recovery, tied not simply to wealth and land ownership, but responsibility and land stewardship.

Depicting the Depression era as a crossroads, with the nation’s ideals tested by hard times, Guthrie appropriates the rhapsodic cadences of Whitman and Steinbeck to express optimism and dignity in story and song. Neither the Ghost Town nor the migrant camp defines America so long as Guthrie and his chorus of characters commit themselves to working the land judiciously and productively. Bound for Glory deserves reconsideration and a fresh reading as we reach another crossroads, as issues such as environmental protection, immigration/migration, and the rebuilding of New Orleans demand that we find common ground at a place where citizenship and stewardship meet.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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MLA Citation:

Sutton, Matthew. "Green Pastures of Plenty: Ecocriticism and Citizenship in Bound for Glory" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct 16, 2008 <Not Available>. 2013-12-13 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244601_index.html>

APA Citation:

Sutton, M. D. , 2008-10-16 "Green Pastures of Plenty: Ecocriticism and Citizenship in Bound for Glory" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2013-12-13 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244601_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: Woody Guthrie’s semi-fictional 1943 autobiography Bound for Glory has long been examined as a protest work, a vivid chronicle of the Dust Bowl, and a proto-Beat travelogue. What has been overlooked up until now is its power and relevance as an ecocritical text. What Bound for Glory advocates, ultimately, is neither Romantic pastoralism nor a “green” Utopia, but rather a reciprocal sustainability between working people and the land.

To illustrate the stark dialectic between sustainability and rapaciousness, citizen and subject, Guthrie employs the trope of the Ghost Town. Using his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma as a synecdoche for the nation, Guthrie lambasts the civic irresponsibility of oil companies, who pollute the environment with their hit-or-miss wildcat drilling, deplete the region of its natural resources, and leave despair and economic disaster in their wake. As the book’s protagonist “Woody” wanders a seemingly endless highway of lifeless Ghost Towns abandoned by oil speculators, Guthrie shows us fear in a townful of dust.

When his journeys take him West out of oil country into California, Guthrie discovers a similar system of exploitation toward migrant fruit pickers. Guthrie, whose guitar was emblazoned with the legend “This Machine Kills Fascists,” draws clear parallels between the European fascist and the American corporation that strips the most vulnerable laborers of their identity and rights. As migrant workers are herded into makeshift camps amid squalid conditions, they are systematically robbed of the three necessities William Morris outlines in his 1884 essay “Art and Socialism”: honorable and fitting work, decency of surroundings, and leisure. With little recourse but to sacrifice their health and overtax their land for a substandard wage, the migrant-citizens in Bound for Glory still cling to hopes of recovery, tied not simply to wealth and land ownership, but responsibility and land stewardship.

Depicting the Depression era as a crossroads, with the nation’s ideals tested by hard times, Guthrie appropriates the rhapsodic cadences of Whitman and Steinbeck to express optimism and dignity in story and song. Neither the Ghost Town nor the migrant camp defines America so long as Guthrie and his chorus of characters commit themselves to working the land judiciously and productively. Bound for Glory deserves reconsideration and a fresh reading as we reach another crossroads, as issues such as environmental protection, immigration/migration, and the rebuilding of New Orleans demand that we find common ground at a place where citizenship and stewardship meet.

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