1. About this Paper Page
2. About the Author and the Novel
3. The Structure and Genres of the Novel
4. The Concepts of Civilization
5. The Implications of Wilderness
1. About this Paper
The writing of this paper was initiated by a seminar on the concepts and implications of civilization and wilderness in American fiction. When Frederick Jackson Turner analyzed the significance of the Frontier in American history, he claimed that the true American character was not influenced by Europe, but built by the constant, strenuous interaction with and the heroically endured hardships of nature’s wildness, which presented itself to the pioneers along the frontier line up until 1890, when the frontier was considered officially closed (Turner 1893). Accordingly, nature and wilderness play an important role in American history, character, and literature. Wilderness visualized as trees or the woods in general, symbolizes a lawless place and, thus, not only allowing for the idea of beasts but also of criminals living there. The uncanny in this picture is obvious and allows for mystifications quite a lot. Besides symbolizing a place of evil, wilderness has also been a space for the individual, most evident in the Puritan idea of expelling non-conformist people, sinners, from the community and sending them to exile into the woods. In this regard, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and its adulterous protagonist Hester Prynne serve as a perfect example from literature.
In this instant it becomes clear, that wilderness and civilization serve as binary oppositions, that have been primarily favored as neatly separated categories in the Puritan thinking. Civilization has been praised as the ideal, refining, and humane state, which can only be realized in the community and its democratic institutions. The missionary thought of bringing civilization to the continent and, thus, taming the wilderness, evoked a new idea: that of Manifest Destiny. Pioneers turn into the chosen people, bringing light into the darkness of the wild continent.
The author, Matthias Groß, would like to note that the following pages were attempted to be structured according to those concepts. Trying to do so, however, the subject of the paper, Stewart O’Nan’s novel A Prayer for the Dying, proved itself to be challenging for such a proceeding. The concepts of civilization and wilderness can be found throughout the novel and to a certain degree can be deconstructed nonetheless, but they present themselves not in an exclusive, absolute, and categorical but rather in a confused and intertwined manner. The reason how and why this is will be made clear on the following pages when the novel is analyzed and placed in the context of wilderness and civilization in American fiction.
2. About the Author and the Novel
Stewart O’Nan, born in 1961 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a very prolific writer and among America’s most successful novelists. He started out studying aerospace engineering and working as a test engineer before getting into writing. As he claimed himself, it must have been the night shifts, in which he acquainted himself with the works of Albert Camus and Dostoevsky that eventually led him to experimenting with writing (Deutsche Welle 2005). Having published his first novel, Snow Angels, in 1993, and winning the William Faulkner Prize for this work of fiction, the Granta magazine named him one of the 20 best young American novelists only three years later. His numerous works are varying not only in setting, theme, and perspective but also in the protagonists they present. Critics have said he “’writes the way Edward Hopper painted,’ with spare, powerful language” (Deutsche Welle 2005). Indeed, one can imagine the linkage, be it in following the bizarre recapitulations of a dead row convict, who became a murderer by the strange incidents in her life that obviously resembled a road movie, or be it in trying to understand the horrific actions of a religious man, who is put on the edge of his faith and beliefs, facing total destruction and apocalyptic revelations around him.
Central to this paper is O’Nan’s novel A Prayer for the Dying, first published in 1999, as is its wretched protagonist Jacob Hansen. Initiated by a real-life account of diphtheria, Wisconsin Death Trip, O’Nan describes it as a “Christian existential horror book” and indeed, as a reader one gets a gothic feeling of being attracted to and at the same time disgusted by the novel (Wright 1999). By which means O’Nan achieves such creepiness will be indicated elsewhere in the paper. The novel is set in the small town of Friendship in rural Wisconsin just after the Civil War. Jacob Hansen is the town’s sheriff, preacher, and undertaker. When a dead soldier, a post-war tramp, is found dead at the fringes of the town, the novel presents initial worries and fears that some evil things are going to happen. In accordance to that feeling and while tending to the dead soldier, Jacob finds a mad, sick woman. He brings both of them into town, to have the doctor look at them. As it turns out, the soldier died of diphtheria and the woman is soon to follow. In his almost obsessive drive to be of help to everyone, and to live up to his ideals and decency in regard to the dead, Jacob does not (want to) realize, that he is instrumental for the spread of the disease throughout the town. When his own family, his baby daughter and his wife, become victims of the plague, the townspeople die like flies, and the town is put
under quarantine, madness and chaos instantly arise and furiously spread, as does the fire, which is menacing at the gates of the town. At the end, Jacob remains the sole survivor of that dreadful horror.