Desert – Garden – Desert Prime: The Great American Desert and Other Western Myths


Please register via email at: lieber[at]

You’ll be able to join the class in-person or via Zoom, depending on the number of registrations.

On May 17, we will discuss environmental historian William Cronon’s 1992 article „A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,“ which discusses the different ways historians have written about the Dust Bowl, the long drought that struck the United States in the 1930s. I’ll provide you with a PDF of the text upon request.


Course description:

According to some scientists, the North American Southwest may be in the early stages of a megadrought that could last for centuries and turn again into the so-called “Great American Desert.” The latter term was coined by early 19thcentury explorers, who encountered a vast dry and inhospitable terrain—seemingly unfit for “civilized” life—while moving westwards. While the myth of this desert continued to occupy settlers and writers, it eventually was replaced by a more powerful myth: the Garden into which Americans would turn the “virgin land” they encountered in the West. The settlers would, it was believed, master nature and transform it into a paradise promising wealth and abundance. The myth of the desert, however, did not disappear. Repeatedly, when the project to create a Garden began to appear to destructive of nature, writers like Mary Hunter Austin or Edward Abbey insisted on the beauty of an allegedly untamed desert.

Drawing on the work of American Studies scholars such as Henry Nash Smith or Leo Marx, this seminar will first offer an introduction to significant myths that were articulated and rearticulated by Americans in the course of Westward expansion. Moreover, we will familiarize ourselves with ecocritical approaches in literary and cultural studies, Finally, we will analyze a number of exemplary representations of the desert in various media in order to learn about the way in which changing socio-historical, political, and economic contexts have shaped the way American writers and artists have employed the images of the “Great American Desert” or the “Garden” to reflect on the relationship between nature and culture.

Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, Seminarhaus, SH 5.105Max-Horkheimer-Str. 4 60323 FrankfurtGermany