When I was ten, I read a novel called A Girl of the Limberlost that made a deep impression on me. I assumed that its author, Gene Stratton-Porter, was a man, and gave the matter no further thought. I read the book, written in 1909, at a small New Hampshire girls’ camp—run by an elderly Congregationalist minister and his wife and itself past its prime—curled up on a worn velvet sofa in an outbuilding called the Lodge, whose walls were hung with Indian blankets and sepia photographs of girls in togas doing eurythmic dances in a forest clearing. It was 1944, and civilian America was undergoing a regimen of wartime austerity by which it was never more than mildly discommoded, but that imparted a sort of scratchy gray wool feel to the atmosphere. The lack of gas and the rationing of meat touched us campers—we had to walk the three and a half miles to the lake where we swam, and we ate a lot of creamed codfish—but did not register on us as deprivations.
For a child living in a culture of limited and somewhat monotonous resources, A Girl of the Limberlost—the story of an Indiana girl who starts out in severe material distress and ends up with everything a girl could possibly want—had special resonance. When I reread the book in the 1980s (I found it at a library sale), I felt that I was reentering an imaginative world whose grip on my own imagination had never loosened. The opening scene—Elnora Comstock’s arrival at a small-town high school dressed in rough farm clothes, in mortifying contrast to the “bevy of daintily clad, sweet-smelling things that might have been birds, or flowers, or possibly gaily dressed, happy young girls”—came back to me with the force of a seminal memory.
As the plot unfolded, almost every turn had a familiar ring. When a kindly neighbor named Wesley Stinton and his wife, Margaret, take pity on Elnora and go shopping at the local dry goods store for the clothes that will propel her into the ranks of the daintily clad, I could all but recite their purchases of fabric for “bright and pretty, but simple and plain” school dresses (“four pieces of crisp gingham, a pale blue, a pink, a gray with green stripes and a rich brown and blue plaid”), along with ribbons, belts, a hat, umbrella, shoes, boots, and toiletries. But my greatest shock of recognition was reserved for the final “neat and genteel” purchase of a brown leather lunch box:
Inside was a space for sandwiches, a little porcelain box for cold meat or fried chicken, another for salad, a glass with a lid which screwed on, held by a ring in a corner, for custard or jelly, a flask for tea or milk, a beautiful little knife, fork, and spoon fastened in holders, and a place for a napkin.
Margaret was almost crying over it.
So was I. As the novel progresses, the box appears and reappears, almost like a character, its ingenious compartments filled with delicious homemade food. But it is as an empty vessel that it makes its deepest impression. What better emblem of childhood than an object designed around a state of expectation? The good things not yet in the lunch box connect with deep feelings of childhood optimism. The high promise of the lunch box heralds the novel’s own happy denouement, and, perhaps, even its long life as a classic text of girlhood fulfillment.
Gene Stratton-Porter (originally Geneva) was a plump, bossy woman of enormous energy and enterprise, who is vaguely remembered today as a sentimental novelist and (incorrectly) as a sort of proto-environmentalist. She was born in 1863 on a farm in Wabash, Indiana, the unplanned last of twelve children, and began to write after her marriage to a druggist and banker named Charles Dorwin Porter, thirteen years her senior. Her early writings were studies of bird life, illustrated with black-and-white photographs that she took herself with great effort. When the nature writing did not bring in money, Stratton-Porter turned to fiction, and promptly became a best-selling author. By the time of her death in an automobile accident in 1924, her novels had sold more than seven million copies, and she herself was a millionaire.
Money wasn’t enough, however; Stratton-Porter wanted recognition as a literary artist. “I am desperately tired, as I have often told you,” she wrote to a friend, “of having the high-grade literary critics of the country give a second- and at times a third-class rating to my literary work because I would not write of complexes and rank materialism.”
In fact, materialism (or consumerism, as we now call it) is at the heart of Stratton-Porter’s literary enterprise. Her heroes and heroines burn with desire for money and goods, though their naked acquisitiveness is clothed in the homespun mantle of the Protestant work ethic: unless you work for it, you can’t have it. Accordingly, Elnora will accept the Stintons’ wonderful purchases only if she can repay them for each item with money she has earned. In her darkest hour (her awful clothes aren’t her only problem—she also needs money for tuition and books) she sees a sign in the window of a bank that leads her to the Bird Woman (a character based on the author), who is offering high cash prices for specimens of moths and butterflies. Elnora, as it happens, has hundreds of moths and butterflies stashed away in a wooden case in a swampy wilderness called the Limberlost (based on an actual area of that name). As Dreiser’s Caroline Meeber sells her body to men to escape poverty and acquire the pretty things she craves, so Elnora sells moths to the Bird Woman (who in turn sells them to foreign collectors). Elnora’s continuing quest for marketable lepidoptera permits her to become a popular, nicely dressed high school girl.
A Girl of the Limberlost is a Cinderella story whose wicked stepmother, in an interesting twist, is the heroine’s real mother. She is a crazy person, deranged by grief for a husband who was sucked into a quagmire before her eyes when she was pregnant with Elnora. Elnora grows up actively disliked by her mother —blamed for the death of the husband —and treated with harsh unkindness. The mother’s derangement extends to her finances—she believes herself poor, though her land is full of valuable trees and has oil beneath its surface. Cutting down timber and drilling for oil would permit her to provide comfortably for Elnora. But she refuses to allow it. “Cut down Robert’s trees! Tear up his land! Cover everything with horrid, greasy oil! I’ll die first!” she says.
Far from commending her for her environmental correctness, Stratton-Porter treats the mother’s refusal to lumber and drill as a symptom of her madness. In 1909, commercial exploitation of the wilderness was as unexceptionable as pig farming and beekeeping. When the ecosystem of the actual Limberlost, where Stratton-Porter did her work on birds, was destroyed by lumbering and oil drilling, she simply moved her nature operations elsewhere; there was still plenty of elsewhere. And when the mother in the novel learns that the husband for whom she has been grieving for eighteen years was a philanderer, who drowned while sneaking home from an assignation, she demonstrates her return to sanity by expressing her willingness to “sell some timber and put a few oil wells where they don’t show much.”
The unobjected-to destruction of the Limberlost also figured in Stratton-Porter’s previous novel, Freckles (1904), whose impoverished boy hero struggles as Elnora does for a place in the world of buying and selling and ends up a rich man with an Irish title. He was found on the streets of Chicago as an infant, with his right hand horrifyingly cut off, and, after a bleak childhood in an orphanage, arrives at the Limberlost, where a fatherly lumberman named McLean, a partner in a Grand Rapids lumber company, hires him to patrol the trail and guard the valuable trees that are soon to become Grand Rapids furniture:
Of the thousands who saw their faces reflected on the polished surfaces of that furniture and found comfort in its use, few there were to whom it suggested mighty forests and trackless swamps, and the man, big of soul and body, who cut his way through them, and with the eye of experience doomed the proud trees that were now entering the homes of civilization for service.
Freckles was the first of the consumerist fairy tales packaged as nature novels that brought Stratton-Porter to the forefront of early-twentieth-century American popular fiction. In it she performs the brilliant feat of fudging that permits the reader to feel ennobled by the natural world while rooting for its extirpation. It isn’t that Stratton-Porter’s feeling for nature wasn’t genuine. She once wrote to a reader who asked what church she belonged to that she didn’t go to church because “I prefer to continue in the relationship I feel is established between me and my Creator through a lifetime of nature study.” She went on:
I would advocate holding services out-of-doors in summer, giving as my reason that God so manifests Himself in the trees, flowers, and grass that to be among His creations puts one in a devotional frame of mind, gives better air to breathe, and puts worship on a natural basis, as it was in the beginning, when Christ taught the people beside the sea and in the open.
And yet when Freckles exclaims, “Do you suppose Heaven is any finer than that?” he is not talking about a forest glade in spring carpeted with violets and hepatica, but about the “polished floors, sparkling glass, and fine furnishings” of the Bird Woman’s house during a party, when it is “all ablaze with lights, perfumed with flowers, and filled with elegantly dressed people.”
After Freckles, Stratton-Porter never again so baldly celebrated the destruction of the natural environment in the name of “service.” Henceforth her entrepreneurial heroes and heroines confine their commodifications of nature to moths, medicinal herbs, and bees. But their attachment to the world of commerce grows ever stronger. In The Harvester (1911), Stratton-Porter’s greatest best-seller, and arguably her worst book, she achieves a kind of apotheosis of shopping. Her hero, David Langston, lives alone in the woods, like Thoreau, but unlike Thoreau he doesn’t prissily criticize the townspeople for their hapless acquisitiveness. He himself is constantly rushing into town to buy things. He has a good income from the medicinal herbs he gathers and sells to drug companies, and is fixing up a house he has built for the woman he plans to marry—a woman who appeared to him in a vision, and who presently appears in real life in the form of another hard-up girl.