Authors as Landscapers

The most crucial elements of most literary works are the characters, plot, and quality of prose. But another important element is the landscape: where things happen, what that place looks like, the mood that locale might create, and how that place might affect what’s going on with the characters and plot.

And when some of that aforementioned prose is used to describe “the scenery,” the description can be quite evocative in the right authorial hands.

Landscape is a key part of Lee Child’s 61 Hours, a Jack Reacher crime thriller I just read. Reacher unexpectedly finds himself stuck in a bone-chillingly cold South Dakota town — and the bleak, wide-open spaces in and near that town help establish the novel’s spare, tense, scary, lonely, downbeat vibe.

South of South Dakota — in Oklahoma — is where John Steinbeck depicts the parched, dust storm-decimated farm country the impoverished Joads are forced to leave in The Grapes of Wrath. When they finally arrive in California after an arduous journey, they are struck by the Golden State’s lushness and beauty — only to find that the oppressive rich control just about everything.

That contrast of beauty and misery also crops up in Herman Melville’s first novel Typee, in which the protagonist is stranded on a gorgeous South Seas island where some ensuing events turn ugly. (Another contrast is the fact that the good but not great Typee sold many more copies than Moby-Dick during Melville’s lifetime.)

Then there are the rolling, moonlit, windswept moors in Wuthering Heights that do so much to help create the novel’s wild, eerie mood. When Emily Bronte’s characters trudge through that terrain, their destinations usually aren’t happy ones.

Rivers? Literature has a few, with perhaps the most famous being the mighty Mississippi in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Also memorable is the Tennessee River in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, whose titular protagonist lives in a houseboat. The Tennessee is lovely in parts, but also speaks to the poverty and despair of some characters — as when a suicide victim is pulled from the water.

Mountains? Glad you asked! In Lost Horizon, various characters are flown to (the fictional) Shangri-La amid Tibet’s majestic peaks. That towering, remote, dream-like setting is a big reason why many readers find James Hilton’s novel so mesmerizing. Even more towering are the peaks in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

Swamps? Mentioned in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Jungles? Parts of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast. The desert? Um…Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio.

Changes in scenery when traveling? A good example, in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, is when Brit-living-near-Boston Howard revels in the no-snow look of England when he goes there during the winter.

A landscape can of course be urban, too. In The Marble Faun, Rome is almost a living, breathing character as Nathaniel Hawthorne describes its beautiful but hectic 19th-century present and its beautiful but spooky ancient past. The excitement and claustrophobia of a big city like Chicago comes through in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. An amazing visual image in Jack Finney’s Time and Again is the Statue of Liberty’s torch-holding arm in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, where that arm was actually displayed from 1876 to 1882 — before the full statue arose in New York Harbor.

Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand shows an English town’s landscape in both the populated 1900s and less-populated 1300s, depending on the century protagonist Dick Young mentally occupies in his drugged mind.

Other time-travel novels, such as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, hauntingly picture future civilizations with architecture in partial or full ruin.

Science-fiction books, such as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, feature the unfamiliar yet at times sort of familiar landscapes of other worlds besides Earth.

There are also devastating views of battlefields — during and after the fighting — in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality, and many other novels.

Landscapes in literature can also convey a strong sense of nostalgia, as with James Fenimore Cooper’s descriptions of New York’s unspoiled 18th-century woods in novels such as The Deerslayer. Some of those forests were already getting cut down when Cooper was writing in the 19th century — and undeveloped areas are of course much more scarce today.

What are some of your favorite fictional works featuring memorable landscapes?

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I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.