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Conlogue refutes the critical tendency to treat farm-centered texts as pastorals, arguing that such an approach overlooks the diverse ways these works explore human relationships to the land. His readings of works by Willa Cather, Ruth Comfort Mitchell, John Steinbeck, Luis Valdez, Ernest Gaines, Jane Smiley, Wendell Berry, and others reveal that, through agricultural narratives, authors have addressed such wide-ranging subjects as the impact of technology on people and land, changing gender roles, environmental destruction, and the exploitation of migrant workers. In short, Conlogue offers fresh perspectives on how writers confront issues whose site is the farm but whose impact reaches every corner of American society.
William Conlogue is assistant professor of English at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania
In Working the Garden, William Conlogue provides readers with an exciting interdisciplinary study of farming literature. (Patrick D. Murphy, Indiana University of Pennsylvania)
Conlogue explores American literature's long engagement with agricultural issues, defining new ways of thinking about farming and writing. (Frieda Knobloch, University of Wyoming)
Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
Agriculture No Longer Counts
In a Milestone of Sorts, U.S. to Drop Farm Resident Census
In a symbol of a massive national transformation, the federal government . . . is dropping its long-standing survey of farm residents, a striking reminder that the family farm occupies a diminished place on the American landscape.
—Barbara Vobejda, Washington Post, 9 October 1993
The numbers are as staggering as they are familiar: in 1860 farmers accounted for 60 percent of the American labor force; in 1910, 30.5 percent; and by 1990, 2.3 percent (Fite, American Farmers8; Howard 33). Now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there are too few to count. And as farmers have disappeared, so has good farmland. Between 1982 and 1992 the United States lost nearly two million hectares of cropland, an area larger than New Jersey (Gardner 6). According to the American Farmland Trust, three thousand acres of farmland disappear to urban sprawl each day (Fact Sheet). Worldwatch observers point out that 87 percent of U.S. vegetables and 86 percent of its fruit are grown in areas of rapid urban growth (Gardner 16). Meanwhile, farm herbicides contaminate the drinking water of fourteen million Americans (Lee A3), animal confinement systems pollute hundreds of rivers and streams ("EPA"; "Why the Fish"; "Rural Opposition"), and food poisoning is on the rise as more and more food is recalled by food processors ("Hamburger"). In the 1980s, while several million Americans living in poverty were malnourished, cropland lay idle, farms were sold, and distraught farmers killed bankers, neighbors, and themselves (Lamar; Ristau 16). In the 1990s mad-cow disease entered our vocabulary, along with biotechnology, bovine growth hormone, and Olestra. Archer-Daniels-Midland, the self-proclaimed "supermarket to the world," pled guilty to price-fixing and was fined $100 million (Eichenwald A1). In 1999 black farmers won a class-action racial discrimination case they brought against the U.S. Department of Agriculture ("Judge Approves"). Whereas only a few years ago farmers could see their land with their own eyes, today they use satellite global positioning systems (Feder, "For Amber" D4). American agriculture is high-tech, big business, complex—and fragile.
Is small-scale family farming the best farming? Or is industrial agribusiness? The debate has raged in the United States since the early twentieth century; its historical, economic, and political aspects have been investigated again and again. Strangely, no one has ever fully explored the literary response, an odd circumstance since literature is the place where the debate is most fully alive and where the arguments are most clearly framed. The key questions are: How do American writers understand the debate? How have they seen agriculture implicated in issues of race, gender, class, and the environment? What habits of mind do they explore—and use—to write about farming? What rhetorical and literary means do they employ to describe farming and its accelerating disappearance? This book explores answers to these questions.
My analysis of a wide range of farm-centered texts illustrates that writers have been documenting America's "massive national transformation" all along. As a body of thought, these works investigate with unflinching directness how farming still feeds and reflects its cultural contexts even as it passes from the national landscape; nostalgia and pastoral assumptions find less room in writers' depictions of farm realities than they do in critics' comments about those depictions. Because the dominant urban society tends to view rural areas as pastoral retreats or as country backwaters, literary scholars assume that writers explore farming by imagining or reworking the agrarian myth, with its self-sufficient family farmer or his country cousin, the preindustrial commercial farmer. I argue that this is simply not the case. I contend that writers articulate political and social justice positions on an urban-defined agriculture whose central figure is the twentieth-century progressive farmer, the man or woman who farms according to an industrial model. In doing so, writers refute pastoral assumptions about rural life that obscure social upheavals in what many Americans too often believe is an unchanging countryside—upheavals that are national in their repercussions.
Why study key cultural issues from the perspective of the farm text? To define the debates, one must study them, literally, from the ground up. Literature is shaped by, and in turn shapes, the culture within which it evolves. Writers lay bare the language people use to perceive an otherwise chaotic reality; the best writers heighten our awareness of the metaphors we use to understand that reality and the tropes and figures we use to organize it into something we can communicate to others. Agriculture is a physical organization of the same reality—it bounds, arranges, and systematically transforms nature into something we can eat, wear, or otherwise utilize. Both are lived—and enlivening—practices that satisfy our most basic hungers. About knowing and defining the world, both do work in the world, and how each goes about its work tells us much about our soul. Just as different cultures evolve different sign systems to facilitate communication, so those same cultures create different farm systems to produce and distribute human sustenance. And, for good or ill, just as English is threatening to dominate world conversation, so American industrial agribusiness is coming to dominate world food production.
Writers aware of industrial agriculture's hegemony make connections among language, history, and farming. Jane Smiley, for example, offers this epigraph in A Thousand Acres(1991): "The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other. We were marked by the seasonal body of earth, by the terrible migrations of people, by the swift turn of a century, verging on change never before experienced on this greening planet" (from LeSueur 39). This cyclical imagery introduces a novel—modeled on King Lear—that probes "the loop of poison" in a farm family defined by a history of class and gender discrimination, indiscriminate violence, and incest (370). This family's story, Smiley argues, is America's story.
Unearthing the Earth Worker in American Literature
Scholars have long read American literature through a pastoral prism. Critics generally agree that the pastoral is a literary mode marked by a protagonist's retreat into a "green world" to escape the pressures of complex urban life. In a rural or wilderness landscape, the character's interaction with the natural world restores him, and, ideally, he returns to the city better able to cope with the stresses of civilization. In a more complex pastoral, the character sees through the illusion of his turn to nature and finds himself newly aware of his fallen state in an ambiguous world. Both kinds of pastoral privilege the urban over the rural; the rural is valued only as a touchstone for the cultured, urban, therefore, civilized human. In many accounts, the pastoral mode represents the yearnings of all humankind in its nostalgic hopes for the return of a Golden Age or, at least, a simpler, happier way of life. But pastoral readings offer only an incomplete understanding of American farm literature. At once idealizing and devaluing rural life, pastoral readings divert attention from the ways in which farm literature grapples with industrial farming and the host of issues that it raises.
Several of the most significant studies of American literature and culture found their arguments on versions of the pastoral impulse. For example, D. H. Lawrence claims in his groundbreaking Studies in Classic American Literature(1923) that American writers reflect the American need to flee civilization, "the old parenthood of Europe" (4). Building on Lawrence's work, Leslie Fiedler asserts in Love and Death in the American Novel(1960) that American writers seek escape in the wilderness from a feminized civilization represented by town life (14, 26). Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land(1950) articulates the American "Garden of the World" myth whose central figure is the "idealized frontier farmer" (123). Smith points out that "the image of an agricultural paradise in the West, embodying group memories of an earlier, a simpler and, it was believed, a happier state of society, long survived as a force in American thought and politics" (124). In his widely influential The Machine in the Garden(1964) Leo Marx explores American literature through a pastoral framework, asserting that "again and again our writers have introduced the same overtones, depicting the machine as invading the peace of an enclosed space, a world set apart, or an area somehow made to evoke a feeling of encircled felicity" (29). Rereading the pastoral from a feminist perspective in Lay of the Land(1975), Annette Kolodny argues that at the center of a "uniquely American pastoral vocabulary . . . lay a yearning to know and to respond to the landscape as feminine" (8). In The Environmental Imagination(1995) Lawrence Buell locates his argument within this tradition, noting that scholars have long had a "critical urge" to explain American literature and culture in terms of the pastoral mode (33).
But when the pastoral is brought to bear on farm texts, critics sometimes too easily leap from farmer to shepherd, from farm to garden. A case in point is Willa Cather's O Pioneers!Attention to its pastoral elements dominates scholarly attention to the novel. Forgetting for a moment the actual work Alexandra does to create her farms, critics often imagine her connection with the land in idyllic terms. John Murphy, for instance, asserts: "Like the generating light God made to govern the day, the sympathy evident in Alexandra's radiant face has made the wild land prolific" (116-17). John H. Randall argues that O Pioneers! portrays "the Garden of Eden . . . as existing in that short interval of time between the passing of the pioneers and the completion of settlement by the farmers" (74-75). Similarly, Susan Rosowski claims that the novel's narrator "imaginatively transforms Nebraska into a New World Eden" (Voyage144). Though nodding to how Alexandra does business, Janis Stout points out that her "farming methods nevertheless draw on a 'feminine' spirit of cooperation with the land and intuitive understanding of her animals' needs, quite different from her father's method of trying to master or 'tame' his 'wild land'" (102). Most recently, Mary Paniccia Carden explores how O Pioneers! supplements the "self-made man" in the American romance of nation-building with a self-made woman who "understands the prairie as a growing and vital entity unto itself and honors what it is naturally inclined to grow rather than forcing incongruent production on it" ("Creative Fertility" 279, 281). These are valuable and often brilliant readings, but I believe that there is more to the story. As I argue in chapter 2, the novel is less about pastoral unions with the land than it is about celebrating industrial farming.
Scholars who examine the pastoral impulse in American literature give us much to think about, but the critical preoccupation with the pastoral obscures the possibility of other readings. Whereas many scholars nod to Virgil's Eclogues in reading American literature, I root my analysis in Virgil's Georgics, a four-book poem that celebrates farmwork. Best read, like the Eclogues, as a text that represents a particular vision of human life, the poem occupies a position midway between the heroic ideals of Virgil's martial Aeneid and the happy leisure of his pastoral Eclogues. The Georgics outlines a mode of thought necessary to sustain human life: hard work is inevitable and creative (Book 1, lines 121-36), variety should rule (Book 2, lines 84-109), human life is communal (Book 1, lines 300-305), humans ought to heed nature's patterns (Book 1, lines 50-53). An "organic patterned poem," the Georgics' "whole moral fabric" rests on the "old-fashioned yeoman" who "must work for himself" (Wilkinson 106, 54).
Whereas the pastoral mode stresses retreat and return and the fantasy of living in full communion with nature, the georgic explores the lived landscapes of rural experience. It is here that our ambiguous and contradictory relationships with nature are most obvious. This may be why, in depicting as it does the "complexity of the local" in everyday life, the Georgics offers "for the first time extended natural description" (Heinzelman 188, 205). Suggesting the complicated ties we all have to the natural world, the poem represents farmers as "sustaining" and "helping" but also as "aggressive and destructive" (Perkell 37-38). "Marked by a sense of limits," the georgic mode understands history as "embedded, repetitive, and inescapable" (Feingold 69; Heinzelman 184). But pastoral nostalgia finds little room in the georgic: "For nostalgia for a past Golden Age, Virgil substitutes the vision of cooperative effort to bring about a Golden Age in the future" (Low 138-39; see Perkell 20). To represent the creation of a better world, the georgic emphasizes "the performance of equitable labor for the common welfare" (Low 18). Its yoking of justice and hard work prompts an important question: "How does [work] remain virtuous and under what conditions do sharpened human wits continue in their devotion to civilizing toil rather than aggressive greed?" (Wilkinson 59; Feingold 24). Wrestling with this question, the poem leads the reader to an "identification with the experience of the other and thus generates a moral community"—one that understands the "vulnerability and weakness of all human enterprise" (Perkell 20). In imagining varieties of work, the georgic argues for the transcendence of "social disparities," working with and within nature, and for diversity—of plants, animals, and humans (Perkell 20).
An intersection of intellectual/abstract and bodily/concrete ways of knowing, the georgic vision is especially significant today, a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of how we are changing the landscapes we live within and depend upon—and how those changes change us. Literally, georgic means earth worker, farmer. To unearth the earth worker means to realize that we are all, whether we like it or not, working the earth: We all eat, and through us passes the work of others. To unearth the earth worker in American literature means to realize that our national literature has long confronted basic georgic questions: How have we been at work in the world? How have we enacted on the ground what we think in our heads? What world do we want to create or maintain? How can we do it responsibly?
I offer my argument as a contribution to contemporary ecocriticism. Until recently, literary criticism was primarily concerned with literary depictions of human culture and not nature, with literary varieties of human social relations and not our ties to the natural world. Since the mid-1970s, a growing body of scholars has been studying in earnest "the relationship between literature and the physical environment" (Glotfelty xviii). Unfortunately, discussions of this connection focus overwhelmingly on wild nature, not on farm landscapes. As a recent example, the board of directors of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment was initially lukewarm about holding the June 2000 Food and Farming in American Life and Letters Symposium (Wallace). Did the board fail to see a connection between nature and farming? Or is the wild poetic and farmland merely prosaic? If we do not pay close attention to how rural landscapes are imagined, what chance do we have of renewing our living ties to the natural world? To ignore this ground is to pave over the complexity of the human/nature mosaic.
Though many critics today seek to redefine the pastoral, I suggest that stopping there will only undermine efforts to develop a truly complex ecocritical reading of American literature (Love 234-35; Buell 52; L. Marx, "Pastoralism" 66). The argument that humans are within nature and not outside it will fail unless more ecocritics accept that humans are in a unique position: "We are, whether we like it or not, the lords of creation; true humility consists not in pretending that we aren't" (F. Turner 50). Like many environmentalists, some ecocritics are reluctant to ask georgic questions, I believe, because questions about the uses of nature imply for them complicity with forces that seek to erase or dominate the natural world (R. White 172). I disagree. Georgic readings examine—in all its forms and consequences—our work record, the history of the intersections we have made among human work, human imagination, and the physical environment. Our current arguments about American literature do not adequately address how questions about work, community, technological restraint, and human uses of nature changed with the introduction of an urban-defined industrial agriculture that has erased the pastoral's central tension between city and country. Rather than wishing it away, American writers have been wrestling with industrial agriculture and its assumptions about places, animals, plants, and people, assumptions that are running rural landscapes to ruin.
The georgic is especially important now because the pastoral posits a distinction between rural and urban that no longer holds. The redefinition of farming on an urban industrial model—begun in the late nineteenth century—is nearly complete; the country and city now possess a "shared consciousness" (R. Williams 295). In less than a hundred and fifty years, we have removed ourselves from a basic awareness of how we maintain ourselves on the planet; we have wiped from our cultural memory an awareness of what it means to work with the land. Separated from our sources of sustenance, we no longer understand that our lives depend on a few inches of topsoil and some regular rainfall. This disconnection is a large part of everyone's worldview, even those who should know better. What else explains the spectacle of farmers on food stamps during the 1980s Farm Crisis?
My work is significant, I believe, because it ties the nation's most life-sustaining activity—food production—to how it thinks through its most pressing and potentially explosive issues: widening environmental degradation, escalating racial tensions, intensifying class divisions, and increasing pressures on maintaining safe food and water supplies. With food production now concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, we should not be surprised if these issues fray social and ecological fabrics even more in the coming century as more and more people worldwide scramble for less and less available and higher-priced food. Efforts to sustain ecologically friendly ways to live and farm will be damaged from the start unless we can imagine new ways to see how writers have been concerned with food and farming all along. The georgic asserts that the human heart beats in tune with the rest of creation; it offers the seed of a new way to read.
My argument, then, is a georgic one. I believe that American writers are far more interested in debating how best to work and transform the American "garden" they find themselves in than they are in simply contemplating it or wishing for an ideal state of innocence. The pastoral mode is concerned too much with the contemplation of nature rather than with its transformation, with leisure rather than work, with the past rather than the present and future, with idyllic stasis rather than change. I contend that writers ask how best to use (or not use) the machine in the garden, how the garden and its people are affected by the adoption of that machine, and how much it might cost us, as human beings and as members of the biosphere, to deploy that machine. The best way to study these complex issues is by examining the ground where they are most carefully connected and most fully imagined—the literary farm text.
The dominant definition of American agriculture through the nineteenth century was a "literary agrarianism derived originally from classic antiquity" (Johnstone 116). An eighteenth-century intellectual and political construction, this literary agrarianism was decidedly pastoral (L. Marx, Machine126; Hofstadter 25). Concerned with actual farmwork only tangentially, its principles prescribe that farmers—and they are always male—are virtuous, hard-working, independent, happy, neighborly, family-sustaining, and faithful to the republic and to God, all because they work closely with nature. Standing behind this was the Old World hope that the New World was a second chance, a new Garden of Eden.
Two important eighteenth-century intellectual ideas that influenced American agrarianism were "the theoretical teaching of the French Physiocrats that agriculture is the primary source of all wealth, [and] the growing tendency of radical writers . . . to make the farmer a republican symbol instead of depicting him in pastoral terms as a peasant virtuously content with his humble status in a stratified society" (H. N. Smith 128-29). In American agrarianism, not only is the farmer symbolic of the new republic but also he is morally superior to his urban countrymen. Thomas Jefferson made this claim explicit in his Notes on the State of Virginia(1787): "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue" (217; see Hofstadter 27-29). Jefferson's yeoman, a self-sufficient man free from "the casualties and caprice of customers," owned a small piece of land that he and his family farmed to provide for themselves the essentials of life—food, clothing, shelter—plus surplus commodities for export to the "mobs of great cities" in Europe in exchange for manufactured goods (Notes217). This ideal farmer, who was to be the backbone of the United States, was a man interested mainly in preserving his family's presence on the land through several generations. Working hard within the compass of the natural world and feeling a spiritual as well as a physical kinship to nature, the yeoman held dear those virtues that the new nation would rely on for its prosperity: frugalness, hard work, charity toward others, and love of God and country. Politically motivated, Jefferson's espousal of the agrarian myth was a defense of a national economy based on an agricultural model whose foundation was an independent husbandry that would never be at the mercy of capitalist businessmen or entrepreneurial landlords.
Jefferson later rethought this definition of the ideal farmer (Letter 549; Baum 12), but the myth he articulated in his Notes persisted into the next century because it flattered farmers, who were the majority of the nation's population, and because it perpetuated an ancient vision of rural life that extends at least as far back as Virgil (Hofstadter 29-30). One legacy Jefferson left the nineteenth century was that farming, and more generally, country life, was to be represented in politics and in literature according to his agrarian ideal. For example, advocates of the 1862 Homestead Act "sincerely believed that the yeoman depicted in the myth of the garden was an accurate representation of the common man of the Northwest, and this belief was evidently shared by thousands of voters" (H. N. Smith 172). As the century wore on, however, the agrarian myth retreated to the minds of those who guided national thinking about farming, many of whom were not farmers (Fite, American Farmers10). Literary scholars who write about farm texts today may be the final, innocent defenders of this agrarian ideal.
The Old Agriculture
Despite late-nineteenth-century political and literary rhetoric, farmers did not simply accept the agrarian myth: "Judging from the evidence provided by the agricultural press, not only did farmers fail to believe the agrarian myth; they were not even sure what the agrarian myth was" (Abbott 48). By 1870 at least, many farmers understood themselves to be businessmen rather than Jeffersonian yeomen (Rome 38). But, though they were commercialists before 1900, the vast majority of farmers were preindustrial when the new century dawned (Danbom 12). In advocating the industrialization of the farm, early-twentieth-century agricultural reformers dismissed the preindustrial farmer as the "old farmer" (Adams 11).
Typical nineteenth-century farmers were independent and to some degree self-sufficient (Adams 14; Fite, American Farmers3). Living mainly on small, diversified farms, preindustrial farmers grew a variety of crops and raised several kinds of animals to supply family needs first. A "jack-of-all-trades," many farmers spent their days working with handheld tools, such as hoes, scythes, and broadcast seeders (Adams 11). Though after the Civil War horse-drawn machinery was increasingly used, most farmers had few machines and what they did have they kept for as long as possible and usually repaired themselves. As late as the 1930s, "the three-mile-an-hour gait of the horse established the speed and power of most field work on American farms" (Fite, American Farmers66).
The preindustrial farm community exchanged machinery, labor, and knowledge in both noncommercial and commercial ways. The barter system dominated many places and times; farmers exchanged foodstuffs for manufactured goods and often swapped labor and machinery with neighbors. Specialty crops sold to consumers in towns and cities depended on the availability of transportation, but as transportation improved and as more laborsaving machinery was introduced, regional specialization became common. Though farm size grew, the number of acres generally remained manageable by a single farm family.
Farm labor was done primarily by family members. Husbands were usually decision makers and the principal fieldworkers. Children did chores appropriate to their ages. Wives worked mainly in the home, though they were ready to do fieldwork when necessary. Hired help was often someone familiar with the family and with farming and lived in the farmer's home. Under constant threat from weather changes, work hazards, and market prices, farm life was difficult. Work hours were long; the work itself was often monotonous and physically demanding (Fite, American Farmers11). Farming was no life of repose; nature was an exacting taskmaster. This garden did not take care of itself.
Many contemporary observers believed that the late nineteenth century's accelerating exodus of rural youth to cities was a direct result of a lack of intellectual stimulation on farms (Fite, American Farmers12). Because of relatively poor transportation and communication networks, most nineteenth-century farmers were isolated from the amenities of urban life and "suffered from low social status" as a result (Fite, American Farmers11). Many Americans viewed farming as something that anyone could do and defined the successful rural youth as someone who left the farm to take up a profession in law, medicine, or government.
Suspicious of "book farming," the preindustrial farmer relied on inherited farm knowledge (Adams 69). Farmers often dismissed the advice of scientists and other experts who worked in the agricultural colleges established during and after the 1850s. Well into the twentieth century many farmers continued to plant and harvest by the phases of the moon, and few kept track of their farms in any systematic, businesslike manner. Looking back in 1897, the Cultivator and Country Gentleman noted that "such accounts as were kept were as often scrawled on the barn door as entered in a more formal ledger" ("Business"). Most farmers remained fiercely independent in attitude, even as they lobbied the federal government for help—an increasing occurrence in the late nineteenth century.
As the century ended, more people were calling attention to a paradigm shift within agriculture, from understanding farming as a way of life to understanding it as a business. In November 1897 the editor of the Cultivator and Country Gentleman took note that the urban Scribner's Magazine had recently published contrasting visions of farming in back-to-back articles. William Allen White's piece, "The Business of a Wheat Farm," part seven of a series entitled "The Conduct of Great Businesses," reports on great wheat farms in North Dakota; Walter A. Wyckoff's "A Farm-Hand," the fourth installment in his series "The Workers," describes a typical nineteenth-century preindustrial farm in Pennsylvania. Promoting White's definition of agriculture, the Cultivator and Country Gentleman editor points out to his farm readers: "One who has left farming alone, or only dabbled in it, is apt to associate the occupation with ideas of leisurely activity of an old-world sort, rather than with the ceaseless tumult and bustle, the whirr of machinery, the minute and painstaking calculations and book-keeping that characterize business enterprise" ("Business"). He then quotes parts of White's article to illustrate North Dakota farms' huge size, their costs and profits, farm laborers, and machinery—descriptions that were worlds away from the agriculture depicted in Wyckoff's piece and from the experience of most American farmers at the time.
William Allen White describes an industrial agriculture: the "farmer of to-day" is a "capitalist, cautious and crafty . . . an operator of industrial affairs, daring and resourceful" (531). He reports that owners of the great wheat farms do not work the land themselves; they hire managers and skilled, all-male work crews (538). Laborers and managers work in rigidly defined social hierarchies in which they are housed and fed separately (538-40). A typical Dakota wheat farm has three divisions of several thousand acres, each managed by a superintendent who purchases trainloads of machinery (538, 545). On such farms, farming is big business.
Wyckoff portrays a preindustrial farm. Working his way west as an unskilled laborer, Wyckoff was hired in September 1891 by a Mr. Hill, "one of the best farmers of the neighborhood" (554). Hill's family farm, near Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is self-sufficient in its diversity. Hill grows corn and apples and raises cows and pigs and has no hired man until Wyckoff. That Hill keeps his plows and "other farming tools" under cover suggests to Wyckoff "the active, thrifty strength of wise economy" (554). Work on the Hill farm is divided by gender: Hill's wife and daughter work at the house while Hill is in the fields. But the distinction is not absolute: the women work with Hill in the barn at milking time. In a typical act of preindustrial farm cooperation, Hill and his brother, who owns a neighboring farm, work together to rebuild a pond dam.
Hired man and employer are social equals on this farm. While working for Hill, Wyckoff is not conscious of a "boss [who] stands guard over me as a dishonest workman" (555). When Hill heartily approves of Wyckoff's work on the dam, Wyckoff feels a "sense of proprietorship" that compensates as much for his hard work as his pay (556). The men then work side by side picking apples, which Wyckoff enjoys as "Arcadian in its joyous simplicity" (556). As they work, they become "chummy"; they discuss a range of topics—everything from English politics to Roman architecture (556-57). Only because there is no room in the house, Wyckoff sleeps in the barn, but he eats his meals at the family's table (555-56). After supper on Sunday, Hill and Wyckoff relax and converse in the front yard (558). On farms like this one, farming is a way of life.
The New Agriculture
Though always attuned to new scientific and technological advances, farmers confronted a new phenomenon in the late nineteenth century: an urban re-creation of farming on an industrial model. The farmer's redefinition was imagined and promoted by people removed from agriculture, just as Jefferson's agrarianism had been. But now professional experts rather than statesmen or poets defined farming; to feed and provide labor for the late-nineteenth-century industrial economy, experts convinced farmers to industrialize. Their ring of authority was unmistakable. Couching their beliefs in rationally discovered principles, these reformers argued that the industrial farmer was the final step in a natural evolution of the agriculturalist from pioneer to manufacturer.
Farm industrialization is not simply synonymous with the use of machinery or scientific methods; preindustrial farmers used machinery—horse-drawn seeders, for example—and scientific methods such as fertilizers and selective breeding. Agricultural industrialization requires farmers to conceive of plants, animals, land, and people through a narrow mechanistic frame that tends not to see them as living things. The industrial farm works toward ever-greater control over nature as a factor in production rather than working with it. Profit is the measure of the new farm, not a family's continuance on the land, its quality of life, or its relations to the larger community. The new farmer rejects traditional conceptions of agricultural work, work whose model is the husbandman.
The new farmer disdains the conflation of management and labor in the figure of the farmer, the privileging of inherited farm practices, the recognition of immanent value in work and property as opposed to their exchange value, the noncommercial networks of exchange within a community. In contrast to traditional notions of farmers as husbandmen, industrial agriculture looks to business and science as models. Its basic precepts include division of labor, adoption of the latest methods and machinery, systematic business management and book farming, heavy participation in a cash market that leads to specialization, emphasis on change and experimentation, and reliance on experts outside the community for reliable advice. Industrial agriculture aggressively seeks to replace haphazard tradition with rationality, systematization, efficiency, organization, professionalization, and an identification of farming with urban manufacturing.
By the 1880s and 1890s the agricultural press was representing farmers, not apart from manufacturers, but as manufacturers—the measure of farm success would no more be the well-kept homestead; it was to be the most efficient, most profitable business in a new industrial order. Hand in hand with this redefinition was the pastoral cast it was given to make it more palatable to the nation: "among some professional agricultural leaders and educators there has evidently been a desire to idealize rural life in a moral and aesthetic way, and also to see agriculture principally in terms of the most prosperous group of farmers" (Johnstone 165). That these leaders and educators were usually professionals with tenuous connections to farming, that they were usually urban, white males with ties to powerful business interests who promoted primarily the economic interests of the wealthiest farmers is significant when one remembers that their work most often negatively affected small farmers, women, and minorities.
Efforts to redefine the farmer in industrial terms began at least as early as Farm Journal's 1890 proclamation: "We farmers are manufacturers, and when we adopt the successful manufacturers' emphatic methods we shall succeed as well as they" ("We, Too"). The Journal emphasized abandoning old methods for the "newest and best. . . . Hard thought must evolve new plans," and "shorter, cheaper methods must be made to supersede the older." In 1907 Kenyon Butterfield, the father of rural sociology (Danbom 43), urged Americans to "eliminate" the farmer who "is dazzled by the romantic halo of the good old times" and to replace him with the "new farmer," who is characterized by "keenness, business instinct, readiness to adopt new methods. . . . He is a successful American citizen who grows corn instead of making steel rails" (65, 55, 57).
Redefining the farmer became a "national issue" in 1908, when President Theodore Roosevelt formed the Country Life Commission to study "the problem of farm life" (Neth 98). The commission defined "two great classes of farmers: those who make farming a real and active constructive business, as much as the successful manufacturer or merchant makes his effort a business; and those who merely passively live on the land" (Report85). In contrast to those who "refused to become modern," the new farmer's "business [was] gradually assuming the form of other capitalized industries" (Neth 98; Davenport 49).
The Country Life movement was the rural manifestation of the national Progressive movement (Fink 24-25). Middle-class urban intellectuals with rural roots, most Country Life leaders were educators and journalists, many were involved in the Conservation movement, and several published works advocating agricultural and educational efficiency (Bowers 31-33). Urban agrarians, a vocal subset of Country Lifers, were social thinkers who looked "to the countryside for solutions to urban problems . . . for correctives to urban values. For them, rural America symbolized what America had been and was an antidote for what it was becoming" (Danbom 25). Concerned with rural uplift and uneasy about the nation's burgeoning industrial system, these thinkers saw the farmer as a "hard-working small capitalist" whose role was to be a "'harmonizer between capital and labor'" (Danbom 27). Country Lifers firmly believed that the countryside was to supply cities with its best people; in their view, urban leaders ought to be rural men (Bowers 36).
The New Agriculture demanded a new agrarianism that could accommodate Jefferson's yeoman and the new farmer. The drift toward altering the myth can be seen in 1906, when William Sumner Harwood conflates old and new definitions of farming in ending The New Earth. He praises industrial agriculture in terms derived from the agrarian myth:
And the farm, the new farm, with its free life, its breath of the open, its close touch with nature, its hard but never menial labor, its refined home life, its articulation with all that is best in modern life, this mighty manufacturing plant of the New Earth, is turning out not only the unthinkably valuable products and steadily heaping up billions upon billions in its reserve, and maintaining at a high plane the very life of the race, but it is manufacturing men and women,—sane, symmetrical, stocked with common sense, open to higher things, receptive and retentive, untainted by speculation, and bearing a bitter hatred of the greed that not permanently, but with infinite disgrace, has fastened itself upon America. (378)
The next year Kenyon Butterfield, then president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, took another step toward a new agrarianism when he drew distinctions among three types of farmers: "the new farmer," "the mossback," and "the old farmer" (54-55). His description of this triad not only reveals how proponents of the New Agriculture convinced people that industrial farming was an improvement on older farm practices but also illustrates how the agrarian myth could be used to persuade them. Butterfield defines farmers who refuse to adopt new practices as mossbacks: "The mossback is the man who has either misread the signs of the times, or who has not possessed the speed demanded in the two-minute class" (56). For Butterfield, the "contrast is not between the old farmer and the new, for that is merely a question of relative conditions in different epochs of time. The contrast is between the new farmer and the mossback, for that is a question of men and of their relative efficiency as members of the industrial order" (57). His "old farmer" is the yeoman of yesteryear who was a new farmer in his day. In expressing his argument this way, Butterfield redefines the true inheritor of Jefferson's agrarianism as a man who changes with the times. Thus the independent, self-sufficient farmer could live on in the nation's mind, even as tenancy rates rose and cities filled with displaced farm people: "it is a fact that this idyllic agrarian fundamentalism has been perpetuated principally by the intellectual and reform elements that have been most active in modernizing American agriculture" (Johnstone 165). By simply glancing at farm publication advertising, one sees that Butterfield's agrarianism remains with us.
Defining the Farm Novel
Few scholars have bothered to define the farm novel, though many agree that "the development of American rural fiction has taken place within the twentieth century . . . rural novels published during the first decade of the century were so few in number and usually so lacking in strength that the real development of farm-life fiction may be said to have had its beginning about 1910" (Sherman 67). The farm novel "which treats farm life seriously, realistically, and as the main subject is largely a phenomenon of the twentieth century" (Meyer 13); according to John T. Flanagan, "As late as 1900 only a handful of genuine farm novels had appeared" (113). The recognition of a rural problem in the earliest years of the century, the fear that the countryside was being depopulated, and the consequent creation of a nostalgic urban audience may account for the creation of the farm novel as a distinct genre only after 60 percent of the nation's population had been absorbed by American cities.
Roy Meyer does offer a definition of the farm novel:
1. "it deal[s] with farm life"—the plot is farm-related, characters are farmers, the setting is a farm;
2. displays an "accurate handling of the physical details of farm life";
3. uses the vernacular;
4. reflects "attitudes, beliefs, or habits of mind often associated with farm people. . . conservatism, individualism, anti-intellectualism, hostility to the town, and a type of primitivism," and an emphasis on hard work and the supposed unity of man and nature, both spiritually and physically, that makes farming "intrinsically more wholesome" in contrast to the corruption of city life. (7-12)
Meyer's first two points are obvious enough, and point three could as easily define other genres—for example, urban neighborhood novels. But point four's habits of mind are attitudes that urban readers expect of farmers and are rooted in the beliefs of early-twentieth-century urban agrarians and social scientists. The new farmer is not fiscally conservative; he or she joins cooperatives or answers to stockholders, appeals to experts for advice, enjoys urban comforts and adopts urban attitudes, and sees farming as a business, not a way of life.
In addition to Meyer's first two characteristics, I suggest the following as key components of a farm novel. I limit this list to balance rigor with flexibility. No text will satisfy each stipulation, of course, and these components are not intended as the final word:
1. A farm novel explores interrelationships between human work and nature. In seeking to understand this relationship, the farm novel foregrounds the local and the particular; its landscapes are not simply settings for human action but places where the human, animal, plant, and nonorganic worlds interact in interdependent relationships. Characters are not passive in the face of the world they confront; they are active participants in creating or changing the world around them. They are keenly aware that work has consequences.
2. A farm novel confronts history. Every farm is the accumulation of past acts and embodies a series of reciprocal relationships between the human and the natural, good, bad, and indifferent. Aware that past human work has demeaned or enriched places and people, the farm novel explores how local, regional, and national history has brought people and places to what they are. Because urban industrial farming tries to erase history by making each farm like every other—one factorylike chicken farm is pretty much like the next one—texts concerned with industrial farming subject its practices to historical analysis.
3. The farm novel investigates the health and wholeness of farm families and communities. A farm may be defined as a web of people, plants, and animals occupying a particular place. A family-run mixed farming enterprise is the most obvious example. But so, too, is the corporate farm raising several thousand hogs on a few acres. Which is the healthiest—and in every sense: ecological, economic, moral, ethical? What does the health/wholeness of farm communities say about the health/wholeness of the larger community?
4. The farm novel investigates the impact of technology on people and places. A farm is also a collection of technologies, and the farm novel maps the scale and costs of using a technology—the tractor, for instance. Frequently linking natural disaster to human technological hubris, the farm novel also explores how industrialization changes the web of relationships among people, within places, and between people and places. A central change among humans is that while his neighbors streamed to the city, the twentieth-century industrial farmer found himself there without leaving home.
Writers make new the stories we live by. A living expression of human perception, literature shapes our reality by revealing to us how we see each other—and the natural world. Enlarging our capacity for making fruitful and lasting connections, literary works suggest how we imagine ourselves: They are spaces where we remember the pieces of our lives by seeing ourselves reflected in the lives of others. After all, to write is to learn; to read is to connect. To remember others is to define the people and the world around us as more than human and natural resources. If we are not mindful of our neighbors, how can we ever truly know the world as home and other life as family members?
This book examines selected farm texts within the context of late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century agricultural history. So that my analysis moves across space as well as time, I have chosen works from a variety of genres written by authors from different farm regions. I show that from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s, many writers supported industrial farming, but that with the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the loss of thousands of small farms in the 1930s they began questioning its advantages.
I organize my argument within a race/class/gender framework because to talk about American agriculture is to remember the erasure of Native American populations, the enslavement of Africans, the displacement of rural poor to urban factories, the exploitation of migrant workers, the silence and invisibility of women. White, upper-middle-class men have always been the principle leaders and defenders of industrial farming. Their usual challengers have been farm laborers and migrants, generally people of color, women, and the poor. The social, economic, and political confrontations between these groups have shaped and propelled the rancorous debates over the proper way to feed us all. Most recently, however, a growing cross-section of Americans has joined the fray by questioning industrial farm practices and calling for alternatives in the form of community-sustained agriculture and organically grown food.
But the numbers are stark: in 1997 there were 1,911,859 farms in the United States. Of these, only 165,102 were operated by women, 27,717 by Hispanics, 18,451 by blacks, 18,495 by Native Americans, and 8,731 by Asian Americans (Quick Facts). This totals 238,496 farms; white men presumably owned the other 1.6 million. In 1997 the largest farms—those over 2,000 acres—constituted 4 percent of all farms; those with over a million dollars in sales made up 1 percent of farms and accounted for 42 percent of all farm sales (Quick Facts). Is this a democratic distribution of the sources of life?
Hardly inheritors of Jefferson's agrarianism, owners of today's largest farms are wealthy. For example, in 1994 the Washington Post reported that several California farmers owed millions in low-interest loans to the federal Farmers Home Administration, a Depression-era program created to help struggling small farmers. According to the Post's investigation, one cotton/alfalfa farmer, a collector of vintage military aircraft, owed $1.2 million (LaFraniere A16). Another farmer, a resort owner, was "just below the Forbes magazine cutoff for America's 400 richest families"; he reportedly owed $17.6 million in loans (LaFraniere A16). The political voice of "farmers" like these is the billion-dollar, tax-exempt American Farm Bureau, profiled in an April 2000 60 Minutes investigation as opposed to minimum-wage laws, prohibitions against offshore oil drilling, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act ("Voice" 19, 24-25).) This is the green world of modern farming.
To define the industrial farm, I begin by describing the rhetorical origins of industrial farming in the United States as beginning around 1880, earlier than many might think. Urban journalists writing at the time gave the nation the language that it needed to conceive the new farm. Announcing to their urban audiences the appearance of bonanza farms in North Dakota, these journalists argued that farming was a business on par with urban industry. Their work pointed the way to Frank Norris's The Octopus(1901), a novel that appeared just as urban progressives began clamoring for a redefinition of farming. Norris's work illustrates how industrial farming defines nature as an abstraction.
Alexandra Bergson in Willa Cather's O Pioneers!(1913) and Dorinda Oakley in Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground(1925) are women who choose the techniques of industrial agriculture to free themselves from male dominance. These novels expose the gender assumptions of an American culture whose understanding of farming is rooted in an agrarian myth that defines farmers exclusively as men. Though Alexandra and Dorinda refute the image of farm women as homebound farmwives, their acceptance of industrial agriculture acknowledges its assumptions about hierarchies of labor, control of nature, and class distinctions. These novels appeared at important moments in farm history: Cather's novel was published in the golden age of American agriculture just prior to World War I; Glasgow's appeared a dozen years later in the midst of a farm depression that foreshadowed the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Industrial farming rigidly stratified the relatively fluid class structures within preindustrial farming, a fact represented in Ruth Comfort Mitchell's Of Human Kindness(1940), a novel written in response to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath(1939). Both novels depict how industrial farm practices affect class relations among people whose lives are touched by them. Each appears near the end of the Great Depression, and both make significant statements about the history and causes of that economic and social catastrophe. Read together, they illustrate the nation's conflicted understanding of farm realities. Whereas Steinbeck hammers away at the industrial farmer in his portrait of dislocation, joblessness, and violence, Mitchell argues in favor of the industrial farm ideal in her portrait of rugged individualism, patriotism, and rural "progress."
Race played a key part in agriculture's industrialization. Historically, whites have owned most land and machinery, and blacks, Hispanics, and Asians have been laborers. Chicano playwright Luis Valdez's actos focus on ties between racism and corporate farming in California's San Joaquin Valley. Valdez's actos were a new, Chicano theatrical form born in the Cesar Chavez-led grape strike of 1965. Chavez's work called national and lasting attention to the plight of migrant farmworkers.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights first reported in 1982 that the African American farmer was threatened with extinction. Suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997, black farmers claimed that institutionalized racism was one reason for their dwindling numbers ("Judge Approves"). In 1983 Ernest Gaines published A Gathering of Old Men, a novel examining the lingering effects that industrial farming has had on relations among African Americans, Cajuns, and plantation-owning whites in a rural South bearing the burden of a history of slavery. Gaines's work appears, too, at the onset of the most severe post-1930s farm depression, one that drove thousands more black farmers from the land.
Set in the same time period as Gaines's novel, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres(1991) traces the human costs of industrial farming's late-twentieth-century triumph. But even as this novel was being written, rural sociologists were noting an emerging paradigm shift within farming that might return the nation to a less industrial agriculture that values family, community, and land as interdependent, living entities. A key proponent of this alternative agriculture is poet, novelist, essayist, and small farmer Wendell Berry. Together, Smiley and Berry point to the divide separating those arguing over agriculture's future in the new millennium.
Recognizing how writers represent farmers does not merely change our perceptions of farm texts—it profoundly alters how we conceive American literature. Seeing canonical texts through a more georgic prism reveals how closely American farm literature follows the contours of American farm history and politics. In this light, American literature becomes not a constant tension between what Americans have and the mythic place of repose they want but an ongoing debate about how best to work the American "garden."
Excerpted from Working the Garden by William Conlogue, Jack Temple Kirby. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Ch. 1||Bonanza!: Origins of the New Agriculture||25|
|Ch. 2||Challenging the Agrarian Myth: Women's Visibility in the New Agriculture||63|
|Ch. 3||Discipling the Farmer: Class and Agriculture in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Of Human Kindness (1940)||95|
|Ch. 4||Race and IndustriaI Farming: Actos (1965) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983)||127|
|Ch. 5||From A Thousand Acres (1991) to "The Farm" (1998)||157|
|Postscript: Fixing Fence||185|