“For Farmers, For Landowners,
For Citizens and Neighbors”
A review of
Writings on Farming, Culture and the Land.
Brian Donahue, Sara Gregg, Edwin Hagenstein, eds.
Review by Rachel Reynolds Luster.
Writings on Farming, Culture and the Land.
Brian Donahue, Sara Gregg, Edwin Hagenstein, eds.
Hardback: Yale UP, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
American Georgics: Writing on Farming, Culture, and the Land, offers readers a concise and well-heeled collection of agrarian thought and writings from the founding of our Republic through the current wave, including speeches, essays, excerpts from novels, and poems. The writings in this volume trace the evolution of “the economic, political, social, and ecological dimensions of agrarianism” (372). Some of the authors will be most familiar to readers of agrarian writing including James Madison, Henry David Thoreau, and Wendell Berry; others, such as Jesse Buell, Louisa May Alcott, and Nate Shaw (Ned Cobb), will come as delightful surprises. The collection is rich in many ways but one of its greatest strength comes from the variety of perspectives offered but perhaps the most striking aspect of reading American Georgics is its undeniable relevance to our current political, economic, and agricultural moment.
Editors, Edwin C. Hagenstein, Sara M. Gregg, and Brian Donahue present the pieces in a fairly linear and chronological fashion beginning with the development of our nation’s identity and governance, and passing in turn through a burgeoning industrial economy, American Romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century, the advent of industrial agriculture, regional agrarian movements of the early to mid-twentieth century, and other back-to-the-land movements that would follow, and on through the current zeitgeist of locavores, school gardens, urban farmers, and the gourmetism of real food. The book is laid out in seven sections following these themes, introduced by a thoughtful essay on the grouping, and then each individual piece is preceded by a contextual biography of the author.
The heart of agrarianism and of this collection evolves but several key principles or values remain. First, that work in and of the land, namely non-industrial farming, is advantageous to the moral and physical health of those who practice it. Second, that a viable and communally responsible economic structure can be achieved by such a practice and is structured in this order: self-reliance of home and family, a small amount to be exchanged with neighbors within the community for other goods or services, and a small surplus for cash markets. Third, that agrarian virtue yields independence from oppressive economic structures for individuals. In addition to questioning the industrialization of agriculture and the “tyranny” of the modern industrial economy, agrarianism highlights the specific spiritual responsibility of stewardship of the land and importance of an economy of neighborliness or at least, as the editors put forth, “to try to weigh economic gain in the larger balance of overall well-being and not to assume that if profit is put first, all that follows will be positive” (14).
In many ways, given the current state of affairs in which we find ourselves, with almost weekly food safety scares and environmental crises and a pervading a monoculture, both in terms of our food system and our culture at large, these agrarian writers, both historic and within the last century, are often prophetic. I found myself nodding in recognition, especially in reading the early writers like Wilson Flagg whose essay, “American Progress” was written in 1859 and whose scenario is one of a country community deconstructed by its dependence on corporations to meet rising demands for their products creating the need for larger, specialized crop production, the out-migration of the majority of the village’s residents, and the alteration of the physical and cultural landscape (82-86). Again these are recurrent themes throughout American Georgics and the examples evolve along with the solutions offered or suggested by the writers.
The editors prove especially adept at providing alternative perspectives to create context to the discussion. In the case of a Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian Republic versus Alexander Hamilton’s inclination toward industrial identity and economy, both sides are represented in the text of American Georgics. The same can be said later, chronologically, in the opposing views of writers such as Liberty Hyde Bailey whose, Holy Earth, from 1915 is excerpted,
“Verily, then, the earth is divine, because man did not make it. We are here, part in the creation. We cannot escape. We are under obligation to take part and to do our best, living with each other and with all the creatures. We may not know the full plan, but that does not alter the relation. When once we set ourselves to the pleasure of our dominion, reverently and hopefully, and assume all its responsibilities, we shall have a new hold on life” (207)
(Editor’s note: you can read our review of a recent edition of this book here)
and placed in contrast with writers like Edwin G. Nourse, who was a critic of romantic agrarianism and challenged farmers of his day to integrate scientific agriculture into their everyday lives.
The editors’ choices are equally notable in that they offer a rich perspective that counterbalances some of the main critiques of agrarianism, namely that the yeoman ideal offers a paternalistic perspective excluding the influence and participation in thriving agricultural communities of women, Native Americans, and African Americans, both slave and free. There are several pieces written by women in this collection including a rather humorous, barely fictional account entitled, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” by Louisa May Alcott of her family’s failed attempt at creating a thriving utopian community (124-128), a bucolic depiction of village life from Rural Hours by Susan Fenimore Cooper (133), and a rousing call to action to the residents of Kansas by Luna Kellie (192), among others including the seminal piece co-written by Helen Nearing from Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World which would become a touchstone in the back-to-the-land movements of the late sixties, early seventies, and beyond in which she confidently offers her theories and experiences in developing and enacting a way of life that allows for a family to “live with nature, make themselves a living that will preserve and enhance their efficiency, and give them leisure in which they can do their bit to make the world a better place” (315) .
Similarly, the editors chose to include an excerpt from All God’s Dangers a book written by Theodore Rosengarten based on oral history accounts from Nate Shaw, aka, Ned Cobb, from 1968. While, as the editors of American Georgics point out, the “main instruments of industrial extraction in the South were not machines, of course, but small tenant farmers, and especially black sharecroppers,” and before them slaves. Still, the role of African Americans, or Native Americans, for that matter, is rarely highlighted or explored in the writings of agrarians or many other writers from various periods of cultural history in America. Nate Shaw’s reminiscences offered here supply a vibrant detail of not only a varied existence of agrarian life but of a black man that was not subservient to any man, the boll weevil, or political and social pressures that he encountered. While his story is complex and challenging, as with other stories of a struggling agricultural existence, his is one rarely heard within this framework and it’s refreshing. Native American culture and agricultural traditions are also highlighted as examples in a handful of the essays offered in American Georgics including those by James Madison and Wes Jackson.
There is a perfect balance between romanticism, practicality, the cautionary, and the visionary within this collection that I think makes it a most important volume. For farmers, for landowners, for citizens and neighbors there is much to be gained. Surprisingly little of the writing seems dated beyond the eloquence of the language, striking since the earliest piece comes from 1782. The essay by H.L. Menken and the Southern Agrarians teeter on the edge of the purple, sometimes slipping, but by far these essays are as relevant to the Occupy Wall Street and Food Freedom discussions of today as they were to the development of labor unions in the early 20th century. I wish there were time and space here for the reprinting of entire excerpts, especially Liberty Hyde Bailey’s, Holy Earth, Wes Jackson’s, “Becoming Native to Our Place” and his brilliant introduction to the collection along with Wendell Berry’s perfect articulation of the holistic agricultural model that is the Amish farmer, so I deeply encourage you to read for yourself.
Rachel Reynolds Luster is a PhD student in Heritage Studies at Arkansas State University and a contributing editor for Art of the Rural.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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