Agrarian Writings, Southern and Otherwise

Review of American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and Land (Yale, 2011)

The spirit of the age in modern industrialized America places a premium upon a business career and the supposed monetary wherewithal that is presumed to be the deserved result of a university education, networking skills, and plain old-fashioned brown-nosing. While most moderns actively crave social acceptance and another chance to prove their importance through display of Facebook accounts, public telephone conversations, and upward mobility on the corporate ladder, (as if their lives hang in the balance), those who profess an admiration for an older form of American life, that is, one based upon family production of agricultural goods, find themselves hopelessly nostalgic, occasionally reclusive, and remarkably productive in thought. From the subtle expressions of Fred Chappell to the forthright polemics of Wendell Berry, a remnant diaspora of writers continue to promote a lost pastoral society while providing expression to a set of country values that still speak to a diminishing yet receptive audience. They are writers consciously part of their rural literary traditions, authors persuaded by a way of life and mode of thought noticeable in the earliest settlements of Europeans on this continent. Whether one wishes to label this thought agrarian, pastoral, rural, or wrong, what matters is that it beckons to be better understood by scholars and practicing agriculturalists alike. What with the recent fashioning of what has been called neo-agrarianism, a back-to-the-land movement, or, maybe a more aptly descriptive term, “patio-farming,” the history and meaning of rural thought possesses a unique relevance for modern Americans looking for something more than a workaday existence in a twenty-first century suburbia. But the search must be grounded, instructed, and informed. American Georgics is a good place to start the process, but not the best place to end.

People who think of themselves as part of a waning agrarian tradition often choose to write about it as a response to undesired change. The majority of the excerpts in this collection are examples of reaction against a generally more powerful process often perceived by the country sort as a threat to sustainable farm culture. John Taylor’s Arator explained how antebellum Virginia farmers might improve the quality of their soils, but at a deeper level Taylor consciously sought to defend the Jeffersonian agrarian republic against a centrist, state-supported agricultural system. Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours promoted the idea of agricultural responsibility against intense market-orientations and overdevelopment of the rural New York landscape. The Southern Agrarians pitted agrarianism against industrialism as two conflicting visions of America’s future. And more contemporaneously, Wendell Berry writes in favor of small-family farms in the face of an engulfing agribusiness. These writers argue in favor of their perspective of what country life means, and most all at some point became or are becoming bards to lost causes.

Editors Edwin C. Hagenstein, Sara M. Gregg, and Brian Donahue have compiled a variety of essays from an array of American agrarianisms. Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, John Taylor of Caroline, John Crowe Ransom, Wes Jackson: these are worthy choices for any collection dealing with American rural writings. The chapters are organized chronologically, starting with the early republic and ending with present day professor/farmers and modern-day homesteaders. Although the editors position the reader to think of the history of an American agrarianism, the essays they choose to represent it consist of a host of interests and concerns among thinkers of disparate backgrounds and often diametrically opposed ideas. The pastoral thought we see in Thoreau and Emerson appears far more nationalistic, egalitarian and environmentalist when compared to the planter class preference for landed patriarchy and Southern regionalism found in Taylor and Ruffin. In short, the multitude of regional differences are portrayed as part of a historicized national rural culture that until rather recently did not appear so homogenous.

Had regions rather than time periods divided the chapters, one might garner a much clearer and historically accurate view of how and who developed agrarian thought in the United States. The geographical, ecological, and historical variations are more important to our understanding of this agrarian thought than the editors generally allow. Wes Jackson’s ecological ideas for the Great Plains are not applicable to the South or New England, just as Andrew Lytle’s sense of operating in the shadows of Confederate defeat would mean nothing to Liberty Hyde Bailey or Henry Wallace. The Taylor, Madison, and Ruffin essays might more profitably be viewed as the antecedents to John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, not as simply the contemporaries of Thoreau. The South has been and still remains the most regionally minded section of the United States, largely because it experienced a devastating military defeat at the hands of a government created principally by its own people in 1787. It is correct to suggest that Bailey and Wallace in fact assumed the existence of a single American agrarian culture when they wrote about farming. Nonetheless, antebellum Virginia writers and the interwar Vanderbilt Agrarians were not thinking of an American agriculture, but rather a Southern one, or more particularly, one that belonged to Virginia or Tennessee.

As harsh as it may sound, this collection of essays seems a bit superfluous. Most all of the pieces are still in print elsewhere, and can be readily perused in their full form, not a mere excerpt. To get a proper sense of what a writer is trying to say, what it is he thinks is important, or meaningful, one must consider that writer’s canon. The sense cannot be derived from a single essay, much less a part of one. In other words, a collection of this nature is rather reductionist, and essentially, by its nature, relegates an entire intellectual and cultural milieu to a few pages of edited text. Even more problematic, as abovementioned, is the compilation of several ways of thinking about country life that harbor fundamentally different meanings for the writers who promulgated them. To understand Emerson, one should go read Emerson. To understand the Southern Agrarians, I’ll Take My Stand remains in print for the interested. A counterpoint could certainly be that the reading audience is not academic, but rather a more popular reading public that the editors believe are intrigued by an increasingly fashionable craze for things rural.

To get a proper sense of agrarian thought, the interested reader would do well to consult rural literature and more real writers. Let us consider the Southern agrarian tradition for instance. Although it could be argued that the section in this book on Southern agrarianism just does not belong, and that Ransom, Tate, and Lytle alone certainly cannot represent what existed as a more widespread and authentic tradition than what could be found in either the North or West, the South has produced a massive array of native literature which describes and explains the region from a unique historical perspective. In Kentucky, Harriette Simpson Arnow, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, and Caroline Gordon wrote literature about strong agrarian themes, and in doing so promoting a particular vision of the bucolic belonging to the Southern experience. In Mississippi, William Faulkner, Stark Young, and William Alexander Percy considered both the yeoman and planter classes as part of that state’s intensely hierarchical and agricultural social system. Donald Davidson, among the most adamant and unreconstructed among the Vanderbilt writers, if not the very archetypical figure of Southern conservatism in general, was a well-known poet whose pastoral idyll manifests itself in most everything he wrote over a period of forty years. Fred Chappell and Wendell Berry are poets with a message. And let us not forget the Charleston literary renaissance, a significant explosion of creativity between 1920 and 1940 that became part of South Carolina’s attempt to recover its landed and aristocratic Southern identity within an increasingly democratic and industrializing America.

Granted, the book does not profess to be about the South, but by giving thought to the abundant ways through which Southern agrarianism reveals itself within a multitude of writings over a long period of time provides one avenue to suggest how a solitary collection of essays proposing an explanation of an overarching American agrarianism leaves much to be desired. The book gives its reader a starting point, that is, the novice reader with a relatively recent acquaintance with agrarian intellectuals. For those truly interested in learning about agrarian thought, this starting point will serve as the first stepping stone along a powerful journey through time to a past place and a past people who not only worked differently, but thought and felt about farming and rural values as much more than simply one among many forms of possible life choices, but as the only proper lifestyle conducive to the preservation of a lasting civilization. Any history of agriculture must to an extent be the story of agrarian customs and values. The history of agricultural research and science can tell us nothing of importance without telling us how these developments either helped or hindered a farmer’s ability to maintain an agrarian way of life. If it serves no other purpose, American Georgics just might help scholars remember the significance of value preservation when studying the history of agricultural change.

-Alan Harrelson

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