This is a strange little post, perhaps, because I’m describing a work in progress, but it’s so darn exciting that it feels worth sharing.
So for a few years I’ve been leading reading and discussion groups for the Maine Humanities Council through their “Let’s Talk About It” program. This time, I’m creating a brand new series for them: “People, Purpose, Place: Agrarian Novels in the USA.”
What is agrarianism, you ask? A range of things. But mostly a philosophy and a practice of living on the land, asking, as Wendell Berry has put it, “what the land requires of us.” Berry is a key voice of contemporary or “new” agrarianism, and he’s a handy figure because he’s one of the few people writing both critical AND literary work within and about the theme.
The “new” before “agrarian” is important, some argue, because the last folks to claim that title were Twelve Southerners who in 1930 published a manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand” which was basically a rant against industrialism and a defense of a land-based, individualist and communitarian way of life. New agrarianism similarly argues against technology for technology’s sake and is similarly committed to exploring the real, human and environmental costs of contemporary ways of life. New agrarianism is, however, inclined to treat both women and minorities with greater respect and perhaps to more deeply understand the world as the large, complex, and interconnected beast that it is. The new folks are also more likely to actually BE farmers; the first crew were largely poets and writers with a commitment to the idea of farming. (And if you want more of the theory on this, see the essay collections The Essential Agrarian Reader; The Unsettling of America; and The New Agrarianism for more.)
If you’re yawning, bear with me. This stuff makes for amazing novels, full of generosity and landscape and primal sex. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer was our first; Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth came next. In November we read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; December will bring John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War; January Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation. Other hot contenders have included Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Edna Ferber’s So Big. Even on the Berry front, it’s unclear whether Jayber Crow would be a better choice than A Place on Earth; I chose the latter because of its insistence on the slow and patient pace of agrarian life and its complex ecosystem of characters and families, engaging in their lives through and across a staggering array of forces.
Some folks have said that there’s too much sadness in these novels. Some have said that they move to slowly. No one, however, accuses them of idealizing life on the land, which makes for a nice change from the genre of the idyllic pastoral. In fact, it strikes me that all of them demonstrate a commitment to a kind of clear vision, a seeing of the world as it is and as it should be, that sounds almost more Buddhist than American (if we’re willing to accept as “American” the bustle and pressure and meaninglessness of advanced capitalist life). Across the board, these writers are asking questions about value and about survival, about community and the meaning of our work and our capacity to feed ourselves, or not. I couldn’t believe it when Steinbeck elbowed his way into this series, but there he was…you can’t discuss agrarianism at ALL in this country without understanding that historical perspective on the engineered migration of human lives and labor based on the application of corporate profit mandates to the land itself. Plus, the ending of that novel is the most poignant statement of human resilience and generosity EVER. (Go back. It’s gotten better since high school.)
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments if you want to read along with us! As a sometime college lit teacher, nothing pleases me more than writing and talking and thinking with others about books and what they mean…so jump on in!