Desktop version

Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

The Agrarian West: The American Farmer and THE Garden MYTH IN THE EARLY REPUBLIC AND BEYOND

The United States was born in the country.

Richard Hofstadter

No Easterner, born forlornly within the sphere of New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, can pass very far beyond the Alleghenies without feeling that American civilization is here found in the full tide of believing in itself. The flat countryside looks more ordered, more farmlike; the Main Streets that flash by the car-windows somehow look more robust and communal. Randolph S. Bourne, “A Mirror of the Middle West”

one of the most canonical definitions of the agrarian myth can be found in Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform:

The American mind was raised upon a sentimental attachment to rural living and upon a series of notions about rural people and rural life that I have chosen to designate as the agrarian myth. The agrarian myth represents a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins. Like any complex of ideas, the agrarian myth cannot be defined in a phrase, but its component themes form a clear pattern. Its hero was the yeoman farmer, its central conception the notion that he is the ideal man and the ideal citizen. (23)

Hofstadter identifies this myth as an initially “elitist,” “literary notion” (expressed, for instance, in Walt Whitman’s “O Pioneers”) which later turned into a “mass creed” (ibid. 25, 28). We find manifestations of it in writings of the early republic and the 19th century, and increasingly nostalgic ones in 20th-century and contemporary literature and popular culture. Among the early proponents of this myth were a Virginian slaveholder and a French immigrant: Thomas Jefferson and Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson envisions the United States as a republic of self-determined, autonomous, and virtuous farmer-citizens, who he juxtaposes as “the chosen people of God” (135) with the tradesmen and merchants of mercantilist, predominantly urban Europe, which for Jefferson signifies corruption, alienation, and immorality.

Crevecoeur’s writings on the American farmer collectively are more ambivalent than Jefferson’s, yet in the passages that have been selectively canonized over the centuries, Crevecoeur shows a similar enthusiasm for the farmer as a new North American type, and includes himself among this group of husbandmen:

Some few towns excepted, we are tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. We are a people of cultivators scattered over an immense territory communicating with each other by means of good roads and navigable rivers, united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable [...]. [T]hat of a farmer is the only appellation of the rural inhabitants of our country. (Letters 40)

Crevecoeur’s description of European settlers in North America as “farmers” here figures as a democratic form of address (“appellation”) that signifies equality and the absence of rank and hierarchy among men in rural America, or what Perry Miller called “nature’s nation” (cf. his book of the same title). The logic of the interdependence of land ownership, equality, and republicanism that underlies both Jefferson’s as well as Crevecoeur’s version of the agrarian myth is described by Christopher Curtis as follows:

Grounding republican citizenship in the allodial freehold expressed a belief that the absolute ownership of a tangible piece of property would reconcile the indulgent characteristics of economic individualism with a vested social attachment to a particular local community and, accordingly, foster civic virtue through self-interest. (Jefferson’s Freeholders 8)

Correlating self-interest, self-sufficiency, and the bond with and loyalty to a local collectivity appears to be rather idealistic of course, and glosses over the by no means inclusive dynamics at work within such communities.

Contextualizing Jefferson and Crevecoeur as proponents of the agrarian myth necessitates inspecting a number of aspects more closely. As Henry Nash Smith and, more recently, Christopher Curtis have pointed out, Jefferson and Creve- coeur did not invent this agrarian myth, and were not even all that original in articulating it in late 18th-century America: for one thing, because this kind of rural, pastoral vision dates back to the work of Virgil (70-19 BC) and other writers of antiquity, and had been part of the colonial imaginary of the ‘new world’ since the early 17th century (cf. Michael Drayton’s “To the Virginian Voyage”); and secondly, because many contemporaries of Jefferson and Creve- coeur were sharing similar sentiments, as agrarianism was a dominant discourse in the foundational phase of the republic - Jefferson’s and Crevecoeur’s texts at the time were by far not the only ones to imagine the US along those lines. Thirdly, with regard to the intended audiences of their writings, we can add that both clearly write in a promotional vein and seek to advertise the United States to a European readership: Their self-fashioning as inhabitants of a new Garden of Eden is part of efforts to legitimize the new republic and to entice more prospective settlers to cross the Atlantic. Jefferson addresses his Notes to Francois Barbe-Marbois, secretary of the French legation to the United States; Crevecoeur, whose letters were first published in London in 1782, more broadly addresses a wider European readership. In promoting America as the ‘Garden of the World,’ they thus gave a nationalistic, civil religious dimension to (much) older utopian visions of which they presented North America and more specifically the West as a concrete realization:

The image of this vast and constantly growing agricultural society in the interior of the continent became one of the dominant symbols of nineteenth-century American society - a collective representation, a poetic idea [...] that defined the promise of American life. (Smith, Virgin Land 138)

Whereas in texts of the early republic, the agrarian myth is employed to envision America’s future as a rural democracy, later references turn increasingly nostalgic regarding a rural social order and way of life. As a fourth aspect, then, rurality in the Jefferson-Crevecoeur tradition can be considered as increasingly turning into a cherished anachronism. Raymond Williams identifies a similar dynamic of increasing nostalgia for the “rural” as a form of community in Britain (cf. Country 102). “Oddly enough,” Hofstadter notes, “the agrarian myth came to be believed more widely and tenaciously as it became more fictional” (Age 30). In the US, the farmer has remained the emblem of an ethic of hard work, a lifestyle close to nature, and egalitarianism. However, fifthly, Jefferson and Crevecoeur also reflect different versions of the myth of the West, which can be distinguished into a Northern and Southern version. The Southern imaginary of the West casts the farmer as a plantation owner, and for that reason alone is a far cry from egalitarian dreams; Smith has shown that the literature of the early republic “did not always readily embrace the democratic principles” on which the US was founded by pointing to, among other texts, James Kirke

Paulding’s work and the “ingrained class feeling” of his protagonists (Virgin Land 160). In the Northern version of the myth on the other hand, the West is usually conceived of as free and as holding the promise of land ownership for everyone, which however does not necessarily mean that it was not exclusivist in regard to class, race, or gender.

While Lincoln’s signing into law of the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862 suggested that indeed “the dream of free land had become law” (Hine and Faragher, American West 334), the Homestead Act has also been read as nothing more than “a tribute to the high ideal of the yeoman farmer” in the context of a corrupt and inefficient system that facilitated land speculation rather than free settlement and small-scale land acquisition (Limerick, Legacy 62). The consequences of the Homestead Act, thus, were not democratic land ownership:

A further analysis of the data reveals that only 3.653.000 farms in 1900 were operated, even in part, by their owners. But at the same time at least 21.000.000 farm people were tenants and wage laborers and their families on the total of 5.737.000 farms in the nation. These laborers were rarely any better off financially (often worse) than the toiling multitudes in the cities. (Shannon, “Not Even” 44)

Yet, empirical findings can hardly ever successfully contest the validity of myth, as its foundational quality and emotional appeal tend to override minor and major contradictions. Despite the dire consequences that the Homestead Act had for many settlers, the myth of the West remained alive, even if it has not gone uncontested in rural vernacular culture and folklore, as the following folk song from Kansas shows:

A chattel mortgage in the West

Is like a cancer on your breast;

It slowly takes your life away,

And eats your vitals day by day. (qtd. in Hine and Faragher, American West 348)

The song describes the mortgage system not as the promise but as the pathology of the West - a pathology whose effects are like that of a lethal disease for which there is no cure.

Even though the American farm was in many ways not a locus of autonomy and self-sufficiency, as many scholars of the early republic and the 19th century have pointed out (cf. Appleby, Capitalism; Limerick, Legacy 68; Trachtenberg, Incorporation 22-23), the iconography of the farmer and of the farm in the West has been part of national mythmaking that embraces the West as a pastoral idyll, a democratic space, and as a land of opportunity; to this day, we find notions of America as garden-like and of the American Adam as farmer in cultural productions ranging from historical novels to tobacco commercials. It is mostly the perspective of non-Westerners on the West, as regionalist scholars have noted, from which we perceive the West in terms of harmony, intact communities, and a simple way of life; in many such representations of the West, “we view the region from inside the window of a railroad car” - i.e., as “voyeurs” rather than as residents (Goldman, Continental Divides ix). Among others, Randolph Bourne (cf. this section’s second epigraph) also attests to the appropriation of the West as a region and as a specific locality and culture for a hegemonic discourse of wholesome Americanness.

In the third decade of the 20th century, however, the agrarian myth of the West underwent an important crisis: in the context of the Great Depression, the American farm was turned into an icon of the rural population’s collective suffering in the social documentary photography sponsored by the Resettlement Administration and later the Farm Security Administration; artists such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein in their photographic representations pointedly critiqued the agrarian myth and pastoral projections on the rural West (cf. Lange, American Exodus). More recently, this sense of crisis has prevailed and coexists with discourses that continue to idealize farm life and heroize the farmer. Organizations and initiatives such as the American Farmland Trust, which was founded in 1980, and Farm Aid (inaugurated by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young), which since 1985 has raised funds for the preservation and support of family farms in the US through benefit concerts, indicate that the farmer still holds a prominent place in the cultural imaginary. Farm Aid’s political engagement also led to the passage by Congress of the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, which was intended to help small farmers in financial distress. It should be noted, however, that organizations such as Farm Aid “sell authenticity as much as they sell sound land-use policies” (Cook, “Romance” 228), as the lyrics of many singers and bands show (cf. e.g. John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow,” Shannon Brown’s “Corn Fed,” or Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”).

Illustration 2: Against the Agrarian Myth

Arthur Rothstein, Potato Pickers, Rio Grande County, Colorado (1939).

In the history of the American West, settlement policies were certainly less invested in egalitarianism than popular representations of pioneers and homesteaders would have us believe, as agrarianism relied on the cheap labor of migrant workers from Asia, slaves and former slaves, poor immigrants from Europe, and, not least, on the expropriation of Native Americans. Thus, popular visions of farming and gardening in the early republic and the 19th century are not as ‘innocent’ as they may appear at first. For Jefferson, agrarianism and expansionism clearly went hand in hand, as his notion of an “empire of liberty” (cf. Onuf, Jefferson’s Empire) was based on landownership. The purchase by the Jefferson administration of French Louisiana in 1803, which doubled the size of the US and in the logic of the Jeffersonians created new opportunities for yeoman farmers out West, must be seen in this context. Official rhetoric emphasized that the 1804-06 expedition of the (tellingly named) Corps of Discovery under Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838), which was sent to explore the newly acquired territory, was “destined” to extend the “discovery” of Christopher Columbus and to

explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean; whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce. (Cong. Rec. 22 Sept. 1998 to 26 Sept. 1998: 21532)

This expedition provided mappings of and, more generally, data on the West through which its systematic conquest became possible. Most importantly, the members of the expedition employed an evocative literary language in their journals with lasting effect:

[t]he importance of the Lewis and Clark expedition lay on the level of imagination: it was drama, it was the enactment of a myth that embodied the future. It gave tangible substance to what had been merely an idea, and established the image of a highway across the continent so firmly in the minds of Americans that repeated failures could not shake it. (Smith, Virgin Land 17)

The expedition account was later even called “our national epic of exploration” (Coues qtd. in Lawlor, Recalling 29).

Despite all the fanciful depictions, the winning of the West was above all a process of taking possession. Jeffersonian (and later Jacksonian) visions of the yeoman going west helped build not a “virtuous republic,” but a “violent empire,” as Carol Smith-Rosenberg puts it in her study of American national identity, in which many sections of American society (including academics) were complicit; for instance, the history of American geography and cartography not only has us think about Lewis and Clark and those ‘explorers’ who followed in their footsteps, e.g. Francis Parkman or John C. Fremont (cf. Parkman, Oregon Trail; Fremont, Report), but also reminds us of the “cartographic imperative” of the Jeffersonian grid system, which we still today connect to visions of the West as vast and monotonous: as “a direct corollary to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny [...] the grid exercises authority over space by applying a ruler to it in all senses of the word,” as William Fox points out (Void 129). Similarly, cultural geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson noted with regard to foundational American iconography that “it is the grid, not the eagle, not the stars and stripes, which is our true national emblem” (Sense 153). The grid, in that it overwrites prior meanings and symbolic structures of the land, is a massively effective instrument of colonization. We may relate this to the beginning of this section and argue that the cultural work of the garden myth is to camouflage this violence by glossing over conflicts and contradictions through its configuration of the American West as an American pastoral that is suggestive of an organic, smooth, and well-measured sense of the (growth of the) nation - in rectangular squares and green fields.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics