Director’s Corner (NEMLA Blog Post #13)

Greetings from Chicago!

Construction season is in high gear on campus as fall weather finally makes its appearance.  In spite of the ongoing budgetary problems in Illinois, UIC has managed to put together enough of a capital projects fund to finish several longstanding plans for improving the campus.  One involves repairing the exterior of the building that houses my office (University Hall).  Right now the construction workers are jackhammering outside my office window.  A friend of mine from work put it best when she said that it sounds and feels like what a tooth must go through when you’re getting a root canal.  It’s very hard to focus in my office.  I’ll be glad when they’re done.

Bureaucratic report season is also in full swing.  I just filled out my annual Report of Non-University Activities (RNUA) form, which always reminds me of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate committee in the 1950s each time I fill it out.  All state faculty are now required under existing ethics laws to report sources of income in addition to their campus employment.  This has always seemed unfair to me for the lowest paid tier of faculty who often need to have multiple sources of non-university income to survive.  Chicago is becoming an increasingly more expensive place to live and income is fast being outpaced by the growing  cost in housing, healthcare, and services.  Soon to follow the RNUA report is my annual ethics test, which state employees can thank their two former governor’s (one in federal prison, one recently released) for inspiring.  And then, of course, there is the new Title IX test that will soon follow due to the ongoing epidemic of campus sexual assault and harassment.  Don’t get me wrong, I support ethical and moral behavior.  But no one told me when I decided to become a professor that I would have a “workflow” and that it would be a lot like working at Dunder Mifflin.  I guess this is what theorists mean when they talk about the new “Corporate University.”

In my last blog post, I promised to talk more about my current research interests.  For those of you who have read through my blog posts and writing samples on this site or (perhaps) have read my book (Come on, what are you waiting for?  You know you want to.), you know that my research has focused primarily over the years on veterans.  I’ve emphasized in particular how civilians in the United States during the Civil War portrayed those who served in the army and how that image conflicted with the ways in which veterans wanted to see themselves.  My current research emerges from these interests in an indirect way.  It started with the second chapter of my current book where I examine the career options available for Civil War soldiers as they came home from the war.  Among the most common career paths followed by these veterans was farming.  Winslow Homer’s well-known painting, The Veteran In a New Field, which graces the cover of my book, represents the pastoral ideal that appealed to many soldiers after the war.  In this image the viewer sees a man in his shirt sleeves cutting a field of grain.  Buried under the pile of wheat on the ground is his former army jacket and canteen.  These details are hard to discern without careful scrutiny of the painting, but once found they explain the title of the painting.

Homer’s painting evoked for its nineteenth-century audience a wide variety of associations between war and farming.  One would have been the image from Roman history of Cinncinnatus returning to his farm after serving as a general and political leader and the attempts by early Republican authors in the United States to portray George Washington as the New World’s Cinncinnatus.  Another would have been the image present in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, which describes the turning of swords into plows with the end of conflict.  In addition, viewers would have probably been aware of the land grant policies for veterans of previous US conflicts, which preceded the generous pension system created during the post Civil War period.  Added to these historical associations would have been the politcal rhetoric of free soilers, a major source of inspiration for the Republican Party in the Civil War Era.

All of these images of warriors turned farmers inspired soldiers to return to the farms they had left in order to fight the Civil War but also encouraged many men who had never used a plow to start a life tilling the soil.  Of course, the ideal of working the land as a farmer was far removed from the realities of nineteenth-century agriculture.  As I mention in my book, Homer’s image is somewhat anacronistic at a time when machinery was a common sight in the agrarian landscape.  Moreover, the veteran cutting grain works alone.  Harvesting was (and in many cases even today remains) a communal or group activity.  Yet, in spite of these inconsistencies, the image of the soldier turned farmer, and all the associations it contains, remains powerful in the national imagination of the United States.  One example from our own time in the Farmer Veteran Coalition and attempt to get veterans (primarily from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) back to the land.

Veterans served as the start of my current research project, but they are not the only focus of my new book.  As I’ve been reading early Republican discourse on farming in relation to US nataional identity, I have been struck by how strong the association is between citizenship and agriculture.  Jefferson and Crevecoeur are just two of the more obvious examples of public figures arguing for the importance of ties to the land in the process of turning immigrants into “Americans.”  Farming  and soldiering (as a citizen-soldier volunteer) are the two main paths to acceptance in the body politic during the nineteenth century.  The latter emphasizes the role of “sacrifice” to belonging and the former the role of “rootedness.”  Those who till the soil may not be chosen by God (as Jefferson suggests) but they are far less likely to be constantly on the move and thus disruptive to social stability.

But what takes root and how?  What humans thrive by contact with the soil and what humans do not?  This is the current set of questions that my research is trying to untangle.  When we talk about “weeds” and “cash crops” we are also talking about immigration.  Crevecoeur is right (to a certain extent) that people are like plants.  Where he errs is in his overly optimistic view of an immigrant’s chances in a new environment as well as his lack of awareness of the social contructedness of what counts as a good plant and what gets labelled a weed.

I’m also increasingly intrigued by the ways in which scholarship on agriculture has been walled off from that on the environment.  Agriculture and farmers are often portrayed as the enemy in environmentalist scholarship.  (Of course, this is slowly starting to change with the movement towards whole foods and heirloom crops.)  William Cronon’s work has been immensely useful to me for this reason.  In his first book, Changes In the Land, Cronon counters the concept of “wilderness” as a space untouched by human hands that exists in contrast to “cultivated lands.”  He says “The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem” (12).  

The next step for me is to learn more about the history of agricultural practices in the US.  I will share what I learn with you on this blog.  I’m also in the process of learning more about ecology and ecosystems.  If my blog’s readers have any works they would recommend that I read, feel free to comment on this post or email me directly.

Thanks for reading what has turned into an uncommonly long piece of writing this month.

Until Next Time….

John Casey

 

 

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