Posts Tagged Yeoman Farmer
Greetings from Chicago!
Looking at my blog posts, it’s hard to believe that my last was in March. A lot of grading has happened since then as well as prep work for what promises to be a great conference in Pittsburg for NeMLA 2018. You can find a list of all the Calls for Papers here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp.
Every year Area Directors have the opportunity to promote sessions and roundtables on topics of interest to them or that they believe are under-represented at the conference. Among the sessions and roundtables I’ve proposed this year are:
What Counts As A War Story?
This roundtable will examine narratives of war that don’t fit the traditional mold of male-oriented and combat-centered fiction. After all, there are many ways to serve in the military and plenty of women in uniform. You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16693.
Material Culture Studies and American Literature
This panel examines the tension between objects and ideas in American fiction. What do U.S. authors have to say about the physical environment around them? How does it support or contradict their beliefs about the world? Papers on book and periodical history are also welcome. Especially when the author addresses their own concerns about the production and distribution of their work. You can submit an abstract for a paper to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/16694.
Teaching Disability in American Literature
This roundtable continues what was a fruitful discussion in Hartford, Connecticut on the topic of disability in American literature. I’d like abstracts to consider not only new texts to teach as part of a disability studies curriculum but also new ways of teaching disability in the classroom using fiction. You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/17059.
What Happened to the Reader?
This roundtable considers the experience of non-traditional and non-specialist readers of fiction. Presentations are especially welcome that examine teaching literary texts in not for credit courses and among non-traditional student populations. You can submit an abstract for a presentation to this session here: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/17060.
I hope you’ll consider submitting a proposal for NeMLA 2018. If you have any questions about the sessions I’ve proposed, please feel free to contact me about them.
Now on to the topic for this month’s blog post. Almost immediately after finishing up my grading and the session vetting for NeMLA 18 I jumped to the stack of books and articles in my writing space to start working on several projects that had been sitting, waiting for my attention for some time.
The first was a draft of an article based on my roundtable presentation in Baltimore on Drone Fiction. Plan to submit that article soon to a journal. The second was the manuscript of my second book on American Agriculture and Immigration that is slowly working its way into shape. Most of the writing I’ve done on this second project has been in the form of reading notes for the books I’ve finished and brainstorming sheets where I think my way through the concepts I’m reading about in the slowly reducing book pile next to my computer. I’d like to share some of that writing with you today.
From my reading on Agriculture in the U.S. so far, I’ve discovered three main issues. The first is that the concepts of Independence and Industry lead the debate over agrarianism and the agrarian ideal. I’m particularly interested in how the ideology of the physiocrats fits into this debate. Their view seems to be that the “best” immigrants are those who have an independent mindset while also being hard-working. This leads them to thrive and “take root” in the new soil in which they have been “transplanted.” The problem then becomes over time that the Yeoman ideal merges with the capitalist image of the entrepreneur. Can you truly say that you work for yourself when you employ a significant number of non-family workers? How does the nation feel about immigrant entrepreneurs? What counts as self-sufficiency? Writers like Jefferson clearly imagined a balance between independence and industry that historical events tip in favor of industry imagined in capitalist terms. Profit and efficiency become more important than the dream of a “competency” held by many early national writers (i.e. enough resources to support a comfortable life for one’s family without making them rich). Yet the image of the independent worker remains.
Second, a facile understanding of nature has hidden the distinction between the pastoral and the georgic in literary history. The pastoral is an urban and elitist view of the land that excludes the presence of workers and work. It is definitely a non-farmer’s view of the land. For better or worse, this mode of literary production in relation to nature has dominated discussions on non-urban life and shaped our view of nature as space “untouched” by humans (i.e. wilderness). Such spaces, as William Cronon suggests, don’t exist and never really have. Even the native people in the United States shaped their landscape to fit their needs. Georgic, in contrast to pastoral, is a working and highly complex landscape. People are part of the ecosystem in the georgic mode rather than intruders. The question is not, therefore, how to remove them from that space but to imagine a proper relationship to the land. How do we fit within the ecosystem? What do we do has humans to shape that system for better and for worse?
Third, like the “West” the Jeffersonian Agrarian Ideal of the Yeoman farmer was always already lost. Perhaps Jefferson looked out his window at the slaves tending his fields and created his writings on Yeoman farmers to distract him from that unpleasant reality. Whatever the case may be, the writings on farming in the United States are elegiac and mythic from the very beginning. We only see this, however, when we focus on the workers and the labor they engage in on the land rather than emphasizes the “virgin” wilderness.
That’s all for this post. I’m going to go back to that stack of books and keep reading. As I learn more, I’ll share it with you.
Until Next Time…..
Greetings from Chicago! If you’ve followed the news, you know that it is not a great time for higher education in Illinois. Hopefully the situation is less chaotic in your state. These are challenging years for scholars in literature and language and we need to organize more than ever to advocate for the importance of what we do. I hope this year’s conference in Hartford, Connecticut will help energize NEMLA members to keep up the good fight.
Last month I promised to provide my readers an sketch of my current research. If you’ve perused my blog or (hopefully) read my book, then you know my current interest in the lives of soldiers after war. In an essay I just completed for a collection on gender, war, and the U.S. military I highlight the semantic distinction between calling someone a “soldier” and calling someone a “veteran.” The former suggests a person still in uniform while the later leads us to assume that military service is a part of their past. Although it is hard to parse the difference sometimes between these words in scholarly discourse let alone in the general public, noticing and maintaining this distinction is an important part of my work. These words serve as a reminder that the legacy of war is not simply measured in treaties and deaths. The legacy of war walks all around us. Calling someone a veteran implies an open-ended commitment to creating meaning. Calling them a soldier places them within a clearly defined frame of reference and distances them and their service from society.
I’m not totally clear on how these insights might apply to naval personnel. One of my students, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, pointed out to me that my work emphasizes ground troops more than sailors. He also reminded me that two of our nation’s longest wars don’t have many recognized battles at sea, the Cold War and the current War on Terror. His observation is a reminder to me that when a scholar is paying attention to one set of connotations it is possible to miss another. It’s also an excellent example of why the term veteran makes a society so uneasy. The story is still be written through conversations between those who served, liked my student, and those who did not, like myself. Guilt sometimes makes us long for myth. It requires less introspection.
My interest in veterans began with a much larger interest in the metaphors we use that take on a mythic status through repeated use. It wasn’t until I was pretty far advanced into my research that I realized what I was doing was classic American Studies work along the lines of Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx. Veterans became my metaphor turned myth, a blank slate upon which society could project its hopes and fears. The next phase of my research will involve examining a myth closely associated with that of the veteran in United States culture, at least up to the Second World War–the Yeoman Farmer.
At this point in the conception of my latest project, I’m focused on analyzing two images. The first is the Winslow Homer painting, The Veteran In a New Field, that graces the cover of my book New Men and also appears in chapter two. Homer’s painting serves as the bridge between my previous research and this new area I’m exploring. In that image we see the soldier casting his uniform jacket down on the earth, rolling up his sleeves, and preparing to reap a seemingly endless field of wheat. The problem with this image, as I mention in my analysis of the painting in New Men, is that the solitary labor imagined in Homer’s image was not the reality for men in the nineteenth-century United States. Machinery had already begun to take on much of the harvesting work once undertaken by human power. Furthermore, in those communities that still relied solely on human labor for harvesting, more than one man would be needed to cut and bundle the grain. Homer’s painting thus evokes for viewers a myth that they know is a myth but still feels powerful. Solitary labor in the earth as part of a simple chain of production, distribution, and consumption. This pre-capitalist world was all but dead in 1865. However, the viewers wanted to believe not simply for the sake of their national values, which depended on the Yeoman Farmer and all he represented, but also because it represented an image of war smoothly turned to peace. The sword changed to plowshare (Isaiah) and the warrior come home to toil in the earth (Cincinnatus).
I wondered looking at that image why so many veterans returned from the war would choose a life of toil on small homesteads, especially those who had no prior connection to the land. My answer seemed to be that it was a healing myth. A way home from the battlefield and a visual assurance to civilians that the war was over.
The second image comes from J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters From An American Farmer. (Note: Here I am citing the Penguin Edition, 1981.) Imagined as a series of letters explaining America to those in Europe, his third letter, “What is An American?,” provides a powerful verbal metaphor. That of people as plants moved from one soil to another:
“In this great American asylum, the poor of Europe have by some means met together…Urged by a variety of motives, here they came. Everything has tended to regenerate them: new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men: in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mould and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger and war; but now, by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished!” (Crevecoeur, 68-69).
Farming provides a healing myth for the returning veteran. It also provides in this instance a way to imagine the connection of immigrants to their new home. “Ubi panis ibi patria” (69). Where your bread is there is your country, Crevecoeur proclaims. How much better that bread when it is made from wheat grown on your own land. Suddenly you feel “rooted” to your surroundings and begin to flourish.
Soldiers toiling for the state. Immigrants tilling the soil. The two are cut from the same cloth. Both are attempts to answer the question that has puzzled decades of U.S. citizens, What is an American? Each of the images (verbal and visual) that I have cited above lay claim to the same answer. Till the soil and then you will understand. Then you will be rooted to the land and will be one of us.
Obviously there are limitations to this metaphor. But I’ve gone on long enough.
That’s all for this post. In my next entry I will give a recap of this year’s NEMLA convention. Hopefully I will see some of you in Hartford.
Until Next Time…