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American Georgics

American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land

Edwin C. Hagenstein
Sara M. Gregg
Brian Donahue
Foreword by Wes Jackson
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    American Georgics
    Book Description:

    From Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to Michelle Obama's White House organic garden, the image of America as a nation of farmers has persisted from the beginnings of the American experiment. In this rich and evocative collection of agrarian writing from the past two centuries, writers from Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur to Wendell Berry reveal not only the great reach and durability of the American agrarian ideal, but also the ways in which society has contested and confronted its relationship to agriculture over the course of generations.

    Drawing inspiration from Virgil's agrarian epic poem,Georgics, this collection presents a complex historical portrait of the American character through its relationship to the land. From the first European settlers eager to cultivate new soil, to the Transcendentalist, utopian, and religious thinkers of the nineteenth century, American society has drawn upon the vision of a pure rural life for inspiration. Back-to-the-land movements have surged and retreated in the past centuries yet provided the agrarian roots for the environmental movement of the past forty years. Interpretative essays and a sprinkling of illustrations accompany excerpts from each of these periods of American agrarian thought, providing a framework for understanding the sweeping changes that have confronted the nation's landscape.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17184-6
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, General Science, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-xii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    Wes Jackson

    We moderns, with or without an agrarian disposition, need the essays in this book as touchstones for our thoughts and to inform our actions. And to have agrarian scholarship informed by direct experience on the landscape, as Edwin Hagenstein, Sara Gregg, and Brian Donahue have had—well, that is a big plus!

    The change on the land covered by this collection, 1780 to the present, goes far beyond that of any other period since the beginning of agriculture. These pages represent the codification of events and ideas during the great transition from a world running on contemporary sunlight to one...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xx)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1781 in hisNotes on the State of Virginia. “Generally,” he continued, “the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption.”

    If Jefferson was right, then by his measure the...

  6. 1. Shaping the Agrarian Republic, 1780–1825
    (pp. 9-55)

    The United States began as a nation of farmers. The vast majority of Americans worked the land, and for many of them farming represented a state of economic independence and self-determination that was as essential to their own sense of well-being as to the health of a democratic republic. But would the political institutions of the new nation be framed in ways that upheld these ideals? What would be the place of agriculture in the country’s rapidly but fitfully growing economy? These were questions that animated not only the nation’s leading thinkers and politicians but a few million American farmers....

  7. 2. A Nation of Farmers: The Promise and Peril of American Agriculture, 1825–1860
    (pp. 57-103)

    In an 1817 letter to François de Marbois, Thomas Jefferson reflected on the health of the American experiment in republican government. He compared the fate of the French and American revolutions over the intervening years. “Our lot has been happier. When you witnessed our first struggles in the war of independence, you little calculated, more than we did, on the rapid growth and prosperity of this country,” Jefferson commented. He went on to predict that America’s good fortune would “proceed successfully for ages to come” and remarked that his hopes depended on “the enlargement of the resources of life going...

  8. 3. The Machine in the Garden: The Rise of American Romanticism
    (pp. 105-147)

    There is not much hard evidence that farmers have no love of nature. Those (including some farmers) who make fun of Romantics often seem to consider it self-evident that only people who are free of the grim reality of wresting a living from the soil can enjoy the luxury of finding beauty in the fields, woods, and wild things. But the relationship between farmers and nature has rarely been so starkly adversarial. Certainly no farmer would be likely to mistake nature’s cruel side, but then, neither would any other human being who has ever been sick or watched a loved...

  9. 4. Agriculture in an Industrializing Nation, 1860–1910
    (pp. 149-197)

    If there were an easy correlation between the destructive power expended in the Civil War and the nation’s reserves of energy for facing its postbellum future, one might have expected the United States to subside into exhaustion. Yet something like the opposite happened. Despite occasional economic slumps, the nation entered a period of remarkable growth after 1865 that dramatically reshaped its geographic and social landscape. These conditions presented many farmers with seemingly insurmountable challenges and set the stage for a mass movement to protect their standing from the rapid rise of competing interests. By most estimates that movement failed, and...

  10. 5. Agrarians in an Industrial Nation, 1900–1945
    (pp. 199-249)

    By 1900 the United States was poised to realize an urban, industrialized future. Yet coupled with the growing nation’s optimism was a deep and pervasive anxiety about the American way of life. The nineteenth century had closed with the resounding defeat of the Populist program, and the age of agricultural movements appeared at its end. Many Americans still wondered how a democracy founded upon independent producers should adapt to an increasingly centralized economy of wage laborers. How would the new industrial paradigm affect the American countryside and its people? If the number of city-dwellers continued to increase while the number...

  11. 6. Southern Agrarianism, 1925–1940
    (pp. 251-297)

    If, as economists say, there is no free lunch, then how do we fully account for economic growth? The benefits of modernization may be obvious, but the questions “What is the cost?” and “Who pays?” often prove more elusive. Cutting against the grain of American optimism about economic development, during the 1920s and 1930s the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers centered at Vanderbilt University, set out to calculate the cultural price paid for industrialization. In their manifestoI’ll Take My Stand, the Agrarians attacked narrow economic thinking and centralized economic power, which they believed would ultimately destroy rural communities,...

  12. 7. Back to the Land Again, 1940–Present
    (pp. 299-367)

    The trajectory of Scottish poet Edwin Muir’s life, which began on a remote Orkney farm in 1887 and lasted well into the atomic age, illustrates how compressed recent history has become. “I was born before the Industrial Revolution,” he wrote in a diary, “and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them.” The rapid succession from an agricultural to an industrial to a postindustrial economy casts Muir’s claim that the farm is at the heart of civilization into sharp relief, in America as elsewhere. For the second half of the twentieth...

  13. Conclusion: American Agrarianism in the Twenty-first Century
    (pp. 369-376)

    The dawn of the twenty-first century has revealed what might possibly be mistaken for a new wave of agrarianism sweeping the nation. Within the past decade, a renewed appreciation for connection with soil and community has captured the interest of a growing and influential segment of American food culture. Recent years have brought upsurges in community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms that distribute local produce to urban and suburban subscribers, as well as in urban community gardens from Chicago’s City Farm to corner lots in New York City. Every week theNew York Timesseems to feature another article about a Wall...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 377-390)
  15. Selection Credits
    (pp. 391-392)
  16. Index
    (pp. 393-406)