Beyond the Fruited Plain: Food and Agriculture in U.S. Literature, 1850-1905

Beyond the Fruited Plain: Food and Agriculture in U.S. Literature, 1850-1905

Beyond the Fruited Plain: Food and Agriculture in U.S. Literature, 1850-1905

Beyond the Fruited Plain: Food and Agriculture in U.S. Literature, 1850-1905


Agriculture in the United States has changed dramatically in the last two hundred years. Economic transformation marked by the expansion of the industrial economy and big business has contributed to an increase in industrial food production. Amid this change, policymakers and cultural critics have debated the best way to produce food and wealth for an expanding population with imperialistic tendencies.

In a sweeping overview, Beyond the Fruited Plain traces the connections between nineteenth-century literature, agriculture, and U.S. territorial and economic expansion. Bringing together theories of globalization and ecocriticism, Kathryn Cornell Dolan offers new readings on the texts of such literary figures as Herman Melville, Frank Norris, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe as they examine conflicts of food, labor, class, race, gender, and time- issues still influencing U.S. food politics today. Beyond the Fruited Plain shows how these authors use their literature to imagine agricultural alternatives to national practices and in so doing prefigure twenty-first-century concerns about globalization, resource depletion, food security, and the relation of industrial agriculture to pollution, disease, and climate change.


It will not be doubted, that with reference either to individual, or National
Welfare, Agriculture is of primary importance. in proportion as Nations
advance in population, and other circumstances of maturity, this truth
becomes more apparent; and renders the cultivation of the Soil more and
more, an object of public patronage.

George washington, “National Board of Agriculture,” 41

In his last annual congressional address on December 7, 1796, President George Washington frames the early and lasting connection between agriculture and the United States. He joins the “circumstances of maturity” to the “advance in population” he foretells. Washington continues to discuss the need for developing U.S. agriculture in his personal correspondence. in a letter to Arthur Young, who would become the secretary of the British Board of Agriculture, Washington describes agriculture as “amongst the most favourite amusements of my life.” He is therefore understandably worried that the U.S. agricultural system of the era “is as unproductive to the practitioners as it is ruinous to the land-holders. Yet is pertinaciously adhered to”; he further argues, “To pursue a course of husbandry which is altogether different and new to the gazing multitude, ever averse to novelty in matters of this sort, and much attached to their old customs, requires resolution; and without a good practical guide, may be dangerous.” As early as the eighteenth century, then, the first U.S. president sought a new form of agriculture at the national level. While Thomas Jefferson would become more widely known for his . . .

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