Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Passion Transfigured": Barren Ground and the New Agriculture

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Passion Transfigured": Barren Ground and the New Agriculture

Article excerpt

"Why was it so difficult, she wondered, to bring people to accept either a new idea or a new object?"(1)

ELLEN GLASGOW'S BARREN GROUND (1925) REFLECTS a significant early twentieth-century debate over the definition of American agriculture. Depicting an agriculture rooted in urban industrialism, Glasgow's novel defines farming as a business by promoting a farm economy built on market speculation, rapid technological change, strict divisions of labor, and dependence on university experts. In contrast, most farmers defended agriculture as a way of life; they conflated management and labor in the farmer, practiced proven rather than experimental farm methods, assigned work and property intrinsic value aside from their exchange value, and looked to the local community as the best source of agricultural knowledge. Dorinda Oakley's rise from daughter of a "`land poor'" farmer (p. 7) to an independent agribusinesswoman managing two reclaimed farms suggests that Barren Ground champions an urban insistence on the application of industrial techniques to agriculture.

In framing the novel's time and place, the narrator situates Barren Ground squarely within this agricultural debate, noting that "Thirty years ago, modern methods of farming, even methods that were modern in the benighted eighteen-nineties, had not penetrated to this thinly settled part of Virginia" (p. 4). Contemporary reviews paid much attention to the novel's farm focus: "Back to the Soil," "Soil and Soul," or "Down on the Farm."(2) One reviewer argues that "Dorinda's long struggle with the land somehow resembles a success story from an agricultural magazine."(3) The pervasiveness of such readings prompted Glasgow to counter that her novel was not concerned with "[s]ystems of agriculture."(4) But defining farm practices as systematic only underscores her assumption that agriculture can, in fact, be systematized, a belief touted by agricultural reformers but one not held by all farmers. Unfortunately, many recent critics simply follow Glasgow's lead, asserting that the text is "responsive to Southern agrarian sentiment,"(5) claiming that Dorinda is "the mythic, golden-age laborer, kin to and wedded to the soil, affirming the old agrarian values,"(6) and concluding that the novel is meant "to accord with the pastoral ideal."(7) Such conclusions obscure how Barren Ground reflects its historical moment's radical redefinition of agriculture, a redefinition which guaranteed the rapid expansion of urban industry and led to the dispossession and displacement of millions.(8)

Just as Barren Ground begins in the 1890s, so do efforts to redefine the American farmer in industrial terms.(9) As early as 1890 Farm Journal proclaims: "We farmers are manufacturers, and when we adopt the successful manufacturers' emphatic methods we shall succeed as well as they." The Journal promoted abandoning old methods for the "newest and best," using "[h]ard thought [to] evolve new plans," and finding "shorter, cheaper methods ... to supersede the older."(10) In 1907 Kenyon Butterfield, a founder of rural sociology, urged Americans to "eliminate" the farmer who "is dazzled by the romantic halo of the good old times" and to replace him with the "new farmer" who is characterized by "keenness, business instinct, readiness to adopt new methods ... he is a successful American citizen who grows corn instead of making steel rails."(11)

Redefining the farmer became a "national issue" in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt created the Country Life Commission to study "the problem of farm life."(12) The Commission defined "two great classes of farmers: those who make farming a real and active constructive business, as much as the successful manufacturer or merchant makes his effort a business; and those who merely passively live on the land."(13) In contrast to those who "refused to become modern," the new farmer's "business [was] gradually assuming the form of other capitalized industries. …

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