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Voices in the wilderness.

The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, by Allan Carlson, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2000. 224 pp.

AGRARIANISM HAS ALWAYS FOUND a sympathetic place in the hearts of true American conservatives. Many of the American Founders, likewise, acutely aware of classical precedents, preferred the independence and virtue of an agrarian population schooled in pietas to the landless, degenerate mob whose instability and venality came to haunt ancient Rome. Jefferson and Madison looked with dread to the day when America's supply of uninhabited land would be exhausted, and more and more men would be forced to make their livings as mere wage laborers--no longer the proud owners of their own parcel of earth but miserable adjuncts in an impersonal network of economic relationships.

In The New Agrarian Mind, Allan Carlson, who has written prolifically and with insight on issues relating to the family, surveys a series of agrarian thinkers spanning the twentieth century, beginning with Liberty Hyde Bailey and concluding with present-day author Wendell Berry. His assessment is mixed, as it should be:
  They sought to preserve the family unit as the foundation of society.
  They worked to encourage and protect the high fertility of rural
  Americans and the place of the countryside as the nursery of the
  nation. They promoted the economic democracy that would be derived
  from a wide and fairly equal distribution of land and other productive
  property. And they stressed the vital importance of the working home
  on the farm as the primary social integrator.... [T]hey also tended to
  hold other, more curious shared assumptions: a deep faith in
  technology as the friend of the subsistence farmer and smallholder;
  hostility to organized religion in general, and to fundamentalist and
  sectarian Christianity in particular; faith in the power of
  progressive social engineering; and full support for mass education,
  from the grade school through the university and beyond.

Carlson's first chapter consists of an overview of the contributions of Liberty Hyde Bailey, an important figure of the early twentieth century who created what became known as the Country Life movement. Bailey's movement sought to "build a new rural civilization." His lectures impressed no less a luminary than President Theodore Roosevelt, who urged Bailey to chair a new National Commission on Country Life. "At the conceptual level," Carlson writes, "Roosevelt shared many ideas with Bailey, including concerns over family deterioration and fertility decline and faith in the progressive spirit." The Commission's 1909 report bore an introduction by Roosevelt himself, who remarked: "We were founded as a nation of farmers, and in spite of the great growth of our industrial life it still remains true that our whole system rests upon the farm, that the welfare of the whole community depends on the welfare of the farmer. The strengthening of country life is the strengthening of the whole nation."

Carlson's selection of Bailey as the opening subject of his study makes sense from more than a merely chronological point of view. For all his insight and his laudable commitment to the reinvigoration of agrarian life, Bailey fell into the series of errors and misjudgments, outlined above, that would be replicated by a whole array of New Agrarian thinkers who followed him. And although his National Country Life Association continued to be influential into the 1950s, in Carlson's view his legacy was this series of unfortunate and gravely fallacious themes that haunted the various strains of agrarian thought throughout the twentieth century.

One of the bright lights of the agrarian movement between the 1930s and 1950s was Father Luigi Ligutti, an Italian-born priest who settled down to do parish work in western Iowa in the 1920s. Ligutti injected a vibrancy into a National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) that had lain on the periphery of the life of the Church since its inception in 1923. Its founder, Father Edwin V. O'Hara, had established the NCRLC "to provide care for underprivileged Catholics living on the land, to retain on the land those Catholics who were already there, to settle still more Catholics in rural areas, and to convert non-Catholics in the countryside." O'Hara emphasized that the Church's "burning concern" with farming could be traced to "the altogether unique relationship which exists universally between the agricultural occupation and the central institution of Christian, nay, of all civilization; namely, the family."

Ligutti himself once observed that the "most powerful of all positive arguments" for the agrarian vision was that farm life conduced so well to stable family life. "It is the farm home that furnishes the most natural habit at for the family. There alone under our present industrial concentration and specialization we find the father and mother as King and Queen of the home, there we find the children as economic assets and not liabilities." For this reason, Ligutti worked tirelessly to reinvigorate the NCRLC and to make this vision a living reality for as many Catholics as he could.


According to Carlson, Ligutti avoided some of the pitfalls of his fellow agrarian theorists by returning "both technological innovation and the machine to positions subordinate to family life and the needs of the human personality"; he also "boldly and correctly proclaimed the necessary bond of religious faith to any Agrarianism that might survive in the turbulent modern era." Still, even Ligutti fell short of Carlson's fuller and more thoroughgoing conception of the demands of agrarianism. "It was not enough to be in farming and to attend Mass and otherwise remain in the world," Carlson suggests. "Experience would show that only a conscious, religiously motivated withdrawal from the dominant culture was adequate to the task."

It may come as a surprise to some readers that even the Southern agrarians of I'll Take My Stand fame, the 1930 agrarian cri de coeur, were themselves by no means free of the misconceptions that Liberty Hyde Bailey injected into agrarian discourse. It is true, as Carlson acknowledges, that a few of them were sympathetic to some form of traditional Christianity, in particular Donald Davidson and Allan Tate; the latter's conversion to Catholicism was intimately connected with Tate's unease with the modern world and his perception that the Church alone could resist its encroachments. Carlson might have gone even further here, since Davidson, while not himself an orthodox believer, nevertheless viewed Southern fundamentalism with warmth and sympathy. "Fundamentalism," he once remarked, "in one aspect is blind and belligerent ignorance; in another, it represents a fierce clinging to poetic supernaturalism against the encroachments of cold logic; it stands for moral seriousness. The Southerner should hesitate to scorn these qualities, for, however much they may now be perverted to bigoted and unfruitful uses, they belong in the bone and sinew of his nature as they once belonged to Milton, who was both Puritan and Cavalier." What the 1925 Scopes Trial boiled down to, Davidson argued, was the question of "how far science, which is determining our physical ways of life, shall be permitted also to determine our philosophy of life."

However, Davidson and Tate were a distinct minority among the Vanderbilt agrarians. Carlson identifies within their thought many of the misconceptions of other twentieth-century agrarians: "a certain hostility toward the very folk they sought to defend; damaging criticism of the Christian faith actually found in rural America; a residual faith in technology; a misplaced belief in the prevailing course of history; and a schizophrenic attitude toward the peasant life."

The agrarian thinkers of Carlson's study were all more or less agreed that the forces of technology and modernization, of centralized government and large corporations, had combined to usurp, or at least to redirect, many of the functions that at one time had been carried out in the home. Stripped of these functions, the integrity of the household had begun to atrophy. Yet the idea of home schooling, which would eventually reclaim for the household perhaps the most essential task of all, seems scarcely to have occurred to them. This oversight is especially striking in the case of economist and author Ralph Borsodi (the subject of Carlson's third chapter), who home schooled his own children. The Borsodi family, in fact, discovered that a mere two hours a day of course work sufficed to keep pace with public school children. The rest of the time could be spent "reading and [with] creative activities in the garden, the kitchen, and the workshop." In spite of this, neither Borsodi nor any other major agrarian thinker seriously proposed home schooling as a way to revitalize the functionality of the home. This failure of the agrarian imagination is attributable, at least in part, to the hostility that Carlson identifies among New Agrarian thinkers toward the values of many farming families. Thus education in the home would, in their view, only reinforce the very religious and parochial prejudices that the New Agrarians, with their emphasis on social engineering and progressive themes in education, sought anxiously to uproot.

One of the central illusions that Carlson identifies throughout the work of the New Agrarians is their conviction that the world was tending naturally in the direction of decentralization, with some going so far as to suggest that if only the artificial, state-sanctioned props to the modern industrial order--like special incorporation laws, and even outright subsidies--were removed, agrarianism would flourish once more. Improvements in agriculture and the development of amazingly productive labor-saving devices made such a scenario rather unlikely. Thus in 1900, Carlson points out, 150 man-hours of labor were required to produce 100 bushels of corn. At the century's close, only three man-hours were necessary. Ceteris paribus, this meant "the displacement of forty-nine out of every fifty farmers."

Those are sobering numbers. And they serve also to deflate another of the New Agrarians' convictions: that technological advance would be a more or less unmitigated boon for agrarianism. In fact, of course, the fairly obvious consequence of agricultural innovations has been to displace human labor. From a strictly economic standpoint, of course, this makes perfect sense: labor that had originally been employed in agriculture is now freed for use in other areas of production, thus increasing the overall stock of wealth. At the same time, it spells certain doom for a way of life that so many thoughtful Americans have believed worth preserving.

In order, then, to preserve the agrarian tradition and to carve out some kind of sustainable existence for a smaller scale, non-corporate agriculture, a force far stronger than mere economics is necessary. And it is here that we can fully appreciate the short-sightedness--to put it charitably--of the New Agrarians' denunciations of traditional Christianity. Where, Carlson asks, do we see the agrarian project not only surviving but also actually expanding over the course of the twentieth century? As one example, Carlson points to the Old Order Amish, who grew from a mere 5,000 in 1900 to 150,000 in 2000. "In sum," Carlson concludes, "the negative and positive lessons of twentieth-century America suggest that a sustainable rural community can survive in a democratic society only within a strong religious context" (emphasis in original). He goes on:
  The surprising reality ... is that the virtues of family, fertility,
  neighboring, and autonomy would survive together only among American
  sectarians in the universally condemned Anabaptist, fundamentalist.
  Pentecostal, and monastic dispensations. Only a commitment to a
  radical "separation from the world," with eyes firmly fixed
  heavenward, gave sufficient power to individuals in communities to
  overcome the lures, appetites, and pressures of the full
  industrialization of life and to motivate rural dwellers to become
  good stewards of both land and community.

The agrarian vision has by no means been lost at century's end, Carlson contends. "If understood at its core as the effort to rebuild working homes sheltering fertile and economically autonomous families, then the New Agrarian vision survives and even expands on the social margins at this century's end: in the separatist, otherworldly pietistic fundamentalisms of Christianity and Judaism; and in the revolutionary cells that constitute home schools." The irony of all this, Carlson writes, "is that these were perhaps the very last places that the New Agrarians thought to look for answers."

What Allan Carlson has written, therefore, is a book of unusual insight, one that is at once sympathetic to New Agrarian concerns and critical of their often serious misjudgments. The concluding chapter of The New Agrarian Mind offers a persuasive case for what will be necessary to ensure that the beautiful conception of the family, the household, and life itself embodied in the agrarian vision shall not perish, but continue to flourish in the years to come.

THOMAS E. WOODS, JR. is a professor of history at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, New York and author of The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era (Columbia University Press, 2004).
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Title Annotation:The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America
Author:Woods, Thomas E., Jr.
Publication:Modern Age
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Previous Article:Christian political discourse.
Next Article:Trivializing American conservatism.

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