A two-century fight for the small, the local and the beautiful

November 20, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Wendell Berry comes from a venerable tradition of Southern Agrarians. Photo: Center for Interfaith Relations/Flickr.

Twentieth-century America witnessed the blossoming of Agrarianism as an intellectual and cultural movement. Its roots lay within the mythos of the early American Republic, which cast the self-sufficient yeoman farm family as the foundation of ordered liberty. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1785:

Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty by the most lasting bonds.

Similar early celebrations of Agrarianism came from Jean Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (Letters from an American Farmer, 1782) and John Taylor of Caroline (Arator, 1813). Such paeans to the largely self-sufficient family farm reflected certain realities of that era. In the fateful year of 1776, about 90 percent of all Americans resided on farms and plantations. Despite the rapid growth of factories and cities in the next century, the number of farms and persons on farms continued to grow, reaching peaks – respectively – of 6 million and 31 million in 1917.

Against the de-farming of America

By this time, however, there were also signs of stress within rural American life: a surge in bankruptcies followed by growing tenancy and sharecropping; challenges posed by new technologies and machines and their displacement of human labor; and a new commercialism, spurred on by advertising, that undercut the quest for self-sufficiency.

Modern Agrarianism emerged as a reaction seeking to justify, reconfigure, and promote the family farm as a way-of-life still suitable – even necessary – to the preservation of true democracy in the twentieth century.

These new agrarians included: Liberty Hyde Bailey, Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University and author of The Training of Farmers (1909), The Country-Life Movement in the United States (1911), and The Holy Earth (1916); Carle Zimmerman and Pitirim Sorokin, co-founders of the new discipline of rural sociology through their tome Principles of Rural-Urban Sociology (1929); and Louis Bromfield, author of the autobiographical novel The Farm (1933) and the non-fiction Pleasant Valley (1944).

The most representative early twentieth century American volume, though, was I’ll Take My Stand, by the Twelve Southerners loosely affiliated with Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. While their essays were not entirely consistent in argument, all twelve of the contributors agreed on “A Statement of Principles” which opened the book.

Notably, they yearned for simplicity, casting themselves as a community “opposed to industrialism and wanting a much simpler economy.” Vital to this would be the protection of labor as “one of the happy functions of human life,” since too little work and too much consumption led to “satiety and aimlessness.”

The Statement denounced modern advertising and “its twin, personal salesmanship” as aspects of “the great effort of a false economy of life to approve itself.” While acknowledging the sure need “for industries, for professional vocations, for scholars and artists, and for the life of cities,” their Agrarianism would situate agriculture as “the leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or for prestige,” a model that other professions should emulate.

Southerner who rose again

The theme of simplicity found its strongest application in the delightful chapter, “The Hind Tit,” by Andrew Lytle. He described the life patterns still to be found among the “plain people” on small farms in the Upland South.

In such homes, a quilting rack continued to hang from the ceiling, “ready to be lowered to the laps of the womenfolk when the occasion demands.” Household activity focused on the kitchen, where an iron range had replaced the old open fireplace. “This much machinery has added to the order of the establishment’s life without disrupting it.”

Here occurred “the canning and preserving necessary to sustain the family during the winter,” alongside the preparation of three bountiful meals each day. “The abundance of nature, its heaping dishes, it bulging-breasted fowls, deep-yellow butter and creamy milk, fat beans and juicy corn, and its potatoes flavored like pecans” filled the homestead with satisfaction, for the farm family did not yet look upon its produce “at so many cents a pound.” Rather, each dish consumed by the family bore a special meaning, for family members had as a body raised and created it.

Lytle also stressed how the Southern hill people held to a different sense of time. If wild game was in abundance or the fish were biting, “the boys might knock off a day and go fishing, or hunting.” Since their father did not yet keep a ledger, “their time is their own.” Naps followed the midday meal, while the evenings featured “play parties,” the sharing of “ballets” on guitar or fiddle, a “Sacred Harp” hymn sing, or a square dance (with its “very fine balance between group and individual action”).

Lytle vividly described as well the threats to this agrarian order. Good roads opened the rural economy up to salesmen from the asphalt, oil, and automobile companies.

The farmer traded in his horses for a truck and a tractor, both with notes bearing interest at the bank, forgetting that – unlike livestock – the machines could not reproduce themselves. The tractor also supplanted the tasks once done by the boys: “Thus begins the home-breaking. Time is money now, not property, and the boys can’t hang around the place.” Electrification had a related impact: “If his daughters had not already moved away, he would have to send them, for [the] Delco [generator] has taken their place in the rural economy.” Meanwhile, the farm wife now became “a drudge…She has changed from being a creator in a fixed culture to an assistant to the machines,” and she grew restless.

In response, Lytle urged Southerners “to return to our looms, our handcrafts, our reproducing stocks.” At the level of culture, “throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall. Forsake the movies for the play-parties and the square dances.”

Defector from the Mad Men

A different agrarian accent marked the contemporaneous work of Ralph Borsodi. Where Lytle wrote in the melodic cadence of the rural South, Borsodi used the direct language of New York City, which he called home.

He had begun his career as a consulting economist on Madison Avenue, working for leading corporations and trade associations. His early books dissected “The New Advertising” and the “Distribution Age.” However, his commentary grew sharply critical. Borsodi finally condemned modern advertising for creating artificial necessities in people’s lives that had “no economic or moral basis in fact.” He denounced laws governing joint-stock corporations for granting legal privileges (limits on liability, perpetual life, and the ability to issue stock and debt instruments to raise capital) that were denied to families and individuals. Borsodi also emphasized the artificial nature of large industry in the twentieth century, calling the massive factory “a steam-age relic rendered obsolete by the electrical age,” yet sustained by political favors.

On a related point, he rejected the modern assumption – shared by capitalists, communists, and fascists alike – “that mass production is the most efficient” method of securing goods and services. Using appropriate modern small tools, families could produce two-thirds of the things they needed. And he indicted industrialism as the source of family turmoil:

Against the family… the factory wages a ruthless war of extermination…. Industrialism seeks to root out individual devotion to the family and the homestead and to replace it with loyalty to the factory.

The same process had turned children into “economic catastrophes” for a household; a decent standard of living could be maintained “only on condition that we…sterilize ourselves.”

Borsodi’s alternative was to break ties with the artificial complexities of the industrial order, in favor of a revivified domestic economy. As he explained:

Family production is a program for folk who aim at virtue and happiness, and for whom the good life is represented by home and hearth, by friends and by children, by lawns and flowers.

The home must cease to be a mere consumption unit; once again, “it must be made into an economically creative institution.” A family on a specialized, industrial farm should “put down its farming to its own needs.” Meanwhile, “the non-farming family should farm enough to supply itself with the essentials of life.” Unlike Andrew Lytle, who dreaded the effects of electrification, Borsodi welcomed the advent of small-scale electrical and internal combustion engines; these, he argued, negated most productive advantages of the centralized factory and created ways to heal the breach between home and work.

This also made possible a liberation of human life from the crushing rigor of the clock: “Time is not money at all. Time is life itself.” In a renewed home economy, “young and old, strong and weak, can all contribute time to the creation of what the home needs and desires.” They could rediscover, as well, authentic means of celebration and re-creation: songs inherited from ancestors and the special rituals of dance. Such family activity, broadly defined, was “absolutely essential to the preservation of individual economic independence and freedom.”

And yet, this quest for a simplified economic life actually ran into a paradox at that level of the individual. Whatever its complexities in the realms of organization and exchange, industrialism did mandate an extreme simplification among factory workers. As Adam Smith had explained, economic gain came as workers ceased to be generalists doing many tasks tolerably well, becoming instead specialists ideally doing only one thing very quickly and very well. Managerial organization and a complex system of distribution would then satisfy human needs.

By the 1920s, several generations of industrial workers had come and gone without gaining the old knowledge of how to live in independence and family-centered security. As a result, modern city dwellers – even if provided “with all the tools and implements which the Swiss Family Robinson providentially found” – would during an emergency “die of exposure, of sickness, and of hunger,” so complete and “pathetic” was their dependence on factory-made goods.

In response, Borsodi resolved in 1933 to create The School of Living, a place that would retrain men and women in the skills of independent living. Built at the foot of the Ramapo Mountains north of New York City, this school operated through several departments.

The Homemaking Division focused on cooking, food preservation, and laundering. The cultivation of vegetable gardens and the care of poultry and dairy animals came under the Agricultural Division. The Craft Division taught furniture making and home spinning and weaving (using the advanced “Borsodi Loom”) while the Building Division provided training in home construction. Another department studied and taught methods for launching and maintaining a small home business. “Young couples planning for homes of their own are good prospects for entrance,” Borsodi wrote, and hundreds of “Borsodi Homesteads” could actually be found on the American landscape by decade’s end.

Modern-day Jefferson

World War II put an end to most mid-century agrarian dreams of a simplified, home-centered economic order. Promising developments during the 1920s and ‘30s were swept aside by the greatest centralizing, industrializing, and complex event in human history. Standing almost alone as a national voice for Agrarianism after 1960 was the novelist, poet, essayist, and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry.

He paid homage to Thomas Jefferson for advancing the ideal “that as many as possible should share in the ownership of the land” and so be bound to it “by the investment of love and work” and by family bonds, memory, and tradition. As had Andrew Lytle, Berry yearned “with a kind of homesickness” for the “naturalness of a highly-diversified, multi-purpose landscape, democratically divided” and “hospitable to the wild lives of plants and animals and to the wild play of human children.” Along with Ralph Borsodi, Berry shared enthusiasm for the recovery of self-sufficient farming. “Commercial farming must never be separated from subsistence farming,” he maintained. “The farm family should live from the farm.”

Berry did not normally use the language of simplicity, actually preferring sterner words. Writing in the essay “What Are People For?” he summarized: “We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do.” A proper economy “exists by the willingness to be anonymous, humble, and unrewarded.”

His critique of the complexities of the industrial order reached deep and included challenges to the foundational realm of science. He rejected, for example, attempts at biological categorization, arguing that lives – including those of animals – cannot be adequately explained by quantified generalizations. Indeed, science was a distraction: “We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children.” In place of the abstractions of science, Berry urged a return to pictures, stories, songs, and dances, through which the lives of creatures and people might find meaning.

Wendell Berry underscored the authentic power of community, a company of neighbors and friends with shared experiences who gave pleasure and meaning to private lives. The true community transcended individual lives. As one of Berry’s fictional characters explained:

He has heard the tread of his own people dancing in the ring, the fiddle measuring time to them, a voice calling them, through the steps of change and absence, home again, the dancers unaware of their steps, with only the music, older than memory, remembered.

As with earlier agrarians, Wendell Berry linked human happiness and destiny to a revitalized home economy. As he explained in his poem “The Farm”:

But don’t neglect your garden.
Household economy
Makes family and land
An independent state.
Never buy at a store
What you can grow or find
At home – this is the rule
Of liberty….

The act of creating this simple economy actually brought an inner peace:

In time of hate and waste,
Wars and rumors of wars,
Rich armies and poor peace
Your blessed economy,
Beloved sufficiency
Upon a dear, small place,
Sings with the morning stars.

Berry also focused on a distinct notion of time. He held that being fully human required submission to the rhythms of nature. The farmer found his place in “the Dear Opening between what was and is to be,” as he submitted to the natural flow and special conditions of his farm. In this way, “he became the man it asked him to be…he’d become the farm’s belonging, necessary to it.”

Living simply and well through the self-sufficiency of the home economy, finding meaning and identity in family and community as expressed through song and dance, and joyfully submitting to the cadences of nature: these were the common attributes of the American Agrarians.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher from Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future, a collection of essays profiling key historical figures whose lives served as examples of living simply.

– Allan Carlson, Transition Voice

Tags: agrarianism, personal resilience, relocalization, Wendell Berry