23 March 2013

The text below is from a note I wrote to a scholar.

“I am currently preparing a paper to be presented at this years Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature Annual Symposium. My paper is entitled “A Means to an End: Midwestern Pastoralism and John Steuart Curry’s Residency at the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture.” I am writing to you today to see if you might provide some advice on secondary sources I might consult. I am specifically interested in portrayals of agriculture in the products of New Deal arts programs. In this note I will explain the nature of my paper, explain why I have contacted you, and explain the specific topic I hope you might be able to suggest sources for.

I am on a panel hosted by Professor William Barillas of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and the “Midwestern pastoral” of my title refers to his recent book of the same name. In my paper, I will try to situate Curry’s work and his time as artist in residence within Barillas’ definition of the Midwestern pastoral tradition. Barillas identifies the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal, utilitarian individualism, and romantic individualism as the key traits of Midwestern pastoral. As I read Barillas’ book, the College of Agriculture and Curry’s time there seemed to me to be particularly relevant to Barillas’ topic. The pharse “a means to an end” in my title is taken from an address that Dean Chris Christensen of the College of Agriculture gave when he was explaining his choice to bring Curry to his department. Christensen was heavily influenced by the Danish folk school movement, which took a broad and interdisciplinary approach to rural education. He noted that the college’s work to improve productivity and efficiency in agriculture (utilitarianism) is merely a means to the end of achieving a healthy and comfortable rural culture (Jeffersonian agrarianism) . As artist in residence, Curry would be available to the residents of Wisconsin so that they might have just as much access to the arts as urbanites (romanticism).

I came to your work through Problems of Plenty, which I consulted because I wanted to be able to consider my topic within the broader history of American agriculture. Your book made me realize the particular urgency of reinvigorating rural culture in 1936 (the year Curry came to Wisconsin). The New Deal arts programs were designed to restore faith in American social, economic and political systems generally. I want to situate Curry within the context of other artists who were depicting scenes of American agriculture around this time. I know that agriculture is well represented in New Deal art, but I am having difficulty finding sources that address the topic directly.

You seem particularly well positioned to provide advice on this topic. I know you’ve done work on the New Deal agricultural programs, the Midwest, and Thomas Hart Benton. Your work has been on my radar for some time now, and part of my hope in reaching out to you is that I may open a dialogue. I had a disappointing round of graduate school applications for the fall of 2013, but, whether inside or outside of academia, I indent to continue my work. Influenced by Daniel Singal’s work on the South, I’ve termed my research field Midwestern intellectual and cultural history. The project I’ve described here is indicative of the sort of work I intend to do going forward, and I anticipate your scholarship being very useful to me.”

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