7 September 2013

This summer I’ve been reading a lot of Jim Harrison. Harrison grew up in northern Michigan, and many of his novels take place there. Two of his novels Farmer and The English Major feature main characters who are school teachers and farmers in northern Michigan. In both of the books, state land abuts the hero’s farm property. I am going to write a paper exploring the role of public lands in Harrison’s work, and their significance in the Midwestern pastoral tradition.
Pastoral literature has always positioned the farm as an ideal balance located between the congested city and the unsafe wilderness. For Harrison’s characters, the public land abutting their farms serves as a place of solitude. They go to the wild to escape the troubles of the outside world by fishing and hunting.
This theme in Harrison’s work provides a particularly interesting look at the Midwestern pastoral tradition, because it directly addresses the intersection of agriculture and conservation. One idea that I’m trying to develop in my writing is that the land grant university has been central in the formation of Midwestern culture. The university is a source of new ideas, and these ideas are spread beyond the boundaries of the university through alumni and the extension service. One of the key sources of ideology for the land grant university was the Country Life Commission.
Teddy Roosevelt called for the Country Life Commission in response to the exodus of young people from farms to cities. The commission was to investigate the conditions of rural life, and suggest reforms that might make farm life more desirable to rural people. The commission was chaired by Liberty Hyde Bailey a native of Michigan. The commission put education at the center of its reform program, and highlighted the ties between the need for conservation and successful agriculture.
Harrison would have been steeped in the ideas of the Country Life Commission. His father was an agriculturalist – presumably trained at Michigan State University. Harrison himself studied at Michigan State University. His characters are MSU graduates who are steeped in the literature of American pastoralism.
My paper, then, will explore the significance of agriculture and conservation in Harrison’s intellectual upbringing. Including this history in an analysis of his writing will give a deeper understanding to the world his characters inhabit.


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