5 May 2013

Michael Pollan’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness is his romanticism. The passion that he brings to his topic allows him to write about food in a way that captures his reader’s imagination and inspires them to change their eating habits. There has been a movement to change the way we eat and grow food in America at least since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until Pollan’s 2006 The Omnivore’s Dilemma that food issues have come to the fore in our popular discourse. Pollan approaches his topic with enough imagination that he is able to show the connections between food and nearly all of the major social ills facing America today. This passion is undoubtedly an important and vital part his popularity and makes him an essential part of the history of the movement to change the way we eat and grow food in America.

Though approaching a topic with passion and romanticism is an effective way to gain support from your readers, it is not always the best way to understand an incredibly complex situation. While Pollan’s imagination allows him to make interesting connections, he often is guilty of oversimplifying. Pollan’s worst crime is the way in which he approaches history. Pollan’s complaint with the contemporary food system is entirely historical. We are experiencing the problems we find ourselves with today because of a changes that have occurred in our food system as it has become industrialized, says Pollan. The solution, too, is based on historical knowledge. One of Pollan’s central dictums is not to eat something that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.


28 April 2013

Below is the text of a letter I wrote to the author of this article:

“I just finished reading the excerpt of your book published on Salon.com yesterday. This was my first exposure to your writing, and I am happy to see that someone is taking a critical approach to understanding the food movement. I like that you wrote sympathetically of the very real and legitimate concerns of the foodies, but that you did not shy away from pointing out the historical inaccuracies that much of the foodie mythos is based upon. As the food movement grows and matures, critical voices like yours are vital to ensure that the food movement remains a relevant force for good and progress, and not a breeding ground for upper middle class nostalgia fueled by liberal guilt.

As a non-professional scholar working in American intellectual and cultural history, I am interested in the intellectual heritage of the contemporary food movement. It is easy and I don’t think overly simplistic to draw a line backwards from Pollan to Wendell Berry to the Southern Agrarians of the 1920s and 1930s. Their I’ll Take My Stand: The South and The Agrarian Tradition is a reactionary and racist response to the modernization of the South after the Civil War that pines for a the pre-war agrarian idyll. Berry was an unequivocal supporter of the Agrarians, and even wrote an essay defending them from claims of racism. With such an intellectual heritage, it is perfectly logical that the food movement should be so susceptible to nostalgia.

My work focuses on the intellectual tradition of the Midwestern land grand universities, and their contribution to the modernization of agriculture. Though much of the intellectual effort that supported the industrialization of agriculture bemoaned by the foodies took place at Midwestern land grand universities, a study of the ideas behind their efforts does not support the evil corporations trying to control our lives thesis that the food movement posits. It is, rather, a complex story of farmer’s often conflicting desires to participate in the consumer economy while maintaining their independence.

While the foodie narrative relies upon considering the past based on contemporary problems, I am attempting to consider the impact of the land grant university by considering the perspective of the historical actors. This is a rather banal and completely un-novel perspective used by any historian worthy of the title, but it seems to be used precious little by the food movement. While the industrialization of agriculture has had undeniably negative environmental and social consequences, we cannot reject the intellectual tradition that spurred industrialization unless we are willing to reject the truly progressive ideas behind it. The land grant university idea is to use the power and wealth of a democratically elected government to foster scientific research that will improve the lives of common farmers and citizens.

Again, I am happy to see your voice included in the conversation about the way we eat, and I look forward to reading your book and anything else you write.”

24 April 2013

Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax offers sharp insights into contemporary culture. He equates the contemporary quest for “authenticity “in Western culture to conspicuous consumption, terming it conspicuous authenticity. Authenticity is anti-modern, anti-industrial and anti-capitalist. In the past 30-40 years the downsides of modernity, industrialization, and capitalism had become glaringly obvious. The trappings of the modern age are well on the way to ruining our environment and have undermined traditional social structures that leave modern people feeling isolated.

It is not without reason, then, that the authenticity mongers have turned away from the modern. Potter’s point is that our lives are inextricably linked to the trappings of modernity. By making a lifestyle of persistent authenticity seeking, we are replacing one type of consumption – conspicuous – with another.

From my perspective, the problem with the quest for authenticity is that it can take attention away from all too real problems. Perhaps the best example of this is in food and agriculture. One of the grandfathers of the authenticity mongers, Michael Pollan, told the readers of The Omnivore’s Dilemma that the best food to eat is that which takes place the fewest places removed from you. Pollan has inspired an army of backyard gardeners and an entire class of people who insist upon harassing their waiters about where their food comes from.

The food movement is a lifestyle. Adherents shop at organic co-ops, make social outings to the farmers market on weekends, and participate with a local Community Supported Agriculture farm. A new publication called Modern Farmer began publishing this month to serve those involved in the organic lifestyle. The target audience is, “it is for window-herb growers, career farmers, people who have chickens, people who want to have chickens and anyone who wants to know more about how food reaches their plate.” The “modern farmer”, then, is not only the “career farmer” but now includes anyone who even wants to have chickens (which is nearly every educated liberal). Modern Farmer is on the vanguard of forming the aspirational lifestyle brand that is organic.

In the inaugural issue of Modern Farmer, there is an essay entitled “In Defense of the Rural.” The position of a magazine called Modern Farmer towards the rural is important. Though urban farming is socially important and may provide a important source of fresh vegetables for urban dwellers, a majority of American’s caloric intake will continue to be produced in rural America.

Thomas Jefferson imbued America with a strong agrarian spirit. From the dawn of the industrial era, there were worries about the health of rural America. The concerns were both pragmatic – with so many people leaving farms for cities there would be no one to grow crops – and romantic – without a thriving rural culture there will be no source of American values. The contemporary romanticism of farming and the rural, then, has a long and storied past. Analyzing what form these fantasies take is useful for understanding the contemporary relationship to the rural.

The author of “In Defense of the Rural” grew up in the suburbs, and had no particular desire to move to the country. His father, it seems, had longstanding rural fantasies, and moved his family to the country when he found a suitable piece of land. Happy for the relative cosmopolitanism his suburban lifestyle afforded him, the author moved to the country reluctantly, but found himself taken with the beauty of the countryside when he was there. In fact, the biggest advantage of his time in the country was learning an appreciation for beauty.

Now residing in New York City, the author describes himself as an “enthusiastic” part of the problem of rural decline. His time on the farm turned him into an idler and a dreamer. This puts him strongly in the tradition of Jefferson who had slaves to run his farm and allow him time to be an idler and a dreamer. This does not seem like a desirable lesson to be learned from rural life now though.


22 April 2013

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about John Steuart Curry and the Rural Arts Program he was involved in for a paper I am preparing. The Rural Arts Program was run by Curry and John Rector Barton – a rural sociologist at Madison and the director of the Farm Short Course. Curry and Barton established the program to enhance rural culture.

Beginning at the start of the 21st century, there was increasing concern for the state of rural culture in America. The various concerns found their voice in the Country Life movement. The Country Life movement sought to improve rural child education, roads, and vocational education.

Assessing the impact of the Country Life movement is difficult. For one thing, the goal of many reformers was to slow the migration of young people to the cities. This never occurred, and rural populations continue to dwindle. On the other hand, reformers achieved many of the concrete reforms they desired. Wisconsin has some of the best rural roads in the country, and we have the Country Life movement to thank for it.

Though it might be easy to argue that Country Life reformers were misguided agrarian romantics, I’m inclined to believe that their efforts were not in vain. Everything about my life has been influenced by them. Both of my parents grew up on dairy farms, and attended state university agricultural programs. I benefitted from growing up with college educated parents, and got a solid education at a rural school. The fact remains that there are and will continue to be people living in rural areas that need good education and roads. Though some of the rhetoric behind the impetus for rural reform might be tinged with romanticism, there remains a very real need for a thriving rural culture.

The same questions are applicable to Curry’s art and his work with the rural arts program. It is easy to see his paintings and the paintings of rural artists that he encouraged as hopelessly romantic. When compared with the shocking and blatantly challenging work of his modernist contemporaries, Curry’s work is easily mistakable as charming and tame.

Even in a picture as tame as his 1940 Donald Rockview Farm, there is a great deal of history. The picture features and idyllic farm scene with a landmark rock formation in the background. The farm depicted was owned by John Sweet Donald, who was a professor in agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin and a progressive politician.

16 April 2013

I’m reading Ray Allen Billington’s biography of Frederick Jackson Turner. The book is fantastic. Billington writes well and brings an obvious passion to his topic. Though I sometimes wonder if he exaggerates Turner’s genius, I’m content to go along with Billington and read a few critical reviews to balance him out. I’ve long had a hunch that Turner is a central figure in the study of Midwestern intellectual and cultural history. My reading of the book confirms these suspicions.

Billington argues that Turner’s upbringing in post-frontier era Wisconsin was important to the development of his frontier thesis. Turner saw that what was going on in his home region was essential to the understanding of American history. The importance of the west wasn’t respected by the East Coast intellectual establishment. If the frontier was essential to the development of the American character, then the closing of the frontier at the end of the 20th century was important. Turner and others wondered what would happen in a post-frontier world. As he wrote, “the future of the republic is with her [the Midwest].”

I’m reading the bio, alongside my reading in preparation for my paper on John Steuart Curry and Midwestern pastoralism. Turner’s contention that American democracy was forged in the frontier – a space between but not of wilderness and civilization – bears an unmistakable resemblance to literary pastoralism. I’ve not gotten into the historigraphical arguments about the thesis, but I can see that it would be easy to argue that Turner’s ideas were merely the Jeffersonian agrarian myth cloaked in a veneer of scientific evidence.

One of the main problems of studying the Midwest is its seeming lack of regional distinctiveness. As Turner anticipated and as has come to fruition, the Midwest has come to be seen as the typically American region. I would argue that, as the scholarship of the Midwest advances, this lack of regional distinctiveness will emerge as the most distinctive trait of the region.

For now though, any study of the Midwest must consider the fact that the scholarly foundations of Midwestern studies are still being laid, and that what we do now will influence future arguments. One way to tease out the Midwest’s distinct regional characteristics is through comparative studies. Turner’s work speaks to the development of the Midwestern frontier, and there is voluminous literature on the South. A comparative study of Midwestern and Southern agrarianism would likely be very enlightening.

14 April 2013

Today I continued reading Danbom’s Born in the Country. Yesterday I read about the first two decades of the 21st century which were the golden age of American farming. Increased immigration and urban population combined with stagnant agricultural productivity meant that farmers’ incomes were as high as they had ever been or would be for a long time. In these years, urban middle class progressive reformers set their sights upon improving rural living conditions in the form of the Country Life movement. Country Lifers chiefly sought to impact rural culture through education, by consolidating rural schools and controlling curriculums, and through extension efforts to bring improved farming techniques to farmers.

In the 1920s, Danbom argues that urban views towards rural people began to change. As more Americans were further away from farms, urban people increasingly looked down upon rural people. This is the context in which Curry first started to exhibit his paintings. Early critical praise came from urbanites who congratulated Curry (who was then living on the East Coast) for pointing out the failings of his native Kansas. Curry, in turn, was seen by enlightened Kansans as a poor cultural ambassador who reinforced stereotypes.

I will need to reconcile this with Curry’s time at Madison. Arriving in 1936, he was in Madison well after the height of the Country Life movement. I know, however, that at the very least pockets of the Country Life movement still existed in Wisconsin, because Curry was involved in the Country Life Association’s annual conferences. This gets at one of the key things I want to answer about Curry’s work and his time at Madison. To what degree was his work founded on nostalgia and to what degree was it based upon a pragmatic desire to bring rural people into touch with modernity?

13 April 2013

Today, in preparation for my paper on John Steuart Curry, I read a bit of David Danbom’s Born in the Country: A History of Rural America. In the sections I am reading, Danbom focuses on the relationship between rural and urban populations. These populations exchanged both goods (i.e. agricultural products and industrial products) and ideas. While mass culture began to move into rural areas through the consumer products rural people sought, urbanites were worried about the welfare of rural areas, as they had always been an important source of American identity. The Country Life movement was made up of urbanites who took an active role in searching for ways to improve the conditions of rural life.

In my paper, I will need to situate Curry’s tenure at Madison within the history of the Country Life movement. Dean Christensen’s goals for bringing Curry to Madison are clearly in line with the goals of the Country Life movement. The Country Life movement was an important way in which modernity came to the countryside. Though Curry’s paintings of rural life are easily misidentified as nostalgic, his work actually reflects the tensions of the social change occurring in rural America.

Though the urban reformers working within the Country Life movement may well have been unrealistically nostalgic for rural life, their work was essential to bringing modern urban values to the countryside. Curry, too, was a part of this. Having lived on the East Coast and studied art in Paris, Curry would have been well versed in modern art and modernity in general. Through his interactions with the rural populations of Wisconsin, he was not only helping them to appreciate their own culture, but also serving as a vanguard for cosmopolitanism in the countryside.