Farm: A Year in the Life of an Americna Farmer
Spellbound: Growing Up on Gods Country
Yankee Drover: Bring the Unpretended Life
of Asa Sheldon, Farmer, Trader, and Working Man
by George Packer
When everything else has become sham, farming will still seem authentic. For whatever reasons, Americans connect pictures of wheat fields with goodness, skillet-fried eggs, leathery squints, and timelessness as automatically as rap music evokes pavement, graffiti and danger. But legendary terseness has always made it difficult for outsiders to know farmers and easy to romanticize farms and small towns.
I suspect that rural life is making a comeback, and its at least partly because the age of greed is also an age of nostalgia. Money and sentimentality make each other possible. The television ad where two babies in diapers argue over whose daddy has the better video camera stands as a pretty good symbol of the eighties--which seem to be going strong right into the nineties. "Thank you for your support," says the local yokel hawking wine coolers--and drinking sweet booze is suddenly wholesome. Especially now, when the young, moneyed, and ambitious are finding that the cities that promised everything a decade ago have turned out to be dangerous and sick--in a word, black--the smell of ripening corn has a powerful, even moral appeal.
Asa Sheldon (1788-1870), a Massachusetts working man who wrote a level headed autobiography that was recently discovered and published, grasped this very old idea of sanctified farming. "Friends," he wrote in 1862, "let us for a moment compare the employment of the farmer with that of the broker, who shaves notes in State street. We well know that a year or more past has been a busy time for this class of men. Suppose a broker executes his cunning faculties to their utmost ability and shaves notes at an enormous interest. He feels that he has added 'greatly to his fortune; but when night comes, as he lays his head on his pillow, conscience asks him, What have you done today for the benefit of the human race? ... The farmer, also, lays his head on the pillow at night, and in his mind reviews the labors of the day. His conscience approves every act, and says to him, 'The earth rejoices in being able to produce food for man, where nothing but briars grew before.'"
It's a rare note of piety at the end of a memoir otherwise devoid of sentiment. What mostly concerned a "farmer, trader, and working man" in the early years of the republic was business. Page after page contains factual details like this: "Nearly all the buckwheat sold for $3.50 per bushel, and the flour at $18 per barrel. The next morning, I started back to Worcester for another load of buckwheat. I succeeded in buying as before, at $1 per bushel, but when I returned wheat had fallen and I realized only a fair profit." Without comment he mentions that at age nine he was indentured to a landowner into a servitude lasting seven cruel years. Sheldon spent his entire life driving sheep, hauling lumber, plowing fields, building stone walls and railroads--and hardly managed to stay out of debt.
Fleeced by everyone from his childhood master to the Boston and Maine Railroad Company, he survived as free from bitterness as from sentimentality. His autobiography is a valuable document for conveying the thoughts and occupations of an ordinary man in an age when hard rural work was unexceptional.
In that sense Yankee Drover is a kind of negative image of Richard Rhodes's new book, Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer. The technical information on oxen, hogs, and apple trees at the end of Asa Sheldon's memoir was given as practical advice for his readers. Rhodes's long descriptions of farm equipment and field work translate a subject that is every bit as exotic as the topic of his last book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. We now need a journalist to tell us where our food comes from and what kind of people produce it.
His technique for telling this story-standard now among journalists like John McPhee, Tracy Kidder, and J. Anthony Lukas-is to efface himself and create a subjective narrative about his farmer-hero, Tom Bauer. The whole book is written in the style of free indirect discourse, taking the viewpoint and something of the voice of a Midwestern farmer who does very little talking himself. The result is a tremendous amount of information but few authorial ideas. Those we do get are muddled by the question of who is doing the thinking: "It was a shame to idle land or restrict production when some folks didn't have enough to eat. That was the real problem. Someone in the government ought to come up with an answer to that one."
There's a danger of condescension in this technique, and Rhodes doesn't always avoid it. Near the end, he eulogizes: "He was just plain old Tom. He didn't have no fancy words. He didn't have no fancy clothes. He just wanted to take care of his family and do his best .... A farmer didn't have pretty hands. There wasn't no way he could keep his fingernails clean. But when he fixed something he could look back and see where it was and the whole history of it and he knew he'd made it work." In other words, Farm seeks to be not just a report on farming but a translation of the mindset of a farmer.
Rhodes's readers, unlike Asa Sheldon's, are learning about a foreign culture. But there is no first person singular-no acknowledgment that Rhodes was there and had to struggle to get to know his hardworking, laconic protagonist. No suggestion that Rhodes had different and perhaps more revealing thoughts than what he has the farmer say about himsel. Absent from his own text (except in one extended anecdote where he makes a thinly disguised and annoyingly coy appearance as "the city man"), Rhodes denies the distance and turns the unfamiliar into the too easily known. The ironic result of the I-less style is continual intrusion of the author. We know that Rhodes admires and even loves the Bauers, but we don't end up knowing much more about them than Garrison Keillor's tag in the jacket blurb: They are "slow-talking good-hearted people." That's the farmer of every city man's imagination.
Rural life is not so exotic that a contemporary journalist cannot bring it to life. Bird, Kansas, for example, is an oral history that succeeds in spite of the intentions of its English author, Tony Parker, to find "a typical example of an ordinary everyday mid-American town." Searches like that usually end up with what the city man already thinks, but because Parker, unlike Rhodes, allows his subjects to speak, Bird, Kansas turns out to be continually surprising. The book belies the cliché of tight-lipped rural folk; these people talk and talk. You get the feeling that the surface contentment of this contemporary small town is always about to be broken-not by dark lusts and murderous dreams, but simple unhappiness.
To be self-conscious in such a place seems no advantage and is probably a handicap. One housewife has a vision in the grocery store of herself and her friends as the mechanical Stepford Wives. "What do we do? We follow a pattern, we do what everyone else does. And that's our life. I mean don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I'm unhappy with it or anything. But then I think sometimes well maybe I should be unhappy with it. I remember an English teacher when I was a senior at high school, he read us a passage in class once, I think it was from Tolstoy's War and Peace. I don't exactly recall it word for word, but it, was something about every individual had in them something that was different from every other individual. Only you know if you said to me now So Irene OK whats individually different about you? Id have to tell you I didnt know."
But in a written memoir of that life, self-consciousness can be a critical tool. David McKain didnt grow up in farm country, but the oil fields of the northern Pennsylvania Alleghenies in the forties and fifties were an adequate version of a hardscrabble rural background. Spellbound: Growing Up in Gods Country maintains a boys skewed, partial, resilient point of view. His mother was a pious woman of romantic liberal instincts with a tendency to ignore the ugly in life in the same way she snipped the background out of family photographs. His father was an epileptic who never admitted it, a defrocked minister who preached racism at home, an impoversihed pet-shop owner who brutalized his wife. When he greets a customer with customary small-town politeness-- "We couldnt ask for a better day, could we?"--the old words ring sinister against McKains unsparing account of the private truth.
The natural world in Bradford, Pa. consists mainly of a poluted stream called Tuna Creek. A school friend says to young Dave, "We dont choose much, do we? Come to think of it, we dont choose anything." Both McKains parents end up insane. Amid so much ugliness the boys survival seems "miraculous," in his mothers word. He manages through a combination of antic distractibility, hours of basketball, and holding part of himself back as an observer.
When McKain belatedly begins to read, he discovers himself in D. H. Lawrence's fiction about coal miners: "Broken and dying, the tormented had more passion to their lives than those protected by wealth. The rich used money to insulate themselves from history and experience, but nothing cuts off the poor from pain and suffering." And the poet professor that the boy eventually became implies in the end that his subtitle is only partly ironic: "I look back over the years and feel lucky growing up as I did. The demands placed on my parents to pay the rent and cope with my father's spells gave me the freedom of gypsies. I don't want to overstate this, but there are certain blessings in having grown up in certain kinds of poverty." McKain can get away with such a claim because it is the only large assertion in the book, honestly earned.
This view is borne out in some of the stories in Bird, Kansas. Bird is not such a small-town dystopia as Bradford: it's a friendly and generous and even tolerant place. But the narrowness of small-town life and the sameness of rural life don't make fertile soil for the growth of a separate self. What's more, the amount of alcoholism and divorce suggests that the town is not a timeless slice of the Heartland where slow-talking goodhearted people sip coffee in every kitchen. Its citizens express mindless patriotism and critical patriotism and even anti-patriotism; a racism made benign by the fact that all the local blacks live in a settlement a few miles away; and the usual American disapproval of anyone poor.
The nearby town of Garland is Birds shadow, a repository for mothers on welfare, itinerants, winos, prostitutes, and the disturbed. And its in Garland that we hear the most moving stories, told with a heartbreaking matter-of-factness, as if, bearing out David McKain, the poor have access to levels of feeling and frankness that elude the rigid, precarious middle class. (In general, the books women are more compelling than the men, the blacks more than the whites, and the poor more than the comfortable.) A childless old man, who spent his life traveling all over Kansas with his wife, has stayed in Garland because thats where she dies. He sits through the hot afternoons haunted by her:
"I can remember thinking shed gone for a walk or something, through a forest with a lot of trees, along a path. And I used to think shed turn around looking for me, and when she saw I wasnt there shed come back for to get me and take me with her. I still get that kind of feeling: each night I go to bed in there I think maybe Ill be going on after her. I say in my mind, Yes, Im coming Violet, Im coming, wont be long."
It has the sound of the experience itself; any other voice in this key would crack. American farms and small towns are so symbolically familiar and so actually strange that no one short of their inhabitants seems able to render them. The rest of us can smell nothing but corn.