The recent mainstreaming of a new agrarianism has generated a great deal of historical research on the origins of the movement. Conference panels have proliferated of late (especially at the annual meetings of the American Society for Environmental History and the Agricultural History Society); several graduate students are busy dissertating on agrarian themes, and a handful of articles and monographs have recently been published that situate the contemporary agrarian movement—and its foil, industrial agriculture—in proper historical context. And now Edwin C. Hagenstein, Sara M. Gregg, and Brian Donahue have given us American Georgics, an exceptional anthology that is sure to become an important introduction to agrarian writings in the United States from its founding to the present day.
There is a lot here to digest. The volume is ordered chronologically in seven sections, with instructive introductory essays to each section, biographical passages on each author, and a bibliography that will be helpful to anyone interested in digging deeper into the [End Page 105] subject. Beginning with the notion that “the connections between agrarian ideals and American identity deserve more sustained study and discussion,” the editors move beyond the old debates over household and market-based farming in the early republic to argue that working the land meant, and still means, something more than pure economics (p. xix). From the economic necessity of wresting a living from the land came a rural philosophy that argued that “there is something profoundly satisfying and valuable for human beings in working the earth; and that there is something equally important to the health of society in the way that the land is cultivated” (p. 2). This idea was not unique to America, but the editors suggest that in defining the new republic—and in contesting the eventual dominance of industry, commerce, and consumption—agrarians imbued the American political economy with the moral lessons of rural life in novel ways.
Editing an anthology such as this is always about making choices, and the editors of this collection have made many good ones. It is impossible to give a detailed account in a short review. A few highlights include some favorites such as J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, John Taylor, Jesse Buel, George Perkins Marsh, Edmund Ruffin, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott from the early republic and antebellum periods; Willa Cather, L. L. Polk, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Henry A. Wallace, the Southern Agrarians, and Aldo Leopold from the Progressive Era and interwar years; and Helen and Scott Nearing, Victor Davis Hanson, Wes Jackson (who also writes a lively foreword for the book), and Wendell Berry from more recent times.
All of the above are more or less expected in such a volume, but we also get a few surprises. Selections from Alexander Hamilton’s Report on the Subject of Manufactures, H. L. Mencken’s “The South Astir,” and Earl Butz’s “Agribusiness in the Machine Age,” for instance, are seemingly out of place here. But these essays give the collection depth and context, making it read like an evolving conversation instead of a set of readings isolated in time and space.
In sum, the editors succeed in bringing to light a deep intellectual [End Page 106] history rooted in the land. This collection will be of value to anyone interested in embarking upon agricultural research, and would be especially valuable as a reader for courses centered on agrarian themes.
Albert G. Way is an assistant professor of history at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. He is author of Conserving Southern Longleaf: Herbert Stoddard and the Rise of Ecological Land Management (2011).