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Back to the Land

The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America

Dona Brown

Publication Year: 2011

For many, “going back to the land” brings to mind the 1960s and 1970s—hippie communes and the Summer of Love, The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News. More recently, the movement has reemerged in a new enthusiasm for locally produced food and more sustainable energy paths. But these latest back-to-the-landers are part of a much larger story. Americans have been dreaming of returning to the land ever since they started to leave it. In Back to the Land, Dona Brown explores the history of this recurring impulse.

            Back-to-the-landers have often been viewed as nostalgic escapists or romantic nature-lovers. But their own words reveal a more complex story. In such projects as Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Farms, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Broadacre City,” and Helen and Scott Nearing’s quest for “the good life,” Brown finds that the return to the farm has meant less a going-backwards than a going-forwards, a way to meet the challenges of the modern era. Progressive reformers pushed for homesteading to help impoverished workers get out of unhealthy urban slums. Depression-era back-to-the-landers, wary of the centralizing power of the New Deal, embraced a new “third way” politics of decentralism and regionalism. Later still, the movement merged with environmentalism. To understand Americans’ response to these back-to-the-land ideas, Brown turns to the fan letters of ordinary readers—retired teachers and overworked clerks, recent immigrants and single women. In seeking their rural roots, Brown argues, Americans have striven above all for the independence and self-sufficiency they associate with the agrarian ideal.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

For me this book has been a venture into unknown historical terrain, so I have incurred even more scholarly obligations than usual. At a New England American Studies Association conference back in 2001, just as I was getting started, David Watters offered a number of useful suggestions. At the Agricultural History Society’s 2008 conference, Katherine Jellison, Sally McMurry,...

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pp. 3-17

For many of us today, the phrase “going back to the land” brings to minda vision of the 1960s and 1970s: of yurts and teepees and domes, of communes in New Mexico or Vermont. “Got to get back to the land, and set my soul free,” proclaimed Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock anthem. But although the eruption of creative energy that has come to be called simply “the sixties” looms large in collective memory, the back-to-the-landers of that era were just...

Part 1: The First American Back-to-the-Land Movement

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Ch. 1 - The Back-to-the-Land Project

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pp. 21-51

In the spring of 1907, an anonymous writer for the Nation reviewed a newbook called Three Acres and Liberty. As the reviewer noted wryly, the book was one of many: “In this country and pretty nearly all over Europe, a cry of‘The People Back to the Land,’ or ‘The Land Back to the People,’ is being sounded mightily at the present time.” The reviewer was more than a little patronizing about this development, noting that such a demand for a return to...

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Ch.2 - Adventures in Contentment

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pp. 52-78

After Three Acres and Liberty, Bolton Hall wrote several more books, beginning with A Little Land and a Living (1908) and The Garden Yard (1909). Hall wrote about the single tax and about Tolstoy; he wrote advice books about sleep and about the grieving process. (His Halo of Grief was reportedly a favorite of a much later homesteader, Helen Nearing.)1 He even wrote a simplified version of the King James Bible. Hall was not particularly interested in making...

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Ch. 3 - Who Wants a Farm?

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pp. 79-195

In November 1911, progressive editor and publisher Walter Hines Page posedva challenge to the readers of his magazine the World’s Work. “Everybody has been crying ‘Back to the land,’” he wrote, but was anyone serious about it? “Do people really wish to get on the land? . . . Or is ‘back-to-the-land’ all cry and no wool?”1 In December, Page repeated the question even more directly. “Do you want a farm,” or do you “merely want somebody else to go and live on...

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Ch.4 - From Little Lands to Suburban Farms

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pp. 106-138

By 1920, when Matthew and Zula Lytle ended their experiment in rural living, there were clear signs that the first wave of enthusiasm for a return to the land was coming to an end. Judging from the numbers of books and magazine articles appearing in print, the back-to-the-land movement might reasonably be declared to have been over by the end of World War I. Literary production dropped off sharply, and by 1920, back-to-the-land writing was...

Part 2: Returning to Back to the Land

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Ch. 5 - Subsistence Homesteads

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pp. 141-171

As Bolton Hall had predicted, “winter” did come once again to the American economy. Those who had scoffed at reformers during the boom years of the 1920s now turned to them once more. And Hall himself lived to see his words vindicated. In 1935, at the age of eighty, he was in the news again. One journalist described his career with a tone of bemused admiration: “When he was a wealthy young lawyer and writer Mr. Hall used to...

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Ch. 6 - “I’ll Take My Stand” (in Vermont)

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pp. 172-201

The New Deal subsistence homestead programs met with criticism from all sides. From the right, Ohio senator Robert Taft led Republican congressional resistance, attacking the entire New Deal for its socialistic innovations, reckless spending, and dangerous expansion of government power. Virginia senator Harry F. Byrd, a leader of the conservative Democratic coalition,targeted the subsistence homesteads in particular for their wasteful spending...

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Ch. 7 - Back to the Garden

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pp. 202-226

The New Deal’s homestead experiments were short lived: the federal government pulled out of most of the communities as the nation committed itself to World War II. But the war did not dampen popular interest in back-to-the-land projects. Shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Marguerite Lyon published a humorous account of her flight from Chicago to the Ozarks, Take to the Hills. Deftly shifting the focus of her argument from what...

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pp. 227-238

Another boom, another bust. In the Reagan era, in spite of increasing inequality, high unemployment, and an eroding middle class, the gospel of wealth attracted more followers than the gospel of simplicity. During the 1980s, Countryside Magazine’s subscriptions fell from forty thousand to four thousand. (They were able to survive, as editor J. D. Belanger recalled, only by grace of a new word processing machine quaintly named “Macintosh,” which cut their...


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pp. 239-282


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pp. 282-290

E-ISBN-13: 9780299250737
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299250744

Publication Year: 2011