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  • Working the Garden: American Writers and the Industrialization of Agriculture
  • Celeste Heinze
William Conlogue. Working the Garden: American Writers and the Industrialization of Agriculture. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001. 199 pp.

In the postscript to Working the Garden, William Conlogue reveals his own background working his family's farm in the Appalachian [End Page 484] Mountains of Pennsylvania. Having watched the farm turn to dairy specialization out of economic necessity, he recounts the frustration he felt when an agriculture professor informed him that falling milk prices were beneficial because "[p]utting small, not so profitable farms out of business is good for everyone" (189). According to his professor, Conlogue took the inevitable price of progress "much too personally" (189). Luckily for us, he takes precisely this approach with what he terms "farm novels"—a category that is broader than it at first seems, encompassing the skits of Louis Valdez and the poetry of Wendell Berry, in addition to works by Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, Jane Smiley, and others.

In this study he blends often-surprising historical research, cultural studies, and ecoliterary criticism with probing questions that involve and at times implicate the reader: "How do we devise a sensible system of food production that will take into account the human costs of material progress?" (155), he asks in chapter 4. This question, like all of Working the Garden, is based on the premise that it is misleading to approach farm literature from the pastoral perspective. Nostalgia for a preindustrial past and a fantasy union with nature are not the primary motivations behind American farm writing, Conlogue posits. Therefore, rather than Virgil's Eclogues, from whence the pastoral literary ideal arises, Conlogue takes Virgil's Georgics, with its valorization of thelived experience of farmwork, as his inspiration. While the book is strong throughout, I will focus on chapters 2 and 4 to highlight both the cultural studies approach and the broad scope of his study.

Chapter 2, "Challenging the Agrarian Myth: Women's Visibility in the New Agriculture," will be of particular interest to feminist scholars. In keeping with many of the chapters, it has a compelling opening that dramatizes the cultural impact of farming. Here Conlogue pairs a 1994 Washington Post caption that identified a photo of a Vietnamese farming couple as a farmer "with his wife" (64) and a 1909 Good Housekeeping article by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that took President Roosevelt to task for not appointing any women to his Country Life Commission. He effectively uses these sources to establish the continuing erasure of women in farming and parlays this into his discussion of Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground. While he appreciates the liberatory visibility of both heroine farmers, he challenges idealized readings of their farming practices: "Though Alexandra and Dorinda refute the image of farm women as homebound farmwives, their acceptance of industrial agriculture acknowledges its assumptions about hierarchies of labor, control of nature, and class distinctions" (23). Going against much established criticism, Conlogue convincingly asserts that "[a]rguing [End Page 485] that these women rework a male-centered pastoral tradition ignores how wedded both are to an industrial agriculture that systematizes and orders the natural world to squeeze from it as many dollars as it can" (93). While his reading tends to overlook Alexandra and Dorinda's conflicted responses to their economic success, it nevertheless contributes to a more complete understanding of these important texts.

Two obituaries from the June 1993 California Farmer introduce chapter 4, "Racism and Industrial Farming: Actos (1965) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983)"—one for United Farm Worker Union president Ceasar Chavez and one for winery cofounder Julio Gallo. Conlogue uses this comparison to establish the use of racist rhetoric surrounding farm labor issues and to introduce his consideration of the Teatro Campesino, or Farmworkes Theater. The theater was started by Luis Valdez in the 1960s to aid in the labor strikes led by Chavez. During actos, short skits of approximately fifteen minutes, the group dramatized the discrimination workers faced, rallying supporters and winning converts to the cause. While most actos, according to Valdez, had "no scenery, no scripts, and...


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pp. 484-486
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