- Modernist Versions of Pastoral:Poetic Inspiration, Scientific Expertise, and the "Degenerate" Farmer
A sound is heard throughout the landWhich causes vague alarms;You hear it oft, on every hand,"Vermont's deserted farms."
Where once the strong Green Mountain boyPursued his honest toil,And harvest rich were reaped, in joy,By tillers of the soil.
You now behold the shattered homesAll crumbling to decay,Like long-neglected catacombsOf races passed away.Walter M. Rogers, "Vermont's Deserted Farms" (1897)
The well-known opening poem of Robert Frost's North of Boston, "Mending Wall" (1915), centers on a confrontation between the poet and a local farmer from "beyond the hill," a description that marks its specific place in the hill towns of late nineteenth-century New England (11). "Good fences make good neighbors," the farmer intones, his sole utterance punctuating the poem with emphatic and redundant assertions of individual separateness (12– 13). The farmer's independence has been understood to signal Frost's concern with self-reliance, and such accounts capture a crucial element in his poetry. But the poem also bears the mark of [End Page 905] a conflict that I will argue is central to the ongoing work Frost provisionally titled "Fairy Tales of Farming" (Frost, Notebooks 17). In the image of the farmer's resemblance to an "old-stone savage" (North 12), we see echoes of such writings as Henry Osborn's Men of the Old Stone Age: Their Environment, Life, and Art (1915), in which rural, agrarian "types" are seen as "pagan" and "heathen" (Weber 3). The poet's depiction of his farmer neighbor—"he moves in darkness"—mirrors the belief, widespread among Frost's contemporaries, that there was something "savage" (12) in what were termed "rural habits of mind."1 In the evocation of the farmer's resolute separateness, as well as the intimation of agrarian devolution, we see the poem's direct engagement with contemporary scientific conceptions of rural inferiority and backwardness.
It is a critical commonplace that modernist literature was shaped in part by the changing relations between rural and urban life, and yet the specific dimensions of this transformation have not received adequate attention. Notably absent is the enormous preoccupation of the period with rural "backwardness"—the deficiencies and underdeveloped capacities that were said to characterize everything from rural schools to rural entertainments. The vast scientific literature on rural degeneracy ranged from family case studies such as Henry Goddard's The Kallikak Family: A Study of the Heredity of Feeble-mindedness (1912) and Arthur Estabrook's The Nam Family: A Study in Cacogenics (1912), to regional studies such as Florence Danielson and Charles Davenport's The Hill Folk: Report on a Rural Community of Hereditary Defectives (1912).2 These studies of rural decline trace a lineage to Richard Dugdale's 1877 study "The Jukes": A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity, which chronicled an Ulster County family rich in "paupers, criminals, harlots, epileptics, and mental defectives" (Christianson 9). In 1911, the rediscovery of Dudgale's original charts and notes prompted renewed interest in the case. An updated study by Arthur Estabrook, The Jukes in 1915, pronounced recent generations still "feebleminded," "ineducable, slovenly, and inefficient," joining a growing body of research that sought to investigate the deficiencies of America's rural towns and families (iii). No longer was the farmer the quintessential American, from this perspective, but a critical social problem in need of remedy and reform. "The words civil, urbane, and politic indicate that . . . good manners and diplomacy [a]re promoted by city life," announced one rural sociologist. "In contrast, the terms rustic, pagan, and heathen connote a certain backwardness among country folk" (Woolston, "Urban" 608). [End Page 906]
This essay seeks to contribute to our understanding of how these ideas concerning rural decline and inferiority made their impact on modern literary culture through a brief examination of the ways in which struggles to define rural versus urban life inform the poetic endeavors of three modern poets: Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Jean Toomer. In The American Scene (1907), Henry James would reflect upon several decades of literary "scenes of old, hard New England...