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  • The Oxymoron of American Pastoralism
  • Gordon M. Sayre (bio)

Pastoralism has been variously defined in American literary studies. In European literature the pastoral persisted as a distinct genre and self-conscious literary tradition from Theocritus and Virgil through the eighteenth century. Major eighteenth-and nineteenth-century American authors alluded to this tradition, but they could not really lay claim to it, for as this essay will argue, the European pastoral was inapplicable to the American setting, both socially and ecologically: socially because although early Anglo-America was by no means a classless society, the distinction between landowners and shepherds was scarcely relevant in the young United States; and ecologically because the pastoral way of life, defined as a subsistence based upon herds of livestock, was not indigenous to America.

Leo Marx's landmark The Machine in the Garden employed the concept of pastoral to explain the primitivist and agrarian strain in American thought in the face of modern industrial technologies. In his introduction Marx wrote of how "the shepherd . . . seeks a resolution of the conflict between the opposed worlds of nature and art" (22). But the shepherd, who "is often the poet in disguise," does not, at least in America, herd sheep. In Marx's formulation American pastoralism is an ideology that has mediated conflicting desires for technological progress and bucolic retreat, "a desire, in the face of the growing power and complexity of organized society, to disengage from the dominant culture and to seek out the basis for a simpler, more satisfying mode of life in a realm 'closer,' as we say, to nature" ("Pastoralism" 54). Those lines from a 1986 article updating his renowned 1964 book, as well as a new afterword to a 2000 reprint of it, emphasized the political valence [End Page 1] of pastoralism, now also defined as "a left-leaning ideology not based on a progressive world view" ("Pastoralism" 66). Other influential Americanists and eco-critics have revised Leo Marx's work. Lawrence Buell affirmed that pastoralism "portrays a less complex state of existence than the writer's own" (4) and tried to refute assumptions that the pastoral has been a reactionary or hegemonic force in American cultural politics. In an important early contribution to ecological literary studies, Glen Love argued that "wild nature has replaced the traditional middle state of the garden," and that "wilderness has radicalized the pastoral experience" (203).

In opening his 1996 book What Is Pastoral? Paul Alpers wrote that he was moved to undertake his project by irritation with two tendencies in the previous scholarship: "the first is the view that pastoral is motivated by naive idyllicism; the second is the way modern studies tend to use 'pastoral' with ungoverned inclusiveness" (ix). His response was to argue that "we will have a far truer idea of pastoral if we take its representative anecdote [invoking Kenneth Burke's term] to be herdsmen and their lives, rather than landscape or idealized nature" (22). Alpers insisted that shepherds and the shepherding history of the Mediterranean world were essential to the genre. Marx, Buell, and Love, as well as scholars of the European pastoral tradition, have all committed the indiscretions that irritated Alpers. Leo Marx acknowledged that "in its root meaning 'pastoralism' refers to the ways of herdsmen, and today anthropologists and historians invoke that literary sense of the word to describe the way of life of peoples who usually do not practice agriculture, who tend to be nomadic, and whose basic economic activity is animal husbandry. But that straightforward descriptive usage is rarely invoked by anyone except the scholarly experts who study premodern cultures." To update this archaic definition he extended the pastoralist label to anyone "with a similar, as it were, shepherdlike view of life" ("Pastoralism" 42). Other scholars such as David Halperin and Louise Westling, however, have traced the origins of pastoral back to the earliest extant writings concerning the conflict between nomadic pastoralists and settled agriculturalists, the Sumerian and Akkadian literature set down in clay tablets 4000-5000 years ago. As Halperin declared, "The quest for pastoral origins can now legitimately be pushed back in time as far as the invention of literature itself " (87). These origins are quite...


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