- The Farm Novel in North America: Genre and Nation in the United States, English Canada, and French Canada, 1845-1945 by Florian Freitag
Florian Freitag’s comparative study of the farm novel in the United States, English-speaking Canada, and Québec between 1845 and 1945 is a very impressive contribution to North American literary culture—excepting Mexico. Freitag makes a compelling case that “the farm novel played an important role in making the farm a symbolic space of the United States, English Canada, and French Canada.” More precisely, he argues that rather than “merely portraying agriculture as an economic venture or a way of life—which they also do—farm novels dramatize the relationship between farming and constructing the nation and depict farming as a social practice that has helped to articulate the nation” (5). That is, while the farm novel emphasizes the naturalness of both its location and the lifestyle it promulgates, it is shaped by cultural and political concerns and deeply imbricated in the national project of the given polity to which it belongs. [End Page 311]
Although Freitag notes the many similarities among the three literatures that he examines, he contends that each possesses distinctive “national” characteristics. For example, he maintains that most US “farm novels focus on pioneer farmers or settlers and portray farming as a way of realizing the American dream of material and non-material success” (6). Québécois farm novels, in contrast, depict “well-established farmers or farmer dynasties” and reflect “the French Canadian national myth of agriculturalism,” presenting “farming as a way—indeed, the only way—of ensuring the survival of the French Canadian cultural community on the North American continent” (6), At last, like their US counterparts, English-Canadian farm novels generally “concentrate on pioneer farmers and settlers, but here the representation of agriculture is informed by English Canadian ideals of ‘Peace, Order, and good Government’ or ‘Order and Control’” (6).
Freitag supports his thesis that the US, English Canadian, and Québécois farm novels “tend to portray specific types of farmers and to project particular national myths or ideologies onto the farm space” (22) by examining a wide variety of texts. After producing a theoretically and historically informed survey of the field, he analyzes the genesis of the genre in such “‘proto farm novels’” (66) as St. John de Crèvecoeur’s “History of Andrew, the Hebridean,” Patrice Lacombe’s La terre paternelle, and Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush. He then explores how naturalism informs the portrayals of farm life in Frank Norris’s The Octopus, Albert Laberge’s La Scouine, and Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh. In “New World Demeters,” Freitag scrutinizes the role of farm women in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine, and Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese. In “Rich Harvests,” he investigates whether “materialism is [or is not] an integral part” of farm existence (186) in Joseph Kirkland’s Zury: The Meanest Man in Spring County, Claude-Henri Grignon’s Un homme et son péché, and Frederick Philip Grove’s Fruits of the Earth. Freitag then probes the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Félix-Antoine Savard’s Menaud, maître-draveur, and Robert J.C. Stead’s Grain. Finally, before closing the book with an epilogue about developments in the North American farm novel since the mid-1940s, he assesses such “farm epics” (269-70) as Louis Bromfield’s The Farm, Ringuet’s [Philippe Panneton] Trente arpents, and Grace Campbell’s The Higher Hill.
Not the least significant achievement of The Farm Novel in North America is that, despite the sizable number of texts that he examines, Freitag provides close readings of all of them. For instance, upon discussing the characterization of young women in several Québec romans de la terre, he contends that “what ultimately matters is not whether the daughter’s choice...