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  • The Farm Novel in North America: Genre and Nation in the United States, English Canada, and French Canada, 1845–1945 by Florian Freitag
  • Paul Banks Thompson (bio)
The Farm Novel in North America: Genre and Nation in the United States, English Canada, and French Canada, 1845–1945 by Florian Freitag Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2013. 372 pp. Cloth $80.00.

Florian Freitag develops a schematic comparison of three North American literatures that rely on farm settings for their plot and characters. Written in French, the roman de la terre represents farms as the location for expression of authentic French Canadian (hence Catholic) identity. Their plots depict the struggle to defend French culture against incursion from materialistic values represented by English-speaking Canada and especially the United States. In contrast, Canadian farm novels written in English stress the orderly and civilizing conquest of wild nature. They tell a story of male heroes sublimating uncontrolled and destabilizing forces that often take the form of female sexuality. Finally, in the literature of the United States, farming is the vehicle for pursuit of a uniquely American dream. These American farm novels depict a not-always-successful struggle against long odds and the celebration of the owner-operated family farm as the archetype of egalitarian democracy.

Following a theme-setting first chapter that discusses his critical approach and methodology, Freitag organizes his study in a loosely historical fashion with six chapters that cover the sequential development of the farm novel within each literary tradition. All six of these chapters begin with a discussion of themes that distinguish the period and conclude with more detailed analysis of three novels, one from each of the three national genres under comparison. This pattern suggests some change in U.S. literature over time as reflected by evolution in the American writers’ vision of the “American dream” and its potential for realization, while in comparison both Canadian traditions remain [End Page 89] largely constant in their thematic emphasis. As the book unfolds, Freitag discusses several dozen full-length novels as well as shorter works, along with numerous commentaries by other critics. The longer discussions of selected representative works emphasize synopsis of plot and short quotations offered as evidence in support of Freitag’s overall classificatory hypothesis.

Under the heading “Fields of Crisis,” in chapter 6 he compares John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath with Félix-Antoine Savard’s Menaud, maîtredraveur and Robert J. C. Stead’s Grain. For Freitag, the three novels narrate their protagonists’ struggle to save their farms during the Great Depression era of bankruptcy, foreclosure, and forced eviction. As with each chapter, Freitag’s primary interest lies in showing how despite thematic variation—chapter 4 emphasizes female protagonists; chapter 5 the “golden years” of the early twentieth century—his tripartite characterization of each genre is nonetheless exemplified in each of the examples chosen for more extended analysis. For The Grapes of Wrath, this takes the shape of emphasizing the Joad family’s trials in Oklahoma to illustrate the family-farm ideal under threat by unrestrained greed and the expansion of capitalist power. For Freitag, Grapes is an extended argument for “pluralizing” the dream—for seeing it as an ideal that transcends any individual experience of accomplishment or loss. Savard also portrays the plight of French farm families under pressure, but uses their experiences to reinforce the need to defend French Canadian identity. In Freitag’s reading, however, Stead argues that English Canadian farm families will henceforth defend the land by leaving it—by allowing a technologically more efficient kind of farming to persevere.

Freitag dutifully reviews a respectable sample of the commentary that has been generated in response to The Grapes of Wrath. To be sure, a comprehensive approach to that body of criticism would have been both herculean and beside the point. Nevertheless, Freitag’s principle for selecting which critics to discuss appears to be driven by his decision to emphasize the Joads’ transformation from “I” to “we,” and he ignores the extent to which this conversion is exemplified in alternate degrees by different members of the family. In any case, he displays no interest in Steinbeck the man or...