- Beyond the Fruited Plain: Food and Agriculture in U.S. Literature, 1850–1905 by Kathryn Cornell Dolan
Kathryn Cornell Dolan demonstrates the relevance of nineteenth-century American literature to conversations surrounding food production in the contemporary moment, a connection that may not be readily apparent to many audiences, and one that she argues is a new perspective. Within the first few pages, Dolan draws on the writings of the founding fathers regarding agriculture and food production, citing familiar moments such as Jefferson’s national agrarian vision, as well as more obscure references like Washington’s anxiety surrounding the exploitative nature of agriculture. In her treatment of Westward Expansion, Dolan narrows the lens of the expansionist agenda to focus on agriculture specifically, arguing that Westward Expansion was in fact “agri-expansion,” as agriculture provided the momentum for that expansion, as well as contributed to the establishment of the United States as a global power. While the trendiness of the contemporary local food movement and interest in foodways implies that such concepts are relatively new, Dolan labors to uncover the existence of these critiques even in the nineteenth century. Focusing on the work of five authors who have become well established in the national canon, Dolan demonstrates the proliferation of anxiety and cultural criticism surrounding the industrialized, modernized methods utilized in agriculture within many of their works.
Dolan clearly establishes her theoretical and critical frameworks, and returns to these concepts throughout her book. Each of her chapters focuses on an individual author, with her entire work covering the writings of Melville, Thoreau, Stowe, Twain, and Norris through the lenses of ecocriticism, agricultural studies, and globalization. Dolan convincingly argues that these nineteenth-century writers, as well as other thinkers of the day, were aware of the potential consequences of the agricultural practices within the nation, resulting in efforts on their part to offer critiques of and alternatives to these industrialized, technological, exploitative methods of food and resource production. As Dolan demonstrates, each of her five authors challenges and critiques the agri-expansion of the nineteenth century, highlighting how the exploitation of the space of the nation corresponds to the exploitation of traditionally marginalized populations based on race, class, and gender, as well as the violent conversion of nature into a commodified resource.
This work may have been expanded in an interesting way by including more diverse authors, especially nonwhite writers. Such a choice would have potentially strengthened her arguments surrounding the correlated exploitation [End Page 63] of nature and of marginalized beings, including nonwhites, women, and nonhuman animals. That being said, Dolan beautifully defines the social justice implications of her work, arguing on behalf of literature as the “foundational site of cultural production, as a nation defines itself through its literary works” (4) and promotes “hopeful positive action through literature” (26). With her epilogue, Dolan repeats her call to action, arguing that if she can uncover such clear patterns and repetitions between literature of the nineteenth century and literature being produced in our contemporary moment, perhaps the monoculture and exploitation that remains inherent in large-scale industrial agricultural practices can be successfully combated and ultimately eliminated in favor of local, sustainable food production.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln