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  • The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming since the Dust Bowl by Sarah D. Wald
  • Julie Avril Minich (bio)
Sarah D. Wald. The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming since the Dust Bowl. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016. 312 pp. Paper, $30.00.

With remarkable agility, Sarah Wald’s The Nature of California brings together the critical frameworks of ecocriticism, food studies, labor history, critical ethnic studies, and American literary history to examine the role of farming and farm labor in twentieth- and twenty-first-century understandings of citizenship in the United States. The Nature of California explores the following questions: “How can the idea of farming as a sacred calling, the occupation that establishes the virtuous character of the true American citizen, continue to resonate in a culture that also perceives actual agrarian labor as beneath white US citizens and as the natural domain of undocumented laborers? How can the imagined ideal American citizen be both a farmer and someone who eschews the physical demands of actual agricultural work? And why is farming and farm labor still one of the primary places we turn to sort out who is and who should be an American?” (4–5).

Wald engages with an impressive range of texts, including the indisputably canonical (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath [1939] and Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart [1946]), lesser-known works of well-known writers (Carey McWilliams’s Factories in the Field [1969]), and recently recovered novels (Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown [2004] and Hiroshi Nakamura’s Treadmill [1996]). She considers a range of genres, from novels and book-length journalistic accounts to short stories, Los Angeles Japanese newspapers, union publications, and the speeches and political testimony of Cesar Chavez. Uniting these diverse texts is their engagement with the racial project of Thomas Jefferson’s agrarianism, which, on the one hand, valorizes the economically independent white farmer as an emblem of US democracy and, on the other hand, relies on coercive labor, including enslavement, debt peonage, and various forms of undocumented work. [End Page 172] Wald convincingly shows that Jefferson’s fundamental “opposition between free white citizen land owners and unfree nonwhite noncitizen laborers persists in depictions of farmers and farmworkers today” (7). In this regard, the book’s multiethnic approach (examining the work of white, Asian American, and US Latina/o/x writers and activists) is a particular strength, as it allows Wald to elaborate how agrarian discourse has informed the racialization of different populations in particular historical moments: the Great Depression, World War II and the Japanese internment, the civil rights movement, and the current post-NAFTA era. The Nature of California reveals how an uncritical reliance on the principles of Jeffersonian agrarianism undermines the radical politics of otherwise progressive writers like Steinbeck and McWilliams, but the book also reminds readers that Jeffersonian agrarianism is not the only means of valorizing farm labor. For instance, Wald explores how writers like Babb and Nakamura envision multiracial and multinational workers’ alliances instead of reifying white citizenship and land ownership. The book’s powerful epilogue addresses a particularly compelling contemporary challenge to Jeffersonian reification of white citizenship—the movement for migrant rights, which proposes new forms of political belonging not rooted in land ownership.

The Nature of California is made up of a theoretical introduction, seven body chapters, and the aforementioned epilogue. The first chapter pairs an analysis of McWilliams’s Factories in the Field with conservative novelist Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s Of Human Kindness (1976) to argue that despite the political disparity between their authors, both texts’ allegiance to Jeffersonian agrarianism means that they ultimately align white citizenship with agricultural land ownership. Chapter 2, however, shows that not all Dust Bowl literature affirmed this alignment; by reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath alongside Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown, Wald reveals that Babb (unlike Steinbeck, McWilliams, and Mitchell) prioritizes multiracial solidarity over white land ownership. The next two chapters turn to Japanese American agrarianism in the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s. The third chapter examines how the Japanese American newspapers Kashu Mainichi and Rafu Shimpo deploy agrarian discourse in the affirmation of...


Additional Information

pp. 172-176
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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