The End of Eden: Agrarian Spaces and the Rise of the California Social Novel by Terry Beers
The End of Eden continues Beers’ decades-long study of the Golden State and its rich social, environmental, and literary histories. In this most recent [End Page 171] installment, Beers guides readers through four novels spanning the period between the close of the Mexican-American War and the Progressive Era: Joaquin Miller’s Life Amongst the Modocs: Unwritten History (1873); Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884); Frank Norris’ The Octopus (1901); and Mary Austin’s The Ford (1917). Selected for their unique representations of California’s diverse landscapes, and particularly the ways in which the authors observe and address shifting land regimes and their attendant ideologies, these cornerstone narratives illustrate the value of the agrarian tradition in the midst of a hyper-industrializing world and the dire impacts of abandoning this way of life.
Beers initiates this discussion from the summit of Mount Diablo where he orients himself and the reader to California’s colonial history, reminding us that the different cultures that have transformed the state’s lands over time have done so with very different notions about their relationship to space and place. For him, the significance of these social novels is their preoccupation with “complex dialogic relationships” reflected in tensions between wilderness and civilization—depicted as movement through an area and the “stasis” of establishing permanent dwellings—and “abstract notions of the secular and political world” with the “world of the magical and sacred.” Beers illuminates these competing representations of land use through the work of Bachelard, Foucault, Relph, Soja, and other theorists to demonstrate how these novels and their realistic portrayals of California varied geography ultimately condemn the various manifestations of westward expansion that comprise not only California’s natural wonders but the people intricately linked in preserving the agrarian spirit. Thus in Modocs and Ramona, California’s indigenous peoples suffer at the hands of the Gold Rush and the Spanish/Mexican and American colonists whose land systems deemphasize the sacred for their respective secular, political formulations of land use. With The Octopus and The Ford, we witness the other side of the space-place continuum as California’s open lands and more spiritually-attuned cultures have been largely replaced by infrastructure and speculators who are eager to exploit the agrarian ideal for greater wealth. Beers reminds us, however, that Norris and Austin, in particular, are not against development. Rather, they are invested in a certain kind, “a balanced agrarianism” where “resources can be fruitfully but carefully husbanded.”
Ultimately, The End of Eden makes a compelling argument about the region’s failure to live up to the ideal of the yeoman farmer. As such, the intermittent discussions of the novels’ use of verisimilitude in describing California’s landscapes along with Beers’ attention to the deterministic forces inherent in American land policies offers useful points of departure for scholars of American realism and naturalism. But Beers’ work has broader value. [End Page 172] As a committed apologist for the agrarian tradition (citing Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry in his afterword), Beers is concerned with honoring the working relationships people have with the land that he believes offers the “best chance for a rewarding and fulfilling life.” Perhaps overly idealistic, Beers’ sentiments nonetheless invite environmental humanists to take a closer look at the role such a way of life can play in mitigating the Californication that has come to characterize much of the U.S. West and the nation at large. In doing so, we’re reminded of the power that literature can have in reshaping the ways we think, talk, and act about the spaces and places we call home.