- The End of Eden: Agrarian Spaces and the Rise of the California Social Novel by Terry Beers
The prime example of the California social novel, no doubt, is The Grapes of Wrath. In his latest book Terry Beers considers four earlier examples, all known to students of the literature of California: Joaquín Miller’s Unwritten History: Life Amongst the Modocs (1873), Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884), Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901), and Mary Austin’s The Ford (1917). Beers, however, goes beyond the typical reading of these books, which might analyze the specific social ills they are intended to reveal. Rather, he focuses on the human relationship with place that underlies each of these novels and argues that “at their heart . . . these novels advance an agrarian ideal. Though these books can be explicitly political, they are ultimately more successful in advocating a close relationship between land and human beings” (38).
Beers defines the social novel in line with Norris’s own definition: novels “imbued with an overarching social message, books, says Frank Norris, belonging to a category defined as ‘the novel with a purpose,’ the didactic novel” (8). The purpose in Beers’s readings, however, is deeper than the immediate political problem of, say, a predatory railroad monopoly. Grounding his argument in Gaston Bachelard’s notion of topophilia, and Yi-Fu Tuan’s distinctions between space and place, he argues that the conflicts over land and land use at the centers of these novels are “at least partly clashes over the cultural notions of the places and spaces” (29).
Throughout his readings of the four novels Beers highlights two dialogic relationships in how place is experienced through culture. First, “the bodily experience of terrain in a relatively untouched state versus the experience of sites marked by material projections of power and ownership” (127). Second, “abstract notions of the secular and political world versus the magical and sacred” (128). And he argues that these dialogic relationships are evident in each of the novels and that each novel finally values an agrarian ethos.
In Miller’s Life Amongst the Modocs Beers demonstrates that the Modocs’ experience of terrain in “a relatively untouched state” [End Page 102] gives way before miners, and a sacred sense of place is overlaid by the Public Land Survey, which established an abstract grid and made land available for ownership. Miller is left with the impractical notion of the establishment of an Indian Republic surrounding Mt. Shasta, forever separated from white Americans. However, Beers argues that there is an “agrarian subtext” within the novel, and the various positive portrayals of agrarianism point toward it as the best way of living possible, in contrast to the exploitative activities of the gold miners.
While Ramona does feature Native Californians as major characters, especially Alessandro, Beers points out that it offers “few glimpses of anything that might evoke authentic Indian traditions” (115). The first term of the first dialogic pair seems already less available. Instead, the novel contrasts the notions of place deriving from the Spanish and Mexican land grants with the more abstract notions of place in American law. Beers is well aware of the danger in nostalgia for the Mission past, which also exploited the Native peoples, but he argues that the novel’s focus is “on approving the agrarian experience to which many men and women . . . who lived in the immediate years after the American conquest aspired” (115).
In Norris’s The Octopus Beers convincingly points out that both the railroad barons and the bonanza wheat farmers are firmly in the world of material projections of power and ownership and the secular and political world. Magnus Derrick, one of the chief landowners, is depicted “less as a symbol of Jeffersonian agrarian virtue and more as a symbol of the wanton speculator evolved from the bonanza spirit of the gold rush” (132). Nevertheless, he argues, the secondary story of the mystic Vanamee, along with some of the descriptions of wheat fields that distance the growing...