Chapter 21

The Agricultural West in Literature


The myth of the garden and the figure of the Western yeoman proved extremely difficult to bring into fictional expression. Although American political institutions since the 1820s and 30s had gradually removed property qualifications from the requirements for the franchise, it took almost half a century for the class status of the Western farmer to achieve a comparable equality in imaginative literature. Leatherstocking and his Wild Western successors were outsiders to society and could therefore be celebrated as Indian fighters without regard to class lines, although they were not able until the late 1870s to merit the heroine's hand in marriage. The yeoman farmers of the agricultural West had an even more strenuous road toward social acceptance in literature.

James Fenimore Cooper's stringent conservatism prevented his characters from crossing class lines, prompted him ( in his Littlepage trilogy) to denounce Hudson Valley tenant farmers' protests against a restrictive land tenure system, and exposed the obvious incompatibility of his aristocratic vision with a society of yeoman farmers. Thomas Buchanan Read's The New Pastoral (1855) and James K. Paulding's The Backwoodsman (1818) are two works by conservative authors whose depiction of the movement of the agricultural frontier in the Mississippi Valley suffers from an incongruence between their bland pastoral and sentimental conventions and the coarse, unrefined nature of their subject. Mrs. Caroline A. Soule's Little Alice (1863) features a cheerful interpretation of the West, albeit one in which the merits of the hero and heroine have nothing to do with agriculture or the West. These authors each reveal their inability to imagine the yeoman, with his degraded class status, as a hero.

Although recent French thought had influenced Jefferson's equalitarian conception of a minimally stratifed agrarian America of small, independent farms, there was no corresponding development in literature; the conventions of the sentimental novel were almost entirely informed by the hierarchical class structure of English society. The Puritan theocratic tradition's emphasis on a social order maintained by church and state viewed the emigrant farmers' flight from organized society as suspect, even criminal. New England suspicions of the Western farmer's remove from pieties and respect for law found further confirmation in Condorcet's theory of civilization, which had tremendous influence in American during the first quarter of the 19th century. Condorcet's argument--that all human societies passed through the same series of ten social stages in the course of their evolution upward from savagery toward universal enlightenment--had to be supported in Europe through historical and archeological research, whereas many American observers felt might it might be proved though direct observation of the more primitive West.

In 1824 the British traveler Adam Hodgson claimed to have seen the first stage in Condorcet's theory in his travels across America, that of the roving hunter acquiring the habits of the herdsman. In his movement from West to East, Hodgson chronicles the subsequent transitional "stages of society," from pastoral to agricultural to manufacturing and commercial. In Cooper's The Prairie, the Kentucky backwoodsman Ishmael Bush, an unrefined, wandering man at war with nature, demonstrates an Old Testament sense of justice--much different from Leatherstocking's intuitive virtue--that springs from the primitively agricultural West. Bush points the way toward a more convincing literary treatment of the farmer, but Cooper's conviction that the establishment of a wealthy and leisured gentry class is the goal toward which all communities evolve rendered him unable to overturn the conventions of contemporary social theory (e. g. Condorcet) or the sentimental novel. Writers who followed him in dealing with the agricultural West struggled against the prevailing prejudice that their characters held little serious interest for refined, civilized readers.


The half-century between the last of the Leatherstocking novels and Hamlin Garland's Main Travelled Roads (1890) reveal a gradual change in literary attitudes toward the Western farmer. Caroline M. Kirkland's novels--A New Home--Who'll Follow? (1839), Forest Life (1842), and Western Clearings (1845)--reveal in precise journalistic observations many traditional aristocratic attitudes toward the West. Alternately amused by or indignant toward the Western indifference to class lines, Kirkland does laud the kindness, simplicity and trustfulness of the farmers and their families. Her own efforts to keep her bluestocking sensibility in the forefront--writing in the first person as if keeping a travel diary, sprinkling her texts with French and Italian phrases--stifled her experiments with formal structure and ultimately relied solely on the stereotypes of the sentimental tradition.

The love story with a Western background was attempted by a number of women novelists during the next two decades. Metta V. Victor's Alice Wilde, the Raftsman's Daughter. A Forest Romance, issued in 1860 as Number 4 of Beadle's Dime Novels, details the story of how cultivated Philip More of New York falls in love with the uncultivated Alice Wilde. Once Alice has been sent to a seminary for a little refining, the two are married, in what was at that time a triumph of love over considerable obstacles. In a later novel, Victor reverses the social status of hero and heroine, but the marriage still occurs (through the help of a comic uncle figure who reconciles the heroine's father to the match). East and West; or, the Beauty of Willard's Mill, written by Victor's sister, Frances Fuller Barritt, features Minnie, an Iowa heroine whose impeccable Eastern gentility allows her to be married to the sophisticated artist Fletcher Harris without such machinations. The East is always the home of superior values, and though each of these authors occasionally celebrates the newness of the West, no vestiges of cultural primitivism find a place in the canons of sentimental fiction.

Alice Cary's stories and sketches, published in the 1850s, represent the first effort toward honest interpretation of the West. Although she is seldom free of conventional sentiment and stereotypical religiosity, Cary does demonstrate an indifference toward the East and a lively interest in describing the folk of the West. In Married, Not Mated (1856) the backwoods maid Raphe Muggins makes a successful marriage and raises a happy family. Cary's unpatronizing endorsement of this lower-class Western waif chips away at the literary conventions of class status. She is also the first author of the West to show interest in its folklore, though she does proclaim that the riddles and counting-out rhymes of the oral culture she hears in Western kitchens should be replaced with a steady diet of proper children's books.

Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier School-Master goes to great lengths to paint the lawless savagery of the backwoodsmen of the frontier. Eggleston--who does not conceive of nature as a source of spiritual values--portrays an unidealized West, full of political corruption and the slavish pursuit of profit. But he finds the Lumsden kitchen in his The Circuit Rider to be a subject worthy of treatment by Dutch Masters: this sincere feeling for the folk who inhabited the far frontiers is at once the germ of Eggleston's "realism" and also what ultimately led him to turn away from fiction altogether. In the 1870s he attacked the snobbery of the genteel East toward the unrefined West and emphasized the important historical dimension of folk culture in the social evolution from agricultural to industrial society.

A perennial hallmark of the lower-class character in literature had been dialect speech. This began to change, as Alice Cary de-emphasized the significance of dialect as a badge of social and sectional status and Eggleston displayed considerable enthusiasm for the linguistic characteristics of Indiana "Hoosierisms." In arguing that his literary subjects were worthy of treatment by linguists and genre painters, Eggleston elevated considerably the status of the agricultural Westerners. And while much of the dialect writing produced by the "local color" school amounted to condescending exploitation of the supposed illiterateness of the folk of various regions, Eggleston's endeavors into dialect hinted at a much grander possibility: an American literature based on a vernacular prose.

Joseph Kirkland's Zury, the Meanest Man in Spring County (1887) and The McVeys (1888) demonstrate his keen ability to render dialect exactly as it is spoken. At one point in the former novel, Zury Prouder, a greedy, uncouth sort--later regenerated by the virtuous influence of New England schoolteacher Anne Sparrow--delivers a political speech in colorful vernacular prose, full of countryfied anecdotes. Kirkland acknowledges that characters such as Zury add a vivacious, commonsensical tone to his work and represent a new and vital literary interest.

Hamlin Garland shared Eggleston's and Kirkland's interest in dialect and folk culture, but drew his inspiration from E. W. Howe, whom he thought of as the only author who represented the prairie West.. Lytle Biggs, an eccentric character in Howe's The Story of a Country Town(1883), serves as a mouthpiece for the author's explicit attack on the cult of the yeoman. Biggs debunks the notions that agricultural labor is of particular merit and that farmers are particularly virtuous as false notions circulated by politicians for their own purposes. Howe's work was gloomy and bitter, and while Kirkland pronounced it melodramatic, Garland found it appealing.

Garland's collection of short stories Main Travelled Roads (1890) combined Howe's melancholy with Kirkland's realism to convey the sufferings of the farmers. Garland's personal experience in farming paralleled the larger national hardship in the 1880s--low prices in the wheat markets, grasshoppers, and terrible blizzards--but his own gloom about the situation of the West found potential encouragement in the ideas of Henry George's Single Taxers. Garland's novel Jason Edwards--an elegy for the destroyed myth of the West and an acknowledgement that the "safety valve" had slammed shut--was dedicated to the Farmers' Alliance (a group to which the conservative Howe was unsympathetic). Edwards, a Boston mechanic who moves with his family to the Western prairies, finds that speculators own all the land. He struggles to pay for the title of his farm but is done in by a hailstorm that destroys his ready-to-harvest crop of wheat, driving him and his family back to Massachusetts. The journalist Reeves, the fiance of Edwards' daughter, is moved to write an article which declares the ideal of the yeoman society to be a device manipulated by cynical speculators.

The single tax, Garland felt, was the only measure which could combat the ruthless landlords and hold out hope to the exploited prairie farmers. "Under the Lion's Paw" imaginatively integrates this idea with Garland's convincing humanitarian sympathy for the oppressed tenant farmer. Garland's farmer has, above all, a direct relation to the land, to nature, which invests him with a certain dignity and heightens his stature far beyond that of cultural primitive or brutish backwoodsman or hapless victim. Garland's fiction, the zenith in "local color" realism about the agricultural West, presents the farmer in more of his complexity and humanity than was present in the work of previous social theorists and artists.

Chapter 22