Seattle-based Writer, Author, Poet, Writing Teacher

This review of Working the Garden: American Writers and the Industrialization of Agriculture by William Conlogue appeared in Technology and Culture Vo. 44, No. 2 (2003), 421-422.

During the past century, American food production has undergone a radical transformation as the family farm has given way to industrial agriculture – to farm as factory.  Working in the Garden walks the reader through the transformation – and its technological, social, philosophical, and ecological effects — by comparing historical actualities with visions of industrial agriculture in novels such as Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.  William Conlogue argues that our national literature has both envisioned industrial agriculture and provided metaphorical hand grenades in battles and social upheavals accompanying its ascendancy.

Conlogue is no Luddite, but this complex and somewhat dense book could be subtitled, Questioning Industrial Agriculture.  In short, Is paving over several small farms to make a strip-mall really progress?  Should the wealthy owners of today’s 2,000-acre factory-farms be entitled to millions in low-interest federal loans created to help struggling Depression-era farmers?  Should field corners be straightened, marshes drained, swimming pools built?  Does a thousand-acre monocrop present an ecological threat?  Is the tractor invariably an improvement on the horse?  Conlogue presents interesting material on the Amish and their productive small farms that work horses in the field and tractors in the barnyard.

Each chapter presents historical material on aspects of American agriculture, then glosses literary texts that envision these transformations.  Early on, Conlogue relates a history of the origin of industrial agriculture.  In the 1870s, the Northern Pacific Railroad created the first mega-farm in order to lure settlers to North Dakota with the dream of vast profits extracted from vast wheat fields (65,000 acres in contrast to the 160-acre Homestead farm).  It worked for about twenty years until single-crop, soil-mining methods depleted both soil and profitability, and the land reverted to smaller farms.  The first industrial farms imported unskilled labor from the cities, eliminated women from farming, introduced mass production and new management techniques, and sold wheat in distant markets, with transportation supported by low freight rates.

The new industrial farming was celebrated throughout the country in magazines such as McClures, which prepared the way for Frank Norris’s Octopus (1901).  This “first major American novel to understand industrial agriculture not as a novelty but as a given” sets the railroad against the traditional farmer (27).

Conlogue explores the role of women both on the farm and in novels such as Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913).  Cather does not portray country life in the pastoral mode of bucolic retreat as many critics suggest, but returns women to the center of industrial farm life while celebrating new methods of managing food production.  John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, written in the late 1930s, takes a dimmer view and at the time did battle with the vigorous defense of the new agriculture mounted in Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s now little-known Of Human Kindness.

Conlogue interweaves a history of the United Farm Workers with an account of their theater, Teatro Campesino.  He explores the racial dynamics of southern agriculture historically and in Ernest Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men.  Throughout, he takes to task literary critics who persist in viewing the countryside portrayed in works like A Thousand Acres as a pastoral place of rest and renewal, when the novel’s obvious subject is the transformation, exploitation, and even rape of the land and its people.

In a postscript, Conlogue reflects on his own life living and working on his parents’ small farm in northeastern Pennsylvania.  Conlogue the scholar (he’s chair of the English Department at Marywood University in Scranton) grew up on a farm and knows farming first hand.

The struggle between the small family farm in which men and women plant, milk, and harvest, and the agribusiness in which a CEO surveys his thousands of acres virtually on the computer mostly has been won by industrial agriculture, but the debate has not ceased and the struggle is not over.  The conflict continues to be played out, as Conlogue elaborates, both on the ground and in our national literature.  The novels, poems, and essays of Wendell Berry, America’s leading proponent of alternative agriculture, challenges industrial agriculture with a competing paradigm: decentralization; independence (from large capital investment and debt); and valuing community, harmony with nature, ecological diversity, and conservation.

Conlogue provides historical context, conceptual framing, and a good reason for historians to read novels. Farm novels conduct debate and embody conflict.  They envision agriculture as it was and as it is becoming, something that historians of technology, at least, can appreciate.