English Language and Literature ETDs

Publication Date

2-1-2012

Abstract

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, literary depictions of farmers borrow from the established trope of the Vanishing American' Indian to portray farmers as disappearing before the forces of modern civilization. I argue that writing about farmers from this era ought to be approached as a type of extinction discourse: the rhetoric surrounding the decline of a race or culture. Extinction discourse, whether applied to the American Indian or to farmers, fuses mourning over a passing way of life with celebration of civilization's progress. Farmers are portrayed as primitive figures, as fundamentally incompatible with modern civilization, in all of the fiction included in this study: Joseph Kirkland's Zury (1887), Hamlin Garland's 'Up the Coolly' (1891) and 'The Silent Eaters' (1923), John T. Frederick's Druida (1923) and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). While the works vary in their valuations of primitivism, alternately favoring the nostalgic or the progressive impulse, the farmer vanishes nonetheless. For the purposes of this study,'vanishing' signifies not so much a sociological fact as a representational act performed in response to a perceived loss.Literary constructions of the vanishing farmer are performative: they help produce the condition (disappearance) that they subsequently describe. The rhetorical origins of industrial agriculture are rooted in this disappearance. The developing reactions to the farmer's 'disappearance' and the varying rhetorical forms of those reactions are the focus of this study, which is contextualized through historical and sociological information. The divergent ideologies of nostalgia displayed in the fiction illustrate particular modern anxieties, while shadows or traces of Indian presence within these texts reveal a buried legacy of removal within Western expansion. This analysis also shows how portrayals of vanishing farmers often preserve the racialist logic of extinction discourse, wherein race contributes to extinction. The conclusion suggests a future direction for the literary analysis of farmers, arguing that they can be most productively approached as ghosts through Jacques Derrida's theory of the 'trace' and Toni Morrison's notion of the shadow. With its focus on the decline, and sometimes disparagement, of agrarian America, this dissertation counters the dominant critical narrative that associates American virtue and civilization with rural values.'

Degree Name

English

Level of Degree

Doctoral

Department Name

English

First Advisor

Scharnhorst, Gary

Second Advisor

Aleman, Jesse

First Committee Member (Chair)

Harrison, Gary

Second Committee Member

Carafiol, Peter

Language

English

Keywords

Farmers in literature, Farm life in literature, Agriculture in literature, American literature--19th century--History and criticism, American literature--20th century--History and criticism

Document Type

Dissertation

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