The Farm Novel

Literature of The Land

In the wake of industrialization and associated currents of social change, the farm novel appeared in the eighteenth century as a distinct genre beginning with works like Patrice Lacomb’s story of French-Canadian country life La Terre Paternelle (1846, later translated into English as The Ancestral Farm). A concurrent European phenomenon led to the appearance of numerous French “roman rustique,” German “Bauernroman,” and British Country Life titles. This “literature of the land” flourished in North America and Europe through the 1950s, and has been revived in the twenty-first century with the rise of “back to the land” and small-scale sustainable agriculture efforts. While rural locations in these novels has been as varied as the fictional characters who inhabit them, they generally share settings in a specific place where plots unfold that explore the human condition through protagonist struggle with the elements and urban influences. Notable works by such writers as Lacomb, O. E. Rølvaag, Willa Cather, and Louis Hémon are also characterized by use of vernacular language and accurate, detailed depiction of farming operations like tillage and harvest.

John Nash, Land Agitation in Ireland, The Graphic (September 20, 1880)
John Nash, Land Agitation in Ireland, The Graphic (September 20, 1880)

Association of the term “agrarian” with rural experience dates back to at least to second century BC Rome with tribune Tiberius Gracchus’s controversial Lex Sempronia Agraria (Agrarian Laws) which sought to redistribute public lands to the poor. In many contexts the term retained a land reform connotation into the modern era with published works containing the word before 1920 almost exclusively suggesting economic struggle. Nineteenth and early twentieth century books titles including the word deal with such topics as the agrarian “problem” (England), “outbreak” (Ireland), “disturbance” (Italy), and “distress” (India). The term has had similar connotations in America, where Solon J. Buck’s The Agrarian Crusade (1920) summarizes post-Civil War farmer political activism.

A different, more naturalistic and idealistic sense of the word emerges in the writings of Thomas Jefferson about yeoman farmers and with modern writers like Russell Lord and Wendell Berry. In the introduction to Agrarianism in American Literature (1969), author M. Thomas Inge identifies key tropes of this understanding to include religion (farmers reliance upon God and nature), romance (redemption through natural harmonies), and reciprocity (mutuality of healthy rural communities). These elements have long been expressed in art and literature, and inform present considerations of rural challenge and environmental sustainability.

George? Gregory, Hill (engraver), Harvesting in Scotland, Harper’s Bazar (February 16, 1878)
George? Gregory, Hill (engraver), Harvesting in Scotland, Harper’s Bazar (February 16, 1878)

Historian Florian Freitag (2013) writes of the genre’s significance in establishing the farm as a symbol of national identity and giving voice through rural discourse to enduring national values. Among such widely shared attitudes and tendencies are self-reliance and individualism, political conservatism and religious faith, and suspicion of city ways informed by a kind of primitivism. However, Freitag further notes national and cultural distinctives in farm novels. American authors, for example, have often written of impoverished immigrant settler families who seek prosperity on the broad expanses of the heartland. Canadian rustic literature generally affirms strong the agrarian community and religious identity among well-established farm families, while English Country Life novels tend to depict the peaceful “order and control” seen in well-tended, stone-fenced fields and the parish assembly.