Date of Award

1-1-2011

Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Department

English Language and Literatures

Sub-Department

English

First Advisor

David S Shields

Abstract

Already at the birth of the American Republic did the nation's leaders (many of whom farmed) write and speak about the depleted soils rendering eastern farms (particularly in the mid-atlantic and southern regions) less and less productive. The long-held traditions of planting in monocultures of tobacco and cotton, fallowing instead of manuring and rotating crops, plowing vertically on hillsides, and planting the same crop on the same land year after year left much of the nation's farmland eroded or exhausted. Agricultural writers enjoined farmers to improve the soil on their farms. Given the primacy these early conservationists assigned to practices of restoring and sustaining the soil as the basis for sustainable agriculture, this study considers the texts and contexts of the agricultural reform movement as constituting America's first wave of environmental writing. The surge of scholarship in recent years produced by Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Steven Stoll, Benjamin Cohen, and Timothy Sweet (to name a few) has recovered the literary mode of the georgic and its agrarian foundation as speaking most presciently to the ecological and cultural challenges of our own era, both in academia and in the "real" world. The "new agrarianism" that now infuses America's popular culture has brought organic farming, the slow food movement, and farmer's markets to the forefront of the nation's discourse. Despite the foregrounding of farming and food as central to the environmental and public health challenges we face today--global warming, nutrient-depleted soils and foods, genetically modified foods, and pesticide use--the agricultural basis of the nation's history of environmental writing and practices remains surprisingly obscure. My study brings to light the literature of a pivotal era in the nation's environmental history when farming stood at a fork in the path, at the crossroads of organic, sustainable farming and chemical, industrial agriculture. The agricultural reform writers of the antebellum era saw ecology, economy, culture, health, and morality as having everything to do with the status of the farm and the farmer.

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