Welcome to the blog for Colgate University's interdisciplinary course on food. This is the place to keep up with what students in the course are experiencing in their work at Common Thread Community Farm and through their everyday encounters with food.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What Farmer Boy Tells Us About the 1930's

          The Farmer Boy reading provided us with excellent insights into what life on a farm would have been like in the mid 19th century. Especially of importance was the window into gender roles, family structure, and specific crafts on American farms. I want to bring in an alternative lens with which to view and analyze this text. In my history class we call this alternative approach the "eavesdropping" method. Primary sources serve as excellent mediums through which to eavesdrop on the conversations taking place in society at the time. The important questions to ask are: what was the conversation? What were the stakes? By doing so, we can learn why the work was written, what changes the author was hoping to bring about, and events were occurring at the time.
            Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote Farmer Boy in 1933. The story follows nine-year-old Almanzo and his life on his father's farm. It is clear that in her book, Wilder painted a very positive picture of farm life. Most evident by the extensive descriptions of wonderfully cooked meals, quality time spent working with his father, and fun on the farm. In fact, the one thing I can remember that was not positively portrayed was bath time; Almanzo described hating Saturday baths.
            So why romanticize farm life? 1933, the date of publication, is the most telling answer. Farmer Boy was written at an important point in this nation's history; American farming was experiencing serious declines, and had been for the past decades. Recall that this trend was illustrated on the graph that was passed out in class at the beginning of the semester. At the time it would have been clear that this trend was like to continue. Therefore, Wilder creates this strong sense of nostalgia for this way of life that was being lost, and perhaps, her work represented societal concerns regarding the waning number of farms and way of life that was being lost. Thus, we can place Farmer Boy within a greater conversation revolving around the future of American agriculture and identity. The most serious change in agriculture was already mentioned, but there is one other that I would like to add, the ever-larger presence of technology. One side of this conversation is promoting and pushing new technological advancements on the nation's farmers. As Harper mentioned in Changing Works, it was often a son that served as the best spokesman for technology, wanting and thus convincing his father to keep with the times.
            Obviously within this conversation there would have been one side that wanted change and innovation, and the opposing side that wanted to hold on to their traditions. As was said earlier, American identity was on the line. Previously, the self-sufficient farmer was one of the most prominent identities at the time, it certainly represented iconic American life--this makes sense given that in the 1930's there were still more people living in rural areas than urban ones (not anymore!). This identity was changing with the decline and farmers, and very importantly, a population that was steadily becoming more cosmopolitan. Wilder's Farmer Boy was a children's book and thus an effective tool, even propaganda, for setting values in children's minds early on (they were and always are the future of the nation). She represented an important voice in this conversation; farming is who we are, where we come from, and it should be our ideal. Wilder wanted society to reconnect with that way of life.

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