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Over Easy: The Agrarian Myth

by Letty Owings

“American Gothic,” oil, Grant Wood (1930)

Until of late when young guys in jeans, rumpled t-shirts and spiked hair commanded society’s respect due to their being tech savvy – only now have we seen the demise of the agrarian myth. Perhaps “demise” is too strong to describe the fading of a myth, entrenched so deeply, and entrenched so long in the thinking of our country.

The agrarian myth was never based on fact, obviously, or it would not be a myth. For the Native Americans from whom the land was stolen by any method it took, including wholesale slaughter, forced migration and starvation, the Agrarian myth was a farce, or worse. For the thousands who labored in sweathouse factories or died building roads and rail lines and bridges and canals, the myth was a farce. For the folks and animals packed into the filth of Chicago’s slaughterhouse industry and robbed by corrupt officials, the myth was a farce.

But yet the myth persisted, even after what was left of farms were mechanized and modernized and poisoned with spray. Country homes caved to the bulldozers. Huge shade trees fell to saws, and garden spots became part of fields to be tilled by machinery. With all the turmoil and change, the agrarian myth clung to the minds of people and found its way into literature and song. The myth lent itself to poetry and music in a way high tech can never do.

The myth of the glory of farm life made itself felt in politics. Any politician hoping to be elected had to start a speech with, “I was born on a farm!” Calvin Coolidge probably never knew a rooster from a sparrow, but he was staged for a political photo, leaning on a hay wagon, holding a pitch fork. The only trouble with the campaign picture was that he forgot to change out of his patent leather shoes. Franklin Roosevelt got elected by his speech-making skills, and his claiming to know how to get out of the financial doldrums. Even then, few farmers trusted him with his cigarette holder and his home in Hyde Park and his favoring the end of prohibition. In spite of his charm and inspiring speeches, what saved his presidency was Pearl Harbor. Probably the worst was sending Japanese-American citizens to concentration camps. Another mistake was not knowing when to quit while he was ahead. Four terms! He was sick and he was tired. His helping make the decisions at Yalta still make people ask, “What if…”

Harry Truman fit the agrarian myth. He was an uneducated farm boy from Missouri- farm boy, that is, until he got a job selling hats and met Boss Pendergast. He left the Pendergast Machine behind when he went to DC as a Senator from Missouri.

I move now to the mythical part of the myth as it worked out in my own life on a Missouri farm, life without benefit of electricity or running water or a TV or a newspaper- all considered essential to living as we now know it and expect it to be. Some things were not romantic. They were downright miserable and tiring and discouraging. As the youngest kid and therefore the most useless when it came to working on the farm, I earned my keep in jobs far too trivial for the more productive members of the family. I was good for potato bug removal. Pesticide was coal oil- kerosene is the fancy name- poured in a tin can. To exterminate the little pests meant crawling down the rows with tin can in hand, lifting each leaf, picking off bugs, and dropping them in the can. I could swear my parents planted at least an acre of potatoes for me to debug, but I am sure that is an exaggeration. The task was an important one since potatoes grew even during the dry years and were dug in the fall and stored in a barrel in the cellar for winter. Often they were about the only food available.

end note: This essay is in two parts and will be continued on Saturday.

Agrarian Myth

American Gothic

Creative Commons  photo by Daniel DeCristo on flickr.


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