Literary Tillers in Gilded Age Culture: Agrarian Politics, Rural Realism and Agricultural Expansion, 1883-1910
Author: Daniel Markowicz
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2016My dissertation project, “Literary Tillers in Gilded Age Culture: Agrarian Politics, Rural Realism and Agricultural Expansion, 1883-1910,” examines rural novels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that adopt a realist aesthetic. I interpret these works in light of the coterminous socio-economic transformations taking place in rural society, with a particular focus on the twin forces of Populist politics and the early development of industrial agriculture. I argue that, while studies of the Gilded Age tend to prioritize urban developments in shaping turn of the century American culture, the industrial reorganization of agriculture and the social upheavals in the farming districts that accompany it are just as significant. The writers I cover, from Hamlin Garland’s prairie fiction, Frank Norris’s The Octopus, and Willa Cather’s Oh Pioneers! to lesser known works like E.W. Howe’s The Story of a Country Town , Harold Frederic’s Seth’s Brother’s Wife and Joseph Kirkland’s Zury, the Meanest Man In Spring County grapple with properly representing farmers undergoing shifting roles in an increasingly complex agricultural economy. I argue that rural realism, or as I term it “agricultural realism,” provide an index to these cultural understandings.
In proclaiming a realist aesthetic, many of these authors sought to initiate a form of rural writing countering a cultural dominant that represented the countryside as a pastoral refuge or the realization of, in Henry Nash Smith’s terms, the “garden myth.” Yet, in attempting to portray rural life accurately, their works also presented a social world in the sweep of larger historical developments, particularly those of modern agrarian capitalism. An aspect I focus on in my readings are the ways these developments put to question the criteria for ownership of landed property and the rightful claim to wealth, an issue of pressing importance to small farmers confronting monopolistic practices of “land-grabbing.” In particular, I read these texts through the ideological lens of producerism, the notion that those who produce wealth through labor claims it though natural right. As source of conflict animating rural cultural politics in the Gilded Age, rural realist fiction evaluates the merit of producerism’s value in modern socio-economic conditions.