Beyond the Myth of Rural America

Demanding that your friend pull the car over so you can examine an unusual architectural detail is not, I’m told, endearing. But some of us can’t help ourselves. For the painter Grant Wood, it was an incongruous Gothic window on an otherwise modest frame house in Eldon, Iowa, that required stopping. It looked as if

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Demanding that your friend pull the car over so you can examine an unusual architectural detail is not, I’m told, endearing. But some of us can’t help ourselves. For the painter Grant Wood, it was an incongruous Gothic window on an otherwise modest frame house in Eldon, Iowa, that required stopping. It looked as if a cottage were impersonating a cathedral. Wood tried to imagine who “would fit into such a home.” He recruited his sister and his dentist as models and costumed them in old-fashioned attire. The result, “American Gothic,” as he titled the painting from 193src, is probably the most famous art work ever produced in the United States.

The painting was also decidedly enigmatic. Was it biting satire? Grim realism? Proud patriotism? In the words of the late Thomas Hoving, a longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the image served as a “Rorschach test for the character of the nation.”

For Wood, however, the meaning was clear. Although he faced “a storm of protest from Iowa farm wives”—one threatened to “smash my head,” he recalled—he had painted “American Gothic” with sympathy. Cities dominated culture, he wrote, yet they were “far less typically American” than the rural places “whose power they usurped.” In 1935, Wood, who was born on an Iowa farm forty-four years earlier, published the manifesto “Revolt Against the City.”

In decrying urban dominance, Wood had a point. The 192src census marked the first time that urbanites made up a majority of the nation’s population, and city dwellers weren’t humble about their ascendance. New magazines like H. L. Mencken’s The American Mercury (founded in 1924) and, indeed, this one (founded in 1925) touted metropolitan virtues with more than a touch of snobbery. “Main Street,” Sinclair Lewis’s best-selling novel from 192src, captured the tone. “There was no dignity” in small-town life, its protagonist reflects, only “a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations.”

At first, Wood had nodded along. He’d devoured Mencken, adored “Main Street,” and tried to stir up Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with a “bohemian” art colony. He visited France and returned with a Parisian beard, a form of preening for which his Iowa neighbors had little patience. Yet his outlook changed—and so did his beard. The financial collapse of 1929 robbed the “Eastern capitals of finance and politics” of their magic, he wrote. He named Mencken and “Main Street” as part of the problem. It would be better, he thought, to take cues from the “extraordinary independence” of farmers and the sturdy, homegrown cultures of the provinces. A bohemian no longer, Wood shaved his face and put on overalls.

It was, in general, an overalls era. Many enduring images of rural America are from the nineteen-thirties—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie,” Dorothea Lange’s classic photograph “Migrant Mother,” Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind,” Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The run culminated in the “Wizard of Oz” film, in which Dorothy spurns an Emerald City for a Kansas farm, declaring, “There’s no place like home.”

All that was generations ago, yet the obsession with rural authenticity sounds all too familiar. In 2srcsrc8, the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin insisted that small towns were the “real America,” where hardworking, patriotic people lived. That sentiment has only gained political potency since. Underlying the country’s red state–blue state polarization is a more profound, and widening, rural-urban split. Donald Trump’s election was, Politico declared, the “revenge of the rural voter.”

Scholars who have spoken with those voters, such as Katherine Cramer, in “The Politics of Resentment” (2src16), and Robert Wuthnow, in “The Left Behind” (2src18), report a sense of deep alienation. Rural people feel—in terms much like those Grant Wood laid out in 1935—that their authentic, independent way of life is under threat from an out-of-touch urban élite.

But is that picture accurate? A piercing, unsentimental new book, “The Lies of the Land” (Chicago), by the historian Steven Conn, takes the long view. Wistful talk of “real America” aside, Conn, who teaches at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, argues that the rural United States is, in fact, highly artificial. Its inhabitants are as much creatures of state power and industrial capitalism as their city-dwelling counterparts. But we rarely acknowledge this, Conn writes, because many of us—urban and rural, on the left and the right—“don’t quite want it to be true.”

The category “rural” spans a vast range, including small towns, reservations, timberlands, and ranches. One thing that unites such places, however, is that they’re rarely thought of as particularly modern. In the “natural order of things,” Adam Smith wrote in “The Wealth of Nations,” agrarian life precedes urbanization: history starts with people working the land, and only after they succeed are cities possible. In this account, rural people are, like horseshoe crabs, holdovers—living representatives of a distant past. Hence the frequent judgment that life beyond cities is more “rooted” or, less sympathetically, “backward.”

Events unfolded differently in the United States, though. There were long-standing rural communities that sought to pass their ways and lands down through history—but they faced a devastating invasion from across the Atlantic. There are still places where people have lived continuously for centuries, such as the millennium-old Acoma Pueblo, in New Mexico. But the rural Americans with the deepest roots, the Native ones, were very often violently dispossessed.

The people who replaced them, meanwhile, were transplants, less sprung from the soil than laid like sod over Indigenous lands. Settlers liked to imagine that their takeover was swift and natural, that Native Americans were already en route to extinction. This was a consoling myth. The process of uprooting one rural people and implanting another took time, and heavy state intervention. By the official count, Indigenous people fought 1,642 military engagements against the United States. The ensuing treaties, the historian Robert Lee calculates, cost the U.S. government billions of dollars.

Settlers styled themselves as pioneers who had won their land with their bare hands. This is how it went in “Little House on the Prairie,” with the frontier family racing ahead of the law to seize Indian property. (“Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve” would have been a more accurate title, the literary scholar Frances W. Kaye has archly suggested.) Yet in the end land ownership came, directly or indirectly, from the state. The Homestead Act of 1862, along with its successors, gridded up and gave away an area the size of Pakistan. And although homesteading sounds like a relic from the sepia-toned past, its most active period came, the historian Sara Gregg has pointed out, in the twentieth century. The final homesteader got his land in 1988.

One irony is that—after Indigenous towns—it’s the havens of the East Coast élite, such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, which have the deepest roots. Most bastions of “real America” are, by contrast, relatively new. Wasilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin served as mayor, really is a small town in a farming area. But most of its farms were created by a New Deal campaign to relocate struggling farmers from the Upper Midwest. (Hence Palin’s “you betcha” accent, similar to the Minnesota ones in the film “Fargo.”) Palin’s proud patch of “real America,” in other words, was courtesy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The historically recent arrival of settlements like Palin’s Wasilla or the “American Gothic” town of Eldon gives them a copy-paste quality. The striking outfits of Grant Wood’s models weren’t homespun; he’d ordered them from Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Chicago. And the Gothic window that had grabbed his attention? It wasn’t the product of a distinctive local culture, either. Eldon had existed for barely a decade when that window was installed. It, too, had been mail-ordered from Sears.

Wherever the clothes were from, the image of a stalwart couple humbly working their own land came to represent rural America. Wood described the pair as “tintypes from my own family album,” and, indeed, his parents had tilled a plot in Iowa. Yet that sort of farming marked only a brief moment in Wood’s family history. His maternal grandparents were innkeepers, not farmers, and his paternal ones had been Virginia slaveholders. When Wood was ten, his family left the farm for the city of Cedar Rapids, where Wood set out to be a jeweller.

The Woods weren’t unusual. One of Steven Conn’s great themes is the evanescence of those “American Gothic”-style farms. Although “we tend to equate rural with farm,” he writes, small, general farms “disappeared more than half a century ago, at least.” Agriculture has become a capital-intensive, high-tech pursuit, belying the “left behind” story of rural life. Fields resemble factories, where automation reigns and more than two-thirds of the hired workforce is foreign-born. “To call 1,5srcsrc acres of corn, genetically modified to withstand harsh chemical pesticides and intended for a high-fructose corn syrup factory, a ‘farm’ is a bit like calling a highly automated GM factory a ‘workshop,’ ” Conn remarks.

Corporate dominance is hidden in agriculture: Apple products are sold by a high-profile, publicly traded multinational, but actual apples come from private companies that few people have ever heard of, like Gebbers Farms or Zirkle Fruit. The government classifies most as “family farms,” but this doesn’t mean they’re diminutive. “Family corporations” is what Conn calls the agribusiness operations that maintained family ownership for legal reasons. In agricultural processing and retailing, the mom-and-pop pretense quickly drops. The country’s largest food company is PepsiCo; it owns Rice-A-Roni, Sabra, Rold Gold, Doritos, Gatorade, and Quaker Oats.

You might think that this is how things work under capitalism, but U.S. agriculture is far from capitalist. Since the Depression, the government has aggressively managed the farming economy, variously limiting supply, ginning up demand, and stabilizing prices. “When it comes to agriculture, there is no such thing as the free market,” the head of the food-processing-and-procuring conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland explained in 1995. Certainly, the over-all effect of government policy was to favor large firms like his.

As conglomerates grew, most farmers and farmworkers were edged out. In the years since “American Gothic,” more than two-thirds of the country’s farms have disappeared, and tens of millions of people left for cities. Black farms were hit especially hard. In 192src, there were nearly a million of them; now there aren’t even thirty-five thousand.

The small farmers who stayed faced their own hardships. Performing at a Live Aid concert to benefit Ethiopian famine victims in 1985, Bob Dylan wondered if some of the money could be spared to support debt-ridden small farmers in his own country. It couldn’t, but Willie Nelson and others started an annual benefit concert, Farm Aid, treating farmers as charity cases. Farm Aid started during a downturn called the farm crisis, and it’s still going nearly forty years later. Small farmers have been in crisis so long, Conn observes, that the word “crisis”—which suggests a deviation from the norm—has lost its meaning.

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