Good Stories

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

March is still roaring a bit, though with Mid-Michigan temperatures eking into the 60s it’s a bit more like a purr. Nevertheless, you have to squint pretty hard to see the crocuses peeking out of the ground or the little spots of green that will be turning into budding leaves in the coming weeks. I suppose the real farmers are already getting busy, but it’s a dead season for the faux farmer foodies. We have little in store but waiting, so maybe it’s a good moment to explore obscure literary references in the food world.

It occurs to me that if you want to explore American food ethics at about this time in the previous century, you would probably be reading novels. Yet that doesn’t seem so much the case today. There were tons of food and farming novels published in an era that runs from about 1860 to 1960. They were, on the on the one hand, novels in a full-blown sense: plot, characters, story development, represented as fiction. On the other hand, they were a form of thinly veiled journalism. The stories being recounted were true, and the books were read with the understanding that one could learn something of significance about the events being reported from these accounts.

Of course, the names were changed. Not so much to protect the innocent, I suspect, as to ward off legal action, especially when the real-life protagonists were both well-known and well-heeled. The stories themselves were very much the stuff of food ethics: fraudulent schemes that deprived homesteaders of their land; cruel exploitation of marginalized groups being employed as seasonal labor, especially in California, where even by the 1870s large estates were dependent on the labor of dispossessed Native American tribes and Chinese immigrants; singular events of violent resistance, such as the Mussel Slough Affair. This last was the result of an extended dispute over land titles between settlers and the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was the subject of at least three novelizations, the best known being Frank Norris’ The Octopus.

For racial strife, we could cite Edna Ferber’s Giant. The scene in which patrician rancher “Bick” Benedict (grandfather of a mixed-race child) confronts a racist café owner was an especially telling incident in the 1956 film version. The primary example might be Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (a book I have not read, mind you) published in 1884. The book combines the mutual hatred of Mexicans and Americans with cruel prejudice toward Native Americans. And then a special kind of vindictiveness is reserved for the half-breeds. Maybe not exactly Gloria Anzaldua’s story, but not all that different, either—and a full century earlier!

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, best known example in this genre. It was based fairly directly on reporting that Steinbeck did in the Federally-supported “Weed Patch” camp near Arvin, CA. (We’ve blogged about this before.) After taking a turn through Oklahoma for background, Steinbeck converted straight-up reportage into the story of the Joad family’s eviction, migration to California, exploitation by large growers and eventual dissolution. But you knew that.

I have many questions. To start with, what happened to this form? It’s nothing like today’s novelists would write, and that’s true whether we’re talking Margaret Atwood or John Grisham. Sure, we have Barbara Kingsolver, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was non-fiction. It’s not as if the stories have gone away, but in our time they are much more likely to be recounted simply as a factual exposé.

Perhaps we should regard that as progress. My other questions address the form itself: What made these novels, aside from the fact that names were changed. In some cases (like Steinbeck) the characters are composite, pulled together from the life-events of several individuals he met during his reporting. More generally, I’d speculate that the novel form was just a way to get people to read the damn things, in the first place. I know that I have a lot of trouble just convincing anyone to read this puny little blog! Maybe ethics needs a good story. I guess the authors of The Bible had that one figured out.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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