Review: Back to the Land – The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America

Despite the luxuries offered by modernity, there seems to always be a lingering sense of longing for simplicity in American society; however, this longing is not merely motivated by naive, nostalgic notions of pastoral life. In her book, Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, Dona Brown eloquently guides her readers through over a century’s worth of back to the land movements and, in doing so, illustrates how the motivations for such movements have in fact been very complex and tied to the political, economic, social and even literary atmosphere of the time.  These “back-to-the-landers” saw themselves not retreating backwards to a primitive time, but rather as spearheading a progressive movement that promoted a more practical approach to the challenges of modernity.

Growing skepticism and mistrust in the newly-booming industrial capitalist market at the beginning of the 20th century led many people to embrace the notion of returning to the land; the possibility of self-sufficiency directly combatting dependence on shaky markets. Thus, the movement was formed as a progressive alternative to mainstream modernity.

"Self-sufficiency was not justice, but it was 'one way out'" (30)

“Self-sufficiency was not justice, but it was ‘one way out'” (30)

The second wave of back-to-the-landers surged in conjunction with the development of FDR’s New Deal programs. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, going back to the land was seen now as an effective and even necessary way to tackle the overwhelming problem of unemployment. As one might expect, reliance on government assistance did not sit well with all back-to-the-landers and many turned to leaders like Ralph Borsodi, who again rejected the notion of such reliance and became a ‘decentralist’–encouraging people to maintain a self-sustaining lifestyle as was the dream of the original back to the land movement.

The final back to the land movement Brown focuses on is tied up with the multiple other social revolutions of the 1960’s and 70’s–particularly the environmental movement.  New back-to-the-landers did not express the same anxieties about economic hardships as those who came before them, but they were still committed to and compelled by the notion of self-sufficiency and the ability to break away from the grip of a government they felt was unjust.

What is particularly fascinating is the overwhelming influence literature has had on these movements, and the ways in which such literature has resonated with its audiences. The most striking example is that of David Grayson–who was actually a fictional character developed by a muckraking reporter named Ray Stannard Baker. The fact that a fictional account of going back to the land could change the way so many people viewed their lives is indicative of the truths that are held at the core of back to the land ideals. The back to the land movement provides a poignant example of how progressive ideology can in fact echo lessons from the past and need not focus so intently on advances in technology in order to be successful. Going back to the land was not to reject modernity, but in fact to embrace it in an alternative way which many believed rang truer than the growing reliance on technology and unstable market economies.

There are common threads which run throughout all of the back to the land movements in the last century, and we see similar notions beginning to peek through in contemporary society as well. Concerns about over-centralization and consolidation of power, economic security, social justice–all are part of what has driven so many people over the years to venture back to the land, and all exist in heightened form today. Once again our society is now in a time of economic crisis, and trust in centralized government is certainly waning. Along with Brown’s conclusion that going back to the land was ultimately about self determination we might also say that, at its core, the ultimate struggle of the movement was between the public and private. Although back-to-the-landers often fell in line with public agendas, their desire was to be able to dictate when and how they would engage with the public sphere. Indeed, we see this tension in many contemporary food movements.

What is perhaps most intriguing about the ideals of going back to the land is that they also incorporate a significant degree of social/racial/gender justice. More and more we see these issues overlapping with the more ‘traditional’ causes of new food activism–food security, environmentalism, global health–and it is for this reason I believe that the ideals expressed by more than a century of back to the land activists will remain relevant in the contemporary realm of activism. Just as going back to the land was never simply about returning to an idyllic agrarian lifestyle, neither is contemporary food activism simply about health/environmentalism/justice/etc.–it is the cross section of all these forces and more that spark movement.

(For citation information please see the ‘Webliography’ page on this site)


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