Why the death of the farm novel matters

There is something at stake when a story is not told and a group of people don’t get heard

John McGahern, in his essay Rural Ireland’s Passing, expressed his concerns for the future of Irish agriculture. Photograph: Frank Miller

John McGahern, in his essay Rural Ireland’s Passing, expressed his concerns for the future of Irish agriculture. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

In building the national myth on which to form the young republic, Éamon de Valera didn’t have the cultural centres of London or Paris to work from. Instead, he had an island of farmers. Following Thomas Jefferson’s lead from a few centuries earlier, de Valera praised the virtues of small-scale agriculture and claimed it to be key in making the newly sovereign Ireland as autonomous as possible.

Ireland has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship between its farming community and its public. Some of the earliest television dramas, such as The Riordans, are set on family farms, and many of the island’s well-known writers were farmers themselves – Patrick Kavanagh, John McGahern, Eugene McCabe. The average American is three to four generations removed from agriculture, but it’s hard to find an Irish person outside of Dublin who doesn’t have an uncle with sheep or cattle.

However, the presence of the Irish farm narrative has thinned since the last work of these writers. Belinda McKeon’s Solace (2011) is one of the few novels published in the last few decades that show explicit farming practices, as does, perhaps more sparingly, Claire Keegan’s novella Foster (2010).

Perhaps more significant is that little farming occurs in current novels set on farms. Much of Donal Ryan’s work includes farmers, as well as more recently Louise Nealon’s Snowflake (2021), but seldom do they carry out the detailed acts of farming found before the turn of the century. Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers (2020) addresses the Irish beef industry as a whole, but does not include the cattle rearing that underpins it.

In comparison, the love triangle at the heart of Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride (1951) develops between frequent and detailed farm chores that take up a large part of the novel. As Nicholas Grene points out in Farming in Modern Irish Literature, one of Patrick Kavanagh’s greatest legacies was to “make available for literature” the explicit particulars of the agricultural experience that was previously considered untenable for high art, inspiring both McGahern and Heaney to do the same. Now, however, when a farm does appear in a novel, it is typically being alluded to offscreen.

No one is decrying the fact that fewer Westerns are now published. Is there anything at stake in losing the farm novel?

In 1984, in the middle of the US farm crisis, three movies were produced that were centred on the difficulties of farming: Places in the Heart, Country and The River. Several prominent actors, feeling so compelled about the roles they played, testified before Congress about the farm crisis, even though they had no real agricultural experience. It was an arduous time for the industry, but the farmers felt noticed.

Following a period of recovery and even prosperity, American agriculture has faced relatively consistent struggles since the turn of the century. However, unlike in the eighties, there is practically no fiction written about farming and very few movies. It can be argued that Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World, published in 1994, may be the last genuine American farm novel. Farmers cannot see their lived experience reflected back to them. Suddenly, farming is not only a difficult venture, but a lonely one as well.

There are a variety of ways to consider the rise of Trump in America, and several important lessons to be learned. Being American, I’m often asked, with astonishment, why farmers and rural communities would vehemently support a candidate with whom they have so little in common. My best explanation is this: they felt misunderstood. They wanted to be noticed, and thought the only way was to disrupt a system that had moved on without them.

In the end, there’s more than feelings of loneliness on the line in getting the story of the farmer told. Instead, the farmer’s absence in literature reverberates outward into the real world and eventually leads to very tangible consequences. Recently, the European Union has been negotiating provisional agreements on the next implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which will decide the fate of its farmers for the next 10 years. Agricultural departments tend to have among the largest budgets in contemporary governments and need to account for the ways they spend taxpayer money. They will need a story to tell their citizens.

There are two types of agricultural ideology: productivist policy, which focuses on producing the most and cheapest farming goods, and protectionist policy, which prioritises the social capital, rural development and environmental benefits of smaller farming. In short, it’s a debate between numbers and values. Unfortunately for farmers, it is easier to make policy based on numbers.

Ireland and Iceland once had very similar farming systems. Nonetheless, while 60 cows is enough to support a large family in Iceland, Irish farmers have been forced to expand to stay in business, and have seen their profit margins shrink due to the EU’s increasingly productivist-based policies. In fact, Iceland supports its farmers more than any other developed nation. It is no coincidence that in Iceland, whose national agricultural policy states that the social and economic conditions of farming should be “attractive enough to make farming a worthwhile profession”, there is also, unofficially, the highest prevalence of farm novels published per capita each year.

When those who do not farm cannot experience what is at stake in the lifestyle through means of a constructed narrative, whether in fiction or film, it becomes harder for politicians to justify to the public the expenditures required to support farmers. It is more difficult for a leader to claim, like de Valera and Jefferson, that we all have something to gain from aiding small agriculture. Currently, in the United States there is little political interest in making smallholdings viable. Since Hamilton’s novel in 1994, farming has become a dire affair, with the family farm nearly extinct.

John McGahern, in his essay Rural Ireland’s Passing, expressed his concerns for the future of Irish agriculture. His final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002), is much different to his other work, being a quiet pastoral on a small farm with little overt conflict. Scholars have tended to decide that the book was meant to eulogise a lost rural Ireland. However, I have always believed that his aims were more specific, and that McGahern was showing what Ireland had to lose if it forfeited the type of agricultural existence that sustained that countryside.

Recognising the power of literature is a refrain trotted out on the websites of university English departments and bandied around the book industry. However, there is something at stake when a story doesn’t get told and a group of people don’t get heard. I think writers like McGahern knew that.

Ryan Dennis is the author of the novel The Beasts They Turned Away, published by époque press.

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