Praying for Rain
The “independent” farmer, explained
April 6, 1989
One wouldn't think that there might be new things to say about such hoary topics as America's yeoman farmers, but the contributors to this collections of essays managed to find one or two.
Reviewed: A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest, edited by Michael Martone. University of Iowa Press, 1988
Talk about getting your seed into the ground early. Farm groups alarmed by predictions of another drought are already lobbying Congress for extensions of last year's federal aid. Subsidizing inept business people is not new. Chrysler guessed wrong about small cars ten years ago, after all, and war contractors guess wrong about practically everything—more Army helicopters and B-l bombers fell out of the sky in some states last year than rain, at no apparent sacrifice of profit for their manufacturers. Why should uninsured farmers have to lose money because they guessed wrong about rain?
Entrepreneurship without risk is one of those daydream notions that sustain the U.S. as the American half-century draws to a close. Farmers, however, are not guilty of the simple hypocrisies that have made our union leaders and corporate officers so lovable—however much their running to Washington, like toddlers scampering to hide behind their mother's skirt every time the loan comes due or the levee breaks, contradicts our image of the elf-reliant yeoman.
Such contradictions make interesting what would otherwise be just another tedious bunch of grafters. Why, for example, do farmers who are uncommonly generous in helping out a neighbor who is sick or busted up refuse to join that same neighbor in any cooperative enterprise to limit production or market their goods that is manifestly in the interests of both? How did he come to be a democrat who hates government? A xenophobe who leaves the barn door unlocked?
Such questions have also nagged at Douglas Bauer, an Iowan who helped fill a new book titled, A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest and published last year by the University of Iowa Press. Bauer, like most of us, grew up thinking of farming as a life of recurring, daunting risk, a mad adventure that each year pitted one man against weather and the clock, not just in his but in all foreign lands whose farmers sold to the same cruel brokers.
On a recent visit to his hometown, Bauer came to a new insight about farm folks. In the open country of the Midwest small town, he realized, one's life is laid on plainly in front of you. You can see everywhere, and what you can see is what you will be. What appeals to the people who embrace life in such places, Bauer concluded, was not its adventure but its absolute certainty. The changing seasons that seem to the rest of us to portend change in fact are "clean and ordered steps toward death."
Whatever else may change (the farmer himself) people will always get hungry. Whatever else may change, there will always be another spring. Farmers are willing to ruin the land and a democratic impulse, make themselves slave to foreign money, foreign oil, and foreign markets in their attempts to make nature just as regular by rendering their fields immune to the upsets of insects, weather, and soil. The farmer is in fact at war with nature, provoked by its potential for mischief. The appeal of the industrial model of agriculture is not its profitability—it has none, at least not for the farmer—but its predictability.
The farmer's independence, Bauer hints, is actually a fearful disinclination to deal with the human world. Spring will always come eventually and within acceptable limits will be like every other spring before it. That's something you can't say about the next farm bill. Or GATT agreement. Or EEC tariff. People and their institutions, on the other hand, are anything but predictable. History is fluid, subject to spasms, and not to be trusted in versions larger than a fish-fry committee. The neighborly farmer up the road in fact harbors a deep distrust of people, borne of frustration and befuddlement. So they retreat to the pieties of a politics so indiscriminate that it embraces anti-Communism and Soviet trade, self-reliance and massive government subsidy. What is too complicated to reconcile is simply accepted.
The local drainage district, the one-room school system is sometimes offered as an expression of a democratic impulse. They may also be taken to reflect a profound impatience with the abstract, indeed with any system whose mechanisms are so intricate they don't have a face and a name. Farmers distrust any machine that won't respond to a well-placed kick or any deal that can't be done over coffee. It's why they make such lousy economists, prey to conspiracy theories that purport to explain how Wall Street works in terms of Sunday school good and evil.
Gary Comstock, a religious philosopher at Iowa State, ponders in A Place of Sense how farmers have been turned into cultural archetypes. "For them, it is not a battle of the Humanizing Powers of the Agrarian Tradition versus the Dehumanizing Powers of Industrial Modernism . . . . It is a little fight . . . a very specific battle with the Federal Land Bank, or the 1986 tax form, or a troublesome acre of buttonweeds." With nothing out there to block the view, they hardly see anything at all.
Younger farmers, of course, have gone to school. They work in the cities. They keep their farms going with jobs that are vulnerable to corporate relocation decisions, interest rates, the outcome of the next union bargaining round. They are as other-reliant as any commuter who gets up every morning assuming that his fellows will provide him a subway car. People still get hungry, these farmers have learned, but people no longer have to buy the food that our farmers grow. The fathers' springs were never interrupted by a strike, but the sons and daughters are having to learn how to trust human weathers. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.