by Bryce Tellmann
“Agrarian” is a loaded term. Literature scholar M. Thomas Inge notes that it is most commonly associated with independence and self-sufficiency, as well as long-running tensions between tradition and industry, community, and agriculture as a “positive spiritual good” (xiv). Americans are likely to associate it with Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted line from Notes on the State of Virginia: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”
But the history of agrarianism isn’t all community and virtue. From the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s to the Tractorcades of the 1970s, farmers in the United States have drawn on agrarian rhetoric to protest commodity prices, foreclosures, corporate control, and more. This line of protest is seen around the world as well, from multiple movements for migrant worker rights to the ongoing farmer protests in India.
In Spring 2022, I am teaching a topics class on Agrarian Protest (ENGL 392) that will examine a broad swath of these protests. Since I’m a rhetorician, we’ll pay particular attention to the communicative and persuasive discourse of these movements, through examination of both primary and secondary sources. Ultimately, I expect that students will be surprised by the sheer diversity of voices in the last century-and-a-half of agrarian protest. It is easy to assume that farmers’ political interests are simple, unified, and consistent across time. The truth is far more complex and – dare I say – radical.
So in the (apocryphal) words of 1880s reformer Mary Elizabeth Lease, “it’s time to raise less corn, and more hell!”