I’m pretty sure this is the third time, but it’s been more than a year since I last read Allan Carlson’s The New Agrarian Mind, and I thought the reading I had done in the meantime might give me some new insights into the book. Plus as always I was curious to see if I woudl still be as enthusiastic about a book I had once endorsed so strongly.
I’m even more enthusiastic, I think. Carlson has written an excellent short history by any standard, and in a way it’s a shame that the subject itself, twentieth-century American agrarianism, is of limited interest. But to those of us who are interested, it is a goldmine. The chapters are short but comprehensive. Carlson goes into just enough detail in the main text, with extensive footnotes to help anyone who wants to explore a particular idea further. And although there is a tragic story here, the tale of a promising movement which is repeatedly derailed by certain fundamental flaws in the thinking (and sometimes in the thinkers), Carlson resists the urge to dramatize events and simply lets the story tell itself through historical detail.
What I noticed the most in this re-reading was that distributism was an important part of the story, contributing to the thinking of the Nashville Agrarians in the late 30s, pursued by Herbert Agar into the 40s, and lived out by Luigi Ligutti and others in his agrarian homestead community in Granger, Iowa.
What was reinforced in this re-reading is that movements are not the answer. Most of the twentieth century agrarian efforts suffered because the folks behind them were much too ambitious, very interested in talking about change but not much interested in small, tentative steps in that direction. Ligutti’s homesteads were the most successful in large part because Ligutti rejected grand schemes requiring government intervention, instead looking for ways to get real people onto real land so that they could provide for their own needs.