Saturday, November 22, 2008

On . . . Peasants!

Unfortunately, whenever I hear the word "peasant" I think of an article I read in The Onion called "Peasant Wedding Gets Out of Hand," in which "a drunken melee . . . [leaves] several dead and the town's butter churn overturned." It's very amusing in its depiction of medieval peasants as a ribald and absurdly picaresque lot whose lives are marked by periodic violence on the scale of the ridiculous, much like the farcical marriage of Perseus and Andromeda in Book V of Ovid's Metamorphoses. I know it's wrong but I've never had much opportunity to amend this position owing to the lack of peasant-related material in my life. In studying American history I have come across sailors, slaves, and commoners – particularly in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic – but, as John Berger notes in his introduction to his 1979 novel Pig Earth (first in the Into Their Labors trilogy), the United States has never had actual peasants due to "the rate of economic development based on monetary exchange was too rapid and too total."

Some might argue that the Jeffersonian yeoman farmers might be approximated to peasants, but these self-confident republicans, in my view, are far removed from the rather passive class of "survivors" described by Berger. There are two definitions of the word "survivor," he asserts. The first is someone who has lived through a one-time ordeal. The second "denotes a person who has continued to live when others have disappeared or vanished." Peasants, he continues have survived famine, plague, drought, sociopolitical upheaval, and, most recently, the pressures on their way of life from modernization and the rise of industry and wage-earning. Their subsequent "culture of survival" envisions a perpetual series of repeated acts of survival where a modern "culture of progress" sees growth and expansion.

Early American farmers certainly belonged to this latter group. In fact, it was argued in both the Revolutionary and Jacksonian periods that it was independent farmers who were the true guardians of liberty, as they were beholden to no man but themselves. They were neither passive nor resigned to their lot and were instead fiercely proud of their freedom and constitutional rights, foreseeing their descendants as proud heirs of these gifts. Daniel Feller's The Jacksonian Promise: America 1815-1840, for example, depicts the early nineteenth century as an era of ecstatic hope as Americans witnessed "the waves of revolutions in Latin America and the struggle for independence in Greece [which] seemed to herald the remaking of the world in America's image foretold by patriots a half-century before." Rapid technological and material advance, such as the completion of the Erie Canal and the introduction of the steamship and railroad only deepened a sense of imminent American greatness. Nathan O. Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity, meanwhile, discusses the sense of millennialism imparted by radical evangelical sects during the Second Great Awakening that foresaw the growth of Jeffersonian democracy as a precursor to the return of Christ's Kingdom to Earth. In other words, then, the difference between the independent American farmer and a peasant are largely psychological. "Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival," Berger immediately asserts.

(When I mentioned Pig Earth to one of my history professors, however, he raised the issue of differentiating between peasants and sharecroppers.)

Pig Earth strongly reminded me of another book I had read from another culture. I actually had a genuine sense of déjà vu. Berger's peasants are mid-century French; those in Takashi Nagatsuka's 1911 novel The Soil are late nineteenth-century Japanese. Other than that, with the exception of some narrative differences (The Soil focuses on one family and lacks the magic realism that appears at the end of Pig Earth), the two books seemed virtually the same. Both authors wrote from experience: Nagatsuka was a rural landlord who based his characters on real people, while Berger lived among the French peasants he wrote about. And both authors also include extensive anthropological detail and utilize a similar limited third-person narrator who concentrates on one person and then another (though I don't know how much of that can be attributed to translation). Of course, Berger argues, the peasant class is a pan-cultural phenomenon. "Their implements, their crops, their earth, their masters may be different, but whether they labour within a capitalist society, a feudal one or others . . . whether they grow rice in Java, wheat in Scandinavia or maize in South America, the peasantry everywhere can be defined as a class of survivors." If the hierarchical structure of an Asian or feudal society can be conceived as a pyramid, Berger goes on to say, "the peasants were on the base frontier of the triangle." Though both Pig Earth and The Soil each concern only one particular group of peasants, perhaps they can be seen as speaking for all of them.

I would only recommend these books for people interested in peasants or anthropology, by the way. I personally found them both rather dull (had to read'em for college).


mel u said...

I will look for The Soil-I am very interested in pre WWII Japanese novels and thanks to you I have added this to my tbr list

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