Humdrum Tasks: Agriculture, Education, and Environment in England and America, 1874-1999

Bernhard, Stephanie, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bernhard, Stephanie, Arts & Sciences Graduate-basg, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the relationship between literature and agriculture in the long twentieth century, focusing on scenes of agricultural education that teach at once a practical lesson about cultivating the land and broader lessons about how to develop a modern society. It argue that the dramatic changes wrought by rural industrialization prompted novelists to write “modern georgics,” narrative revisions of Vergil’s Georgics that imagine the effects of innovation on traditional modes of rural labor. Modernist scholars tend to overlook farmers as peripheral to the project of literary innovation, but georgic novels represent characters facing distinctly modern questions made uniquely vivid by the material urgency of farming life: how to move toward gender and racial equality, how to use industrial technologies, how to manage human impact on the environment. Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, and Leslie Marmon Silko all feature nontraditional farmers as protagonists to show how social realities were evolving and to foreground the eclectic education required for farmers whose backgrounds prevented them from learning by simple osmosis. Hardy creates female farmers who change their own narratives from the pastorals that their suitors would prefer to georgic sagas of learning and labor. Cather’s farmers, also women, defy social norms to build their own agricultural education from self-curated selections of traditional, scientific, and environmentalist advice. Silko sends her Native farmers around the world and back to their ancestral lands; their travels teach them that farming can be at once old-fashioned and radically modern, instinctual and scientific, local and global. This dissertation offers a sustained examination of the way novelists invoke georgic didacticism and the language of farming to engage central issues of the twentieth century: gender politics, nativity and immigration, and ecological sustainability.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
environmental humanities, agriculture, novel, georgic, environment, modernism, ecocriticism, Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, Leslie Marmon Silko, Vergil
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