Arts + Culture

New book by UCLA scholar traces history of American agriculture through literature

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Given all the attention attracted recently by Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and other authors of memoirs about eating locally grown food, the nation's relationship with agriculture may seem like a new preoccupation for American writers.
 
In fact, U.S. scribes have been harvesting fodder from these fertile soils for at least century, a UCLA assistant professor of English contends in a new book. Further, the country's break with small-scale farming and ranching occurred much earlier than food-obsessed bestsellers like Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (2006) and Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" (2007) would have readers believe, Allison Carruth argues in "Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food."
 
Published last month by Cambridge University Press, the book explores how industrial agriculture has, since World War I, informed not just U.S. dietary habits and culinary discourse but also the country's economic aspirations and its rise to global power.
 
Through analysis of American texts ranging from Willa Cather's 1913 novel "O Pioneers!", about a Nebraska family struggling to keep their farm viable at the dawn of the 20th century, to Novella Carpenter's 2009 nonfiction work "Farm City," which highlights back-to-basics urban farming, Carruth shows how the "literature of food" — a body of work that comprises literary realism, late modernism, magical realism, culinary writing, food memoir, advertising and other genres — has captured subtle nuances of the connection between the country's identity and its agricultural practices.
 
Citing even earlier examples, such as Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle," she contends that U.S. writers have not only documented the influence of industrial agriculture in America and throughout the world but have long served as a source of criticism and a fount of imaginative alternatives to agribusiness as usual.
 
"What I'm trying to do with this history is give a sense that contemporary politics around food have a deeper set of roots that predate the rise of the Green Revolution in the 1960s," said Carruth.
 
With "Global Appetites," Carruth said she hopes to encourage readers to look beyond prevailing wisdom, which tends to imagine two stark paradigms: low-tech, sustainable and artisanal practices pitted against large-scale and technically innovative approaches to food production and distribution.
 
"We've overly bifurcated the landscape of food politics, and this stark division is obscuring what is actually an interestingly multivalent set of solutions," she said. "A plethora of stories, values and practices are being offered up, and I want to illuminate some of those rather than simply demonize biotechnology and agribusiness, as writers such as Kingsolver tend to do."
 
Carruth, who has appointments in the UCLA Department of English and the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is one of several UCLA faculty members specializing in the environmental humanities, a field that promotes interdisciplinary research, typically between the humanities and the environmental sciences.
 
Among other current activities, Carruth is co-writing a book titled "Literature and Food Studies" with Amy L. Tigner, an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at Arlington. She also is media editor of the new journal Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities.
 
Her latest research investigates the narratives, networks and technologies of seed saving, which is the practice of setting aside seeds from food plants for use from year to year, along with the relationship between information technology and food culture in the urban United States.
 
Carruth became interested in issues around agriculture and environmentalism while volunteering several years ago at San Francisco's Ferry Building, the epicenter for the Bay Area's farm-to-table movement.
 
"Global Appetites" discusses works of both nonfiction and fiction. Unlikely literary selections include poetry from World War II by Lorine Niedecker, who casts a skeptical eye on the value of wartime food rationing, and Toni Morrison's 1981 novel "Tar Baby," in which chocolate is a powerful metaphor for how culinary pleasures can be bound up with brutal histories of empire, slavery and economic injustice.
 
"Literature has a very distinctive capacity to move us across different scales — from the cell, to the body, to the family, to the community, to the ecosystem, to the state," Carruth said. "Through this capacity, literature can show us what we do at a table or in a garden and how it connects to a bigger system."
 
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