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In Good Hands:
The Life of a Family Farm

By Charles Fish
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 29 pages, $21

Sitting in the British Museum, amidst a great, grimy, bustling city, Karl Marx wrote that the bourgeoisie should be thanked for at least one accomplishment: rescuing a large part of the European population from “the idiocy of rural life.” Over a century later, it’s still open season for intellectuals on villagers and their values. In American universities, on the rare occasions when small towns are discussed at all, they are typically portrayed as hotbeds of intolerance, hypocrisy, and oppression.

Not even the New England town meeting can count on the benefit of the doubt. In a lecture on the tension between judicial review and democratic decision making, Archibald Cox once innocently remarked that he would be vexed if the Supreme Court were to overturn an ordinance adopted in the open meeting of his town. That smacked of heresy to Cox’s colleague Laurence Tribe, who warned that to praise the town meeting form of government “ignores the danger of small-town oppression.” Casual identification of small towns with oppression is not confined to the leftward range of the political spectrum. Charles Fried, Solicitor-General under President Reagan, wrote in 1990, “What moves me is my attachment to human liberty, liberty of spirit, liberty from the crowd, and even from . . . the community (or, less charitably, the petty impositions of village tyrants).”

Caricatures of community life by the knowledge-class, of course, bear no closer relation to reality than do rosy-hued pastoral scenes. But such negative stereotypes play into the hands of those eager to entrust fundamental questions of how we should order our lives together to judges rather than to local self-determination and ordinary politics. The waters of opportunism have closed over the efforts of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to open political processes to broader participation through education and voting. The rights revolution that took rise in the seventies came not to strengthen politics, but to bury-or at least to bypass-it. Would-be oligarchs of the right and left seize any pretext to delegitimate the democratic elements in our republican experiment. In their book the failures of local government in the segregated South are an excuse for ignoring the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution.

Excellent antidotes to sentimental, as well as disparaging, views of village life are two recent thick descriptions by Richard Critchfield and Charles Fish. Critchfield’s portraits of eight peasant villages and Fish’s story of a family farm in Vermont also prompt reflection on whether stable regimes of individual rights, complex economies, and modern welfare states can be sustained without the habits of cooperation and self-restraint that are nurtured in the world’s eroding communities of memory and mutual aid.

Critchfield, a journalist who died suddenly in December 1994 shortly after the publication of The Villagers, began to study and write about villages in the late 1960s, using the participant-observer method favored by many anthropologists. A village, as he defines it, is a settlement ranging from a few households to a few thousand inhabitants who subsist by farming or fishing. For over a quarter century, he lived for periods ranging from three months to more than a year in rural communities in many parts of the world, including India, Korea, Java, Kenya, Egypt, Mexico, and Poland. His early reports on these sojourns won him one of the first MacArthur “genius” awards. His legacy is a remarkable collection of stories and essays where the sights, sounds, and rhythms of daily life are vividly portrayed through the eyes of the men and women the author came to know over the years.

The importance of Critchfield’s work is heightened by the fact that village life underwent a momentous historic transformation during the years he was visiting and revisiting his village friends. As late as the 1970s, about two-thirds of the world’s population still lived in villages where modes of life and work had changed little since agriculture was invented. By the year 2000, for the first time in human history, a majority of the earth’s inhabitants will be living in urban areas. The significance of that shift, according to historian William H. McNeill, is rivalled only by humankind’s transition from hunting and gathering into settled farming many thousands of years ago.

Critchfield’s early works emphasized the continuities between today’s village life and ancient human settlements. One of his central theses was that villagers everywhere share something like a common culture-characterized by the habits, routines, and outlooks associated with agriculture; by respect for religion, family ties, and property; and by habits of subordinating self-interest to family and community solidarity.

Over the 1970s and 1980s, when Critchfield revisited villages where he had once lived, he was astonished to see how profoundly those continuities had been unravelled. Not only were rural folk flocking to cities, but technology had been transforming every detail of farm and family life. Along with the tractor, television had arrived, and so had the birth control pill and IUD. The most radical change took place in ways of imagining reality. “Among the village people I knew personally, there was a marked difference: something had happened in their minds. They felt that the future would no longer simply repeat the past, as it had always done, but could be radically improved by all the new Western technologies.”

The excellence of The Villagers lies in its vivid depictions of people and communities caught up in the sweep of profound political, economic, and social movements: Polish villagers adjusting to the collapse of state socialism; a Mexican village losing many of its inhabitants through emigration to the United States; an Indian village that went from subsistence to commercial farming between 1965 and 1970; Muslim villages in Egypt and Java, and Confucian villages in China and South Korea, undergoing modernization.

When Critchfield attempted to assess the significance of what he had observed, however, he was at something of a loss. His generally fine writing falters as he tries to move from description to explanation. Resorting to assertion rather than analysis, he categorically announces that “rural life is the source, and the only source, of such aspects of our culture as religious beliefs, the agricultural moral code, the institutions of family and property, and the work ethic.” That dubious premise leads him to predict that if the common culture of villages collapses, the rest of the world will suffer dire consequences because “the way and view of life in villages like Ghungrali and Popowlany, so little changed from the day agriculture was invented ten, twelve thousand years ago until just the last twenty-five or thirty years, gave our unstable human society much of what stability it had.”

Charles Fish does not attribute such culture-saving importance to country ways in his evocative memoir, In Good Hands . One reason is that he appreciates more fully than Critchfield what is gained, as well as what is lost, when the agricultural way of life disappears. In Good Hands is neither history nor reportage. It is to The Villagers as a painting is to a documentary film. From memory and empathetic imagination, plus a few family documents and his boyhood diary, Fish recreates the story of “The Farm” near Rutland, Vermont, where his mother was raised and his relatives have lived for six generations. A town boy who summered with his maternal kin, Fish had a certain emotional distance from the Farm and its ways even at the age of eight. His book both interrogates and celebrates the tradition from which he sprang.

In the United States, from the very beginning, there was a closer relationship between farm villages and nearby towns than in the developing countries where Critchfield did most of his work. Most of our farmers were not isolated from town life, and our townspeople long remained on intimate terms with the countryside. Hard as it is to imagine today, nearly a third of the American population was still engaged in farming on the eve of World War II. And, despite many earlier labor-saving inventions, it was only in the 1920s and 1930s that the farming way of life in this nation was fully transformed by technology.

Like Critchfield (and this reviewer), Fish was born in the 1930s “into the thinnest shadows of the vanishing era” of rural America. Critchfield’s recollection of his native North Dakota could apply as well to the New England dairy country of Fish’s Vermont, or of Granby, Massachusetts, where my great-uncle Lyman Gallup kept sixteen Jersey cows until the late 1950s. “There is just the faintest memory of village-like dirt roads, horse-drawn farm wagons, threshers pitching bundles by hand, and small farms where cows were milked, pigs fed, bread baked, vegetables canned, and chickens ran about underfoot.” By the 1940s, that world was already coming to an end. Agribusiness was just around the corner; the days of the family farm were numbered. Today, the proportion of Americans who live on farms is a mere 2 percent.

Charles Fish’s relatives are still among that dwindling band. Since 1836, when their “Founder,” Henry Lester, moved to Rutland, members of the Lester clan have continuously worked and raised their families on the same eighty acres, converting from dairy farming to market gardening only in the 1960s. Critchfield would have recognized the Lesters of Fish’s youth as partakers of universal village culture. Their world, as portrayed by a wandering son, was one where childhood was not clearly separated from adulthood; where work, play, and moral education tended to blend and merge; where sexuality was regarded as a powerful, unsettling force that needed to be tamed by manners and marriage; where “manly and womanly characteristics were sharply distinct in some respects”; where the connection between a family and its land lent meaning and dignity to the humblest tasks; and where there was much to remind the farmer that nature was not under his control. Henry Lester, like Critchfield (and Thomas Jefferson), believed there was a special relation between farming and upright living. In an essay written in 1833, the Founder opined that agriculture, more than any other occupation, “tends to lead the mind to religion, morality, and virtue.”

Fish’s love for the Farm did not blind him to the shortcomings of the way of life under which it prospered, nor to the price it could exact from individuals. It struck him, in particular, that reason and spiritedness had to be kept in harness to the service of the Farm. Given free rein, those qualities, so essential to science and politics, could easily threaten the whole enterprise-by “changing the farmer into something else.” Fish came to realize that the Farm cannot be home to people for whom the deepest satisfactions are in the search for knowledge. He came to admire men and women whose ambitions were devoted to larger and more public purposes. “They, too, plant, harvest, and preserve-[though] their efforts are more ambiguous and debatable.”

In the end, Fish embraces an understanding of the Farm as an impressive example of humankind’s brave and transient efforts to achieve order. He probably owes to the Farm his vivid apprehension of a truth that city cousins can easily forget: “All stability is an artful imposition of uncertain duration.” In that light, “the farm, where peaceful people could live and work, was a remarkable achievement of wisdom and will, an island in the ebb and flow of history . . . . Measured against the common operations of our nature over time-lust, laziness, bloodshed, indifference-the higher forms of civil and domestic order are almost radiant.”

Reflecting on the Farm and the fragility of order, Fish came to understand something else as well-that no way of life can endure without cultivating the qualities of character upon which it depends. Yet he concludes his beautifully written book with an image of religion on the scrapheap. On a recent visit to the Farm, Fish found in a storage barn, amidst the odds and ends of former times, a wooden signboard from the now-defunct community chapel where he had attended Bible school as a boy. This prompts his concluding reflections: “These things pass: the separate world, the divine mission. These endure: love, friendship, work, the land, a neighbor’s helping hand. These lie in darkness: the fate of the republic, the shape of souls to come.”

Though both Fish and Critchfield effectively rebut crude stereotypes by portraying country life in all its complexity, they both seem to accept an unduly simplistic attitude toward religion as an artifact that is passing away with the ways of life that supposedly gave rise to it. Critchfield, unlike most historical materialists, found the prospect of religion’s demise alarming, because he viewed religion as useful to the maintenance of social stability. Fish, for his part, records the passing of the faith of his forebears with apparent equanimity. He tells the reader that the church bell no longer rings for him. “Choices are made. There is always a price.”

Fish’s portrait of the life and times of the Farm suggests, however, that what has passed away is merely a sort of religion that was sustained by little except habit and compatibility with a certain way of life. As Fish describes the religion of the Lesters, it endured without explicit theology, without ritual, and without durable institutions. The nondenominational chapel where Fish’s grandmother took him in the summers was like my mother’s small-town Congregational church, “short on doctrine and ritual, long on biblical stories, devotion, morality, and good works.” As Fish recognizes, no way of life that diverges significantly from the general drift of the greater society can survive without an articulated vision of itself and without institutions to sustain its vision through changing circumstances.

In that connection, one of Critchfield’s major contributions is to describe how the disintegration of an entire world of meaning-so unsettling for the men and women who experience it-has opened fertile ground for fundamentalism in the developing world. Closer to home, Fish’s chronicle provides a glimpse into the process through which American liberal Protestantism has lost ground both to fundamentalism and secularism. For a religion to avoid those twin hazards in the turbulence of transition from one era to the next, it helps to possess an intellectual tradition to articulate and reflect on religious teachings, as well as durable institutions to make those teachings fresh for each new generation.

The human sciences and institutional frameworks, though, are the creations of city dwellers. It is no accident that cities and civilization have the same root. Thus Critchfield had it exactly backward: stability, in the sense of capacity to maintain coherence and identity over time, depends heavily on urban human achievements. He was prevented from seeing this by the same bias that led him to suppose that religion is born with and dies with rural life. Like many semi-skilled, semi-educated, knowledge workers, Critchfield simply supposed that religious faith is incompatible with a vigorous intellectual life.

Critchfield was right, though, to be worried about the condition of the world’s seedbeds of character and competence, even if he was mistaken in locating them exclusively in rural settings. The political, scientific, economic, and social goods that Americans and many others have come to cherish depend, today more than ever, on certain qualities that once were reliably cultivated in the polis (ideally around 5,000 citizens in Plato’s view) and in urban neighborhoods, as well as in villages. It is hard to imagine how a regime favorable to individual liberty, the work ethic, security of transactions, equality, and relief of misery can be sustained without citizens prepared to restrain their own appetites, plan for the future, render community service, provide for themselves and their dependents, and reach out to the needy.

In the United States, we have traditionally left it primarily up to families, schools, religious groups, workplace associations, and local communities to teach and transmit republican virtues and the skills of self-government from one generation to the next. Deprived of continuity by the mobility of our population, and of their mainstays by women’s massive entry into the paid labor force, all of those mediating structures are in disarray. As for local governments, these little “schools for citizenship” as Tocqueville called them, have become ghosts of their former selves, with their powers siphoned off to distant capitals. The problem with the New England township today is not oppression but apathy. The town meeting has been reduced, in Fish’s apt description, to a place where “selectmen and school directors are fighting over the remnants of a vanishing domain, for much of what they do is to administer the increasingly detailed agendas of the state and federal governments.”

This is hardly the moment, therefore, lightly to dismiss the building blocks of civil society as intolerant, hypocritical, and oppressive. As one who has lived in a small town, a large city, and a suburb, my own experiences lead me to agree with Michael Sandel that “intolerance flourishes most where forms of life are dislocated, roots unsettled, traditions undone.” A certain degree of hypocrisy may be the price that must be paid for a strong system of moral teachings that are difficult to live up to. As for oppression, let it be noted that those who label communities oppressive are often quite ready to permit distant apparatchiks to dictate the conditions under which we live and work. Oppression, to many who came of age in the sixties, is just another name for authority.

The generation that erased the distinction between authority and authoritarianism is now struggling to raise its children in a society where the former is collapsing and the latter is gaining ground. To save their children they must save the culture. That will require these busy people to find time for intelligent and vigorous involvement in the activities and institutions through which we order our lives together. As Fish says, “These lie in darkness: the fate of the republic and the shape of souls to come.”

Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, led the Vatican delegation to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September.