The family farm has been the dominant cultural enterprise in the Midwest until the later decades of the twentieth century, when large agribusiness corporations turned farming from a social foundation into a cog in the corporate machine. This dramatic change, driven by economics and technology, is not remarkable in the history of midwestern farming. Change has been the one consistent fact of farm life in the Midwest.
Farm fiction began with Hamlin Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads (1891). Garland wanted to tell the truth about farming, and to Garland that truth meant avoiding the romanticized vision of farming as a happy pastoral existence lived in harmony with nature. Opposite Garland are perhaps two of the most beautiful novels ever written about farming, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918). In both, Cather depicts strong female protagonists who struggle with the Nebraska prairie sod until it gives in to their will and produces food. Cather’s ability to capture the beauty of life on the prairie and its extraordinary effects on her characters is rivaled by few. Herbert Quick’s Vandemark’s Folly (1922), while suffering from a melodramatic plot, compares with Cather’s work in its ability to describe the native Iowa prairie in several inspiring passages. In Cather’s and Quick’s novels a key theme is the immigrant experience, and this is also true in Ole Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1924-1925), which is considered by some to be the best farm novel ever written. Rölvaag’s central couple, Per and Beret Hansa, find that the founding of a farm in America is as much a question of learning to farm as it is learning to become or not to become like other Americans. Per and Beret...
(The entire section is 722 words.)