(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Richard Critchfield has produced a book so questionable in its conception and so flawed in its execution that the several critical establishments into whose province it ranges are bound to dismiss it out of hand. Nevertheless, it is a wonder of a book—a stupendous tour de force; a constant provocation; a richly philosophical text; a fine blend of narration, assemblage of facts, polemic, and ideation. Critchfield’s subject is the true “Great Silent Majority”: the sixty-one percent of the world’s people who are villagers. When one reckons that villagers comprise well over seventy percent of the populations of Asia and Africa, this figure seems even more impressive. Critchfield wishes to reveal the essential contours of village existence—psychic as well as economic contours; to situate the village experience in the context of cultural history; and to discern the general outline of “the great change” that village culture is currently undergoing.

There are well over two million villages, distributed over all the continents, existing within radically different linguistic, religious, and climatological milieus, connected to diverse economic systems. How is this “subject” to be studied? More important, is this a genuine subject at all? What qualifies as a “village”? Can a movable Bedouin tent settlement, a war-ravaged south Vietnamese rice ville, a tourist-infested Mexican highland hamlet, and an eastern Colorado cattle town be weighed in the same scale? Peasant, rural worker, tribesmen, semiagricultural nomad, farmer—these key terms all must come into play when one discusses villages, but each presents severe definitional problems. To qualify as a “village,” must the entity in question be essentially agricultural—or can commercial or industrial activities be “mixed in” without damaging its claim to village status? Further, what are the proper conditions for studying village culture? Should villages undergoing war, famine, or economic boom be regarded as out of bounds?

With the maturation of both anthropology and development economics as academic disciplines in this century, there have emerged several great debates on how these methodological problems should be treated. Critchfield, a journalist, is quite aware of the relevant arguments, but he prefers to employ provisional definitions and get on with the investigation, choosing those audaciously direct routes that only great reporters seem to know.

To learn about villages, Critchfield has spent vast quantities of time living in—and then periodically returning to—specific villages. His preoccupation with village life is ultimately traceable to his rearing in rural North Dakota, as well as early experiences as a student of folklore in Europe, soldier in the Korean War, and teacher in India. The decisive experience, however, was Vietnam, where he survived four years as a war correspondent for the Washington Star. There, Critchfield gradually realized that to grasp the true shape of that hideous struggle, he had to study the traditional Confucian culture of ordinary Vietnamese in their villages. (The Long Charade, which appeared in 1968, details Critchfield’s findings.) This experience engendered a consuming interest in the nature of village culture. Critchfield devoted the next twelve years to reporting about Third World villages. His long sojourn in Indonesia gave rise to the book The Golden Bowl Be Broken (1974), while a year in upper Egypt provided the material for the magnificent portrait Shahhat: An Egyptian (1978). Readers of the Christian Science Monitor and The Economist have been the main beneficiaries of Critchfield’s journalistic efforts in the last decade.

Critchfield’s passion for directly encountering his subject matter knows few boundaries. The social scientific concept of the “participant observer” utterly fails to do justice to Critchfield’s modus operandi, for Critchfield obviously loves village culture and the diverse agricultural practices which sustain it. Sober and sophisticated reporter though he is, he clearly is engaged in rediscovering himself and thereby a lost America as he comes to comprehend the peculiar mysteries of traditional cultures in the throes of modernization. Critchfield is also adventurous in that peculiar, restless, quasisuicidal way of many survivors of Vietnam. The German word Tollkühnheit, which combines in one unity the qualities of madness, exuberance, audaciousness, and fearlessness, seems most appropriate to describe Critchfield’s “methodology.” Thus, Villages’ first chapter finds Critchfield in Salvador, Brazil, carried away in the insanely violent and ecstatic six-day celebration of Carneval.

Once you start dancing there’s no stopping. You go on and on, one night fading into the next, a few hours of exhausted sleep, your mortalha sodden and stiff with sweat, downing gallons of beer to slake a steady thirst, finding, losing your friends, moving to the African samba beat, caught in the compulsive power of the music and its splintered sensual universe.

A serious injury, sustained when a bandstand collapsed over him, ended the revelry of Critchfield and some fifty other people.

In Indonesia, in 1970, Critchfield spent a week in an urban brothel, interviewing the women who worked there. In Mexico, against all the odds, he searched for and found the real Jesús Sanchez, the father of the family studied by Oscar Lewis and immortalized in the classic anthropological study, The Children of Sanchez (1961). Wherever he is, Critchfield insists on participating fully in all essential agricultural labor; he may be the reigning expert on village harvesting techniques and harvest festivals. Intrigued by traditional religion, he has placed himself under the “care” of all manner of fortune-tellers, prophets, shamen, conjurers, sorcerers, and magicians. In eastern Nepal he once saw a ghost. He goes about with the “knowledge” that...

(The entire section is 2473 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Book World. XI, June 28, 1981, p. 13.

Booklist. LXXVII, June 1, 1981, p. 1281.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, July 13, 1981, p. B5.

The Economist. CCLXXX, July 4, 1981, p. 91.

Library Journal. CVI, May 15, 1981, p. 1092.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, June 14, 1981, p. 7.

Quill & Quire. XLVII, August, 1981, p. 31.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVIII, July 13, 1981, p. 18.