Tag Archives: Market Revolution

America, Gay Marriage, and the Never-Ending 19th Century

Pro "Traditional Marriage" advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

“Traditional Marriage” advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

Have you ever taken a really wide-angle view across the American cultural landscape and experienced a nagging feeling of deja-vu? It’s almost as if issues that ought to have been settled over a century ago just keep popping back up into public discourse, usually at the behest of reactionary turnip heads fueled by an unceasing wish to go back to a better, more moral, more “traditional” time that only ever existed in their own fever-swamped craniums.

Yes-sir-ee-Bob, it might be the tail-end of 2014, but in many ways, Americans are still living in the long nineteenth century. Just look at some of the issues that have been causing a political brouhaha throughout the year: racial equality; gender equality; same-sex marriage; voting rights (?!); secession (the long-disregarded idea that states are independent political entities that can separate from the Federal Union whenever they see fit); nullification (the long-discredited idea that individual states have the power to overrule Federal law), and the evolving definition of what constitutes “family,” among others. If you know anything about U.S. history, then you know that each of these issues played a major role in shaping the culture of nineteenth-century America. Although the details varied with each issue, all of them involved a conflict over the definition of rights: who should have them and why.

In fact, the conflict over the expansion of rights is pretty much at the center of the American story, and Victorian-Era issues still exert a powerful influence on U.S. culture today. Among the contemporary issues that I’ve already listed, few have a more distinctly nineteenth-century flavor than marriage and the American family; or, more specifically, who has the right to define those terms. Which brings us to teh gayz. Yes, in contemporary America, nothing is scarier to some folks than the specter of two people of the same sex getting hitched. You see, marriage is a sacred institution that fuels sitcom jokes everywhere, and some people think that teh gayz should be denied the right to experience this holy sacrament/stand-up comedy staple.

One of the many ornery fellows out there who REALLY doesn’t like same-sex marriage is Douglas MacKinnon, a former aid to President Ronald Reagan. If anyone has a serious jonesing for the Victorian Era, it’s this guy. Recently, MacKinnon went on one of the nation’s infinitesimal number of right-wing radio shows to tout his new book, The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country … Now Ho boy. In this mind-expanding tome, MacKinnon argues that the conservative southern states should secede from the Union and form a new nation called “Reagan” (really) which would be a bastion for “traditional values” — and, possibly, Jelly Belly jelly beans. Now, MacKinnon spends a lot of time making a “legal” case for the fundamentally illegal act of secession — an idea that should have been settled after the Civil War but nonetheless keeps popping up in right-wing circles — but I’m not gonna’ focus on that part of his nineteenth-century worldview. Instead, I’m gonna’ focus on WHY he wants to form the nation of “Reagan:” to escape the gayness.

MacKinnon does not like anything that’s even remotely gay. “The world has been turned upside down if you do happen to believe in traditional values,” he whined. He went on to claim that:

If you happen to make a donation in favor of traditional marriage, you can lose your job. If you happen to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple because it goes against your religious beliefs, you can be driven out of business. If you’re a football commentator and you happen to just say, innocently, that you know maybe I wouldn’t have drafted a gay football player because I wouldn’t want to deal with the distraction, many people on the left will try to drive you out of your job as well.

So MacKinnon REALLY doesn’t care for gay people, and he wants to inoculate himself from their nefarious gay influence by forming a new country that would take a stand for “traditional values,” and, more specifically, “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman. Indeed, keeping marriage limited to a man and a woman is the Alamo-call of many social conservatives, who like to claim that this type of marriage is “traditional,” because it’s “biblical” as well. For example, the Colorado-based advocacy group Focus on the Family asserts that “family is the fundamental building block of all human civilizations, and marriage is the foundation of the family.” They see marriage as being “under attack” by “the push for so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions” that supposedly threaten the tradition of “male-female led families” that “have constituted the primary family units of human society.”

Other like-minded conservatives, such as celebrity pastor Rick Warren, claim that “traditional marriage” was “God’s intended, original design.” Never mind that the bible depicts all kinds of marital arrangements, including polygamy and women being sold into sexual slavery. For social conservatives, “God’s design” coincidentally coincides with their own, and they’ve amassed plenty of rhetorical and legislative ammunition to fight this battle in the larger culture war.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

But here’s the problem: the ideal, “traditional” American nuclear family — a bread-winning husband, a stay-at-home wife, and their dependent children — that social conservatives view as a common thread that links America to biblical times is, in fact, a product of the bourgeoise notion of the family that emerged in the nineteenth century. During this period, distinct cultural separations between work and the home solidified, love and intimacy became (forgive me) wedded to the notion of marriage, and children came to be viewed not as smaller versions of adults, but as agents to be nurtured and protected from the outside world.

In her sweeping study Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, historian of the family Stephanie Coontz explains how, for much of history, marriage was primarily an “economic and political” transaction. From dowries to land deals; from property in assets to property in women; from forging political alliances to guaranteeing more workers for the family farm, marriage in different societies at different points in history had little to do with love and child-rearing. The notion that there was ever a single, “traditional” version of marriage geared towards consolidating romantic affection and maintaining nuclear family stability is a very modern concept.

As Coontz writes, “for centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” Throughout much of history, marriage was deeply functional. “It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property,” Coontz notes.* Thus, in many ways, marriage was the foundation of civilizations, but not in the way social conservatives describe as a spiritual/moral bulwark against a corrupt outside world. That particular ideal of marriage and the family, which conservatives see as being threatened by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a product of nineteenth-century America — yet it’s an ideal of marriage and family relations that we still cling to today.

During the Victorian Era, the U.S. underwent a series of changes that fundamentally altered American life and paved the way for our contemporary society. Most significantly, the Market Revolution unleashed a trend towards an increasingly industrial, increasingly urban society that began undercutting the importance of family farms as self-sustaining economic units. This transition to a society based on industrial mass-production and mass-consumption spurred the growth of a middle class that placed a greater emphasis on leisure, romantic courtship, delegated gender roles, and the notion that children should be specially cared for in a domestic sphere that shielded them from the cold, public sphere of the marketplace. Basically, with increased leisure and affluence, and a decreased need for familial farm-hands, kids made the cultural transition from being miniature adults to “children” in need of nurturing.

Historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg detail the emergence of the modern family in their classic book, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. Released from earlier conceptions of the family as a ‘little commonwealth’ that acted as a “microcosm” of the larger society, the nineteenth century saw the family transform into a “‘haven in a heartless world,’ a bastion of morality and tender feeling” that was separate from the “aggressive and selfish world of commerce.” Mintz and Kellogg also note that during this period, marriage became more explicitly identified as the natural reflection of romantic relations between husbands and wives.* This is how American social conservatives — and much of the general population — continues to view marriage today. When they say that allowing gays and lesbians to marry threatens the “traditional,” “biblical” concept of marriage, what they’re really saying is that they’ve accepted a particular ideal of marriage and the family that emerged in a very specific time-period — and they don’t want to give it up.

Although additional visions of the family influenced American life throughout the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Victorian, bourgeoise notion of the nuclear family became especially appealing to Americans in the post-World War II era. During this period, the recent memory of the most violent conflict in world history, coupled with the threat of the emerging Cold War nurtured a preference for the “traditional family” as a shelter of love and protection from a hostile outside world.

The Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." Seriously, was any family ever like this?!

The nuclear Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.” No gays allowed!

Stephanie Coontz notes that the resurgence of the nuclear family ideal in the post-war period was bolstered by vanilla 1950s sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver,” which reinforced the ideal of the breadwinner father, the homemaker mother, and those adorably dependent kids. Of course, just as the Victorian Era saw the growth of a new leisure class, the post-war boom in employment and the attendant growth in consumer spending allowed Americans to once again populate their homes with store-bought goodies and plenty of family love that stood as a solid reef in the bigger, scarier, more tempestuous Cold War-era ocean. “Putting their mouths where their money was,” Coontz writes, “Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem.”*

Of course, as Coontz notes, the messy reality of family life in the fifties was far more complex, but the ideal of the perfect, financially secure, Wonderbread white, and decidedly not-gay American nuclear family lives on in contemporary society. The loss of this supposed family ideal is what conservatives lament when the rail against gay marriage. And however they frame this ideal, either as “traditional” or “biblical,” they’re yearning for an ideal of marriage and family life that only emerged in the nineteenth century and became more entrenched in the post-World War II era. Of course, conservatives tend to prefer a worldview based on clear-cut hierarchies and black-and-white moral divisions, so they’re likely to perish — Ahab-style — chasing the anti-gay marriage white whale in a sea of historical nuance. This is unfortunate, because those wishing to strengthen American family bonds would do well to permit all loving couples to marry, gay or straight. After all, the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, no?

* See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2005), 9.

* See Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), xv.

* See Stephanie Coontz, The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 25.

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Obamacare, Pajama Boy, and the Historical Paradox of American Masculinity

The longtime prototypical image of American masculinity: a right-wing, pill-popping draft-dodging chicken hawk.

The longtime prototypical image of American masculinity: a right-wing, draft-dodging chicken hawk whose image was built on colonialism and pseudo machismo.

Quick question: what makes a man? Is it, as the Big Lebowski famously quipped, “the ability to do the right thing?” In that context, manhood is defined through deeds and actions, but is that all there is to being a man? After all, the idea of a blanket definition of “masculinity” in the 21st century is patently absurd, resting as it does on the assumption that human identities can be shaped by a singular cultural experience or molded via the reigning social values that are inevitably dictated by those who hold power in any given society. The former sentence is a highfalutin way of saying that men, just like women, are all individuals who develop in a vast number of ways depending on a vast number of experiences. The idea of complexity in gender identity, however, has historically not meshed well with rather simplistic cultural notions of American masculinity.

American manhood has historically been associated with testosterone-drenched ideals of toughness, rugged individualism, peer validation through violence, and the projection of white male dominance over non-white peoples such as blacks and Indians. This image of the domineering (white) American male has been hard to shake over the decades, and it still occupies a particularly prominent gleam in the eyes of American conservatives who are always eager to use their ideological hammers on what they see as an ever-expanding number of nails.

Case in point: a recent ad for the Affordable Health Care (or Obamacare, if you will) insurance exchange has gotten the usual rogues’ gallery of conservative loony toons all riled up. The ad features an image of a scrawny hipster sipping hot chocolate in his pajamas alongside the tagline of “Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.” The right-wing, America’s perpetually simmering caldron of self-persecution and undeserved entitlement, went apoplectic over the supposed insult to real American masculinity that the derisively labeled “Pajama Boy” allegedly represents.

Let’s examine some examples, shall we? Jonah Goldberg – the dough-faced, more Stay Puft than Chuck Norris National Review writer who only got a job on the wingnut welfare train because his Mom worked as a long time conservative campaign troll – whined that “there are plenty of gay dudes — and women! — who are vastly more masculine than Pajama Boy. Pajama Boy doesn’t exude homosexuality; he gives off the anodyne scent of emasculation.” Rich Lowry, another National Review editor and self-appointed conservative He-Man, took time out from mixing Sarah Palin pictures with hand cream and tissues to call “Pajama Boy” “an insufferable man-child” who “might be glad to pay more for his health insurance to include maternity benefits he doesn’t need as a blow against gender stereotyping.”

The Obamacare "Pajama Boy" ad that has white, conservative males lowering measuring sticks to their crotches.

The Obamacare “Pajama Boy” ad that has white, conservative males lowering measuring sticks to their crotches.

Goldberg and Lowry’s implications are clear: “Pajama Boy” is not the mythical, rock-ribbed alpha male who tamed the American frontier. Instead, they view the guy in the ACA ad as decidedly feminine (and therefore, weak); hence Lowry’s claim that Pajama Boy would support maternity benefits and Goldberg’s assertion that he represents “emasculation.” Conservative ideology is, in large part, projected through a hierarchical lens that views patriarchal dominance of women and non-white minorities as the essence of true manhood. Thus, Pajama Boy, despite being a fictional ad-campaign construction, represents the retrenchment of a conservative-approved American masculinity defined by whiteness, toughness, heterosexual virility, and the use of capitalism and nationalism to dominate minority populations. Pajama Boy, as National Review writer Charles Cooke complains, is a “vaguely androgynous…carefully ambi-racial” threat to the primacy of American manhood because he is neither definitively white nor definitively male.

The image of American masculinity as longed-for by Goldberg, Lowry, and Cooke goes back a long way in U.S. history and demonstrates how, as historian Anthony Rotundo notes, “manliness is a human invention” rather than a naturally occurring state.* Sociologist Michael Kimmel writes in Manhood in America: A Cultural History that “we cannot fully understand American history without understanding masculinity,” a history that has been “shaped by the efforts to test and prove manhood” via “the wars we Americans have waged, the frontier we have tamed…[and] the leaders we admire.”* Indeed, it’s no stretch to view much of American history as one protracted dick-measuring contest.

Kimmel describes two major shifts in American manhood that, over time, have butted heads to create a frustrating ideal of masculinity that is rife with paradoxes, yet remains an ideal which white American males have struggled to emulate.  In the early 19th century, Kimmel writes, “American manhood was rooted in landownership (the Genteel Patriarch) or in the self-possession of the independent artisan, shopkeeper, or farmer.” This ideal of a real man-as-independent provider and tradesman stems from the frontier history of the early U.S., in which white, Anglo males culturally tested their testosterone-laced mettle against the imposing wilderness and the Indians that inhabited it in order to establish themselves as virtuous, freedom-loving yeomen.*

But the Market Revolution that accelerated in the 1830s challenged this early masculine ideal. Caught up in a new world in which consumer spending and business acumen replaced frontier ruggedness, “American men began to link their sense of themselves as men to their position in the volatile marketplace, to their economic success,” Kimmel notes, “a far less stable yet far more exciting and potentially rewarding peg upon which to hang one’s identity.” Yet the tying of masculine identity to the whims of a modern industrial market society separated American manhood from its original ideal of independent, frontier-taming machismo, and white American men have struggled to come to terms with this change ever since. “The Self-Made Man of American mythology was born anxious and insecure, uncoupled from the more stable anchors of landownership or workplace autonomy. Now manhood had to be proved,” Kimmel writes.* And so the proving continues, as American men, especially conservatives, struggle to live up to a Davy Crockett ideal in a world where the frontier is now lined with Targets, Wal-Marts, and gut-expanding Taco Bells.

Legendary American frontiersman Davy Crocket. White American men don't get to be like him anymore.

Legendary American frontiersman Davy Crockett. White American men don’t get to be like him anymore.

Conservatives who criticize images like “Pajama Boy” are, in fact, trying to reconcile the success of consumer capitalism, of which they are the most vocal champions, with the inevitable taming of the frontier and the distinctive loss of independent manliness that a market society has wrought. There are no more frontiers; no more wildernesses left for anxious men like Jonah Goldberg and Charles Cooke to try to conquer. Picking out hormone-stuffed zombie meats from Super Wal-Mart freezers has long since replaced hunting for game. Sitting in endless, smog spewing suburban traffic jams has long since replaced westward wilderness expansion. Televised NFL games have long since replaced Indian battles. And the rise of a high-tech economy means that supposedly effete men like “Pajama Boy” now count as top providers and the gender income gap is closing to the point where more American women are now family breadwinners.

It’s perhaps fitting that John Wayne, the symbol of conservative, 20th century American manhood, was a product of Hollywood fakery as opposed to real life exploits. The rugged, domineering, white American male has now been thoroughly homogenized into just another product to be hocked by consumer culture and purchased by insecure men who have no choice but to buy their machismo from a store.

So what are apprehensive toadstools like Goldberg, Lowry, and Cooke supposed to do in a society where their precious white male egos can no longer authentically thrive? Well, they spend their time spinning fantasies in which a fictional ACA advertising figure symbolizes the collective butthurt they feel over slowly losing their privileged white male status to women, minorities, and the “carefully ambi-racial” Pajama Boy. So to these fellers I say suck it up: you made your consumer marketplace beds, now you have to sleep in them. It’s the new American way.

* See Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic, 1993), 1.

* See Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Free Press, 1996), 2, 9.

The real history of the “war on Christmas”

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commericalization of Christmas in the form of alluminum mass-produced Christmas trees.

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commercialization of Christmas in the form of aluminum, mass-produced Christmas trees. In an attempt to push back against the sanctification of mass consumption, Charlie Brown opts for a small wooden tree, and gets called a “blockhead” for his troubles.

If you think that the idea of Christmas commercialism is something new, then you haven’t checked out the 19th century recently. Follow this link to Salon where I discuss why the “War on Christmas” is utterly bogus. 

Of Foliage and Farms: The History of Fall in American Culture

The Fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. Its also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

The fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. It also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

Americans love the fall season. Every year when September rolls around, a cavalcade of autumnal objects invades every facet of the American landscape, filling up cities, towns, villages and farmhouses like so many occupying corncob cossacks, and Americans welcome them with open arms — and wallets. The symbols of the fall harvest include pumpkins, apples, cornstalks, hay stacks, squashes, scarecrows, and deciduous foliage lighting up the countryside like timber sparklers; flashing  copper, orange, gold, and yellow flares to the bemusement of camera-armed Sunday drivers.

As a people seemingly born with an innate need to shamelessly commodify absolutely anything, Americans have turned fall into a multi-million dollar industry. Each year, they celebrate fall by spending piles of cash at orchards, farms, harvest festivals, and at businesses situated along the foliage-lined byways. Even the booze industry has reaped the awards of Americans’ love affair with autumn, as fall-themed hard ciders have experienced a mini-renaissance alongside the already exploding craft beer market.

Being the most capitalist-oriented people in the history of history, Americans celebrate ideas by buying things that embody those ideas. Indeed, ideas alone aren’t enough: they need stuff; visual totems that symbolize themes both real and imagined that we can’t seem to completely commodify despite our darndest efforts to do so. And so it is with fall, a season second only to Christmas in its power to unlock Americans’ recession-bolted bank accounts in the pursuit of warm, rustic, down-home feelings.

There is, however, a very real historical backdrop that explains why Americans love fall so much. Their cozy relationship with the harvest season can be traced back to the nineteenth century, in what historian Leo Marx terms the “pastoral ideal,” a vision of rural life characterized by slow-paced, small-scale farming, harmony with nature, and family togetherness.

Marx locates the roots of the pastoral ideal in Americans’ “yearning for a simpler, more harmonious style of life, an existence ‘closer to nature.'” This yearning still infuses American life via the “soft veil of nostalgia” that “hangs over” the United States’ now largely urbanized landscape, an ideological remnant of what Marx calls “the once dominant image of an undefiled, green republic, a quiet land of forests, villages and farms dedicated to the pursuit of happiness.”* In various ways, Americans have spent decades trying to remember and experience that quiet, rural land.

Americans created the pastoral ideal as ideological comfort food that manifested most commonly in a type of rural nostalgia that is still prevalent in twenty-first century-culture. As Marx notes, the pastoral ideal can be seen in a distinctly American preference for outdoor leisure activities such as camping, hunting, fishing, gardening, and hiking. It can also been seen in the continued popularity — and bankability — of the fall season, during which Americans purchase pumpkins, apples, cornstalks and other seasonal reminders of the rural harvest tradition. Of course, now that most people don’t live in rural areas, these objects, some of which are even in the form of synthetic “fall decor,” are instead taken back to the cities and suburbs, where they act as comforting symbols of an idealized rural lifestyle that most Americans no longer experience on a day-to-day basis. *

As art historian Sarah Burns writes in her book Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture, the pastoral ideal that Marx describes reached its modern form in the nineteenth century. By referencing the bucolic prints of such American artistic luminaries as Winslow Homer, Burns charts the ways Americans used farm imagery to create the ideal of rustic simplicity as an emotional buffer against the turmoil created by the vast cultural and economic shifts that, in the nineteenth century, transformed the United States from a nation of small-scale family farms to a more industrialized, urbanized capitalist society.

The pastoral ideal, epitomized in paintings of rural life such as Winslow Homer’s Boys in a Pasture and Harvest Scene, depicted an “idyllic, peaceful, harmonious” rural existence that provided ideological order and comfort in a chaotic world where agricultural was becoming industrialized and urban areas were slowly, but steadily, supplanting small towns and farms as centers of American life.* By the late nineteenth century, the pastoral ideal served as an idealized form of mental escapism, what Burns calls “a sheltered, pastoral never-never land” for Americans seeking to disassociate themselves from the crowdedness, disease, crime, racial strife, and poverty of urban life.*

Winslow Homer's Boys in a Pasture (1874). Bucolic, isn't it?

Winslow Homer’s Boys in a Pasture (1874). Bucolic, isn’t it?

Above all else, urban life was faster-paced, more impersonal, and, by definition, less rustic than the romanticized notions of rural America depicted in paintings like those of Homer. Despite their general devotion to capitalist development, Americans have never been able to fully let go of the pastoral ideal because, in many ways, they still haven’t come to terms with the Market Revolution that created the modern United States as we still know it today.

The dynamism of a primarily urban-based market economy respects no long-held traditions; it has no problem disrupting family connections, and, with its ever-increasing emphasis on high-tech fields, leaves little daily room for bucolic walks amid crunching fall leaves or the simple pleasure of carving pumpkins and picking apples. Of course, Americans now, as was the case in the nineteenth century, are wary of criticizing even the more unpleasant, tradition-rupturing aspects of their brand of turbo-capitalism. So instead, they’ve used capitalism itself to recreate the pastoral ideal during the fall season.

Thus, every year when the leaves begin to change color and the fruits of the fall harvest appear on store shelves and farm wagons everywhere, Americans embrace the chance to purchase these seasonal wonders and thereby experience a small bit of the pastoral ideal. Fall, of course, has been the traditional harvest season for centuries, but since a largely metropolitan population no longer experiences the fall harvest as a lifestyle, they instead must experience it as consumed nostalgia.

Americans have so effectively and seamlessly integrated the pastoral ideal into modern consumer culture that they’ve created a new niche, “rural tourism,” that seeks to provide a little slice of the bucolic past to the harried populations of America’s urban and suburban office dwellers. As Joanne Steele of Ruraltourismmarketing.com notes in an advice column describing how small-towns can market themselves to urban visitors:

If every small town (and I mean SMALL – 5000 or fewer residents) that is stumbling economically would start their road to revitalization with three words, nostalgia,” connection,” and simple,” they could discover their own road back.

Every article I read on successful agritourism operations talk about how their success is built on offering a nostalgic experience, giving visitors an opportunity to connect with a simpler way of life.

What about your small town can give a visitor an nostaligic [sic] experience and an opportunity to connect with a simpler way of life?

The promise of experiencing, however fleetingly, the simple life of the pastoral ideal, has become yet another American marketing tool, and it works best during the fall season, when millions of nostalgia-starved metropolitan pilgrims emigrate to the countryside to reap the autumn harvest. For a good many modern Americans, there’s no escaping the pastoral ideal; the history behind it is too rich, too embedded in the culture, and perhaps there really isn’t any good reason to escape it anyway.

Americans are becoming increasingly disassociated from the natural world, a trend that threatens to socially separate humans from nature even as they remain a biological part of nature. The separation from the natural world has all kinds of negative ramifications, ranging from a disregard for environmental issues to obesity. If the continued importance of the pastoral ideal keeps bringing people out to experience fall’s plenty in the form of foliage drives, pumpkin festivals, orchard excursions, and other activities in bucolic environs — then all for the better.

So enjoy fall’s splendor, even it means acting the part of a weekend urban tourist pouring your dollars into apple bushels and scarecrow chotchkies. Doing so may help keep the pastoral ideal alive for another century.

* See Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 6.

* See Sarah Burns, Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 1-20, 83, 313.

Pumpkin Flavored History

Pumpkin

It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.

So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the nineeenth century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.

Rural nostalgia, however, is nothing new in the U.S. In fact, it goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who, of all the Founding Fathers, was surly the Founding Father-est. Jefferson’s vision of America centered on the “Agrarian Yeoman” ideal: he believed that small, independent yeomen farmers represented the highest level of American self-sufficient virtue and work ethic, and should therefore settle the vast American landscape. Jefferson considered an agrarian society to be morally superior to the cities, which he viewed as rife with unnatural economic and moral corruption in the form of financial speculation and industrial development that threatened his ideal of agrarian democracy.

Jefferson’s Agrarian ideal has never really left American popular culture, and pumpkins have helped keep it alive and kicking. Historian Cindy Ott, author of the fantastic book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, traces the pumpkin’s modern popularity back to the ninteenth century, when the Market Revolution spurred the growth of industry that drew Americans away from the countryside into the larger cities. As the growing market economy caught more and more people in its web, Americans embraced the pumpkin as a symbol of pre-modern, idealized, rustic family life. Thus, pumpkins became big, orange emblems of the agrarian ideal that Jefferson so cherished and to which Americans ascribed the simple comforts of home, family, and small town life.

So powerful a symbol was the pumpkin that even after it ceased to be a valuable commercial crop, it still connected Americans to a primitive, pastoral age untainted by the cold mechanics of the modern world. As Ott observes:

As many Americans felt they were losing connections to the natural world, an authentic way of life, and their cultural roots, the orange field pumpkin, in particular, helped them rebuild those connections…What the orange field pumpkin lost in practical usage and economic value, it gained in symbolic power. Americans gave it a vibrant life in stories and holiday rituals that helped them talk about the meaning of nature within a rapidly developing urban and industrial society.

Since the transition from countryside to urban centers hasn’t really stopped since the nineteenth century, Americans today are scarfing down pumpkin flavored-stuff for largely the same nostalgic reasons. By eating and drinking pumpkin flavors, Ott notes, “We’re celebrating the nostalgia for this old-fashioned, rural way of life, that no one ever really wanted to stay on, but everyone’s always been romantic about.” The explosion in popularity of pumpkin flavored everything has left some people worrying about the rise of a “pumpkin spice empire” with possible designs for Genghis Khan-style world conquest, while others are downright angry, pleading for more rational heads to “stop the pumpkin-izing.

The growth of the “pumpkin spice empire” might lead some to conclude that the humble orange squash has been commercialized and factory-farmed to the point of it being yet another weapon in the industrialized agricultural onslaught that nearly wiped out American family farms. But never fear, for, as Ott notes, the commercialization of the pumpkin via the buying and selling of rural nostalgia has actually been a boon to small American farms. People’s idea about the pumpkin, she writes:

[H]ave revitalized the very thing it has long symbolized – the small family farm. The natural peculiarites of the crop, its meanings, and market conditions have all encouraged its production by small-scale growers for local markets at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The pumpkin’s increasing economic value arose out of the deep meanings Americans invested in it, and its increased commodification helped rejuvinate small-scale farmers and small rural towns rather than undermine them.*

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

It seems, then, that however annoying and shameless, the commercial onslaught that is pumpkin flavored-stuff will likely continue — even though most of that stuff likely contains no actual pumpkin. So far, this commodification has been beneficial to the great orange squash and the people who grow it. Moreover, by continuing to worship the pumpkin via attending the sacred church of American capitalist consumption, you are keeping the age-old Jeffersonian tradition of the Agrarian ideal alive and well. Even if you’re a suburban office dweller, by eating pumpkin flavored-stuff, you nonetheless gain a primal connection to Jefferson’s mythic, virtuous, independent yeomen — and that should make you downright sick with glorious American-ness.

So this fall, go on and enjoy your pumpkin flavored coffees, chocolates, pies, and, especially, beers. You can be safe in the knowledge that you are helping to stimulate the American economy, especially those fabled “small businesses,” via the cultural consumption of a storied American icon.

* Cindy Ott, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 7.