Late Harvest: Rural American Writing, edited by David R. Pichaske
Review by John Henry
(New York: Paragon House, 1992)
Late Harvest is an anthology of rural American writing originally published in 1992. The editor, Professor David Pichaske, has chosen thirty-six short works: stories, poetry, and non-fiction essays. All but five of the works were originally published between 1960 and 1987. The vast majority of the selections are post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War era. The book, therefore, presents a mostly contemporary view of rural writing and thinking.
Of the historical writings, the oldest is an excerpt from Jean de Crevecoeur’s Letters From an American Farmer, published in 1781 while de Crevecoeur was a loyalist exile in London during the Revolution. Thoreau’s “Solitude” was part of Walden, 1854. Truman Everts’ account of the first non-native expedition to Yellowstone was first published in Scribner’s Magazine, 1871. The final two non-contemporary selections are short stories: Sherwood Anderson’s “Adventure” from Winesberg Ohio, 1919, and Zona Gale’s Friendship Village, 1908.
Pichaske organizes the book in three parts: writing about farms, small towns, and the wilderness. All three parts include poetry, short fiction, and essays. The geography of the selections is varied. Maple syrup harvesting in New England. Cowboying in Wyoming and Montana. Cattle ranching and fighting range fires in South Dakota. A bar fight started at a pool table in small town Illinois. Solitude in the desert badlands of Utah. A corporation farm in California during the industrial harvesting of one mile square of tomatoes. Fur trapping families in the lonely marshes of Louisiana.
As the locations are varied, so to are the themes and genres of the selections. Wry satires on cowboys, bar-girls, and one-night stands. Stories about death: of beloved farm animals, of hired hands, of a dying farmer mending a fence line for the final time. Stories about leaving small town life for the city. Stories of leaving the city for the solitude of remote cabins–at Walden Pond, Tinker Creek, or Crater Mountain ranger lookout. Silly sketches about boys catching bats with fly-fishing rigs, or a man who kept skunks and owls under his cap. Poems about shooting rabbits with a 12 gauge and a small child dying. Other poems about shooting an Oldsmobile with a 12 gauge and a marriage dying. A young girl, maybe an incest victim, maybe not, runs away from home and shelters in a cave dug out by neighbor children–a symbol of a tomb? or a symbol of a womb and new life?
Given the variety of themes, genres, voices, locales, I will not try to give an assessment of all thirty-six selections. However, I will say that almost all the writing in this book interested me. I need to read Walden again, and maybe Lake Wobegone Days, and maybe even the poetry of Gary Snyder, and absolutely, certainly more Donald Hall.
There is one aspect about this anthology that deserves special mention: that is the editorial apparatus that Professor Pichaske provides. There are succinct but informative biographical sketches of each author at the end of the book. But more impressive and useful are the introductory essays for each of the three sections (farm, small town, wilderness) and the general introduction to the whole book. Pichaske not only brings out the significant qualities of each individual selection, but more importantly he fills out the landscape of the larger historical, philosophical, and sociological picture. He shows how the specific ideas and images within each work connect with broader and more general movements of thought and feeling.
Let me end with an example of Pichaske’s writing from the introduction to the farm section which shows how he draws connections between story and deeper historical and moral concerns:
It is Wendell Berry’s “The Boundary,” however, which most perfectly articulates the old values continued into a twentieth century context. The story is a kind of parable containing a modern American agrarian idyll, Berry’s depiction of farm life as it ought to be. The very repetitiveness of farm work, so irksome to others, becomes a virtue: in the act of walking fence one more time, Mat confirms his relationship with the land, the legion of those who have walked this line before him (his younger self included), and those who will walk it in the future. The small job well done becomes, like the small life well lived, a measure of blessedness. . . . Mat tends his land–a sense of custodianship is present, and a sense of order and stability. Marriage symbolizes that custodianship to Berry, as do the smaller ceremonies of tending the symbolically broken but not yet lost stone grail, of recreating imaginatively the past within the present, of dining, of tending garden and house, of carrying on through hardship. Berry sees virtue in the simple, the repetitive, and the familiar. There is nourishment–water, garden, produce, a waiting meal–in little things well tended. The farmer is absorbed into his community and is blessed, even his death.
Especially in his death.
And money is not even a consideration.