Anthropologists don't study villages .... They study in villages.
C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures
Since I was looking for no more than a group of persons referring to themselves as "American," my specifications for the demographic and social characteristics of the town I would study were minimal. It had to be of a size that could be encompassed by one investigator. It had also to be somewhat diverse to maximize the possibility for internal comparison. I interpreted the first requirement as meaning less than ten thousand inhabitants, and the second as implying that the town be someplace in the middle of the continuum of farm to industrial town and rural to urban (or suburban) town. Finally, I did not want the town to lie in an area that has been historically considered to be "different," like the South or the hill regions. This left many towns as possible candidates, particularly in the Midwest. Eventually I chose the town I will call Appleton. I will now briefly introduce it.
Appleton is a few hours' drive from Chicago and situated in a very densely populated region of the Midwest. The 1970 Census reported that the population of the town was 3,160, and the population of the township, 5,645. The county had 56,173 people, and the state, 8,875,083, most of whom lived in the general area where Appleton is located. The town has maintained its geographical integrity insofar as it is surrounded by farmlands and is thus physically distinct from the nearby towns.
Appleton is almost indistinguishable from hundreds of other such Midwestern towns. A traveler straying from the interstate highway that passes it would probably not be able to differentiate it in his memory from the string of other towns lying within a radius of five to ten miles. But it is unique, and a more experienced traveler waking up. suddenly on the bus as it entered the town would recognize it immediately by the long, narrow lake that borders it on one side and by the fact that the Courthouse is relegated to a side street of the town and does not stand at its center. The visitor might also notice the wineries that denote the presence and importance of Italians in the social and political structure of the town.
Sociologically there is nothing very extraordinary about Appleton. The town was studied briefly, a few years before I did my work, by an Indian anthropologist, Suraji Sinha who published a short article on its religious organization. He called it "Mapletown," which I persist in considering somewhat inappropriate, since the town remains associated in my mind with apple growing, one of its important economic activities.
No group or income level dominates the town either statistically or ideologically to the point of significantly influencing the general impression it makes. Nor can it be said to be "typical," if anything can be said to be. There is first the relatively large ethnic population and the fact of its rather complete integration into the life of the town. There is also the rapid transformation it seems to be going through at the present time from a purely service town for farmers in the surrounding area into an upper-middle-class residential suburb of the middle-sized industrial and university town of La Crosse that lies only twenty minutes away from Appleton on the interstate highway. The land around the town is not among the best in the Midwest, but it is not bad, either. Many small, independent farms still exist beside larger, quasi-industrial complexes. The discovery that the land is suitable for fruit and grape growing has resulted in its maintaining a high cash value. Contributing to this value, too, is the development in the area of small-scale industry, trader parks, and private homes. The area is still too far from the suburban area around La Crosse to have seen large-scale development of housing. It is being developed at present mostly by individuals who buy a plot of land a build a house on it.
The region is also known as a resort area. It is dotted with lakes, all of which are edged by houses, often the summer and weekend retreats of the people living in the surrounding towns and the metropolitan areas of Chicago and Detroit. The area was a popular one for retirement until Florida became more accessible. There is now a movement toward transforming the summer houses into year- round residences, which has inflated the price of land by the lakes or even simply close to them. For many informants, this area is ideal because it combines a rural/recreational environment with easy access to large urban centers with their sprawling shopping malls, colleges, and jobs.
Many people see Appleton as a refuge and would like to keep it the way they perceive it. By means of severe and wel-enforced building-code restrictions, the town itself succeeds in general in keeping extreme poverty outside its boundaries and in maintaining a neat, respectable, middle-class atmosphere. But its relatively wel-developed industries need cheap labor who cannot afford to live in the town, and they are simply pushed into hidden places on back country roads where they are all but forgotten. They are not often seen, except when exhibiting food stamps at the local supermarket checkout counters, but they are there. There are twentytwo blacks living in the town itself, but several hundred in the surrounding rural townships. They are generally to be found in geographically well-defined areas, dating from the time when active segregation of housing was enforced. Many of the blacks, the descendants of escaped slaves, have lived in the area for many generations, and some are thoroughly integrated into the local society. Others are retired doctors, dentists, lawyers, and other professionals who used to live in Chicago. There are also more recently immigrated, and much poorer, blacks who were attracted by the apparent availability of jobs in the area, and who compete for them with Southern whites and Mexican migratory workers.
Thus tile area around Appleton reveals a social diversity that the town itself' may not possess. My informants were necessarily drawn from the surrounding areas, rather than the town narrowly defined, since the town is a very artificial unit in terms of social organization and I was necessarily drawn outside its administrative boundaries. But what the town may have lacked in terms of social diversity, although it was, in fact quite diverse socially, it made up for in terms of ideological and-as my informants sometimes called it--"cultural" diversity. From traditional "Puritan ethic" farmers, to Birchites, to radical, long-haired hippies, to liberal intellectuals, to mild, middle-aged, middle- income, middle-management, middle-class persons, every shade of political and religious ideology that one can find in the wider United States could certainly be found in Appleton. The only experience that one probably would not know there would be that of being with a large group of people sharing the same ideological background in every respect. The anxious search for consensus that I will later describe at length may have been exacerbated by this constant diversity of opinion.
I stress the essential diversity in social background and ideologyof my informants to prevent the urban reader of this book from assuming that Appleton is in any way a socially and ideologicaly homogeneous unit. This assumption is probably one of the most common, and fondest, myths that urban Americans entertain about rural Midwestern towns, myths frequently restated by urban journalists reporting on localities where they have spent a few hours. The people of those localities probably did greet them with a rhetoric of unanimity appropriate to the development of the myth. Such rhetoric is used regularly on the appropriate occasions. But to take it at face value is as deceptive in a small town like Appleton as it would be in Chicago or New York. The only general, sweeping statement that one can make about Appleton is that no general, sweeping statement can be made about it. And to this extent, at least, Appleton is a true microcosm of the United States.
I first became aware of the town when I met James Howard, a native of Appleton, in Chicago. He invited me to visit his parents, whose farm was situated a few miles from town. It was from film that I received my introduction to Appleton and to a familly whom I would come to know very well, and to appreciate even more as great human personalities.
While we were driving to Appleton, James Howard delivered a long monologue on his parents, particularly his father. He had a very high opinion of his father, and he gave me the idea that he was a very wise patriarch, honored and heeded by the whole family. However, I got the wrong impression from his rcmarks. When I met Mr. Howard, I saw at once that his role in the family was anything but patriarchal.
Marc Howard was born in 1908 in Esmond, a small town ten miles north of Appleton township. His parents were farmers of Scottish and English descent who had moved from southern Wisconsin to Esmond at the turn of the century. Mr. Howard's grandfather was a small farmer in Wisconsin, but there were tensions between him and his son, apparently for economic reasons. The father did not want to let the son share in the management and profit of the farm because, according to Mr. Howard, the farm was too small to sustain two families. But Mr. Howard also remembers that his grandfather was talked about in his family as a fierce, cold man who would not help his children in any way, even when he could. Mr. Howard does not seem to know exactly why, but he remembers clearly the bitter tone of his parents' remarks about his grandfather. Thus, after Mr. Howard's father married, he decided to buy a farm away from his father's. He could not stay in Wisconsin, apparently because land was already too expensive; eventually lie settled in Esmond, where lie bought a farm and raised his four children, one boy and three girls.
Twenty years later, when Mr. Howard finished high school, he confronted the same situation his father had years before. Mr. Howard very rarely speaks of his parents, and it is hard to judge whether there were strong personal tensions between them, though there are many signs of such tensions. Once an adult, Mr. Howard did not start working full-time on the farm. He had, of course, worked on it as an extra hand early in his life but had never had any say in the way it was run. So for two years, in 1931 and 1932, he left Esmond to work in the steel mills of Chicago, an experience that marked him deeply and of which he talked readily.
For the first time in his life, as he told it, he lived in a large urban center, and for the first time he met Catholics, recent immigrants to America, people who swore, drank, and behaved freely and without feelings of guilt in ways that he had always be en taught and always believed to be evil and sinful
"One of My best friends was a big fat Irishman who took a fancy to me. It was the first tiMe I saw someone get dead drunk, and what surprised Me Most was that he did it as if it were natural --he did not consider it a sin. And besides, lie was a real nice guy who taught me that Catholics were not necessarily an incarnation of, evil as I had been told they were in Sunday school. My stay in Chicago was a tremendous eye-opener. I went to the bars with my friend, and I had the best time just watching what was going on. I did not drink; I did not feel I needed it. I got drunk only once, but got so sick I decided I would not do it anymore."
Mr. Howard would speak of his stay in Chicago as of a conversion experience, the first of the two periods he mentioned as turning points in his life. In Chicago, he "realized," as he himself put it, that life was more complex than he had thought, that he needed more education to understand it and to make an intelligent contribution to progress in whatever field he would eventually choose. So he went back home to go to college. For two years he attended La Crosse College, a small but relatively good private institution in La Crosse. He never finished, apparently because of his marriage to Elaine Tyler, also of Esmond.
Elaine Tyler was the eldest of two daughters of one of the most prominent men in Esmond. Both her father and her mother had gone through college, and her father was a "self-made man" who had started with "nothing," put himself through college, and ended up as a salesman for a drugstore chain earning twenty-five thousand dollars per year ("in 1920!"). They had a very large house and the first car in Esmond. (This is the way she remembers it. Local history attributes the first car in town to a different family.)
Elaine Howard talked about her childhood with pleasure and pride. She told fondly of the pranks she used to play, of the musical atmosphere of the house- how her family owned a grand piano and how everybody in the family could play an instrument (she herself played the violin regularly in local ensembles until about ten years ago). She was proud of her parents and their achievements. ("It was very rare at that time for women to have gone through college but my mother had!") The ever-present Implication in her recollection was: "But we (my husband and 1) have never reached that level." It came out clearest in Periods of tension with her husband, though she did try to check this at other times. But this feeling of dissatisfaction with her status as a farmer's wife was avowedly the reason she went back to school later in her life, got an M.A. degree, and, after a few years of elementary-school teaching, got a job in the English Department of the State University in La Crosse. Yet now, even with two incomes, the Howards barely matched the twenty-five thousand dollars Elaine Howard's father had made in 1920.
When they were married in 1932, the financial and social contrast between the penniless farmer's son and the sophisticated daughter of one of the most well-to- do men in town must have been quite great. The Howards did not spontaneously analyze their difficulties on such grounds, at least to someone like me. But difficulties there were. In fact the Howards were married for six months before they told their parents.
They knew very hard times at first. With the aid of federal loans, they bought two hundred acres of land in Appleton township, a few miles from Esmond, and remembered moving into the old, rundown frame house without furniture or any amenities. As Mrs. Howard tells it: "The yard was covered with junk, there was not a bit of shade, and the first summer we thought we would die from the heat." It was fifteen years before they could remodel the house into the "proper" model, as it was nationally advertised. During these fifteen years their first two children were born, and Elaine Howard worked on the farm driving the horse teams, then the first tractors. They put all the money they made back into the farm for capital improvement, and it was only after another fifteen years that they finally owned their farm totally, having at last paid all the mortgages and loans.
During these thirty years or so, the Howards led a life very close to what is considered the typical life of an intelligent, conservative, individualistic farm couple with a definite puritanical bent. Neither of them drank or smoked. They worked hard for themselves and for their community (a group of a dozen farmers owning land in the northwest corner of' Appleton township). They gave a good education to their three children, who all finished high school and went on to college. Some did not finish college, to the despair of their parents.
The Howards were exceptionally generous to the poor around them and went to great lengths to help their hired hands "get up III life." They spent a lot of time and effort"--money, too--on such efforts, often with indifferent results, something they still cannot understand. "How could these people refuse to follow our example when we tried so hard to understand them, when we were so sincere in our efforts?" they mused. Politically, they almost always voted the straight Republican ticket-at the local level because they often knew the candidate personally, at the national level because they appreciated the political rhetoric of Republican candidates.
The two most important aspects of this period of their life were certainly their fight for their farm and their involvement with community affairs, two types of activity that they still consider to possess a high moral value. (It must be said that nowadays their outlook on the world has very much broadened. They do not take excessive pride in the fact that they successfully performed both sets of required activities, but they still value this type of life highly when they detect in others.) Another of their all-important life goals was to give as good an education as possible to their children. This was not because they believed in education for its own sake, or because they thought it would allow their children to rise In the social hierarchy, but because they believed that it is only through a good education that one can become a worthy individual--that is, one who contributes to the welfare of his fellowmen. Education can thus be said to be a means toward the two goals the Howards valued above all: self-reliance and community involvement.
In my first interview with Mr. Howard, when our relationship was at its most formal, he was particularly vocal in emphasizing his apparently unshakable belief in self-reliance. I had led him into explaining to me the opportunities that agriculture in his state could offer to a young man who wanted to become a farmer but was starting with nothing. Mr. Howard believed that if a young man already knew, or was willing to learn about, modern agriculture (he might need an apprenticeship of two or three years) so that he could convince the board of local farmers who were in charge of determining his eligibility for a government loan that he was a good risk, he could get a loan for close to one hundred percent of the price of a farm and machinery. If the young man were willing to put all the profits he might make on the farm into capital improvement during the first years, if lie Were Willing to live on a minimum income for several years, and they were wise, intelligent, and hard-working, there was no doubt in Mr. Howard's mind that he could make it, provided no catastrophe intervened. He remarked regretfully that very few people accepted this type of life anymore, but lie did not believe that the main reason was that it had become impossible. For Mr. Howard, it was simply that most of the young people he had talked to would much rather take a job that paid three or four hundred dollars a week immediately so that they Could buy a house, two cars, a boat, and a snowmobile. "Some of them ask me about becoming farmers. But when I tell them that it would mean forfeiting their standard of living in the present to build for the future, they just cannot do it."
Mr. Howard's interpretation of his society, when lie talked in less formal or less stereotyped situations, was, in fact, much more complex. However, it is now possible to make some interpretative comments about the preceding life histories. One might be tempted to refer the reader first to Max Weber's study of the Protestant ethic. Indeed, Mr. and Mrs. Howard's approach to life and rnorality corresponded closely to that of the traditional Puritan farmers and industrialists who seem to have formed the backbone of' the development of capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One might refer the reader then to David Riesman's study of the "lonely crowd"-America at mid-twentieth century--and to his hypotheses regarding the disappearance of "innerdirectedness."
If both interpretations were accepted as historically accurate descriptions of historical, or even demographic, processes, one would have to conclude that the Howards represent only a survival of an old and now irrelevant value pattern, and that to start an examination of present-day American behavior with them would be a dangerous enterprise.
I believe, however, that they are a very good place to begin for a demonstration intended to cast doubt on the validity of Weber's and Riesman's interpretations. Beyond the fact that Weber's account is often read as an apology for Protestantims while Riesman's is a critique of contemporary American life, both their hypotheses are flawed by then- insistence on a single determinant for cultural behavior, be it rugged individualism or mindless gregariousness. It is as if in the nineteenth century people remained consistently alone and withdrawn and its if later they had become interested only in the impressions they made on others. And yet small town insistence on conformity is not something recent in America. Nor did it prevent the development of varied-and nonconformity in life-styles, divergent political and religious sects, and so on, not only up to World War I but also afterward, as the 1960s recently demonstrated.
It would also be an ethnographic mistake for me to stop my investigation of the Howards' ideology at their opinions on the prerequisites for success in life, or on the nature of this success, and at their interpretation of their life history along these lines. The Howards readily acknowledged that their statements oon these subjects were a matter of opinion and that other people might dissent. Mr. Howard felt lie was right; he felt that a life led according to such principles was morally better than another one. He believed strongly that lie had followed those principles himself-, but he also recognized that they were not. a complete description of the fife that he had led. It had not been purely toil in the fields, alone and Cut off from the rest of' society, with little full or enjoyment.
Mr. Howard, as he told me his story, did not stress the contribution of any outside help to his success, which is consistent with the traditional Protestant values. He attributed Ills success Solely to his own work. Two other sets of characters appeared consistently ill his accounts: his parents and his children. The interesting thing about Mr. Howard's relationship with his parents is his emphasis oil an essential discontinuity between them and himself. He would say that his parents were "good people," that they gave him a good education, and that he loved them. And yet he established his farm away from theirs, and he did not recognize their practical help, if there was any, which seems doubtful. In particular, he never talked of the distribution of his parents' material possessions at their death. His parents were not completely penniless, and Mr. Hoard's share of his inheritance may have contributed to his Own success, but Mr. Howard kept no symbolic mementos of' his parents. Their farm in Esmond had been sold, and the children had dispersed all over the area.
Mr. Howard's relations with one of his sisters and her husband, who farmed only, a few miles away, are particularly interesting in this context. At the time I was there, relations between the two families as a group were minimal, There was not one family reunion that year. Mrs. Howard and her children were polite to the others when they met, but they did not try to multiply these meetings. Mr. Howard, oil the contrary, did go to see his sister regularly, on business most of the time. He lent and was lent tools, and there was some sharing of summer work-events that could have served as the groundwork for an ideology of family unity. Such an ideology was not present. It was not a matter of personal likes or dislikes-my experiences in France have shown me many times that the use of a rhetoric of family corporateness generally does not imply that the members of the group all truly like each other. On the contrary, Mr. Howard seemed to genuinely like his sister, which did not prevent him from leaving her completely out when telling a stranger about his life. The help he received from his sister was not part of his life; it belonged to a different realm.
Mr. Howard was not really alone. He helped, and was helped by, not only his sister, not only a few poor people with whom he came in contact in his search for hired hands, but also a group of neighboring farmers very similar to him in ethnic origin, socioeconomic status, and political ideology. Participation in the activity of' this group was an important part of the Howards life and certainly contributed to their success, as they also acknowledged in the appropriate contexts.
Mr. and Mrs. Howard were active in the Farm Bureau for more than twenty-five years. At the time I met them they were not active anymore but still had close ties with the organization, and they introduced me to other members. I went to several meetings of the association and its multiple committees (county commission, local community group, women's committee, board of directors). From various people I obtained a sort of oral history of the development of the Farm Bureau in the area. I cannot vouch for its accurateness because it necessarily must leave out many elements, but it is of great interest structurally, since it contains two "creation myths" (if I may refer in this manner to the stories of the original founding of the association and then of its reorganization).
The Farm Bureau was founded in 1919 by a group of farmers dissatisfied with the way things were going for them. Their idea was to defend farm interests through political power. In this insistence on working through the political system, the new organization differed from the older defense groups, which insisted on moral action, on a strengthening of the individual with the idea that moral superiority would necessarily mean economic superiority or at least prosperity. Beginning in about 1910, this approach had been judged ineffective by younger farmers in the area. Small farmers had more problems than they had ever had, and small farms were disappearing. The farmers also had the example of industrial workers who appeared to gain excessive privileges through political action backed by the numerical power of large unions, and they decided to follow suit.
At the beginning, the Farm Bureau was purely a trade association formed to further the economic welfare of its members through lobbying efforts at the national level. Gaining political power did not mean an attempt to transform the political system into something else. It meant a desire for a larger share of the national wealth within a given system that these farmers accepted unquestioningly and, in fact, actively supported, as they still do. At the local level, the Farm Bureau was also a trade association insofar as to belong, one had to show a definite interest in farming. This requirement has been interpreted more and more loosely ill recent years, and people whose main source of revenue lies in areas outside farming may now belong. But in those early years the members were active farmers who worked their own farms on a family basis.
What this says, then, is that a group of farmers-a group of individuals-gained the same consciousness of the nature of their position in the economic system and evolved similar ideas about a plausible solution to what they conceived to be their problem. They arrived at this solution essentially on their own as individuals, and it was only after this process that they looked around for similarminded individuals to create a new association.
The essence of their problem was their perceived inability, in spite of all their efforts, to be successful at their chosen occupation. It was not a case, as it had been for earlier settlers, of fighting a tough physical environment not particularly suitable for agricultural exploitation, but of fighting the adverse economic and political environment. Like their predecessors, those men and women were riot ready to pool their resources to defend their ability to survive as a group in a particular place. They were individuals who had chosen this occupation, this place to live their own lives and raise their own families, but who realized that they could not do so without the help of other people in a similar condition. The environmental pressures that demanded they seek help from friends had changed. In earlier times, since a man could not raise a barn or build a house by themselves, "building parties" during which all the neighbors congregated and helped a young couple who wanted to start a farm were traditional. As the economic environment was transformed, it became more convenient to borrow money from a bank and hire a contractor to do these types of jobs. But the same forces that helped the farmers becom less directly dependent upon their neighbors in the original direct manner, pressured individual farmers in new ways and triggered new patterns of mutual help as they continued in their search for survival as independent agents.
The Farm Bureau started as a loose organization that had more formal reality at the national than at the local level. By the 1930s it was powerful enough to be asked to participate in the discussions of the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. III this first period the organization had many members in rural areas but no formal organization, which probably meant a very heavy burden off the local leaders as well as accusations that they were cliquish and unrepresentative as the organization expanded. Indeed, the national delegates' policy of accepting government involvement and controls soon began to be contested if] favor of' a return toward traditional individual self-help and local self-determination. The result was a reorganization of the Farm Bureau, which was intended to formalize it as a grass-roots association in which all levels of' the administrative hierarchy receive their legitimacy from the local community group. The area to be considered a "community" is left to be defined by the members themselves and is not to be necessarily based on local or state administrative boundaries.
Nowadays, each of these groups meets once a month to discuss and vote on current issues. The votes are tabulated nationally and, theoretically, must guide the leaders. The local groups elect delegates to the county organization, which chooses state delegates at an annual mass meeting. National delegates are chosen by the state board. Once a year a countywide plenary session is held, and the activities of the county organization are reviewed and accepted or corrected. There are also state and national conventions with representatives from all county organizations reviewing the activities of the state and national officers. The formal structure is thus a mix of participatory and representative democracy.
I attended two or three of the meetings of one of these local groups that form the official grass roots of the Farm Bureau. Both husbands and wives were invited and both participated fully. The evenings began with a pot-luck supper, an important affair for which every woman brought as sumptuous a dish as she dared and everybody congregated around a table overladen with food. Too much food was customary; not enough food, or even not enough of a particular dish for people to have seconds, would have been embarrassing for the whole group and considered bad planning. In such a case a conference would have been held at once among the women to ensure that it would not happen again. Stories about the day when "everybody brought salads and there were no main dishes" are often swapped in such situations.
The meal was opened with a prayer for "those who have prepared this food." A festive atmosphere was maintained throughout, no controversial subjects were touched oil, and no strong dissenting opinions were expressed. After the meal, the men moved to the living room, the women cleared away the dishes, and It was only after they had finished that the business meeting itself began.
The business meeting opened with an invitation by the president to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and ended with a motion to adjourn. 'The group followed, parliamentarv procedure very strictly. At the end, five or six patriotic, religious, or traditional folk songs were sung. Less than the meal, but more than the business meeting, this was a moment for laughing and Joking, for enjoying the fact of being together.
The times I was present, no substantial issues arose and the meetings were poorly attended. Only twenty came, out of the more than two hundred people who could have participated. This was a long-standing pattern, as was corroborated by the fact that the meetings were held in private homes that could not have accommodated a larger crowd than the one that actually came. The people who came were the original founders, now in their sixties to eighties. No young adult attended the meetings. In this context it is not surprising that the business meeting appeared to me--and from what I could observe, to most of the participants, too, I suspect-to be the dreariest part of the whole affair. Discussion was weak, superficial, uninvolved. The leader had to and cajole people into taking positions, something that they did only after ensuring that unanimity would not be destroyed by their decision. The business meeting was quickly adjourned. It is also interesting to note that while the votes taken were supposed to ensure that the national leadership would maintain its ties to the grass roots, it was the national leadership itself that decided which issues were to be collsidered and that provided background material. The local group was thus both powerless and at present all but irrelevant. Younger farmers did make their voices heard, sometimes rather loudly, but they did so behind the scenes In committee sessions of the county organization and in informal meetings with the leadership.
The split between the leadership and the rank-and-file was not solved by the Farm Bureau's reorganization. The national leadership is still closely involved with political figures and handles large sums of money. It has a grasp, however ideologically tainted, of the broad socioeconomic problems of the nation. The local group has none of the above. Even between the two lower levels of the organization, the community group and the county organization, this split could be recognized. On one occasion I was told, "It is only at the level of the state organization that one can do something." The actual powers of the Community groups are minimal. They can, of course, vote all incumbents out of office in the case of a strong deviation from the accepted political line; but this rarely happens, because the state and national levels have become very good at telling the rank-and-file what it wants to hear and at doing what they think is good for it. In recent years they have been rather successful and thus have not made anybody in Appleton township mad enough for serious controversy.
All this does not mean, however, that the structure adopted by the Farm Bureau is meaningless. It is, on the contrary, the only structure that is meaningful to most people. A meeting of the local community group may be no more than a ritualization of a creation myth perceived as history, but it is a ritual that is a direct transformation of the myth, and thus inevitable.
Printed in all issues of the national Farm Bureau newsletter and mimeographed
at the beginning of the program schedules for local conventions or the
bylaws of, such sub-organizations as the Farm Bureau Women, is a Farm Bureau
Creed in which members of the organization are supposed to believe. It
runs like this:
I have united with these friends and neighbors to enjoy a special hour, to study our common problems, to support through the Farm Bureau the organized effort which is essential to the welfare and prosperity of agriculture, to the end that such cooperation may provide a comfortable living for my family, education for my children, and independence for my old age.
I have no way of knowing how seriously members of the Farm Bureau took this Creed or how which meaning it had for them. It is obvious, however, that as a text this Creed is heavily structured. Interestingly, this Structure is the same, transformed into a different mode, as the one that underlay both the Howards' autobiographies and the telling of the creation and recreation of the Farm Bureau.
According to the Creed, it is an individual, I, who has united with friends and neighbors. Not with all of them, however, but only "with these friends and neighbors" -those, we can assume, who also belong to the organization. Indeed, the community group whose activity I observed comprised people from all over the township and no actual neighbors. Neither theoretically nor empirically is a community territorially based; it is a matter of choice on the part of the "I"
I come now to the practical results expected from this union. A person Joins a special-interest group because It will do something for him. Results in the Farm Bureau are for "my family ... my children ... my old age." The way to achieve all this is "to study our common problems, to support through the Farm Bureau the organized effort which is essential to the welfare and prosperity of agriculture." The union is intended to be beneficial to me as an individual. The goals have nothing to say about the welfare of the group as a group. It only mentions individuals (I's) and an activity (agriculture). The desire for independence is central. It consists of an attempt to remain an autonomous unit even when physical conditions, such as old age, make it more difficult for the ideal to be realized. The creation of a union such as the Farm Bureau is not intended to create a framework in which old people fit by virtue of their age, but rather one in which they call continue to operate as individuals, alone and independent in spite of their old age.
Here again is found the dichotomy between the "I" and the "we" that underlay Mr. Howard's statements. It is not that the individual must remain consistently alone and never seek the help of friends, but rather than individualism and cooperation belong to different, aspects of human existence and that they have different attributes. just as the hierarchical reciprocity between castes in India does not destroy, but oil the contrary reinforces or at least is a statement of the distinct uniqueness of the caste as a group defined against other groups, the egalitarian reciprocity of services between individuals that the Farm Bureau attempts to channel formally does not destroy the individualism of the men and women in it. It is, on the contrary and very clearly, a formal and quasi-ritual recognition of their nature as individuals and of the practical means by which they can survive as such.
The dual aspects of Mr. Howard's expectations, his stress on self-help and at the same time his acceptance and offer of cooperation, is thus but another, less formal statement of the same structure. The Farm Bureau Creed was written by a cultural specialist; Mr. Howard did not plan his life to conform with the structure. And I cannot judge whether it actually did., The fact that his perception of his life is structured in a way similar to the Creed is an indication of the relevance of this Creed to an understanding of the processes of interpretation involved.
I will now try to make the same point through an analysis of a process that is the reverse of the one I have just investigated. If I am right in stressing the importance of the voluntary decision of an individual to cooperate with others, It should be possible to find examples of cases where it is the refusal to cooperate that stands out. This refusal should hinge, like the acceptance of it, on a perceived lack of agreement between the persons involved as to the means necessary to achieve the goal of self-realization.
During the first twenty-five years of their married life, the Howards believed strongly enough in the idea that the means stated in the Creed were appropriate to reach the ends they pur- sued, to participate actively at all levels of the Farm Bureau. Mr. Howard held most of the administrative positions oil the local and community boards at one time or another, and his capabilities and devotion to the organization led him to be considered a likely member for the state board as soon as an opening appeared. For a long time he also participated in a research program sponsored by the state university that was Intended to study the organization of a farm and how to make its management more rational. This meant complex bookkeeping procedures, long hours spent after work in the field to record when and how each was planted or harvested, how many hours the machinery had been used, how many man-hours were needed to do a particular job, and so on. Mrs. Howard volunteered for many social activities, was secretary of the county organization for a while, edited the paper, and helped her husband in management tasks and in the tricky 'job of deciding which experiments suggested by professional agronomists were worth trying. Indeed, all of this helped him to become successful, to repay all his loans and pay for his machinery, and to see the yield of his intensively worked fields increase fourfold in thirty years.
All of this also meant hard work and long hours; in fact, a few years ago Mr. Howard became seriously ill, had to stay in the hospital for some time, and was told by his physician to slow down. Mr. Howard had the choice of abandoning either the dairy part of his farm or most of his outside activities, which cut deeply into his nights. This illness gave him time to think, and he perceived it as the last step in the second "conversion" he experienced during his life. He saw that his economic achievements were fragile, that the world outside the northwest corner of Appleton township was in turmoil, a world that his children brought home to him and that he could not really understand despite his desire to and his feeling that something important was happening there. It became clear to him that the local Farm Bureau had even less understanding of all these things than he did and that it had adopted an ostrichlike attitude about them. He also felt that even if he could explain the seriousness of the situation to his friends and convince them of it, the Farm Bureau was not an appropriate channel for his new convictions. One other event in this change of life was his wife's decision to go back to school.
At the time, the end of the 1950s, the Howards were in their early fifties, comfortably established on a medium-sized farm, and highly respected by their neighbors, most of whom were in the same general economic position. They had achieved what they had started out to achieve, and one could have expected them to relish their success and await retirement with a routine., continuation of the life they had led until then. This is what several ()f their friends did, and during the year- I spent in Appleton I learned how popular it was for retired farmers to spend. the winter months in Florida enjoying themselves.
The Howards did not follow this path. As soon as the farm was more or less safely in its feet, Mrs. Howard found that she was deeply dissatisfied with her life. She had enjoyed participating in the struggle to build the farm but as soon as the challenge disappeared she decided that she could not end her life as a farmer's wife interested only in the preparation of the next Farm Bureau dinner or the health of her grandchildren. She started teaching in elementary schools in the area, went back to college herself, earned an M.A., and was eventually hired by the state university, first on a three-year contract and then as a tenured full professor in the English Department. Her salary suddenly permitted her and her family to afford many luxuries they had never had before, such as new dresses, new furniture in the living room, and an expensive car.
She dropped most. of her ties with the farming community in which she had been so active; she stopped going to the Methodist church because the pastors were "too dull" and frequented the Presbyterian church for it while, first in Appleton and then In La Crosse, "because they are more intellectual there." Eventually- she stopped going to church altogether, because "I just cannot believe any more in what they say, it is too illogical, and so many people are just so hypocritical. I might go again if I found a pastor who was both sincere and intelligent. But it might not be sufficient because not everybody in the congregation would be like this, probably." She considered the decision to go back to school the move that most changed her life; it permitted her to develop all her potentialities, it "liberated" her (though generally conservative in her political outlook, she is a vocal proponent of women's liberation).
At the same time, the Howards' two eldest children were coming of college age, and they decided they would have nothing to do with farming. The eldest son, John, appeared to have disappointed his father most. Mr. Howard clearly expected his son to succeed him on the farm and continue the process of making it grow into a successful enterprise, But the son resisted, felt constricted, had dreams about changing the world, and making it it better place to be in through education and religion.
The other son followed the same track, though he was more intellectual than his brother, who chose a mystical path. The house suddenly filled with books. The first time we talked at length, Mr. Howard showed thein to me with more pride than he exhibited over the farm machinery. He himself started reading Camus, Mailer, and all the popular contemporary philosophers his children thought somewhat relevant to being a "better person" and to building a better world. Mr. Howard recognized that he did not always understand the points those books tried to make, though he admitted that the goals he had pursued through farming and an involvement in the rational development of agriculture had more chances of being achieved through education and teaching. He was not totally enthusiastic about this new development but very singlemindedly held to the ideas that his wife and children planted in him.
He had, in fact, good reasons to be dissatisfied with farming and with the Farm Bureau. Through the constant efforts of the first groups, membership in the association had risen to several hundred in the county and its political power had grown proportionately, at least locally. A candidate for the state legislature or even the U.S. House of Representatives would not succeed in the district if lie were not endorsed by the Farm Bureau. But the character of the organization had changed. It was less and less a group of friends uniting together, and more a purely abstract association from which new members expected concrete benefits but in which they rarely participated. What is more, many new members did not farm as a way of life but with the avowed means of making money; they were no longer committed to farming per se and often had other, sometimes more flourishing, businesses, which made the traditional farmers suspect that their farms were only a means of evading some taxes. This split. inside the Farm Bureau was apparently related to a generation gap. The older people-the bulk of my informants regarded the younger group with suspicion and were ready to accuse them of deeds or motives they would never dare attribute to their own friends.
Mr. Howard also found that it was harder and harder to survive as a farmer, that small family farms were going out of business at a faster rate then ever, that the fifty acres a family could live on in the 1920s had become two hundred acres for him, and that his son would have needed at least five hundred acres to make a comfortable living. Mr. Howard discovered that he had to go back into debt after thirty years of hard work to get out of it. He felt he was barely subsisting. In the previous five years, the farm had produced almost no revenue, all household items having been purchased from his wife's salary. In spite of the long hours he put in--twelve to fourteen daily in the summer--the farm could be considered almost a luxury for his private enjoyment.
This was probably one of the major disappointments of Mr. Howard's life. Like Jefferson's ideal yeoman farmer, he had consciously chosen farming as an activity in which one can best develop personal moral qualities. He still considered the individual farming of one's own land a privileged business, not so much for itself but rather because it is conducive to a well-rounded life, a practical solution to a spiritual problem. He had come to think that it could no longer be considered such a solution. Farming as lie liked it was disappearing, and even though he was not completely conscious- as few farmers were-of the economic reasons that made this movement away from small farms necessary in an industrial and capitalistic society, he recognized that little could be done about it.
He did not change his belief in the goals lie had held all his life, goals that are partly summarized in the Farm Bureau Creed, but he could no longer agree with the definition of the means stated in this creed, and, using his illness its an excuse, he suddenly stopped all participation in the Farm Bureau. During the year I spent in Appleton, neither he nor his wife attended a single meeting or participated in it single activity planned by the community group of which lie was still officially it member.
This action can be considered it reverse proof of our analysis of the Creed and of individualism its it was lived in Appleton. In its ritual meetings the community group appeared to be a closed, enduring, tight-knit society. And in many ways it was such a society to a greater degree than many more "natural" and longer-lasting small communities, to the extent that the participants were very much personally involved in its survival. By the same token, it remained an artificial creation, sociologically speaking, and thus fragile. The people who had joined the Farm Bureau, like those who continued to participate in it for however long a period of time, did so freely. Freedom in this instance meant the perception that participation is based on a personal recognition of the validity of the positions taken by the organization. This decision may be rationalized with reference to its rational efficacy. But the determination of this efficacy remains a personal matter. And thus any shift of opinion nitist necessarily involve it withdrawal from participation when one decides that one is no longer in agreement with the majority of the people im the group or, more precisely, with the positions verbalized publicly during the meetings: there can be it wide variation between the public and the private stance. "Majority" is a rhetorical word; in such a small group no vote is ever taken that is not unanimous.
This is particularly interesting from our point of view because there was no compelling reason for Mr. Howard's decision to abandon the Farm Bureau. He was not the only member of the group to be facing economic hardship, nor was he the only one to see his children leave the farm. Most members felt that the world outside had become threatening, though many did not understand the situation at all and preferred to take refuge in an extremely closed-minded political conservatism. However, at least one other member of the community group to whom I spoke had been confronted with the same problems as Mr. Howard, had understood them as Mr. Howard had, and had decided that the answer was an even deeper involvement in Farm Bureau affairs, for which lie more or less sacrificed his farm, its I was told.
Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Howard was an "individualist" in the strict sense. Their individualism could be understood only in the context of their involvement with different groups of relatives or friends, different "communities." I will argue that any understanding of American culture must proceed from such a contextualization of individualism and, of course, also of conformism. The individualism of America is but one pole in a complex structure, a piece of the whole. It consists of an emphasis on the material and spiritual welfare of the individual as the constitutive element of society. But if there are no societies outside the individuals who participate in them, neither are there individuals outside of societies. This is a philosophic point, of course (though one that seems of more significance to American than European philosophers), but it is also one that structures the commonsense perceptions of the world held by my informants.
In other words, individualism implies community. All any references to the concept must be taken in this way. What I have done in the last pages was try to delimit one element within a wider pattern or structure that my informants in Appleton used to organize their world. They used it to explain this world to outsiders, they used it to reconstruct their history, to orient themselves for future action, and to deal with each other. I have done this through an analysis of occasions, treated as "texts," in which the same element within the structure reappeared. These situation were sociologically and psychologically varied, and their reality may have been quite different from the verbalizations that were made. But these verbalizations are real as verbalizations, and they possess an internal logic that makes them amenable to scientific analysis.
This structure was summarized in the most pristine form in the few lines of the Farm Bureau Creed. It was also present, as I have tried to demonstrate, in the two autobiographies. The Howards were totally oriented toward their own welfare, and their involvement with the Farm Bureau was the product of their desire to Succeed in a chosen occupation, farming, rather than the result of a predefined social situation. They were members of the Farm Bureau not because they were farmers but because they thought that participation in its activities would be useful for them. As soon as it appeared that it wasn't, they abandoned the organization. The reasons that led them to this change of mind were rather vague. In the statements they made during the many interviews I had with them on this subject, they could not describe an overriding cataclysmic cause. Their reasons were put in terms of likes and dislikes, opinions, personal idiosyncrasies rather than sociological pressures. Whether these were the only objective reasons, I do not know, but I ani convinced that these were the only ways they perceived their reasons, and this is why I took them as the basis for my analysis.
Similar principles are at work in domains other than those I have just explored. I will not go into so much detail as before because this would entail endless repetitions. Indeed, the domains I am going to explore have been studied over and over again from many different angles, and their relationships with an idealized individualism have been established. My contribution will not consist in showing once again that American Protestantism is individualist, for example, but in showing that its individualism is best understood in the context of the set of culturally defined principles that are spontaneously lived by the people who practice it and is not necessarily a direct reflection of a philosophically defined individualism or a scientific definition of the human condition. I will explore, first, education and the use of psychology from my own data, and then I will talk briefly of marriage in the light of Schneider's work on American kinship. I will end this first part of the book with a consideration of the place of individualism in religion and politics.