When Dad Came Out Here

Stephen Fender

  • Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban
    Picador, 325 pp, £15.99, October 1996, ISBN 0 330 34621 0

‘I am not a travel writer,’ Jonathan Raban said in a recent interview. ‘For me, “travel writer” means someone who samples other people’s holidays – you talk about the food, the hotel, throw in a bit of local colour. If I thought that was the business I was in, I’d slit my throat.’ Bad Land, Raban’s new book about Montana, examines the present remains and historical origins of the last great wave of American western settlement, the migration of homesteaders to eastern Montana in the first decade of this century. Once flourishing, their farms are now in ruins: ‘fenceposts, trailing a few whiskers of wire – the body of a Studebaker ... stripped of its wheels and engine ... a harrow deep in the grass ... houses, cars, machinery ... fading rapidly off the land’. In one collapsing house Raban found a sheaf of manuscript pages showing debts mounting from a few dollars payable to the Bureau of Land Management, Sears Roebuck and Kyle’s Radiator Shop, to horrific arrears on bank loans – the debts totalled well over $5000. When they pulled out, the failed homesteaders simply left their household goods behind – the Frigidaire, the parlour furniture, the ironing-board – but they took great pains to make a bonfire of their family photographs.

What attracted these people to the semi-arid climate of eastern Montana? What did they grow and raise? What kind of community did they form? Why did they fail? What kind of bitterness could have moved them to burn the visual keepsakes of their venture? The outline of their story is clear enough. By 1909 building of the Milwaukee Road had progressed as far as Montana on its way to the Pacific North-West, and like other railroads before it, it needed settlements along the way to produce raw materials to ship to markets further east. So the Milwaukee lobbied the Federal Government to pass the Enlarged Homestead Act to finance the settlement of arable farms along its route – against the opposition of cattle ranchers already using the land as open range. Effusive promotional pamphlets were sent out to the American East and to Europe, setting out the generous terms of the Act under a glowing image of a happy farmer working his new claim. For $25 a ‘locator’ would find and stake out a half-section (320-acre) spread of public land. A further $22 to the US Land Office entitled the claimants to start building their houses (just shacks or dugouts at first), stringing fences and working the land. After five years the settlers ‘proved up’ the homestead for a further $16, to pay for an inspector’s report confirming that the claim had been kept under cultivation. After that, the land was theirs to keep.

Eastern Montana wasn’t part of the Great American Desert, but with an average annual rainfall of under 20" it was certainly dryish. On the other hand, Professor Alexander Agassiz (son of the more illustrious Louis) had suggested that rainfall increases as cultivation and building disturb the electrical currents in the surrounding atmosphere, while Hardy W. Campbell, billed in the Milwaukee Road pamphlets as ‘the noted farming expert and inventor of the Campbell system of scientific farming for semi-arid lands’, had shown how to make dry soil fertile: compact the soil at root level, then break up the topsoil into a fine tilth; the top level would collect the rain, and the moisture would accumulate in the compacted layer beneath. After that ‘capillary attraction’ would do the job even in dry seasons, the water rising in defiance of gravity to irrigate the crop.

For a while everything seemed to work. Virgin soil watered by heavier than average rainfall at first produced prodigious results: fat, well-nourished cattle, waving fields of grain, turnips weighing in at twenty pounds. Spacious houses began to replace the claim shacks, schools and meeting-houses were built, and communites began to take shape. When the Germans blocked the Dardanelles corridor at the outbreak of the First World War, thereby cutting off the supply of Russian grain to Europe, the price of American wheat at the local elevator nearly doubled. Beef cattle rose from $20 to $33 a head. The average eastern Montana homestead, the capital outlay of which could be measured in a few dollars, was now worth upwards of $4800: both farmer and family could feel that their labour had been well rewarded.

This was what Raban calls ‘the season of the smiling bank manager’. Loans were pressed on the thriving farms, at 5½ per cent, or $55 per year on $1000. And the money would be needed as planting increased to meet expanding demand. Tractors, costing from $550 to over three times that sum, were needed to pull the mechanised seed drills, sprayers, reapers, threshers and binders. The globalised market demanded volume production. ‘Once you start to mechanise,’ as Raban puts it, ‘you were in for the long haul, coupling expensive gizmo to expensive gizmo, until the chain of farm machinery stretched far over the foreseeable horizon.’ Even the Government got in on the money-lending. To meet wartime demand for foodstuffs, and also to secure his re-election in 1916, Woodrow Wilson pressed Congress to pass the Federal Farm Loan Act, which set up a string of farm land banks to advance loans to a maximum of $3000 at 6 per cent, or $22 a month.

Then everything began to go wrong. From 1917 to 1920 annual rainfall fell off to an average of just over 12". Apparently the Agassiz effect wasn’t working. Neither was the Campbell method; whatever its dubious merits, it could hardly be expected to conserve moisture in the soil through a drought lasting four years. After being worked for over a decade, the land was giving out. The homesteaders’ initial success had more to do with the early favourable rainfall than with an inherent, sustainable fertility of the soil. Above all, the world market for grain and cattle collapsed after the war was over. One by one the homesteaders pulled up stakes and moved on – most of them further west, many fetching up in the cities of the Pacific North-West, like Tacoma and Seattle. Those who stuck it out until the Depression got a second chance, courtesy of the New Deal, when the Resettlement Administration offered them quarter-section lots of land on the well-watered Fairfield Bench, just to the east of the Rockies. The deal included a barn and a two-bedroom house for $6000, payable at 4 per cent over forty years. Thus the luckier (if that’s the right word) homesteaders were turned into government pensioners. Not that the descendants of the homesteaders, here or at points further west, retain much gratitude for that timely government intervention.‘For no region of the country got more from the New Deal than the now vengefully conservative eastern half of Washington,’ writes Raban. Today it is the realm of survivalists, the haunt of the Unabomber.

Raban seems surprised at this ingratitude, but his own account suggests ample cause for it. The trouble was that self-appointed experts from further east were forever telling the independent-minded settlers what was best for them. Eastern Montana was apparently so empty, so devoid of physical and social culture, that it could serve as the laboratory for any harebrained scheme. The ‘scientific’ hypotheses of Agassiz and Campbell were about as appropriate to the real environment as wheezes from the Academy of Lagado. Then there was the eastern anxiety about the kind of society beginning to develop on the north-western plains. Fearing that the empty landscape and the isolation of the homesteads was leading to depression, madness, even suicide, one expert proposed that the homesteads be uprooted and the houses grouped into villages sited in the centre of the land, with the farmers going out to the fields, European fashion, every day. In 1893 E.V. Smalley published an influential article suggesting that rural western communities be strengthened by sports and pageants, madrigal singing and improvised folk-rites. In 1909 Congress set up the Commission on Country Life, to fund government inspectors to check that ‘herds, barns, orchards and farms’ were up to standard. Extension lecturers would instruct the homesteaders on how to manage their crops or on how to plant ‘shelter belts’ of trees around their homes. But the most effective socialising force turned out to be the homesteaders’ debts. ‘Self-sufficiency is politically dangerous,’ Raban remarks. ‘His new indebtedness gave the homesteader a serious stake in the national economy.’ No wonder the settlers came to resent eastern meddling in their lives, the old populist suspicion of banks and big government maturing into hatred for ‘tree-huggers’ and urban ‘liberals’.

As with Raban’s earlier books, the narrative of Bad Land maintains a free play between autobiography and reportage, and between competing interpretations of what is observed. So of the apparent contradiction between the homesteaders’ dream of farming without capital and the actuality of their ruinous debt, Raban writes: that dream ‘is part of the essential mythology of the place, and it has bred a ritual that condenses the mythology into a set-piece of a dozen words. “When Dad came out here, he had $25, a wagon and a mule.” ’ He also challenges the standard local story of how and when the homesteaders were finally broken. Nowadays they say it was in the drought and dust-storms of the Thirties, but Raban thinks they tell it that way to inscribe their experience within the larger and better-known events of the Great Depression and the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, and points out that more eastern Montana homesteaders left between 1917 and 1928 than between 1929 and 1940. This is certainly right. More surprisingly, the same is true of those who migrated from the south-western states (including Oklahoma) to California, more of whom moved to the Golden State in the 1910s and Twenties than in the Thirties.

Bad Land marks a subtle but crucial departure from Raban’s earlier narratives, however. Old Glory, his modern re-enactment of Huckleberry Finn, is governed by the powerful current of the Mississippi. Coasting, his state-of-Britain book undertaken from the vantage of his solitary circumnavigation of these islands, takes us where the wind listeth, literally. In Hunting Mr Heartbreak the narrator wanders through Alabama and Seattle, finally drifting down to the Florida Keys, for no reason other than that is where ‘most things come to an end’. So lightly does he guard his amour propre that he doesn’t mind when someone in Alabama calls him Rayburn; and when in Seattle he finds the name on the door of his rented room has been posted as Rainbird, an inspired, totem-like alias that he embraces as an alter ego. After all, truly to travel is to seek a change in identity.

Now he is no longer drifting along an indeterminate line. Bad Land both starts and ends in Seattle, where six years ago Raban’s own wandering came to rest in a new life. In other words, his new book, though like the others in eschewing ‘travel writing’ in the contemporary, journalistic sense, is unlike them in cleaving to the convention of literary tourism exemplified by Dickens, Frances Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson and dozens of other British writers, for whom democratic, republican America presented an appalling and comic spectacle of unruly manners and institutions. For these, too, were out-and-back narratives: the place from which their authors started, and where their audience lived, was the metropolis, from which America was still seen as a province – though now one in a state of ungrateful, wayward rebellion, which is what imparted such a frisson to the topic. Of course, present-day Seattle can hardly be described as the metropolis of the United States, let alone of a wider constituency. But it is one of many cosmopolitan centres: as sophisticated and enlightened as New York, Sydney, Toronto and thousands of other cities and university towns in the English-speaking world. The fact that the metropolis has now become decentred, that the divide is no longer between centre and periphery but between cultural layers, does little to change the narrative perspective of the literary tourist.

Both Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans and Dickens’s American Notes render the journey out in images of alienation and disorder, and the journey home in terms of social harmony. Arriving at the mouth of the Mississippi, Trollope noted wrecked vessels, ‘bulrushes of enormous growth’, a ‘huge crocodile luxuriating in the slime’, and massive, uprooted trees, with ‘roots mock[ing] the heavens, their ... dishonoured branches lash[ing] the tide in idle vengeance ... [looking] like the fragment of a world in ruins’. Dickens, riding out an Atlantic storm on a cramped steamship, found ‘the looking-glass, which is nailed to the wall, sticking fast upon the ceiling. At the same time the door entirely disappears, and a new one is opened in the floor. Then I begin to comprehend that the state-room is standing on its head.’ The subtext is clear. They were on their way to the world turned upside down.

This colonial perspective frequently expresses itself in contrasts between culture and nature. The Americans of the eastern establishment thought of the Great Plains much as the British theorists of empire saw the New World as a whole: as a cultural void, a vacuum domicilium awaiting the imposition of their social, scientific and financial institutions. But Raban, too, falls into the trap. Bad Land refers again and again to the emptiness of the Montana landscape: its vast spread of land and sky so hard to scale in conventional sketches and photographs; the shallow roots, both vegetable and cultural, of the homesteaders, settlements, the homes falling into ruin and the few remaining inhabitants living in trailers. E.V. Smalley, Raban says, ‘reflects back a lot of my own feelings as I’ve hiked around the western states in the 1990s ... The small towns ... are shells, reduced to a gas station and food mart (“Video Rentals” in neon in the window), a Church of God, and a ravaged motel for migrant, undocumented farm workers ... I wonder, what would I belong to here? Not the Church of God. Maybe the NRA.’ For Raban, too, this is the world turned upside down. Like Trollope and Dickens, he draws his index of disorder from the outlandish natural environment – the climate, with its piercing winter cold, its apocalyptic storms, its draughts, its swarms of locusts and most of the other plagues of Pharaoh.

‘I grew up in a temperate climate,’ he recalls wistfully. Exactly. It is that contrast which enables his observations. In other words, the disorienting physical and social environment of eastern Montana may be exactly as he reports it, just as the mouth of the Mississippi really is (or was) a torrent of mud and uprooted trees, and the Atlantic voyage against the prevailing winds in a mid-19th-century steamer much less comfortable than sailing home with the wind behind you. The observer’s perspective is crucial. Raban knows this; he is funny about it, and consciously accepts the Victorian model. But what’s missing, even in his more laidback Nineties version of the story, is the authentic voice of the other side: of the men and women who are used to climatic extremes and vistas limited only by the horizon – maybe even glory in them – who would rather be independent, even to the point of rootlessness.

From Raban’s sophisticated standpoint the Montana homesteaders are made to look more naive and gullible than they were. Throughout the 19th century (so, a fortiori, into the 20th) letters between emigrants and their relatives at home served to temper the excesses of the boosters’ claims; those who came over, or out, did so in the full knowledge that the brochures might be over-egging the pudding, but felt the risk was worth taking even so. Saving for the future, deferring gratification, taking risks: these were all good, capitalist habits of thought already part of their mental geography before they left home. So when they arrived in Montana with ‘$25, a wagon and a mule’, they were already capitalists, for what were those goods if not capital, and what was a bank loan, if not another phase in the venture that brought them out in the first place?

It’s when he moves from first-hand observation into historical analysis that the very accuracy of Raban’s reporting threatens to let him down. So vividly does he describe the outlandish weather, for example, that it becomes almost a cause of the homesteaders’ failure. But it can’t have been, really. Winters are cold; summers are hot and dry; hailstones damage crops – selectively. Myths, which tell a kind of truth, must be distinguished from lies, or historical mistakes. Many settlers in Oklahoma and Montana modelled their migrations on Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the independent yeoman (itself a ‘myth’ increasingly challenged by modern historians), long after modern finance, centralised commodity exchanges and the railroad extended markets way beyond the local control that rendered the Jeffersonian ideal workable, even in theory. That it was the weather, rather than the impact of agricultural modernisation and the sudden collapse of global markets following the First World War, that ruined the Okies and the Montana homesteaders is a ‘myth’. Maybe the ghost of The Grapes of Wrath haunts Raban’s narrative much as the folk memory of the Dust Bowl hovers over the story the descendants of the Montana homesteaders tell. Natural forces very rarely provide an explanation of demographic movement on any level – literal, metaphorical, allegorical or ‘mythical’.