Published by EH.NET (September 2005)

Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002. xiv + 288 pp. $15 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8090-6430-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Julia A. King, Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

Steven Stoll, who teaches history and environmental studies at Yale, has written a book that presents a sweeping study about American agriculture in the nineteenth century, one which examines the economic, social, and political relationships between soil improvement and emigration in the decades preceding the Civil War and then links the movement for agricultural reform to the land or resource conservation movement emerging in the early twentieth century. Stoll’s broad approach is breathtaking in its scope, given that he unfolds it for us in just over 200 pages. Further, Stoll doesn’t depend on the use of agricultural or other statistics to make his arguments — there are no charts and few econometric statements in the book. Rather, Stoll is interested in plumbing the writings of the farmers and later the conservationists — all of them men — who lived with and experienced the conditions and the challenges under which they made their choices. Here, Stoll does not rely exclusively on the more famous, better-known advocates of the time, such as Edmund Ruffin, although Ruffin and others are certainly present, if only as background figures. Rather, Stoll spends his time mining agricultural journals, addresses, newspapers, and government reports — many of which have long been buried and their authors long forgotten — for evidence of what it meant to be a farmer, and how farming shaped both a physical and an imagined national landscape. Farming, Stoll claims, matters. He goes further: It did then, and it does now.

To emphasize regional contrasts, Stoll focuses on Pennsylvania and South Carolina in the antebellum years, the former state a model expression of the new husbandry and the latter a virtual roadblock to its adoption. Both improvement (a term he seems to prefer to agricultural reform) and emigration emerged out of the destruction of soils resulting from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century agricultural practices in both regions. Worn out soils presented a social as well as an economic problem, for which contemporaries understood there were two solutions: restore the soil through the adoption of practices that promoted the conservation (that is, recycling) and/or addition of manure, or abandon the farm for fertile new lands. Stoll suggests that neither choice was easy and both represented an enormous undertaking; there were no easy solutions for solving the legacy problems of colonial farming practices. He also argues persuasively that, while we may see the idea of geographical mobility as an essentially American characteristic, deeply rooted in our colonial and national history, that such mobility caused much more anxiety in the nineteenth century than we might expect.

I have a few quibbles with Stoll’s assessments, likely due in part to matching my ‘micro-historical’ approach to interpreting nineteenth-century agricultural practices up against Stoll’s effort at broad synthesis. For example, Stoll appreciates but rejects historian Carville Earle’s argument about ‘soil miners,’ or the premise that agricultural improvement led not to the adequate preservation of soil but to the beginning of ‘environmental destruction’ on a grand scale. While Stoll questions whether crop rotation like that practiced in the swidden farming economies of the South was as environmentally sound as Earle asserts, dozens of soil cores extracted from the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries repeatedly demonstrate that sediment begins building up on Bay and river bottoms at precisely the time farmers were abandoning traditional swidden farming practices, adopting wide-area plowing, and plastering fields with South American guano — that is, during first half of the nineteenth century. The damage to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries was unprecedented and in large part irreversible; co-occurrence may not signify cause and effect, but the correlation is clear and is meaningful in the discussion of agricultural improvement. This small example hardly nullifies Stoll’s larger thesis, but it does suggest the complexity of documenting and interpreting nineteenth-century farming practices and finding broader meaning in the patterns revealed.

Quibbles aside, however, the material Stoll delivers is well researched and well presented. His bibliography is extensive and the notes are thorough. For those interested in a detailed social and economic history of agricultural reform, the book offers another, somewhat different perspective, one that might not stand alone as the definitive study, but that helps us understand those studies that have been completed. Its brevity — just over 200 pages of text — means that some aspects do not get addressed: the Civil War as a social and an industrializing force gets little if any mention. And while industrialization merits attention in the book (the chapter on merino wool is especially useful), readers should come to the book with a background of these processes already in place.

For this reader, Stoll’s greater contribution (and perhaps his weakest as well) is his effort to link agricultural practices in the nineteenth century to resource conservation efforts in the twentieth. Although he concludes that improvement succeeded for a time, by the late nineteenth century, industrial agriculture with its emphasis on increased production regardless of the social or environmental cost had come to take its place. The legacy of improvement, if there is one, will not be found in modern industrial agricultural, but in the ethics of a still-emerging resource conservation movement. And that, Stoll concludes, as he ends our journey with a tour of an Amish family farm in Ohio, is too bad. He acknowledges the benefits of industrial farm production — the generation of “an astonishing amount of food” — but wonders if there is not a better farming future to be mapped, perhaps from this Amish example, itself a “manure-centered husbandry.” One cannot help but empathize with Stoll, and to hope he is right, even though he charts no course of action for the twenty-first century. Further, Stoll’s study — read from a slightly different angle — could help those of us living in twenty-first-century America, as we struggle with government land use policies to “preserve rural character.” Most, if not all, counties in Maryland, where I live, list this objective front and center in their legislatively-mandated Comprehensive Land Use Plans. Stoll’s study implicitly allows us to examine the meta-concept of rural and the idea of rural character by situating it historically, by understanding where Americans’ love of rural spaces and places comes from, and examining historical understandings of concepts like moral and material progress.

Julia A. King is director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. She is currently working on a book exploring ruins, memory, and the national landscape in nineteenth-century America.