If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).
If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century. I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:
“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”
Lears goes on the discuss the disconnect between the idealized visions of farm life and reality, writing “the gulf between the urban booster’s “dream farm” and the hardscrabble reality was one of many variations on the archetypical contrast between country and city…Jeffersonian tradition posed agrarian virtue against urban vice, and generations of orators view the city with suspicion, as the source of “effeminate” luxury that would undermine republican virtue.” Unlike my previous post where I thought all of this was a collective memory issue, Lears believes that the distorted visions of farm life is part of a larger debate between urban and rural life in the United States, and is wrapped up in political, cultural, and social debates that raged in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “City and country were mother lodes of metaphor, sources for making sense of the urban -industrial revolution that was transforming the American countryside and creating a deep sense of discontinuity in many Americans’ lives during the decades after the Civil War,” Lears continues, “if the city epitomized the attraction of the future, the country embodied the pull of the past. For all those who had moved to town in search of excitement or opportunity, rural life was ineluctably associated with childhood and memory. The contrast between country and city was about childhood experience as well as political economy.”
So there you have it, nostalgia and its role in American life extends far beyond simple choices for living room artwork. It is embedded in debates and world views and anxieties that were important parts of many Americans’ lives. I’m really glad that I came across Currier & Ives’ prints, especially the “Middle Age” image, I still think its a great illustration of all of this.
By the way, does anyone know what a “hollow horn” on a cow means? I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what Tom Watson meant but haven’t been able to find any answers yet…
If you’d like to learn more, the Tom Watson quote in this post was found on page 133 of Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation. Here is the citation information from that page: Tom Watson, Manuscript Journal, 2, 403, in Watson Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, quoted in C. Van Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel  (Oxford University Press: New York, 1969), 127.