Podcast transcription: Richard Bushman and Farms, Family, and Faith
Glen Nelson: Hello and welcome to the Mormon Art Center's Studio Podcast. In this episode, we'll sit down with historian Richard Lyman Bushman to discuss his new book, The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History. The book is just out, published by Yale University Press, and it gives me an excuse to get Richard into the interviewee's chair and pummel him with questions about the meaning of life or if not that, at least the meaning of his latest book. Welcome Richard.
Richard Bushman: Thank you.
Glen Nelson: You write in the preface of The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century that you started working on the book 20 years ago, and you were motivated by desire to understand farmers. What's the story behind the writing of this book and why did it take you so long to complete it?
Richard Bushman: Well, it actually is a book that attempted to mend my divided soul. On the one hand, I was an Early American historian, I'd published to the subject, that's all I taught is Early American history, but then I was invited to a brief biography of Joseph Smith. And so I got involved in the Mormon history business, and after that I was sort of working on two tracks. And so after I finished this book, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, I thought if I'm going to do anymore on Joseph Smith, I had to know something about his social and cultural background. So he was a farmer. His father was a farmer, so it turned me towards farming. And I thought this will be a book that will bridge my sort of standard professional life with my church history life.
Glen Nelson: How are you describing the book to people who don't have the handy dust jacket in front of them to tell them what it's about?
Richard Bushman: Well, I tell them that it's an effort to find out what work does to personal culture. If you are totally absorbed in farming--thinking about it, working in a day and night, employing your children, devising ways to improve your farm--surely that has some shape on your mentality, your values. So I wanted to sort of move between work life and cultural life, and that's why I call it a social and cultural history.
Glen Nelson: The book says it's 18th century farming. Why did you choose that period specifically? In the book you deal with things before and after that, but why specifically 18th century?
Richard Bushman: Well, I've always worked in the 18th century and know it best. I wrote a book called From Puritan to Yankee. It was about the 18th century. Actually, I began this as a history that would go from the 18th century to the Civil War, when there were great changes in farming and hoped I could sort of talk about this is transition into the new world. But it was just too weighty. I wasn't going to do it, get it done in my lifetime. So I pulled back and just did the 18th century.
Glen Nelson: But you say it took you 20 years. I don't think the other books that you've written have been as long in coming, right?
Richard Bushman: No. I began this actually in the 1980s, so it goes back to more like 30 years and was moving along and then someone said, "Why don't you write a biography of Joseph Smith in time for the bicentennial was birth?" So I had this little detour where I wrote Rough Stone Rolling, and that got me off track, and it wasn't until after that I got back to farming.
Glen Nelson: The book is organized into six parts: it begins with a construct about the notion of farms and family life; the differences between the north and south, particularly regarding slavery; then the examples of three states, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia with a close look at individuals, records from unknown farmers to U.S. presidents; and finally a discussion about the legacy of farming practices after the 18th century. So I didn't know what to expect when I opened the book. I grew up on a farm. My relatives are still farmers--they farm for a living--but I was shocked to read some of the insights that begin your book, including this one, that three quarters of the US population in 1790 made their livings from farms. Did that surprise you, too?
Richard Bushman: It's a fairly well known fact among historians, so it didn't really surprise me, but what surprised me is three quarters of the population is a minimal figure because in addition to people we call farmers as if that were their vocation there were all sorts of other people who were farming. Everybody wanted to have an acre. Everybody wanted to have a cow or a few pigs. Even people who lived in cities tried to keep animals--chickens and hogs and so forth. So the farm view or the value of a farm extended through virtually the entire society. Everyone wanted to find some way to raise something to support themselves.
Glen Nelson: So it wasn't just subsistence or was it?
Richard Bushman: Well, the basic idea is that if you work on a farm, you can provide most of your needs, your firewood, your lumber, shoes, the whole works, but you can't do everything. So you do as much as you can. There's sort of a remnant of it in people canning peaches. My mother, canned peaches, pears, and tomatoes when I was growing up. You do what you can support yourself. So it's always a matter of degree. But the aim was to be as self sufficient as possible from your farm.
Glen Nelson: So this would be men and women, as I knew from my own experience, every mom on a farm works around the clock, right? So it must have affected early American colonial life regarding women, too.
Richard Bushman: It meant that the husband and wife were absolutely essential to one another. The farm would not exist if the woman was not doing her part, but the children were involved in it, too. By age 10 children are churning, they're moving hay around, by 12 or 13 boys can run a team of horses or a team of oxen. So it really was an entire family enterprise.
Glen Nelson: I was surprised how much family comes out in the book. You say, "Family was the instrument for reproducing society across generations." It gets complicated with families though, because as children grow up and they have families of their own, what happens to the farm?
Richard Bushman: Yeah. Well, the question is how do you launch your children? This is a huge existential question for all of us today and certainly in those times. And to begin with, you teach them farming so it's in their bones, but then you have to give them that property. It's a huge thing. Now we give them an education; that's how we launched our kids. Then, you wanted to give them at least a start on a farm. And where do you get the property, how do you pay for it, how you get them going? Those are huge everyday issues for farmers.
Glen Nelson: And not just for the farmers, but it really shaped America, too. I had not really considered the byproducts of this expansion from one generation to the next and how it affected Native American displacement, westward expansion, slavery, war, urban development, capitalism, politics, law, regional identity, and so forth. I started to think as I was reading that anybody unfamiliar with farming history couldn't understand U.S history either because they're so intertwined.
Richard Bushman: Well, that's exactly what I hope you would see. For a long time, I was calling the book Farmers in the Production of the Nation because I think the major characteristics of our country, the greatest movements of its dynamism originates in farms. Where has there been a nation on the earth that is so expansive as a United States in the 18th and 19th century? There's no boundary that remains for long--overflowing--and that's western movement and everything associated with it--is really the heart of the American life. And all of that come from farmers trying to find land for their kids.
Glen Nelson: But the expansion part causes a lot of trouble.
Richard Bushman: It's the source of our great tragedy, the way we drove out the Indians, decimated whole populations, displaced them. It's a horrible thing, but it also leads to fights over who occupies that land and of course the big question is can slave owners occupied land when small white farmers want it for their own children? It becomes kind of a struggle between all those groups.
Glen Nelson: You write in the book, the following: "Family farmers played an ambiguous role in American history. Although in its essence the farm idea was optimistic and filled with promise, it frequently was overcast with unintended consequences, struggles, and failure. Family farmers faltered when nature, debt, or the markets overcame them. Worse still, the success of farm families came at the expense of the native population. Farmers were, on the one hand, the embodiment of the American dream; on the other, they enacted the American nightmare—the decimation of one people by another." Why were these concepts important to you, and do you think that this is an underappreciated aspect of our history?
Richard Bushman: It probably is underappreciated. It's not unknown. We all know that. But when we talk about expansion and the removal of the Indians, we sometimes talk a capitalist forces or national pride or we attributed to some villainous operation, but behind all of that are families trying to establish their children on the land, and that is the American dream. That's what we hope for, that you come to America and get a start, become independent, but that's all done at the price of driving out Indian families from their lands and their places.
Glen Nelson: I'm not entirely sure if I'm getting this right, remembering the book, but you talk about the disadvantage Native Americans had because of their nomadic nature. European Americans were putting down roots as farmers and so it was more than encroachment.
Richard Bushman: We all know that the native peoples migrated. They had huge hunting grounds. They moved from the shore to the mountains during the seasons to move from fishing to berries and nuts and so on. So they're very loosely fixed on the land. And to European eyes, it looks like the land is empty. It seems like it's being wasted. So when they move in, they draw fences, they make boundaries on deeds. They're able to kind of control intellectually the land, and they've got paper to prove it, and they've got marks on the landscape they make with fences and cleared fields. And so, the Indians have no way of resisting that steady encroachment, and there's no going back to Indian land after the English farmers live on it.
Glen Nelson: What are the primary source documents that you used for the book?
Richard Bushman: I used about everything. Farmers turn up everywhere, and the book actually is an effort to go more or less systematically through all the various kinds of sources and say, What can I learn about farming from tax lists, or from court records, or from newspapers, or from genealogies, or from estate inventories that were taken when a person died. And they all have a certain content that can be opened up. And so what I hoped to do is to use every last one of those and that way, show one facet after another of farm life.
Glen Nelson: Are farmers pretty good record keepers? I would imagine they would be-- maybe not narrative diarists, but keeping track of what they spent, what they did, what their average day was like.
Richard Bushman: They were not very good at keeping track of an average day, but they were very good at keeping track of their accounts--what work they had done for other people, what they had traded for, because everything's done on credit. "May I borrow your oxen for a few days while I'm plowing?" That has to go down in notation either in memory or on paper, and as it got more complicated they have to write that down because then you have to go back and help with fencing or with haying in return for what you've done, and this whole community is linked together by scores of all these little obligations that had been set up. In a way they're debts, but it's not always money. It's work, and you're standing in the community depended on your ability to make those trades, which meant you had to repay or people would not help you out the next time around.
Glen Nelson: It seems to me almost that you're retelling American history seen through the lens of farming. Did you start seeing it in those terms?
Richard Bushman: Well, I do think farming underlay a lot of things that had happened. I didn't get into the halls of the legislatures. There are some things I could have done there, but I really wanted to stay on the farm and see where that led, but it certainly is the underpinnings of a huge amount of American history.
Glen Nelson: Reviewers of the book have commented that one of its big virtues is that it talks about a multiregional approach, so you're not discussing just farmers in New England but rather the entire country, as it stood then, and you spend a fair amount of time talking about slavery, and plantations, and those workers. Do the differences between the north and the south boil down to the 180-day growing season or does slavery have deeper roots than that?
Richard Bushman: One of the advantages of doing many sections, which is unusual farm studies--they tend to be located in one area that you do the rice plantations are you do the New England farmers--one of the advantages, you can see that there's a system of farming that operates up and down the coast or up and down the continent, and it depends upon the weather. That shapes the farming systems that are possible in one area or another. And of course the great point is not weather so much but climate. What is the average growing season? In the north you have three or four months where nothing will grow. It's shut down. From Virginia and south there may be at most one month. And that means that in the south you don't have to hay to feed your animals in the winter, that the grass may stop growing for one month, but after January is over, it starts growing again, and the animals can be out there. That alters the whole system of farming immensely because most northern farmers are spending two whole months just haying--getting enough fodder in to keep the animals going through the three or four months of the cold season. So yes, the growing season makes a huge difference, and it falls over into labor systems and lots of other things.
Glen Nelson: So these plantation crops of cotton and tobacco, could they have been done at scale without forced labor and slavery?
Richard Bushman: Yes, you could have raised tobacco or cotton without forced labor because it's being done today--not forced labor. What you need is a cheap labor, something you control. You need enough control over that labor that you can put them to work whenever you want to.
Glen Nelson: You write quite a bit about how a farm expands over a generation, for example, and violence comes into play quite a bit with that. I came across one statistic in the book that was striking to me, that 80 percent of the population growth in the American colonies was through childbirth, not through immigration. So these were just families growing. So talk to me about how a single family might navigate through a generation of household expansion. So parents have property, kids grow up, they work on the farm, but then when they have families of their own, did they just break the farm into sub plots for them? How did they do that?
Richard Bushman: You can't break a farm up too much or it loses its capacity to support the family, so there's an effort to maintain workable units. You needed 80 to 100 acres to pull that off. But the solution to that problem has to do with the life cycle. When your kids are young, they are a burden to you because it takes the mother out of the work cycle to a certain extent. They're an expense, but they're bringing no income. But from the time they're 10 up to age 24, when they get married and leave home, they're a huge asset. They're like an added worker on the farm with no cost except subsistence. You don't pay them any wages. You just have to keep them alive. And during that time, the hope was that you could make so much more from producing more crops, buying more land and expanded, that when they finally did leave, you would have accumulated the credit that you could buy them a little piece of property or give them enough animals and tools for them to get started somewhere. So the families had keep your eyes open for that moment when they would need more property and work towards it. All the while, those children are growing up.
Glen Nelson: Did they want to live where their parents lived? I mean, was it like an annexation of property that was close by or was that not available any longer by the time they were old enough?
Richard Bushman: Up until about 1700 in most areas there was land that you could get close by, but after 1700 you're going to have to go a distance, maybe the next town or two, and finally far off onto the frontier. So that's why the 18th century is such a raucous time, a lot of conflict and violence because people are having to sell themselves at a distance.
Glen Nelson: You write about this 1768 law in Pennsylvania that imposed the death penalty on anybody trespassing onto Indian lands. And they still trespassed because they needed the property.
Richard Bushman: Yeah. That was an imperial law. Actually that was imposed because those families moving on Indian land were a terrible government problem because it inevitably led to conflict--they're always sparking wars of one sort or another. And so in an effort really to protect the Indians from encroachments, the imperial government says you just can't go there anymore. But there was no stopping that flood, you know, it's like the tidewater, it just came in.
Glen Nelson: There must have been so much they had to navigate, these farmers. Like, the boundaries are often contested, they had the problem of debt like all farmers do, but it might have been even more complicated back then in some ways. So how did they negotiate everything? And the social currency part of it is interesting, too, to me that your value in the society was the property that you had and that gave you a kind of leverage, but it was more literal than that because you could get credit based on your reputation as a farmer.
Richard Bushman: Right. It forced them to what we would call almost reckless measures. That is, they would move into areas that were close to Indian property. They would encroach on the boundaries of the Indian lands, and then they would send their animals out into the woods to graze. During most of the summer, you're just grazing in the woods, not in pastures. And then the Indians are out there, and they see this cow coming through the woods, they say, "That's fair game." It's just like a deer or a fox--you can shoot it. And of course the English having a different sense of property think that's an encroachment, that's a form of theft, and so there was room for endless misunderstandings, and the farmers paid for it in just horrible Indian attacks that were very destructive.
Glen Nelson: Frederick Jackson Turner wrote about the West as a safety valve for an overcrowded civilization, but the western expansion didn't really solve everything, did it?
Richard Bushman: No, that's right. It reduced the class pressures in the cities with the buildup of a really poor class, to some extent, but it didn't mean all was well when you went west.
Glen Nelson: A few minutes ago, you were talking about these two tracks of your career--of a historian of American stuff and Mormon stuff. So let's talk about that a little bit. You're on the record as being a Mormon author, that's right. In your biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, you're upfront about it, and in the preface, you describe yourself as a "believing historian," and you note that you "cannot hope to rise above these battles or pretend nothing personal is at stake." And so on the surface, a history of colonial farming doesn't have all that much to do with Mormon history, and yet as I read it, I kept wondering how mormonism shades you're writing overall. Any comment on that?
Richard Bushman: Well, it doubtless shades my writing more than I think. Claudia says, "All your books are autobiographical." Certainly Refinement is, but all the others. In this case, there was an explicit effort to sort of borrow from my Mormon view of the world and introduce it into my view of this historical period. And that is through the idea of family. Mormons make so much of family. We really have a family theology. We are children of God. We're brothers and sisters. Our families are eternal. So theologically, we underscore family as central to human life, and of course if you look at human literature, if you just look at Shakespeare or wherever you go, family stresses, family strains, romance, rivalries between brothers and sisters is everywhere. And so, what I wanted to do is sort of draw attention to the centrality of family in American history, that family dynamics are shaping the major contours of our past.
Glen Nelson: And that came through really strongly for me. I also saw kind of a flip side of it, a little bit. When you were writing about the tensions on the colonial Virginia-Pennsylvania border, it made me think of the Mormon problems in Missouri and Illinois. Are contemporary members of the Church missing the point regarding anti-Mormon actions back then, was it not just Mormon religious persecution or was the land grab a part of the problem too?
Richard Bushman: I think it's quite clear that in Missouri, and especially in northern Missouri and Caldwell and Davis counties, that the fact that the Mormons had taken preemption rights, that is, they'd entered claims to a vast amount of territory, and if they were driven out and had no way of reinforcing those claims, they would fall into the hands of land speculators or other farmers coming into the area. So they never state that, but under the surface, interest shapes how people act, and that was a very strong interest.
Glen Nelson: It would have to be that way. I mean, if you're just barely getting by as a farmer, and then a whole bunch of people come in, that impacts the ability that you have to expand, in addition to all the political things of who gets to decide what's going to happen in a community.
Richard Bushman: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: A flip side of that, too, is your sensitivity generally to wronged people, and I'm seeing this more and more in your books as they've gone along. I'm not really too much of an expert on your earliest books, so I could be wrong on this completely, but wronged people like Native Americans, and slaves, and others: is that writing a byproduct of your being from a persecuted people yourself?
Richard Bushman: You know, I've never thought of that, but once you say it, it rings a bell with me, because you know this was true for Joseph Smith--he was very sympathetic to prisoners and to sailors who were abused by ship captains, and he thought one of the reasons he thought he might have a chance at the presidency is because he was the leader of one wronged people appealing to others in society who had been wronged, so it may be built into our genes.
Glen Nelson: I'm aware of some other examples of this, of how one group of people can kind of project their fears and heartfelt feelings onto another culture. And the example that I came up with as I was thinking about it were Jewish Broadway composers in the 20th century. (This sounds like a real departure, but let's see if I can make this work.) So nearly all the top songwriters in the golden era of Broadway were Jewish: Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rogers, Oscar Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, and many, many, many others. I mean, as American industries go, this is as air tight a monopoly as we're going to get. On the surface, their shows weren't that much about Judaism, if at all, but if you look a little deeper, they were taking aspects of their Jewish experience, including prejudice, and transferring that to the stories of others. And I guess for me the best example of that is Showboat from 1927. The racial prejudice and the attempt to "pass" were soul-destructive acts to its principal characters. But it wasn't until 1964 and Fiddler on the Roof that these Jewish composers felt like they could tell their own tales directly, but they were there thematically, all along. So I'm wondering in your writing--I know that was a long setup--but in your writing, is there some of that duality? I was wondering, is the essence of belief transferred to the stories that you choose to tell?
Richard Bushman: I think there may be some of that in there. You know, when people tell the story of westward expansion, they talk about aggressive Americans who were encroaching on Indian lands by all sorts of backhanded and misbegotten measures. But I feel a sympathy for both those peoples, and as a Mormon, you know, Indians play a part in our view of human history. They have to be honored. On the other hand, I didn't want to blame little farmers, moving in on their lands, for everything. So instead of saying that this is a melodrama where there's some villains who are destroying a helpless people, the Indians, I see it as a tragedy where two peoples are locked in some kind of a battle in which one of them is going to be destroyed.
Glen Nelson: Right. Back to this Mormon aspect, it's a slippery slope to look at any artwork by a member of the Church and read Mormonism into it. But sometimes you'll slip Mormon things into books that aren't necessarily Mormon. The one example that I have here is your 1992 book, The Refinement of America Persons, Houses, Cities, and you put in the story of Lucy Mack Smith. It's a short experience of Lucy being humiliated by the ladies in town regarding her rustic log cabin living. It's an interesting anecdote to me for two reasons: one, is the Mormonism of it--without making a big deal, you say in the book she's the "mother of prophet Joseph Smith" but don't explain anything more about that, you leave it at that--but the second, the point of the story seems to be Lucy's furious reaction when she responds that although the Smith family doesn't have much, at least what they do have "has not been obtained at the expense of the comfort of any human being." So is that a story that's meaningful to you, personally? Why did that fit into that book?
Richard Bushman: Because it was such a superb example of what I wanted to argue. There's this aspiration for cultivation, and refinement, and respectability, which was difficult to achieve for those who had nothing, but they yearn for it because it was humiliating to feel like they're inferior. The Marxists call it the "permanent insult of class," and I think that had a great impact on Joseph Smith. Some of his boasting comments, I'm the greatest doctor, I'm the greatest lawyer in the world--he'd sometimes in an extravagant mood, he'd come up with--I think revealed something deep about him. He knew he wasn't a great lawyer and doctor. He was just a plain farmer who worked his way up, but he wanted to say, I'm going to be something worthy despite my lacks, in my absence of polish.
Glen Nelson: I don't get the impression reading your books that you're passing judgment on these people, but I do sense a strong feeling of right and wrong, and you're not afraid to call out people. And I wonder if that probably has something to do with how you're raised and how you live your life. Somebody told me once that you gave this lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to these blue-haired patrons, and you made sure that they knew that all of these riches from civilization were constructed on the hands of slaves. Is that true, or do I just want that to be true?
Richard Bushman: That's true. I was talking about the origins of silver, which of course, is a great mark with gentility in those days, and it comes from the mines of Peru, which, where the people are slaved, Indians giving their lives to hauling ore up from the depths of the mines.
Glen Nelson: So moving back to 18th century farmers, the central chapters of your book are really fascinating to me because you uncovered the lives of ordinary folks and link them with some decidedly extraordinary people, all of whom were farmers. I loved the way that you contrasted the Lincolns' and Jeffersons' farms. It was amazing to me. They were neighbors. Tell me about one of these, to me, unknown farmers, Joshua Hempstead. Who is he, and why does he matter?
Richard Bushman: Joshua Hempstead was a third-generation Yankee. His grandfather had settled New London, Connecticut, which was a bustling little seaport on Long Island Sound. He was basically a farmer, but he engaged in trade, he was a stone carver, and he made coffins and windows and all sorts of things. I fell in love with him. He's a person of great integrity, great awareness of the world he lived in. And he navigated it with, I think, aplomb. But the reason I wrote about him was not because he was such a strong figure but because he kept a superb diary. It's the best agricultural diary of the 18th century. So I had to work with it. It would be maybe 10 lines a day, but almost every day. And he talked about everything that was happening, the town, what work he was doing, what were just children were doing, of his dealings with merchants and politicians and so on.
Glen Nelson: What town was this?
Richard Bushman: New London, Connecticut. So it's a document that could be plumbed for a thousand stories. Many, many books could be written out of it because it's all right there.
Glen Nelson: In the book, you don't have a tremendous amount of illustrations, but one page from his diary is there. I'll tell you, Richard, I couldn't make heads or tails out of it. I mean, the calligraphy is beautiful. I mean as an object, I really liked it, but how do you decipher and decode these things?
Richard Bushman: I stand on the shoulders of giants. This book has been very carefully transcribed. It's been published in two editions--the second one, with great annotation. It's been indexed. So right now it's available for any scholar to use quite easily.
Glen Nelson: Well, I'm slightly disappointed. I was visualizing you with a magnifying glass because I was literally staring at this thing for 15 minutes, unable to make out any given sentence. Completely amazing though, to me, the idea that in a single person's life, you can extract a whole colony's worth of experience or a budding country's worth of experience. And one of the things that this book does consistently is toggle back and forth between the macro and micro. You used the term "microhistory" in the text. How does a single diary stand for something larger and was wondering is your end goal to understand that individual or the individual's effect on society?
Richard Bushman: I think I was interested in him as an archetype. In a way, there's a little sleight of hand here because what I do is tell as minutely and with as great detail as I can, how he was living his life, how he's managing his farm, and then imply that these are patterns for people up and down the coast or certainly for New England, without really proving it. To really prove it, I would have to get similar diaries and prove over and over again, but the fact is history is a form of art in that if you give one very powerful example, it sort of remains in the mind and becomes an archetype of the American farmer.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. That's the artfulness of these things--you know, the one thing standing for more. You write, "The national project can be described as Hempstead’s writ large. The creation of America involved the extension of survey lines deeper and deeper into the western wilderness, turning Indian lands into territories, then into tracts, into plots, and finally into farms where families such as Hempstead’s could re-create their lives. The expansive impulse was driven less by raw economic necessity than by a judgment about the good life.” So first of all, the writing is just beautiful, and I'm noticing as people are responding to this book in particular, they're talking about its elegance. How much do you care about that kind of thing, the quality of the stylistic writing?
Richard Bushman: Well, it means a lot to me. I try to write as well as I can, try to listen to the sentences and make sure they're what do I want them to be. I'm not an artist of writing, that is, I'm not self-consciously literary. I'm really just trying to get things down as clearly as I can, make them understandable. That's what drives me.
Glen Nelson: Another thing that they're saying is... they are talking about clarity, that that's something that they're valuing, that this is a book that has some really complicated issues at play that you've made sense of it for people of a historic background or who are just the lay reader. Regarding your audience, how do you see that in the writing process, let's say of this book, who is your audience?
Richard Bushman: It's hard to know, but I'm very much aware of people like Wendell Berry and other modern agrarians who value farm life and want to promote it and protect it. So I'm thinking of them as an audience. I'm trying to give a foundation for that group. But I'm also writing for historians. I want to draw their attention back to farming and say we can't let it get out of focus. We get so absorbed in politics or culture of one sort or another that we lose track, and I also want people to think about how work shapes mentality. That's something we do all the time. Such absorption must be shaping who we are as human beings.
Glen Nelson: For a book to not be dry, you have to sprinkle it with interesting stories and pithy summaries of things. So I was wondering as I started reading the book, I got my little red pencil, and I started to make some notes of just the construction of sentences and phrases and paragraphs, and I went through a bunch of pencils. There's a lot to note. I mean, you're writing with kind of lovely turns of phrase and alliteration and metrics and simile and metaphor--all the sort of things that stylistically add up to poetics. And I wonder if readers give you enough credit as a stylist. I know that you said it's not your primary aim, but it does affect the way that they can grasp the data, right?
Richard Bushman: Yeah. I think that's true. And I think is as time has gone by, I'm willing to relax a little bit from the academic need to prove things. When I was a young writer, the great emphasis was to make the evidence that when I made a claim, the proof was there. Now I'm coming to realize that persuasion is more important than proof, that is, you have to make it graspable and convincing in it's humanity and its truth of presentation. So I guess I've changed a little bit over the years.
Glen Nelson: Well, there's a structure of that technique that you use in the book quite a lot. Let's say you're talking about any given concept, you'll start with some overview, kind of telling the reader what's going to happen and that will be peppered with poetics. I don't even know if you're aware of it, but it's language that feels fresh. It's as if you're allergic to cliché, that it would actually hurt you to type one. And then you lay out the case, and it's relatively formal without being silly that way. And then back to poetics, your summaries tend to be expansive and that end with a punch often, and those tend to involve heightened language. I wonder if that's conscious or you just do it.
Richard Bushman: I'm not aware of the language changing, though I certainly know what you mean, but I am aware that people want to hear from me what I see in it. They don't just want just the story. They want kind of a humane reaction: What does this all mean to us? And so, I am conscious of sort of changing my mood as I come to the end.
Glen Nelson: Let's talk a little bit about the good life since we're talking about fancy things. That's a theme that has popped up in multiple books. So this idea of a good life comes into play in the American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century, but it's at the heart of The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. Maybe somebody could argue too that Joseph Smith's transformation also has to do with this trajectory of aspiration and refinement. Do these three books and you know, maybe your Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, from 1984, too, do they share that theme of aspiration to refinement?
Richard Bushman: It's interesting when you use the words "the good life," I think of Joshua Hempstead who did have cufflinks and a few little signs of gentility for him, good life was hard labor, standing in the community, being a good neighbor, keeping his little town alive, and having property so he could be independent. So there's another kind of good life, and I mention that because when I wrote the Refinement book, there was criticism that it was too much devotion to the fancy pants, to the people who are trying to be slick and beautiful. And this book in a way is a counterpoint to the Refinement book because I'm trying to show the integrity and the fiber of these good farm lives. And they felt they had a good life even without all these adornments. They would do them because it went with their aspirations, the people they were with, but there was something below that. However it is true, I was quite enthralled with refinement for a long, long, long time. I had a grandmother who was the daughter of a German artist and joined the Church in Dresden, moved to the United States, and never was able to be an artist again. He had to become a shoe salesman. And my grandmother, when she was a teenage girl, started to work in a shoe factory, but she never lost that urge for beautiful things. And with her own hands, she would beautify. She would refinish furniture and make her home a beautiful place. So that yearning to surround yourself with beauty is part of our family life. So I've always had an appreciation for people who strove for that.
Glen Nelson: And your parents, did they share that kind of sensibility?
Richard Bushman: They shared the language of it and some of the sensibility. My mother was a pianist. She was an excellent pianist, and we had what they called "fine" things around the house, but we didn't really pursue art. We didn't go to concerts, we didn't go to museums. It was sort of an ideal rather than a practice in our family life.
Glen Nelson: My parents were practically obsessed with this. So we grew up on a farm and they were very skeptical of being seen by others as "less than." And what I noticed is this desire to be cosmopolitan and sophisticated plays out over generations, even. I'm wondering whether refinement and aspiration aren't the link between your books about American history and Mormon history. You said earlier that there was a bridge between the two.
Richard Bushman: Yeah. Joseph Smith, as I've said before, was aware of his low status, and I think one of the ways he shows his awareness is in his interest in military uniforms and military titles. Because being a general or a colonel or even a captain gave you standing in the community, and going along with it was a uniform, a kind of a bearing, a place on a horse. And that military position is linked to the origins of refinement, which is royal courts, so a military title placed in the structure of power was consistent with and adjunct to trying to live with dignity and respect. So I think there, and to a certain extent in the way he handled himself, you could see Joseph Smith striving to be a refined person.
Glen Nelson: Which is not the same as owning loss of stuff. You were writing in the book about these farmers, and when they passed away, they would be leaving a bed, a bed and a chair. It wasn't all about amassing treasurers.
Richard Bushman: Well, the idea of beautifying the home was part of beautifying the soul. The idea is you are to be genteel, inwardly. It's a very beautiful ideal of kindness and respect and knowledge and many other desirable qualities. So the home was just to be an outward expression of this inward soul, and so ideally they would go together. But you can be a gentleman in disguise, and there are many stories told of the young girl with the soft cheek, who even though she is in dire circumstances and lives in poverty, has that inner quality that identifies her as genteel.
Glen Nelson: We've known each other for a long time, and we probably met at church or something, but I used to bump into you all the time out on the town, like at museums and concerts in stage performances. I remember once I went to City Opera at Lincoln Center and there was this rare performance of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, and you were there, and I thought, Why would Richard go to this? And then it occurred to me, he probably went for the same reasons that I went: like, it was now or never to see a rare work like this. But you and Claudia go to see things and experience things quite a lot. Is that one of the reasons why you've stuck around in New York City, just the richness of the city, culturally?
Richard Bushman: Absolutely. We're addicted to New York, to be able to get on the subway and in 20 minutes be in Lincoln Center, the best ballet in the world, the best opera in the world, as good a symphony as you'll find anywhere. That's an incredible luxury. Plus the fact that my wife is very thrifty; she's frugal, and if you've got the possibility of doing all these things, you have to make the most of it. It's your obligation.
Glen Nelson: Would she had been a good farmer?
Richard Bushman: Yes, she would have been a very good farmer.
Glen Nelson: Now you don't have farming in your immediate family though, do you?
Richard Bushman: I have to go back to great grandfathers before they're really farmers.
Glen Nelson: How would you haved fared as a farmer?
Richard Bushman: I actually was a pretty good gardener. I think I would have liked the business of making those plants grow.
Glen Nelson: I didn't love the husbandry side of it, but I did like crops, a lot. The New York Review of Books is running your review of this new book of yours in its September 27th, 2018 issue. The critic Verlyn Klinkenborg calls it "illuminating," and she takes some of the core elements of the book to illustrate points on American history and recent books about gardening and farming and another book about agro-politics. It's the kind of review that I see a lot these days, not so much an appraisal of a single work, but putting it into context with other books that are sort of like it. Are you seeing similar things with book reviews these days?
Richard Bushman: Actually, I haven't seen a single book review except the New York Review of Books, so I'll have to hunt around and find those, but that's the natural inclination of a book reviewer. How does this in enlarge our view or alter our view compared to other words we've had in the field or other works that are coming out.
Glen Nelson: Well and there are so many books that pop up on any given day. Basically, I see reviewers now as almost being curators, trying to point out things, you know, advocates, right? So let's talk a little bit about reviewing. So how do you react to reviews? I mean, let's say, the book was 20 or 30 years in the making. Do you see a review as being a culmination of that process or is it kind of a nonevent, an afterthought for you?
Richard Bushman: Well, I'm of two minds on this, you know, I'm writing this book when I'm old. I'm not bucking for tenure...
Glen Nelson: ...publish or perish days are done.
Richard Bushman: I don't need to write any more books. I think of it as an act of love. So my view is, you know, the book is published, it arrives from the publisher--first copy. I say, "Oh, it'll have to fend for itself." But as soon as someone points out to me that Klinkenborg had mentioned this in a review of books on farming, I'm there reading every word and hanging on it. And I'm sure I'll be hurt or gratified depending on what is said, but my official stance is, "I don't care. I'm above such things." [laughs]
Glen Nelson: Believable or not. Yeah. But the satisfaction--where is the biggest satisfaction in the process, of coming up with an idea, researching, writing the book, sending it off into the world, hearing its reaction?
Richard Bushman: Well, the biggest satisfaction is making the chapters work. You know, I read each chapter 20 or 30 times. I'm just always going through and smoothing it out and so on. And I love that process. I love the writing part of it. I love the conceptual part, when I begin to see what the story really is. But what has made me very happy is to find the reader who understands what I say. That's why hearing from you is very gratifying for me because my great fear is I won't be clear. I want to make myself clear. And when someone actually understands what I'm trying to say, that's, that's the best satisfaction I get.
Glen Nelson: Do you often feel misunderstood or sometimes feel misunderstood?
Richard Bushman: Not necessarily, but I'm afraid I'll be blurry. I have a tendency to repeat myself when I'm writing because I'm afraid you're not gonna get it, and editors have to always point out to me that you're duplicating your work.
Glen Nelson: What is the editorial process? This book is from Yale University Press. The last couple of books have been Knopf, here in the city. Why did you decide to go to Yale and what was the editor's contribution to your book?
Richard Bushman: Well, I had published with Knopf. They're a premier publisher of American history, but they have unusual ways of doing things in that they don't send books out for criticism. They have internal editors who just decide whether or not they like it, and then they publish it. And this was a book I was unsure enough about, I wanted external comments. I really wanted critiques, and I was living in Worcester and talking to a colleague who had taught at Yale. He said, "Why don't you try Yale Press?" So I talked to an editor there and got very good response, very helpful comments, so I just went in that direction.
Glen Nelson: When you had originally done a book proposal and stuff, they said, "Okay, we're thinking that this book should be x number of words," and then you sort of wrote to that thing or, or could you have free reign to do whatever you wanted?
Richard Bushman: No. What happened is I'd written this book as a monograph, that is, detailed, had lots of charts, had all sorts of information, and the editor there, Chris Rogers, told me, "This is a book that may have a wider audience than you think." So he said, "Write it in a way that it's approachable." And he insisted that it be cut by one third. So there are three chapters I had that I thought were pretty good that had to be dropped. So you get this book.
Glen Nelson: Are they going to reappear some place?
Richard Bushman: Maybe. They're worthy. And as time goes by, there's always a chance that they will find an outlet.
Glen Nelson: I was reading the blurbs on the back cover of The American Farmer in the 18th Century, and you have some heavy hitters saying some very nice things like, “brilliant history of rural life,” “meticulously researched and clearly written” “readers will be captivated,” “original, highly readable,” and then this final one, “This is the only scholarly work that takes a multiregional approach to the history of agrarian life in 18th century British America. It is an ambitious and elegantly written study.” Well, you have to like that when people say things like that.
Richard Bushman: Fortunately people are asked to write blurbs know it's their duty to praise the book. So...
Glen Nelson: It's like these early farmers, they do a favor for you. They lend you the plow. Later you're going to have to write their thing.
Richard Bushman: They also know if they don't praise the book, it will not appear on the cover. [laughs]
Glen Nelson: Oh, I see. You've given some lectures recently from research on a book that you're working on now. Do you want to talk about that at all?
Richard Bushman: I'm working on a book that I've had in the back of my mind for quite a while called Joseph Smith's Gold Plates, and it's about a third finished and lots of fun.
Glen Nelson: Any expectation on when the other two thirds will appear?
Richard Bushman: No, that's a forbidden question...
Glen Nelson: ...because, is it based on our worthiness? Well, I want to thank Richard for joining us today. In addition to his full time job as a historian, he's also the co-executive director of the Mormon Arts Center. To my mind, this entire enterprise is owed to him. Thanks for listening everybody. The music you've heard on today's podcast is by Lisa DeSpain, "Parting Hand" from Ephraim's Harp, a 2005 recording of resettings of early American shaped-note singing. It's used with permission. This podcast was recorded on September 19th, 2018 in New York City. Our recording engineer is Robert Willis. I'm your host Glen Nelson. Goodbye.