Reliving the Saga of the Land that Was Ours

GEORGE F. WILL

August 29, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington -- This Labor Day, take to a hammock with Charles Bailey's new novel of the Great Plains, ''The Land Was Ours.'' You will rise refreshed from revisiting the drama of Americans who labored on the land 100 years ago.

In America's tradition of regional fiction, Willa Cather's Nebraska novels have an enviable niche. Now Mr. Bailey enriches the genre with the story of 65 years of the life of Dan Woods, a South Dakota journalist.

Ms. Cather found 19th-century Nebraska hard and ''bare as a piece of sheet iron.'' The prodigies of American agriculture have made the Plains so fertile we forget how recently the Plains ''seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes.''

Woods' parents move to South Dakota, and to town, when overwhelmed by Nebraska's droughts, blizzards, hail and, finally, grasshoppers that came as a white cloud shimmering like snow in the sunlight, a moving carpet that in an hour stripped a farm, even chewing leather harnesses.

Mr. Bailey takes Woods from boyhood to death in 1938, through the nation's great conflict between country and city, when politics was a cockpit of controversy about America's changing character. Mr. Bailey weaves in historic figures and their words (William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Hanna, Sam Rayburn, journalist William Allen White and Mary Lease, the jTC agrarian firebrand whose rallying cry was, ''You farmers need to raise less corn -- and more hell!'')

But Mr. Bailey is telling America's story from the bottom up, a story that turns on the agrarian revolt of the 1890s. Then the nation, so recently divided between North and South, suffered bitter strife between rural Americans wanting free trade and cheap money and the industrial interests wanting tariffs and ''sound money.''

The political passions of the 1990s seem synthetic and only shallowly felt when compared with those of the 1890s. At that time there was the compounded bitterness that politics acquires when material and moral anxieties coincide.

The West needed capital and railroads. The East controlled both. Declining farm prices meant that an increased number of bushels of wheat were required to repay loans to ''soft-handed, smooth-talking'' Easterners. And there was an aching sense of moral, as well as material, loss.

It has been said that America was born claiming perfection and promising progress. It was born on the farm and moved to town, leaving behind the Jeffersonian vision.

The Louisiana Purchase and restrictions on expansion of slavery were supposed to guarantee a vast inland empire of small farmers perpetually renewing the young Republic's yeoman virtues of independence and self-sufficiency. But the nature of 19th-century America -- huge tracts of land to be cultivated, a labor shortage -- spurred the mechanization of agriculture. This increased production, and price fluctuations, and debts.

Farmers saw their economic, political and social standing decline. Their independence and self-sufficiency were, by other names, loneliness and vulnerability forced upon them by bad roads and bad communications and cycles of overproduction, declining prices, failure and foreclosure.

Without belaboring the point, Mr. Bailey makes it: Big, activist government was not only, or initially, a response to urban industrialism. Forty years before the New Deal, rural populism was America's first powerful political movement to insist that the federal government has broad, ameliorative responsibilities.

Government responded: rural free delivery, rural electrification, paved roads (as late as the 1920s, most of South Dakota was untravelable during rainy springs), regulation of railroads and grain elevators and the then-radical policy of commodity price parity -- an economic entitlement, a harbinger of the welfare state.

Historians have argued heatedly about whether consensus or conflict is the dominant feature of American history. Actually, there is remarkable consensus about the cultural values of capitalist individualism; there is constant conflict between economic interests. And Mr. Bailey's novel suggests that while economic conflicts occur in a context of consensus about capitalist values, the economic conflicts often reinforce deep disagreement about other political values, such as those at issue in the transformation of Jefferson's America into today's.

Mr. Bailey shows how close we still are to the time when rural life had a crushing rawness. One day in May, 1934, a dust storm stretching from Texas to Canada and soaring 15,000 feet blew east. Dust settled on FDR's desk and on ships hundreds of miles out on the Atlantic. By December, two of every five South Dakotans were on relief -- the nation's highest percentage. In July 1935, the grasshoppers returned.

This Labor Day, Mr. Bailey's book, a loving hymn to those who surmounted such hardships, brings back to life an era when there were political passions commensurate with America's problems and purposes. We cannot be reminded too often, or more pleasantly than Mr. Bailey does it, how much labor went into the making of the country in which this Monday we take our ease.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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