The University of Wisconsin Press

U.S. History / Environmental Studies

Back to the Land
The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America
Dona Brown

Studies in American Thought and Culture
Paul S. Boyer, Series Editior

Best Books for General Audiences, selected by the American Association of School Librarians

“What a splendid account of a movement that’s usually caricatured. It taught me a lot about my state of Vermont, but also about the political and committed history of back-to-the-landers across American history. Forget your stereotype of the rugged individualist: this story turns out to be a lot more interesting than that!”
—Bill McKibben, author of Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

For many, “going back to the land” brings to mind the 1960s and 1970s—hippie communes and the Summer of Love, The Whole Earth Catalog and Mother Earth News. More recently, the movement has reemerged in a new enthusiasm for locally produced food and more sustainable energy paths. But these latest back-to-the-landers are part of a much larger story. Americans have been dreaming of returning to the land ever since they started to leave it. In Back to the Land, Dona Brown explores the history of this recurring impulse.

Back-to-the-landers have often been viewed as nostalgic escapists or romantic nature-lovers. But their own words reveal a more complex story. In such projects as Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Farms, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Broadacre City,” and Helen and Scott Nearing’s quest for “the good life,” Brown finds that the return to the farm has meant less a going-backwards than a going-forwards, a way to meet the challenges of the modern era. Progressive reformers pushed for homesteading to help impoverished workers get out of unhealthy urban slums. Depression-era back-to-the-landers, wary of the centralizing power of the New Deal, embraced a new “third way” politics of decentralism and regionalism. Later still, the movement merged with environmentalism. To understand Americans’ response to these back-to-the- land ideas, Brown turns to the fan letters of ordinary readers— retired teachers and overworked clerks, recent immigrants and single women. In seeking their rural roots, Brown argues, Americans have striven above all for the independence and self-sufficiency they associate with the agrarian ideal.

Although not the cover image, this is a photo of the author, Dona Brown, in a greenhouse, holding a plant.Dona Brown is associate professor of history at the University of Vermont and author of Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century.<


“Brown's deep understanding of one region strengthens the book and allows her to explore beyond it with confidence.”
Journal of American History

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The cover of Brown's book is orange-brown, with a photo of a boy harvesting beans.

June 2011

LC: 2010038899 HT
296 pp.   6 x 9   21 b/w illus.

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Paper $27.95 a
ISBN 978-0-299-25074-4
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"A compelling work of extraordinary richness — a singular quilt of Americana concerning those who lived the ever-changing
back-to-the-land movement and those who wrote about it as well. Cultural and
agricultural history are happily wed here.”
—Michael Kammen, Cornell University

A useful corrective to the idea that the country living movement is strictly an effort to get right with Mother Earth.
The Wilson Quarterly
Autumn 2011



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