Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Abby L. Goode's "Agrotopias"

Abby Goode is Associate Professor of English at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She is the author of Agrotopias: An American Literary History of Sustainability (2022). Goode's research appears in venues such as Early American Literature, ESQ, Studies in American Fiction, Hybrid Pedagogy, and American Studies in Scandinavia. Her work has been supported by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the American Antiquarian Society, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, and the First Book Institute at the Center for American Literary Studies at Penn State. She teaches courses in American literature, critical theory, and environmental humanities.

Goode applied the Page 99 Test to Agrotopias and reported the following:
“If agrotopias are ultimately sites of racial perfection, then only the best, most carefully selected settlers can populate and cultivate this fertile landscape.”

This quotation, pulled from page ninety-nine of Agrotopias: An American Literary History of Sustainability, refers to Martin Delany’s early Black nationalist writings and agrotopian visions. But it could easily refer to other, diverse visions of agricultural perfection outlined in the book—visions ranging from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ecofeminist Herland (1915) to Whitman’s eugenic poetry to Thomas Jefferson’s schemes for establishing freed Black colonies beyond U.S. bounds. Agrotopias are, at bottom, fantasies of escaping an unsustainable world, starting over in a landscape ripe for cultivation and agrarian living. Though seemingly progressive, agrotopian visions depicted racial perfection and so-called population improvement as the path to sustainability.

But page ninety-nine is also distinctive: it examines Black emigrationist plans to establish an independent nation on the shores of Africa, far away from the oppressive and unsustainable U.S. To be clear, Delany and other emigrationists differ from other writers examined in this book. Rather than attempt to recover a mythic American agrarian ideal, one that ignores enslaved and free Black labor, they offer a version of early sustainability thinking that centers Black self-determination. Moreover, this page—indeed this entire middle chapter—marks an important pivot point in Agrotopias. The first two chapters focus on dystopian depictions of unsustainability, reproductive chaos, and agricultural decline. But this middle chapter shifts focus and examines agrotopian futures—imagined elsewheres, new “New Worlds”—more directly. In so doing, it also critiques the white supremacy inherent in Jeffersonianism, centering the labor of enslaved and freed Black peoples that long sustained the “New World.” Page ninety-nine, then, exemplifies the book’s argument, but importantly diverges from the white-centered agrotopian visions discussed in other chapters.
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--Marshal Zeringue