Of Foliage and Farms: The History of Fall in American Culture

The Fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. Its also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

The fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. It also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

Americans love the fall season. Every year when September rolls around, a cavalcade of autumnal objects invades every facet of the landscape, filling up cities, towns, villages and farmhouses like so many occupying corncob cossacks, and we welcome them with open arms — and wallets. The symbols of the fall harvest include pumpkins, apples, corn stalks, hay stacks, squashes, scarecrows, and deciduous foliage lighting up the countryside like timber sparklers; flashing copper, orange, gold, and yellow flares to the bemusement of camera-armed Sunday drivers.

As a people seemingly born with an innate need to shamelessly commodify absolutely anything, Americans have turned fall into a multi-million dollar industry. Each year, they celebrate fall by spending piles of cash at orchards, farms, harvest festivals, and at businesses situated along the foliage-lined byways. Even the booze industry has reaped the rewards of Americans’ love affair with autumn, as fall-themed hard ciders have experienced a mini-renaissance alongside the already exploding craft beer market.

Being the most capitalist-oriented people in the history of history, Americans celebrate ideas by buying things that embody those ideas. Indeed, ideas alone aren’t enough: they need stuff; visual totems that symbolize themes both real and imagined that we can’t seem to completely commodify despite our darndest efforts to do so. And so it is with fall, a season second only to Christmas in its power to unlock our recession-bolted bank accounts in the pursuit of warm, rustic, down-home feelings.

There is, however, a very real historical backdrop that explains why Americans love fall so much. Their cozy relationship with the harvest season can be traced back to the 19th century, in what historian Leo Marx terms the “pastoral ideal,” a vision of rural life characterized by slow-paced, small-scale farming, harmony with nature, and family togetherness.

Marx locates the roots of the pastoral ideal in Americans’ “yearning for a simpler, more harmonious style of life, an existence ‘closer to nature.'” This yearning still infuses life in the U.S.A. via the “soft veil of nostalgia” that “hangs over” our now largely urbanized landscape, an ideological remnant of what Marx calls “the once dominant image of an undefiled, green republic, a quiet land of forests, villages and farms dedicated to the pursuit of happiness.”* In various ways, Americans have spent decades trying to remember and experience that quiet, rural land.

Americans created the pastoral ideal as ideological comfort food that manifested most commonly in a type of rural nostalgia that is still prevalent in 21st-first century culture. As Marx notes, the pastoral ideal can be seen in a distinctly American preference for outdoor leisure activities such as camping, hunting, fishing, gardening, and hiking. It can also been seen in the continued popularity — and bankability — of the fall season, during which we purchase pumpkins, apples, corn stalks and other seasonal reminders of the rural harvest tradition. Of course, now that most people don’t live in rural areas, these objects, some of which take the form of synthetic “fall decor,” are instead taken back to the cities and suburbs, where they act as comforting symbols of an idealized rural lifestyle that most Americans no longer experience on a day-to-day basis.*

As art historian Sarah Burns writes in her book Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture, the pastoral ideal that Marx describes reached its modern form in the 19th century. By referencing the bucolic prints of such artistic luminaries as Winslow Homer, Burns charts the ways Americans used farm imagery to create the ideal of rustic simplicity as an emotional buffer against the turmoil created by the vast cultural and economic shifts that, in the antebellum and post-war eras, transformed the United States from a nation of small-scale family farms to a more industrialized, urbanized capitalist colossus.

Winslow Homer's Boys in a Pasture (1874). Bucolic, isn't it?

Winslow Homer’s Boys in a Pasture (1874). Bucolic, isn’t it?

The pastoral ideal, epitomized in paintings of rural life such as Winslow Homer’s Boys in a Pasture and Harvest Scene, depicted an “idyllic, peaceful, harmonious” rural existence that provided ideological order and comfort in a chaotic world where agricultural was becoming industrialized and urban areas were slowly, but steadily, supplanting small towns and farms as centers of American life.* By the late-19th century, the pastoral ideal served as a form of mental escapism, what Burns calls “a sheltered, pastoral never-never land” for Americans seeking to disassociate themselves from the crowdedness, disease, crime, racial strife, and poverty of urban life.*

Above all else, urban life was faster-paced, more impersonal, and, by definition, less rustic than the romanticized notions of rural America depicted in paintings like those of Homer. Despite their general devotion to capitalist development, Americans have never been able to fully let go of the pastoral ideal because, in many ways, they still haven’t come to terms with the Market Revolution that created the modern United States as we still know it today.

The dynamism of an urban market economy respects no long-held traditions; it has no problem disrupting family connections, and, with its ever-increasing emphasis on high-tech fields, leaves little daily room for bucolic walks amid crunching fall leaves or the simple pleasure of carving pumpkins and picking apples. Of course, Americans now, as was the case in the 19th century, are wary of criticizing even the more unpleasant, tradition-rupturing aspects of their brand of turbo-capitalism. So instead, they’ve used capitalism itself to recreate the pastoral ideal during the fall season.

Thus, every year when the leaves begin to change color and the fruits of the fall harvest appear on store shelves and farm wagons everywhere, Americans embrace the chance to purchase these seasonal wonders and thereby experience a small bit of the pastoral ideal. Fall, of course, has been the traditional harvest season for centuries, but since a largely metropolitan population no longer experiences the fall harvest as a lifestyle, they instead must experience it as consumed nostalgia.

Americans have so effectively and seamlessly integrated the pastoral ideal into modern consumer culture that they’ve created a new niche, “rural tourism,” that seeks to provide a little slice of the bucolic past to the harried populations of America’s urban and suburban office dwellers. As Joanne Steele of Ruraltourismmarketing.com notes in an advice column describing how small-towns can market themselves to urban visitors:

If every small town (and I mean SMALL – 5000 or fewer residents) that is stumbling economically would start their road to revitalization with three words, nostalgia,” connection,” and simple,” they could discover their own road back.

Every article I read on successful agritourism operations talk about how their success is built on offering a nostalgic experience, giving visitors an opportunity to connect with a simpler way of life.

What about your small town can give a visitor an nostaligic [sic] experience and an opportunity to connect with a simpler way of life?

Especially in Small Town America, the fall harvest just oozes nostalgia.

Especially in Small Town America, the fall harvest just oozes nostalgia.

The promise of experiencing — however fleetingly — the “simple “life of the pastoral ideal, has become yet another American marketing tool, and it works best during the fall season, when millions of nostalgia-starved metropolitan pilgrims emigrate to the countryside to reap the autumn harvest. For a good many urban folks, there’s no escaping the pastoral ideal; the history behind it is too rich, too embedded in the culture, and perhaps there really isn’t any good reason to escape it anyway.

Americans are becoming increasingly disassociated from the natural world, a trend that threatens to socially separate humans from nature even as they remain a biological part of nature. The separation from the natural world has all kinds of negative ramifications, ranging from a disregard for environmental issues to obesity. If the continued importance of the pastoral ideal keeps bringing people out to experience fall’s plenty in the form of foliage drives, pumpkin festivals, orchard excursions, and other activities in bucolic environs — then all for the better.

So enjoy fall’s splendor, even it means acting the part of a weekend urban tourist pouring your dollars into apple bushels and scarecrow chotchkies. Doing so may help keep the pastoral ideal alive for another century.

* See Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 6.

* See Sarah Burns, Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 1-20, 83, 313.

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