From GENE LOGSDON
Nothing annoys me like news stories and biographies that refer to the “humble beginnings” of famous people who grew up on the farm. This kind of talk is meant to sound faintly praiseworthy, intimating that only by superhuman effort could a person pull himself or herself out of the clodhopper and hick backwaters of society and achieve success. Rarely if ever does the silken hand of literature say that such and such a president or industrialist or writer or inventor or whatever became great and famous BECAUSE he or she grew up on the farm. I love what the Farm Journal magazine editorialized way back in 1893: “That bright boy, as full of questions and ideas as he is of mischief, has in him the material for making a stirring, successful farmer. Answer his questions patiently, interest him in the farm work and business by taking him into your confidence and giving him something to do and to think about. As to the dull boy… he can be a lawyer and a politician.” That attitude carried through at the Farm Journal even into the 1960s and 70s when I worked there. I mentioned once to my boss, Lane Palmer, that The New Yorker, surely one of our most literary publications, was my favorite magazine. He snorted. “Way too longwinded. None of those writers could ever sell us a story.” You just can’t get any more prideful that that.
There was nothing humble about most of us who grew up on farms. In fact we were inordinately proud of being sons and daughters of the soil and still are. When she was young, my mother (who loved The New Yorker too) wrote a beautiful essay about how great it was to be a farmer, and we, her children lapped up every word of it. In school we looked down our noses at “town pups” even as they called us “rednecks.” We gave no quarter in the realm of pride and prejudice and still don’t. If anything we are way too proud. I pity the poor savant of the university system or of Manhattan society who would blunder into our very country neighborhood today and repeat within earshot of my sisters that grand old ivory tower notion about how rural people are too provincial in their outlook.
Perhaps our “attitude” was more arrogant than humble because although we were far from rich, many of us had grandparents who were quite wealthy in their day. They farmed profitably at the height of the agrarian heyday from about 1880 to 1920. In our family, that money was all gone by my time, darn it anyway, but we inherited a landed-gentry attitude toward society rather than the bowed head of humble peasants. Also, here in our little part of the world at least, the country children happened to be smarter on average than our village classmates. (Well, I warned you that we are anything but humble and that proves it.) We generally scored higher grades and so all that talk leveled at us about being dumb yokels sounded arcane and inane and we became quite proficient at making the non-yokels who tried to do the leveling look even stupider than they were.
My theory is that rural people, peasants if you will, have always been plenty smart enough. Witless humans just can’t and never could be successful at farming. But because the peasants shunned and even ridiculed higher education and its regimentation (PhD meant to us “piled higher and deeper”), they did not pick up the language and fashions of the urban world and so they looked and sounded stupid by comparison. And before frequent bathing came into vogue, they sometimes smelled of barn manure.
Of course today the tables have turned considerably and successful farmers are both educated and fashion-conscious unfortunately, and some of them as wealthy or as land poor as the old southern plantation owner. Some of these humble beginners stand to inherit a bunch of money unless the corn market collapses. But if they keep on farming, their money will soon enough be gone if they are brainless and so their “humble beginnings” will come to humble endings. I like to tell about one of my good friends, now departed, who inherited some 4000 acres of land free and clear. When I would get on one of my high horses about the filthy rich, he would respond with a meek and complaining voice: “Gene, it’s not my fault I was born rich.” Then he would pause and add. “Being rich in farming means nothing because you can lose it all in a hurry if you don’t manage correctly and don’t have a little luck.”