Thursday, May 3, 2012

Literary Ruralism (Part I): Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

I've decided to start a new series here on Legal Ruralism, a series I'll call Literary Ruralism.  The idea is to showcase literary depictions of rural people and places.  I certainly don't intend to compete with The Art of the Rural--indeed, I do not have the skills to do so.  But as I come across depictions of rurality even in books that are not essentially set in or focused on rural places, I often find myself contemplating the detail of those depictions, considering whether I perceive them to be accurate or not.  So, this is just a collection of those depictions as I come across them.

This first is from Jonathan Franzen's widely acclaimed 2010 novel, Freedom.  Here he describes a place in rural West Virginia that a conservation organization is seeking to purchase for purposes of mountaintop removal, but ultimately to be part of a bird sanctuary.  Thus the land will be exploited, but ultimately "preserved" for wildlife conservation.  Coyle Mathis is the patriarch of the family that owns much of the desired land that the conservation trust is seeking to purchase.
Coyle Mathis embodied the pure negative spirit of backcountry West Virginia.  He was consistent in disliking absolutely everybody.  Being the enemy of Mathis's enemy only made you another of his enemies.  Big Coal, the United Mine Workers, environmentalists, all forms of government, black people, meddling white Yankees:  he hated all equally.  His philosophy of life was Back the fuck off or live to regret it.  Six generations of surly Mathises had been buried on the steep creek-side hill that would be among the first sites blasted when the coal companies came in. 
* * *  
He was willing to give the Mathises and their neighbors as much as $1,200 an acre, plus free land in a reasonably nice hollow on the southern margin of the preserve, plus relocation costs, plus state-of-the art exhumation and reburial of all Mathis bones.  But Coyle Mathis didn't even wait to hear the details.  He said, "No, N-O," and added that he intended to be buried in the family cemetery and no man was going to stop him.   
* * *  
That the Appalachian hardwood forest was along the world's most biodiverse temperate ecosystems, home to a variety of tree species and orchids and freshwater invertebrates whose bounty the high plains and sandy coasts could only envy, wasn't readily apparent from the roads they were traveling.  The land here had betrayed itself, its gnarly topography and wealth of extractable resources discouraging the egalitarianism of Jefferson's yeoman farmers, fostering instead the concentration of surface and mineral rights in the hands of the out-of-state wealthy, and consigning the poor natives and imported workers to the margins:  to logging, to working the mines, to scraping out pre- and then, later, post-industrial existences on scraps of leftover land which, stirred by the same urge to couple ... they'd overfilled with tightly spaced generations of too-large families.  West Virginia was the nation's own banana republic, its Congo, its Guyana, its Honduras.  The roads were reasonably picturesque in summer, but now, with the leaves still down, you could see all the scabby rock-littered pastures, the spindly canopies of young second growth, the gouged hillsides and mining-damaged streams, the spavined barns and painless houses, the trailer homes hip-deep in plastic and metallic trash, the torn-up dirt tracks leading nowhere.   
Deeper in the country, the scenes were less discouraging.  Remoteness brought the relief of no people:  no people meant more everything else.  (p. 358, paperback version)
I didn't say this series was going to be pretty--at least not all the time.

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