Shakespeare, Sickles, and Scythes

A few years ago my longtime Tri-City photographer friend, John Clement, and I found ourselves in the pleasant Hessian village of Schotten, Germany, about forty miles north of Frankfurt, a. M. We were helping to lead a tour of that scenic region and I had special interest in learning about farming practices there past and present. John, who is National Photography Hall of Famer, was quite taken by the colorful exhibits in the towns “Homeland” museum which presented information on rural life in past centuries. Liana Vardi (1993) has documented that since the Early Middle Ages gleaning was one of several essential steps in efficient communal harvest for lord or landowner. The process included cutting grain with sickles (or scythes more commonly after the twelfth century), tying and piling sheaves to dry and gather, gathering lost stalks with rakes, and finally carting the crop by wagon to a barn or shelter. Threshing the stalks to remove the nutritious kernels might take place soon after harvest or during winter.

John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014); Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany

John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014); Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany

That evidence of gleaning in the biblical sense is little known in medieval art or literature is not as much a matter of peasants understanding the ancient concept as the era’s cultural paradigm of communal sufficiency. Although substantially denied prospect of improved economic conditions, serfs nevertheless could expect the essentials of shelter and sustenance, and access to nearby pasture “commons” provided forage for cattle and sheep. Families and small groups could roam “open” forests beyond manorial fields to gather wood for fuel and gather berries, mushrooms and other resources to supplement diets.

Disruption of European cultural patterns during the fourteenth century took place in the wake of periodic crop failures from 1313 to 1321 due to changes in climate, followed by the Black Death of the 1340s. Famine, plague, and pestilence ravaged throughout the continent to render apocalyptic significance to reaper and scythe as harbingers of death, metaphors since ancient times for widespread loss of life. These conditions raised new considerations during the Middle Ages of mortality and the human condition in this present life. The “bending sickle compass [swath]” of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 119 claims all mortal lovers as if stalks of ripened grain, and elsewhere the bard uses sickle and scythe (e.g., Sonnets 100 and 106) to represent Time.

When Bill Murray Met Jules Breton: “Another Chance Every Day”

On a recent train trip through Chicago, I found myself with a couple extra hours between trains at the city’s main railroad terminal. I glanced at a city map and saw that I was only about a ten minute walk from the Chicago Art Institute so braved a brisk wind to take a look. The CAI is well known for its priceless collection of Monet’s Grainstack paintings (more on that someday soon), but what struck me were several images about harvest time gleaning. These evocative images attest to the widespread rural poverty of past centuries and how grateful we can be for many of the conveniences we take for granted.

Given many poor women’s dire circumstances in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern times, they periodically sought to reaffirm the ancient privileges of gleaning. But so did less scrupulous miscreants who sometimes gleaned by night in harvested fields where crops had not yet been completely gathered. King Henry II of France’s Edict of 1554 had blamed, “…a number of scoundrels, both from the city and suburbs and hinterland, [who] make use of such permission and form gangs, and under the pretense of gleaning, steal the sheaves, wheat, and cereals left on the fields….” In these cases, gleaning was no longer an incidental act of charity, but an offense that could significantly threaten crop yields for worker and owner, as well as tithes for the church, seigneurial dues, and taxes for the state. For these reasons, stricter laws were enacted to regulate gleaning, especially in the emerging free market economies of France, Germany, and England.

Jules Breton,  Song of the Lark  (1884), Oil on canvas, 43½ by 33¾ inches, Henry Field Memorial Collection, Chicago Art Institute

Jules Breton, Song of the Lark (1884), Oil on canvas, 43½ by 33¾ inches, Henry Field Memorial Collection, Chicago Art Institute

These conditions suggest other interpretations of scenes sympathetically depicting the saintly qualities of ordinary people in solemn nineteenth century master works by Realists like Millet, Breton, and Léon-Augustin Lhermitte. These artists came of age during a time when European social revolutions spawned a new creative and idealistic spirit. The emergent social awareness and sense of individual dignity regardless of class-bound constraint is reflected in the period’s art and literature that challenged prevailing academic notions of classical aesthetics and subject matter.

The enduring popularity of these depictions is evident in Breton’s timeless Song of the Lark (1884) which garnered the most votes a half-century later in a public poll conducted, ironically, for the 1933-1934 Chicago’s futuristic Century of Progress International Exposition. The painting continues to inspire. Actor Bill Murray credits it with pulling him from despair at a time of particular disappointment early in his career: “I saw it that day and I just thought, ‘There’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects but the sun’s coming up anyway and she’s got another chance.’ I think that gave me some sort of feeling that… you get another chance every day.” Millet’s The Gleaners (1857) may be the genre’s apotheosis, and like his other harmonious compositions shows masterful use of soft forms to portray field laborers, inviting viewers to thoughtful reflection. Claude Monet’s Impressionist canvases of ponds, groves, and gardens inspired early twentieth century French artists Camille Pissarro (who taught both Gauguin and Cézanne), Pierre-August Renoir, and George Seurat to depict forms like sheaves and stacks of grain in highly individualistic patterns of light and color without Romantic moralizing. Monet’s style also greatly influenced Vincent Van Gogh whose synthesis of religious belief with the rustic wonder of the French countryside led to his completion of thirteen large expressionistic paintings of writhing grain fields in thickly layered bright colors that were his final works. 

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 1)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.

For many years I kept a copy of Zane Grey’s novel, The Desert of Wheat (1919), on my bookshelf. I confess it was mostly there because the title had piqued my hope that the famed Western author might have once turned his attention away from Southwestern cowboys to farmers in the Northwest. A few pages into the book confirmed its setting to be on the Columbia Plateau. But encounters on its opening pages with “motor-cars” and labor organizers led me to set it aside in favor of what I thought might be more interesting reads. Only in recent weeks did I return to the book after realizing that Grey had composed it amidst the convolutions of American involvement in World War one hundred years ago. So I pulled it off the shelf again and this time found myself immersed transported through compelling prose to a remarkable time that I found had high relevance to many issues of our present day.

Best-selling author and conservationist Zane Grey (1872-1939) is considered the father of the modern Western novel. He wrote eighty books with nine selling over 100,000 copies in their year of initial publication, including the quintessential Western classic Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) which became a million-seller. Even today sales of his many works typically reach 500,000 copies annually. Grey’s novels and some 300 short stories were known for idealizing the American frontier spirit with archetypal characters inhabiting moral landscapes who exemplified the Code of the West—integrity, friendship, loyalty. British poet John Masefield and Ernest Hemingway considered his writing praiseworthy and others compared allegorical storylines laden with struggle and mystery to the ancient Beowulf saga and Star Wars science fiction trilogy. Though some critics found Grey’s plots to be formulaic, several of his works ventured beyond worlds inhabited by cowboys and desperados to explore contemporary issues, and human influence on landscapes.

Zane Grey’s  The Desert of Wheat  first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of  The Country Gentleman

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat first appeared in a series of articles published in May and June, 1918, issues of The Country Gentleman

Grey and his wife, Dolly, journeyed from their home in Pennsylvania to the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1917 and traveled through eastern Washington in July. That same tumultuous month Alexander Kerensky was named premier of the Russian provisional government after revolutionaries toppled the Romanov monarchy, and a major German World War I counter-offensive commenced on the Eastern Front in Galicia. Grey closely followed world events through newspaper reports sought to incorporate their impact on American national life into his writing. He had been encouraged by The Country Gentleman editor Benton Currie to compose an agrarian-themed story for serialization the following year.

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

Davenport Hotel Hall of Doges, Spokane, c. 1915, Washington State Historical Society

While attending a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in July at Spokane’s opulent Davenport Hotel, Grey and A. Duncan Dunn, regent of the state’s agricultural school in Pullman, discussed the plight of the region’s farmers since Northwest grain markets and labor unrest seemed highly related to unfolding international events. Inspired in part by events in Russia, the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”) sought to organize itinerant harvest laborers throughout the wheatlands in order to hold out for raises from two to three dollars for a customary ten-hour day of intense physical labor tending the annual threshing operations. The Wobblies were strongly opposed by farmers on economic grounds, and many throughout the country considered their socialist leanings a threat the moral and political order. The inland Pacific Northwest was also heavily populated by immigrant farmers of German ancestry from central Europe and Russia. Grey’s story would also explore the tensions within families and communities created by complex relationships between heritage and nationalism.

Zane Grey,  The Desert of Wheat  Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Zane Grey, The Desert of Wheat Manuscript Opening Lines (1917), Library of Congress

Grey’s “The Desert of Wheat” would first appear in several installments of The Country Gentleman in the spring of 1918, and Harper’s published the first of numerous printings in book form in 1919.  His earlier works had been known for vivid descriptions of action and environment, as well as respectful inclusion of Native Americans and minority cultures. This new work appealed to both reviewers and the general public, and opened with lines inspired by his summertime journey across the Columbia Plateau’s vast farming district:  “Late in June the vast northwestern desert of wheat began to take on a tinge of gold, lending an austere beauty to that endless, rolling, smooth world of treeless hills…. The beauty of them was austere, as if the hand of man had been held back from making green his home site, as if the immensity of the task had left no time for youth and freshness. Years, long years, were there in the round-hilled, many-furrowed gray old earth.”

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,”  Country Gentleman Magazine  (May 14, 1918)

Right: W. H. D. Koerner, “The Undulating Sea of Wheat,” Country Gentleman Magazine (May 14, 1918)

Through dialogue about Bluestem and Turkey Red wheats and rattling threshers under the hot harvest sun, the story lauds the hard work and struggles of taciturn Kurt Dorn, son of an elderly German immigrant farmer. Young Dorn faces drought, blight, and the elements in order to support his father, and experiences World War I prejudice and rural labor strife. Although Grey’s characters are not typically prone to mystical reflection, Dorn and protagonist love interest, Lenore Anderson, ponder the significance of change in their own relationship, his  enlistment and brutal experience of European battle, and deeper meanings of wartime damage to culture and conviction. As do few other books in Grey’s considerable corpus, The Desert of Wheat exemplifies his lifelong compulsion to express “Love of life, love of youth, [and] love of beauty.” Dorn and Anderson’s dialogue further attest to the wastefulness of war and Grey’s own ambivalence over conceptions of patriotism and heroism. Literary historian Christine Bold characterizes Lenore Anderson as the personification of humanity’s spiritual core—a “Western version of Ceres,” and like waving heads of grain frequently described she symbolizes renewal amidst an odyssey of life, loss, and land.

A Heritage Grains Adventure Through Europe, Part 1

German Grain Fields and Academy Artists

 After completing my recent trek along California’s El Camino Real and previous Mid-Atlantic exploration of Colonial heritage grains and agrarian art (see blog series here), I turned my attention to Europe as opportunity had arisen through Journey Tours of Wenatchee, Washington, to lead a group on a ten-day Baltic cruise preceded by several days in Germany. A special benefit was that my wife, Lois, was able to join me and also enjoy the fellowship of several longtime friends who accompanied us on the tour that commenced in Frankfurt, a. M. where our group convened for a remarkable summertime adventure. One of our first destinations was the Hessenpark Open Air Museum north of the Frankfurt about twenty-five miles and where over 100 historic buildings, many of them timber-frame structures dating from the 1700s, had been relocated and restored since 1974 in a substantial park covering 160 acres.  Hessenpark is divided into several village sections representing the surrounding state’s several regions, and contains several small farmsteads where heritage grains and fruits are raised. We found Kaiser Wilhelm and King of Pippin apples but I was most interested in the park’s maturing stands of ancient emmer, einkorn, and spelt, grains that are the prehistoric precursors of all heritage grains.

Hessenpark Heritage Grain Plots (left to right): Einkorn, Spelt, Emmer

Hessenpark Heritage Grain Plots (left to right): Einkorn, Spelt, Emmer

The entrance to Hessenpark features a substantial art gallery that showcases paintings, etchings, and other works that depict agrarian experience in central Germany. We learned that Berlin, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich, and other major German cities hosted art academies that became widely known for interpretations of nature and rural life through new approaches to subject, color, and composition. Peter von Cornelius (1784-1867) and Wilhelm von Schadow (1789-1862) served successively as influential directors of the Düsseldorf Academy spanning the decades from 1819 to 1859 when Kunstakademie artists painted finely detailed and often fanciful, allegorical landscapes that significantly influenced many prominent American Hudson River painters including George Caleb Bingham and William Morris Hunt.  Cornelius and van Schadow were among the earliest members of Lukasbund (Brothers of Luke), derisively called The Nazarenes for their close-cropped hair and pious lifestyle, who had banded together in Rome as young men in order to grow spiritually and rediscover the nearly lost techniques used by Renaissance Italian masters for monumental fresco painting.  The Nazarenes chose to paint Old and New Testament religious scenes with timeless messages and selected the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis for their first major commission which was installed as five sections in 1817 for the banqueting hall of Rome’s Palazzo Zuccari (present Bibliotheca Hertziana), residence of the Prussian Consul-General Jacob Bartholdy. Cornelius’s Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream features a shield of grain stalks to represent the young prophet’s explanation of the coming seasons of abundant harvests following by the lean years, and The Seven Years of Plenty by Philipp Veit (1793-1877) shows a seated maiden and children surrounded by fruit and golden sheaves of grain. Known later as the Casa Bartholdy Frescoes, the paintings and their creators became famous and in the 1880s were transferred to Berlin’s National Gallery. 

Casa Bartholdy Frescoes, Philipp Veit,  The Seven Years of Plenty  (1817), Peter von Cornelius,  Joseph Interprets Pharoah’s Dream  (1817), Old National Gallery, Berlin

Casa Bartholdy Frescoes, Philipp Veit, The Seven Years of Plenty (1817), Peter von Cornelius, Joseph Interprets Pharoah’s Dream (1817), Old National Gallery, Berlin