As an enthusiast of classic literature, Old Books by Dead Guys loves to review epic novels. Just because a story is epic, however, doesn’t mean it has to be set in ancient Rome, a war-torn battlefield, or outer space. Some of the best epics take place right at home on the farm. In these “peasant” epics, hard-working multigenerational families carve a living from the soil while contending with poverty, family conflicts, and the unforgiving elements. Such books often bear a strident message of social justice, the dignity of labor, and in some cases perhaps even hints of socialist revolution. Every nation’s literature has got to have at least one great agrarian epic. Realist writers of all nations have captured the heroic drama in the daily life of their homeland’s agriculturalists. Today at Old Books by Dead Guys, we celebrate the literature of “earth,” “soil,” and “dust,” listed below in chronological order. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.
Sons of the Soil (Les Paysans, 1855) by Honoré de Balzac (France) - 3.5 stars
This is Balzac’s final novel, also known as Les Paysans or The Peasantry. The story takes place in the Burgundy region of France and focuses on the antagonism between a land-owning count and the peasants of his district. Rather than glamorizing farming life, Balzac approaches the story from an aristocratic perspective that makes the poor farmers the villains of the story. The plot is like a comical chess game in which the peasants try everything they can think of to rob, cheat, or swindle their landlord. Not exactly the message one usually looks for in an agrarian epic, but it does make for one entertaining novel.
Virgin Soil (1877) by Ivan Turgenev (Russia) - 4 stars
Virgin Soil is Russian realist Ivan Turgenev’s final novel. This is not really a peasant epic, but it does deal with agricultural life. The narrative takes place in the 1860s, at a time when a populist movement was gaining influence in Russia. Urban middle-class intellectuals venture out into the farmlands to preach socialist ideas to workers and the rural poor, hoping to inspire a revolution against the feudal system maintained by the Tsarist government. Like Balzac above, however, Turgenev’s depiction of these revolutionaries is quite unflattering and satirical. Though the main focus of the novel may be political, it does provide a vivid depiction of rural life in Russia.
The Earth (La Terre, 1887) by Emile Zola (France) - 5 stars
The official opinion of Old Books by Dead Guys is that Emile Zola is the world’s greatest novelist, and this is his second greatest novel, after Germinal. The Earth takes place in the Beauce, an agricultural region between Chartres and Orleans, where families have cultivated the same plots of land for generations. When one of these veteran farmers, Old Fouan, feels himself ready for retirement, he divides up his holdings among his three children. Not one of them, however, is happy with the portion he receives, which leads to animosity and treachery. Zola’s depiction of farm life is gritty and unglamorized. He captures both the dirty, exhausting toil and the spiritual satisfaction of agriculture in a range of moods from the terrifying to the hilarious. A masterpiece.
Emanuel, or Children of the Soil (1896) by Hendrik Pontoppidan (Denmark) - 4.5 stars
This is one of only a few works available in English by Pontoppidan, a Nobel Prize winner. The story takes place in rural Denmark in the late nineteenth century. As in Turgenev’s Virgin Soil, discussed above, the proliferation of liberal democratic ideals has begun to undermine the authority of the conservative aristocracy and the Church. A new young priest arrives in a seaside parish in rural Denmark. Rather than adopt the party line of his church, he sympathizes with the peasants and bears a romantic image of the farming life as a more honest and natural way of living. Such liberal ideals infuriate his superiors and threaten his career in the clergy. Through expert descriptive prose, Pontoppidan delivers an authentic slice of Danish rural life.
The Octopus (1901) by Frank Norris (California, USA) - 5 stars
Although it doesn’t have “Earth” or “Soil” in its title, The Octopus is one of America’s greatest agricultural epics. It concerns the lives of wheat farmers in Tulare County, California. Based on a real-life incident, the Mussel Slough Tragedy (1880), this novel tells the story of a violent conflict between the farmers of this community and an all-powerful railroad corporation (the “octopus” referenced in the title). In his portrayal of the rural landscape and agricultural life, Norris displays an extraordinary faculty for natural description and an exceptional talent for drawing gripping scenes of ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances. If you’re looking for the Great American Novel, this is it.
The Peasants (four volumes, 1904-1909) by Wladyslaw Reymont (Poland) - 5 stars
This lesser-known Polish novel just might be the gold standard by which all peasant epics must be measured. The Peasants (Polish title: Chlopi) was published in four volumes, one for each of the seasons of the year: Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer must be read in order. Over the course of that fictional year, the reader becomes intimately involved in the lives and loves of the residents of the rural town of Lipka. The children of the village’s most prosperous farmer, Mathias Boryna, want him to step down and divide his land among his descendants, but he scoffs at them by marrying a young bride, thus inciting family conflict. Similar in style and subject matter to Zola’s The Earth (see above)—it’s a toss-up as to which of these two epics is the greater work of literature.
Growth of the Soil (1917) by Knut Hamsun (Norway) - 5 stars
This is a masterful peasant epic from Nobel laureate Hamsun. A solitary figure, heavily laden with supplies, trudges into the Norwegian wilds, a day’s walk from the nearest village. He selects a plot of land, cuts the timber, and begins turning the soil. One day a woman comes. Together as man and wife they carve out a living from the earth and build a home, a farm, and a family around which a community forms. Bad influences from the city, however, threaten the peace of their agrarian life. This novel is a truly powerful and moving reading experience.
Dust (1921) by Marcet and Emanuel Haldeman-Julius (Kansas, USA) - 5 stars
Written by Mr. and Mrs. Haldeman-Julius, who ran America’s largest publisher of socialist literature from a little town in Southeastern Kansas. Dust is set in that very region and depicts agricultural life in hard-scrabble, unromantic terms. The novel’s primary concern, however, is a dysfunctional marriage between a husband who believes hard work, livestock, land, and profits are all that’s valuable in life and a wife who longs for love, happiness and beauty while condemned to a life of unrelenting toil. The setting may be reminiscent of Willa Cather, but the story bears the brutal naturalism of one of Frank Norris or Emile Zola’s darker works. A Kansas classic!
The Good Earth (1931) by Pearl S. Buck (USA, raised in China) - 5 stars
Pearl S. Buck, though born in America, was raised by missionary parents in China. Her second novel, The Good Earth, took the Western world by storm, for it was the first authentic literary peek behind the silk curtain of Chinese life. Wang Lung and his wife O-Lan start out as poor farmers in a mud-brick house, but through hard work, personal sacrifice, and a little luck, their family gradually rises from humble beginnings to a position of security and status. The story spans the first few decades of the early twentieth century, including scenes of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Though steeped in Chinese culture, The Good Earth transcends time and place with universal themes of love, family, pride, and greed. This is the first volume in a trilogy, followed by Sons and A House Divided.
Of course, you can’t really talk about peasant epics without mentioning John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). I have not read that book in the last eight years, so it hasn’t been reviewed at Old Books by Dead Guys. I do have a copy and hope to get to it in 2020.
Judging from their titles, these books might sound like agrarian epics, but in fact they are not:
Shallow Soil (1893) by Knut Hamsun (Norway) - 4.5 stars
Although this is a very good novel by Hamsun, it is not about “soil” or anything remotely agricultural. It is a story of modern urban life in late-nineteenth century Kristiania (present-day Oslo). I believe Hamsun uses the title Shallow Soil as a critical metaphor for the lack of national spirit necessary for Norway to develop into a great nation. (His opinion, not mine.)
Children of the Soil (1894) by Henryk Sienkiewicz (Poland) - 1 star
This is a terrible novel and again has very little to do with farming. Some of the characters do own agricultural lands, which peasants farm for them. This is a book about rich people’s problems, however, and a depressingly grueling examination of the institution of marriage.
The Native Soil (1957) by Alan E. Nourse (USA)
This is actually a science fiction novel about a planet made of mud. Definitely not a peasant epic.