Flipsides of Pastoral in “Transcendental Wild Oats”

“Transcendental Wild Oats,” by Louisa May Alcott, is a sardonic and fascinating tale that puts a spin on the pastoral trope of ecocriticism. In what we have read so far this semester, the pastoral trope shows up as this kind of idyllic world where everyone works hard and raises non-sectarian children and lives the life of a free American.

Alcott explores the various facets of the pastoral ideal, the first of which is that her entire tale is threaded with a thinly veiled warning of what happens when one is not hard-working as a farmer – she implies that being a farmer takes diligence and knowledge, and criticizes those who think they can live the pastoral ideal without proper knowledge. For example, the group of men who plant the garden do not plant it in the right order with the proper seeds or fertilizer, so “few of these vegetable treasures came up. Purslane reigned supreme, and the disappointed planters at it philosophically, deciding that Nature knew what was best for them, and would generously supply their needs, if they could only learn to digest her “sallets” and wild roots.” (36-7). Her dripping sarcasm points out that philosophy is not the way to go about living the hard-working life of an American. This excerpt is interesting, because it also subtly discredits any notions that humans can live off the wilderness – that the wilderness must be tamed and used for human interests if humans are to survive and thrive at all.

What I find fascinating, though, is that while Alcott glorifies the pastoral ideal, she also discredits it as well. Her characters seems to be aiming for that pastoral utopia of hardworking, land-owning, farming Americans, but in the end she seems to say that this ideal is impossible. When Abel fails at his farm, Alcott writes, “He had tried, but it was a failure. The world was not ready for Utopia yet, and those who attempted to found it only got laughed at for their pains” (42). If Crevecoeur painted a fantasy pastoral world of America, then surely Alcott is confronting those notions…. all of those notions – the good and the bad. And maybe Alcott does not endorse an idyllic world or a utopian world… just a real world. As Abel’s wife points out quite simply and straightforwardly, “‘While there is work and love in the world we shall not suffer'” (45). Maybe that is all that we can aspire for – work and love – and that is the real utopia.

Alcott, Loisa May. Loisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology. Ch/Art: Transcendental Wild oats p. 28-45. pub. Doubleday Sept 1997

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by teagueoreagan on November 10, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Reading this story as an attack on pastoralism is, I believe, correct yet there is an additional criticism that I believe is being made. There seems to be an attack on high minded idealists (transcendentalist Utopians in particular) for an inability to live up to their ideas likely owing to Alcott’s experiences during her youth. When asked about the cultivation of the field, Abel says “‘We shall spade it,’ replied Abel, in such perfect good faith that Moses said no more, though he indulged in a shake of the head as he glanced at hands that had held nothing heavier than a pen for years” (Alcott, 33). The author makes it obvious that Abel has no idea what he is talking about and for all his postulation of morals there exists no consciousness of what the words he is saying actually mean–what the full, long-term implications are of his doctrine. This is exemplified in the passage where said “spading” commences “The band of brothers began by spading garden and field; but a few days of it lessened their ardor amazingly. Blistered hands and aching backs suggested the expediency of permitting the use of cattle till the workers were better fitted for noble toil by a summer of the new life” (Alcott, 36). Already after a few days they have lost what they were seeking. They are not just magically going to become “better fitted” without daily toil in the fields which they have shrunk away from already. Alcott is positing that one of the problems with the Utopian community are the sort of people that found and are attracted to them. People with all sorts of bright ideas and deep convictions that are abandoned at the first sight of the hard work they claim to be seeking.

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