Impersonating a Farmer

1972 Farm Journal, by Oakes Plimpton ’54 (iUniverse)

Reviewed by William H. Pritchard ’53

[Diary] This “Back-to-the-Land Movement Story,” as Oakes Plimpton’s subtitle has it, began in 1971, when he joined two recent Amherst graduates—Ira Karasick ’69 and George Jacobs ’68—and some other young men and women to locate themselves on an upstate piece of farmland, house and barn in Willet, N.Y. At that time Plimpton’s father, Francis, was a trustee at the college, while his uncle, Calvin, would soon conclude his years as president. His older brother, George, had begun to write books about his impersonations of various professional athletes (Paper Lion, etc.), and Oakes, tired of working in conservation law, decided, as it were, to impersonate a farmer. Having conveniently inherited some money from stocks, he helped translate the idea of a communal life into reality. In an introduction to this book, Dan Keller ’69 writes of the “ram­bunctious, ebullient, idealistic and explosive energy” of that time in the early ’70s when some college graduates, instead of becoming doctors and lawyers, chose to live close to nature, growing much of the food they consumed. The literary critic William Empson would have called it a Version of Pastoral; Oakes Plimpton decided he had “found something positive to relate to.”

The book contains photographs, reminiscences and recent tributes from some of the former farm members. But its main interest is Plimpton’s journal, running from May 1971, when he takes up residence on the farm, to his departure around Halloween, when he falls off a stepladder and fractures his ankle (“Fortunately his head was spared,” writes his friend Karasick). The less-than-heroic accident suits Plimpton’s overall presence in the journal: eager, unapologetic, guileless, sometimes puzzled and uncertain about whether he should have stuck “to words and paper and things like a Victorian house in the suburbs with garden, and like tennis anyone?” There is occasional strife in the Willet community as people come and go; there are arguments about male-female relationships (Women’s Lib had recently burst onto the scene) and whether their enterprise was essentially a farm or a commune. Plimpton appears to be well-liked but is “baffled” when two of the girls “seem to really like him.” An enviable situation, one might have thought, but he can’t “reciprocate, not without trying to be into a 50s thing, which I wasn’t any good at anyway—liquor, dirty jokes, secrets, intense private relations.”

But mainly it’s a genial tone that prevails in the diary, as on the day he drives the John Deere tractor to spread chicken fertilizer, “some of it flying into my hair, still picking it out of my hair at supper though dry by then.” Food is central to the story: A really good dinner made by one member consists of “brown rice, adzuki beans, soybeans, a wild salad—wild mustard greens”; another features “milkweed (good), horse radish greens ... and nettle tea (not so good).” When it’s Plimpton’s turn to cook dinner he serves up “brown rice and tuna, beet greens sauteed ... and hominy grits for dessert with maple syrup—all really good save tuna not so great.” (It must not have been canned tuna, which is always good.) As a carnivore, many of these tasty items gave me food for thought, although for thought only. But life was not all “veggies” (a vile word invented at the time), since pot, beer and hashish were not absent from some evenings. Plimpton wonders at one point whether, at age 39, he ought not to be consorting with people his own age and experience; the question is resolved only by the crucial fall from the ladder, an expensive operation (he had no medical insurance) and weeks in a cast.

A young woman from the farm writes him 37 years after the experience, recalling with affection, among other things, “all that chicken shit we shoveled and spread.” Plimpton’s Farm Journal gave me a vivid sense of something I’m not sorry to have missed but found most appealing to read about.

Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst. He has a new book of literary essays and reviews, What’s Been Happening to Jane Austen.