Agrotopias: Professor Abby Goode Investigates an Unsettling Vision

“Sustainability” is an in-vogue concept associated with environmental health, social equity, and economic vitality, but it also carries much darker historical overtones. Professor Abby Goode, whose scholarship encompasses food, agriculture, and the environment, is tracing these disquieting ties in her upcoming book, Agrotopias: An American Literary History of Sustainability.

Goode points out that we tend to assume sustainability to be a relatively contemporary notion, but it actually has a long-running, complex, and multilayered history. “My project is focusing on the role of American literary history in shaping sustainability’s influence on our contemporary world,” she says.

Professor Abby Goode

Goode specializes in early and nineteenth-century American literature, sustainability studies, transnational American studies, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Now in her fifth year at Plymouth State, she appreciates the University’s supportive environment. “PSU is the perfect place to do this,” she says. “Right away in my first year, my English Department colleagues encouraged me to create a new course called Eating American Literature, which built upon my PhD work. The class explored the literature of food, agriculture, and the environment.”

Course subjects included examining Thomas Jefferson’s continuing influence vis-à-vis the history of local farming. “Students have really helped me to examine his fraught and entangled legacy,” says Goode.

The interdisciplinary aspect of PSU’s Cluster learning model is also beneficial. “Cluster learning requires us to take an integrative approach to our work,” she notes.

Jefferson was an outspoken proponent of the United States remaining an agrarian democracy, guided by small farming communities. Goode maintains that this vision was inextricably intertwined with exclusionary racial and reproductive concepts, and that environmentalist, racist, and eugenic discourses can be seen in American literature long after Jefferson’s passing.

“Jefferson was very concerned about the potential emancipation of slaves,” says Goode. “He imagined that freed Blacks would live in separate ‘settlements,’ which shows that black/white separation was foundational to his small farming utopian vision.”

“In my book proposal, I pointed out that there are ‘two Jeffersons’ in our historical memory,” she continues. “He was not just a founding father but also a founding farmer. And many scholars view him as a founder of scientific racism. He was also a slave owner and fathered at least six children with enslaved mistress Sally Hemmings.” 

“Agrotopia” is a new term that Goode coined to describe imaginary sites of sustainability. “They are literary fantasies of reproductively controlled, racially homogeneous, sustainable utopias,” says Goode. Societal pressures provide the impetus. “In the United States, for example, crises such as the Civil War and Reconstruction gave rise to serious discussions of who should be allowed to stay in the US, and who might establish agrotopias elsewhere.”

“Both Presidents Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt are remembered for their environmental legacies, but they also espoused racist and eugenic ideas,” she says. “This intersection also appears in genres such as wilderness literature, in which some works celebrate the ideals of protecting purity and so-called virgin landscapes.”

Goode’s research references a wide range of literary figures, including authors Walt Whitman and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’s Barbara Kingsolver; “Africa for Africans” advocate Martin Delany; Sutton Griggs, who envisioned a separate, utopian Black state within the US; and influential feminist writer and eugenicist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

“It’s important to remember that the utopian part of agrotopia is a fantasy,” says Goode. “Pure sustainability, in whatever form, is not likely to be achieved—it’s just more complicated than writers want us to believe, and ‘dystopias’ are just as likely to work within utopian ideals.”

This year, Professor Goode has received scholarly grants for Agrotopias from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). “Both provide meaningful support as I work toward accomplishing my academic goals and career aspirations,” she says.

Agrotopias is under advance contract with the University of North Carolina Press.