Allan C. Carlson, The Natural Family Where It Belongs: New Agrarian Essays (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2014)
Scholars, the journalists of history, already know the questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? Those are easy. Sometimes the answers are, too: President Abraham Lincoln. The Emancipation Proclamation. January 1, 1863. All parts of the United States currently in rebellion. By his authority as commander-in-chief. As a war measure to weaken the South.
Or are they?
Factually, those answers seem easy, but whole books have been written about the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, whole articles and chapters and blog posts have been written about just that last, “simple” answer, not to mention the other five.
Easy answers rarely suffice and are ultimately unsatisfying, especially if they seem unorthodox or unexpected to a significant portion of the audience. If the goal, then, is to arrive at sufficient and satisfactory answers, then Dr. Allan Carlson is truly a gifted scholar. And if his answers seem unorthodox or unexpected, perhaps we ought to change our expectations and our definition of “orthodoxy.”
If plugged into the question-and-answer model above, The Natural Family Where It Belongs really serves as a sequel, answering Where?, How?, and Why?. Carlson (with Dr. Paul T. Mero) answered Who?, What?, and When?, with a volume entitled The Natural Family: A Manifesto (published in various forms in 2005, 2007, and 2008).
Who? The natural family (husband and wife, married for life, with their children).
What? Foundation of society and economy; bulwark of liberty.
When? Since creation, in every historical era, but fading under the triple onslaught of industrialization, post-modern liberalism, and radical feminism in the twentieth century.
Simple answers, right?
Sure, except that Carlson and Mero began with an essay in 2005, broadened their manifesto to a book in 2007, and expanded it further in Transaction Publishers’ The Natural Family: Bulwark of Liberty edition (2008). And now Carlson has published more answers in The Natural Family Where It Belongs. No, the answers are not simple or easy, but this review will show them to be sufficient, satisfactory, and profound.
Carlson sets his direction on the first page (and on the cover). He quotes Hugh Brody, an English anthropologist, who describes how a family in the countryside looks and acts, then concludes, “The family in its farm is the family where it belongs” (ix). Carlson adds the word “natural” to Brody's “family” (i.e., the family as defined by natural law, to differentiate it from the “family” as re-defined by modern, liberal, feminized society). With the book’s title and introduction, Carlson both asks and answers the question Where?. The subtitle provides both the thematic thread for the volume (“agrarian”) and the latitude to stray farther and more tangentially from this theme than an otherwise more traditional scholarly volume would provide (“essays”). Hereafter, the other 155 pages are dedicated to answering the How? and the Why? of the natural family's departure from, and subsequent return to, the land.
The Natural Family Where It Belongs is well-organized:
This book has four parts. In the first part, I describe “The Natural Family at Home.” ... The second part examines twentieth century 'Displacements' from the normative order. . . . Representative “Dissents” from this transformation find expression in the third part. ... In the fourth and final part, I describe “Movements Home”: the rebirth of family-centered habitation; the reassertion of a “gendered” order; and the remarkable return of family-scale agriculture (x).
This review will follow the same outline and conclude with an overall evaluation.
In “The Natural Family at Home” Carlson builds the “natural society” (xvi) from the foundation up. The foundation is marriage, the broadest, strongest, and “most crucial” (xiii) of all human, social bonds. Marriages produce households; households produce communities (villages, towns, or neighborhoods, depending on the rural- or urban-ness of the region); communities produce states; and states produce nations. All are natural tiers in the social pyramid, and all are founded upon and arise from marriage. The “unnatural” outlier in this “natural society” is the corporation, “an artificial, voluntary union of persons toward some common end. ... Where natural society tends toward stability, each corporation represents a push for instability. ... Conflict between these visions is inevitable” (xxi). One wonders if this quotation predicts Carlson's opinion of capitalism and the industrial revolution?
The second part, “Displacements,” answers that question with a resounding “yes.” Carlson borrows the opinion of Joseph Schumpeter, an economist who believed that entrepreneurial capitalism's “very success undermines the social institutions which protect it, and ‘inevitably’ creates conditions in which it will not be able to live and which strongly point to socialism as the heir apparent” (3). The rise of the modern welfare state has proved Schumpeter's prediction. Socialism has succeeded capitalism. As the state has taken the lead role in caring for children, so the centrality of the natural family in modern society has diminished. The notion of “gender equality” has only furthered this decentralization by encouraging mothers to leave their homes and join the workforce—and their kids to leave their homes to join school or daycare, or both. Finally, while capitalism and feminism removed families from their homes socially and psychologically, the exigencies of World War II made this movement a geographic reality. Men left their families to join the military, and families left their land to move to places of military production and/or training: cities. These efforts won the war, to be sure, but the natural family—thus displaced from its rural, agrarian roots—has never recovered.
A few insightful souls, much like Schumpeter, saw this displacement happening and did not participate or approve. In fact, they advocated against these displacing effects and for the natural family. In part three, “Dissents,” Carlson examines these individual efforts. The voices are varied across time, vocation, and location—an English journalist; a regionalist, Iowan poet; a German Lutheran economist; a Michigander “Northern Agrarian”—but their conclusions are similar: while society and the natural family from which it arises ought to support and encourage one another, they are instead working at cross-purposes—when they are not directly opposed. All four, each from his own perspective and vocation, adequately diagnosed the problem and proposed a solution: return to your roots.
Finally, in “Movements Home,” Carlson points to cases of family and society coming full-circle, wherein the dissenters of the past century have found some listeners and practitioners in the current one. What were previously only areas of mundane, urban, capitalist activity (i.e., cities), are now family-centered neighborhoods with a sense of community, reflections of Carlson's third tier of society from part one. Furthermore, liberal feminism indeed has left women with a choice: the private patriarchy of a marriage “where women are most likely to find health, wealth, happiness, and fulfillment” (126), or the public patriarchy of the welfare state “which provides food stamps, public housing, day-care subsidies, and eventually jails” for a large number of boys parented by single women (128). History has proven that there is no third choice, but the choice for this generation of women remains to be made.
Today, the new agrarians are either returning to the land and to small-scale agriculture, or are attempting to live in an agrarian-like manner within the city by supporting small-scale organic farms. And while the movement of members of an urbanized, capitalist society back to their roots has not been without its difficulties, “the American countryside is now in the early stages of ferment. ... The prospects for building a well-settled landscape of productive homes rich with the laughter of children seem more promising than has been the case for decades” (145).
Carlson's argument tracks closely with the historically documented experiences of American families during the past century and a half. His diagnoses of the problems (modernism, liberalism, feminism) are spot-on; his proposed solutions are bearing fruit even as we read about them. If experience is the best teacher, perhaps we have finally begun learning from ours.
The only place Carlson stumbles is in his understanding of the foundation upon which even marriage rests: Creation. From page 129:
As noted early in this volume, paleoanthropologists now know that even before the first hominids on the African savanna had gone bipedal, these creatures were conjugal; that is they were pairing off in long-term bonds, where the females traded sexual exclusivity for the provisioning and protection provided by individual males. These social inventions of marriage and fatherhood—not expansion of the brain case—were the decisive steps in human evolution, and they occurred well over three million years ago. (emphasis added)
The citation for this section includes articles titled “The Origin of Man” from Science and “Perspectives on Human Attachment ...” from Evolutionary Psychology, so its difficult to ascertain whether this passage reflects Carlson's personal opinion or is a paraphrase of these two articles. Even so, he does not make any comment to correct these false assertions, so it must be assumed that the views expressed on page 129 are his. Marriage and fatherhood are not social inventions, they did not develop spontaneously through human evolution, and their development did not begin some three million years ago.
God explains the advent of marriage and fatherhood through Moses and Paul: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. ... Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, 'I have acquired a man from the Lord.' ... And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Genesis 2:24, 4:1; Ephesians 6:4; emphasis added).
Marriage was ordained by God. God creates children through marriage and to bless a marriage. God tells fathers how to raise these little blessings. God created the natural family. Any other explanation attempts to diminish the simple and profound beauty of what God has created. That being said, the aforementioned articles by evolutionists at least testify that marriage is, essentially, as old as man himself.
Despite Carlson’s lack of clarity on the process by which humanity and the natural family originated, his thesis still deserves sympathetic consideration. Some of us are returning to our agrarian roots. Others are learning to source our food from local, family-oriented farms. All of us can stand to benefit from relearning the lost arts of kinship and cooperation, as cultivated within generously procreative marriages. And so we conclude where Carlson began: “The family in its farm is the family where it belongs” (ix). Maybe, eventually, we will find our way home.
David Sulzle, a husband and homeschool father, has taught college courses in American history. He joined the Hausvater Project board of directors in 2014.