Jessica Martell, "Farm to Form: Modernist Literature and Ecologies of Food in the British Empire" (U Nevada Press, 2020)


In this this interview, Carrie Tippen talks with Jessica Martell about her new book, Farm to Form: Modernist Literature and Ecologies of Food in the British Empire, published in 2020 by University of Nevada Press for their Cultural Ecologies of Food series.

In Farm to Form, Martell contextualizes some familiar texts of British Literary Modernism, into a history that recognizes the role of food and agriculture not just in the social fabric that these writers were living in and often writing against but also the role that these industries played in determining how writers experimented with literary forms. Food isn’t just in the content of the novels analyzed, but as Martell argues, responses to food systems are reflected in the experiments in form that are a hallmark of literary modernism. If the Modernist era is “a spectacle of lived unevenness,” food (its presence and absence) is particularly good at exposing unevenness and inequity. Martell’s historicizing makes clear that the average British subject was most directly experiencing the projects of imperialism at the table. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of the emerging modern food system as reflected in specific texts. The overproduction of rural milk for urban markets is reflected in the overripeness of landscapes in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and the collapsing of time and space brought on by technologies of freezing and canning are reflected in the anachronism of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway bears the marks of wartime rationing and total war on civilians. Joseph Conrad’s images of starving colonial laborers and fat colonizers demonstrates a critique of the “metabolism of empire” that gobbles energy with terrifying efficiency, while James Joyce’s infamous formal and textual excess is a direct response to the Famine and a representation of Ireland as empty and hungry, simultaneously overpopulated and drained by migration. Martell’s central argument is that an understanding of the rapidly changing and visibly uneven experience of modern food industries can offer fresh insights into experiments of literary form.

Jessica Martell is assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University. She is the also the co-editor of Modernism and Food Studies: Politics, Aesthetics, and the Avant-Garde (University Press of Florida, 2019). Martell serves on the executive board of Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, a woman-led non-profit helping to build an equitable and sustainable food system in the North Carolina High Country.

Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her 2018 book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in Gastronomica, Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society.

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Carrie Helms Tippen

Carrie Helms Tippen is Associate Professor of English and Assistant Dean of the School of Arts, Science, and Business at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature.

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