A Love Song to His Roots

REMEMBERING PEASANTS: A Personal History of a Vanished World, by Patrick Joyce

In 1970, when John Lennon wanted to denounce the bourgeoisie in his angry song “Working Class Hero,” he delivered the ultimate insult: “You’re still [expletive] peasants as far as I can see.”

In French (paysan, paysanne), the word simply means “a country person.” Yet almost all its synonyms are contemptuous: boor, bumpkin, churl, clodhopper, hillbilly, hayseed, hick, oaf, rube, yokel.

Most of the people who have lived on this planet since the invention of agriculture have been peasants. The word “human” is related to the Latin “humus,” meaning earth or soil. And yet the full humanity of those who survive by working the land has been routinely denied.

The cultivators, it is often assumed, are dreadfully uncultivated. And this alleged lack of sophistication has made them fair game for every kind of depredation. The food they produce has been expropriated by their overlords, by marauding armies and by totalitarian states. They have been conscripted as cannon fodder; entangled in debt and dependency as sharecroppers and serfs; starved, sometimes deliberately, in famines and prisons; forcibly converted to their masters’ religions; herded onto collective farms and slaughtered mercilessly when they revolt.

In “Remembering Peasants:A Personal History of a Vanished World” his moving and sensitive rumination on the historic fate of these earthbound people, Patrick Joyce quotes Ignazio Silone’s summation, in his novel “Fontamara,” of the hierarchy of existence as seen by the peasants of his native village in rural Italy. “At the head of everything is God.” Then came the landowner, Prince Torlonia, followed by the prince’s guards and then by his dogs. Below the dogs was “nothing at all.” And under nothing at all were the cafoni, the poor peasants.

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