MONTAGUE -- Today, when driving by the western Massachusetts land known as Montague Farm, it’s difficult to imagine any activity there outside of agriculture. But museum curator and author Tom Fels is setting out to dispel that notion with yet another eloquent history, "Buying The Farm," (2012, University of Massachusetts Press, 220 pages) to be released on Nov. 30.
Fels is following up on the critical success of his "Farm Friends" (2008, Chelsea Green Publishing, 407 pages), in which he told the story of the many of personalities of Montague Farm, a commune where he spent four years, from 1969 to 1973. His latest offering is a comprehensive history of that same cooperative from its inception to the present day.
Fels records the past with curatorial sensibility; he is ever attuned to the notion of time and what it means to the subject, as well as to his audience. He understands that temporally framing Montague Farm bears much the same weight as the light falling on an oil painting once mounted on a wall for public exhibition.
As such, he spun the threads of his history around a seminal event: The 25th reunion of the commune’s members, in 1993.
"This was a story with a long trajectory, so time did play a part," Fels said recently from his home in North Bennington, Vt. "The biggest decision relating to time was to use the farm’s reunion as a focal point, first the period leading up to it and then the years that followed.
To his credit, Fels was astute not to compress these events, but his prose hardly put on the brakes. This is because Fels the writer has a keen ear for tone and cadence as he goes from one subject to another, imitating the effects of a fine iambic pentameter.
This nearly lyrical prose works in "Buying The Farm" for two reasons. First, Fels is well schooled in writers whose stories move along easily.
"Some early influences are Ovid, with his ever-continuing, segueing narrative, and Lytton Strachey, who works long digressions very naturally into his overall set of tales; also, for the same reason, Henry James," he said.
More importantly, however, Fels returns to his successful technique from "Farm Friends" by giving much weight to his dramatis personae.
"Readers of ‘Farm Friends’ would of course be familiar with some of the characters in ‘Buying The Farm,’" Fels said. "I’ve followed this group for years, and founded an archive for them. Its members are, one might say, my in-house stable of actors. My feeling is that this large, inter-related group has a lot to tell us both now and in the future."
One character seminal to both books - though his role on the surface might suggest otherwise - is Raymond Mungo, a journalist, activist, and co-founder of the Liberation News Service in 1967. He was also one of earliest social dissenters involved with Montague Farm.
Mungo created and chronicled the farm’s initial history and according to Fels, remains a role model for a flexible, enlightened public figure to this day. Numerous other personalities play prominent roles in Fels’ story.
"One of the goals of these books is simply to introduce various characters in the long story of Montague Farm and its extended family," he said.
The social contract
The 1960s were an idealistic time that influenced American society to this day. Fels, however, is quick to note its dichotomous nature throughout his narrative, most often in his reflections and evaluations of Montague Farm.
To this end Fels included a foreword to help readers grasp this era, "The Sixties in Perspective: A Personal View," by renowned Harvard scholar Daniel Aaron. Today, at more than 100 years old, Aaron was not available for comment. However, in an extensive 2009 interview with Fels, he spoke on the contradiction of youth pressing for idealistic societal change:
"That’s been characteristic of all the young generations, even now," Aaron said. "They’re enthusiastic, they’re impulsive; their good feelings, their natural sympathies, their generosities come out, but then they discover that’s not enough ... I think you reach a point where you have other interests, family and children and everything else, and you no longer are alert to these things ... You don’t want to protest any longer because in a sense that upsets your own environment and your expectations, so you accept what you rebelled against earlier. It’s a stance; there are tradeoffs."
Readers of "Buying The Farm" will walk away with the impression that Fels not only understands these tradeoffs, but has lived them, also. However, he is far from a sellout. In fact, Fels’ ability to empathically yet impartially observe both his comrades and the farm raises his credibility more than any picket line or placard ever could:
"Montague was a worthwhile experiment that in some ways exceeded expectations, and in others fell short," he said. "In the anti-nuclear movement in which many at the farm were involved, it was often pointed out that while the industry claimed its facilities were 99.9 percent safe, experts asked how many human-run operations could be named that actually functioned that well. In retrospect, this formula should have been applied to themselves, as well."
Such humility with regards to the social contract makes "Buying The Farm" quintessentially American, and a cerebral yet unpretentious must-read. Furthermore, it brings to light what Fels now believes should be the way forward for all citizens seeking social change.
"The lesson from the past fifty years for the Left is that change takes involvement, effort, and time," Fels said. "The lesson for the Right would be that there is no such thing as total victory, and that to move forward at all, to make gains, something will likely be lost as well. The challenge for the future is collaboration, cooperation, vision, and progress."
"Buying The Farm: Peace and War on a Sixties Commune," (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, $24.95 Softcover, 220 pages) will be released at a book launch celebration at 5 p.m. on Fri., Nov. 30 at Amherst Books, 8 Main St., Amherst. The public is invited. Info: 413-256-1547.