The idea of what an “America” might be has existed longer than the country itself. Some of the earliest Puritan migrations were cast in a biblical light, with famed English clergyman John Cotton’s influential 1630 sermon “God’s Promise to His Plantation” cast the New World as a new Canaan, a Promised Land with the Puritans taking the role of “God’s chosen people.” The inherent contradictions and resulting tensions are already evident, as Cotton portrays the New World as “a place for all Nations to inhabit, and have all the Earth replenished” while simultaneously laying the foundation for Manifest Destiny, expansionism, and the brutal genocide and subjugation of the continent’s indigenous populations. As well know, from its early formation, America was the “land of the free”, but some were more free than others.
These foundational myths would grow more complex as the New World attracted new settlers. Manifest Destiny, the Promised Land, and the Chosen People were just a few of the mythologies Americans from these migrant generations have perpetuated over the last 400 years. One of the most enduring and influential foundational myths is what historian Richard Hofstadter termed “the Agrarian Myth” in his 1955 seminal analysis of the history of progressive thought in the United States, The Age of Reform. “But what the articulate people who talked and wrote about farmers and farming—the preachers, poets, philosophers, writers, and statesmen—liked about American farming was not, in every respect, what the typical working farmer liked,” Hofstadter observes.
He continues, “For the articulate people were drawn irresistibly to the noncommercial, nonpecuniary, self-sufficient aspect of American farm life. To them it was an ideal. Writers like Thomas Jefferson and Hector St. Jean de Crèvecœur admired the yeoman farmer not for his capacity to exploit opportunities and make money but for his honest industry, his independence, his frank spirit of equality, his ability to produce and enjoy a simple abundance. The farmer himself, in most cases, was in fact inspired to make money, and such self-sufficiency as he actually had was usually forced upon him by a lack of transportation or markets, or by the necessity to save cash to expand his operations. For while early American society was an agrarian society it was fast becoming more commercial, and commercial goals made their way among its agricultural classes almost as rapidly as elsewhere. The more commercial this society became, however, the more reason it found to cling in imagination to the noncommercial agrarian values. The more farming as a self-sufficient way of life was abandoned for farming as a business, the more merit men found in what was being left behind.”
In short, almost since its inception, the United States has liked the idea of farmers but not farmers in themselves. In reality, the Agrarian Myth speaks more to the faux-folksy demeanor put on by cynical politicians to win rural votes, whom they quickly abandon once they return to the cities and opulence where they actually live.
Not only does this Agrarian Myth lend itself to political cynicism and unchecked populism, it’s even invoked as one of the justifications for irresponsible urban design and development practices, as well as the racism and inequality they perpetuate, in the mythical middle landscape of suburbia. This is noted by architectural designer Chris Hamilton, citing historian Leo Marx and his influential 1964 look at technology and pastoralism The Machine in the Garden, as well as historian Kristen. “The Agrarian Myth is closely related and often synonymous with pastoralism. Pastoralism is based in the urban/rural divide that, “lauds the merits of a simplified and romanticized countryside; an idyllic arcadia”. Marx uses this term in The Machine in the Garden, which splits pastoralism in two categories. The first “popular and sentimental” is seen simply as a preference for natural, agrarian values, expressed through imagery and marketing.
Additional American myths are implied in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), but these might be considered more “wholesome”, as noted by historians Nicholas Cords and Patrick Gerster, citing Henry Nash Smith’s influential 1950 work, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. “When sensitively deconstructed, myths can be shown to embody American culture’s basic beliefs and highest aspirations – honesty, unpretentiousness, optimism, tolerance, hard work, sympathy for the underdog, dedication to perfectionism, an abiding concern for the general well-being, and a special esteem for freedom.” Cord and Gerster emphasize the importance of deconstructing those myths, stating, “The American past is therefore scarcely a dead past. It continues to live within us. Myth lays claim to preserving, repeating, and defending the treasury of wisdom our forebears entrusted to us.” When left uninterrogated, these myths, contradictions, and psychic tensions would only intensify, widening into a gulf of raging inequality and seething resentments that threaten to swallow not only the country but the entire world in its yawning darkness.
In Days of Heaven, Malick casts the United States just before the onset of World War I, as a mythic landscape for better and worse. Rather than succumbing to sentimental nostalgia, Malick portrays America shortly before the advent of modernity as a place of Shakespearian melodrama and biblical plagues as well as camaraderie and awe-inspiring natural beauty.
Days of Heaven follows two siblings, Bill (Richard Gere) and Linda (Linda Manz), along with Bill’s girlfriend Abby (Brooke Abby), who flee Chicago in 1916 after Bill accidentally kills his boss at a Chicago steel mill. The trio ends up in the panhandle of Texas as part of a large group of migrant workers employed by a shy young farmer (Sam Shephard). Bill and Abby pose as brother and sister. Bill overhears someone mention that the farmer only has a year to live and hatches a plan for Abby to marry the farmer, wherein she’d inherit his wealth after his death. Unfortunately for Bill, the farmer’s health stabilizes after their marriage, as Linda notes in her signature plain-spoken voice-over, observing, “Instead of getting sicker, he just stayed the same. He didn’t get sicker. He didn’t get better. They were kind-hearted and thought he was going out on his own steam. The doc must’ve come over, or someone gave him something. Probably some kind of medicine or something.” Abby begins to develop feelings for the farmer.
Suspicions arise when Bill and Abby are observed behaving in a less-than-sibling-like manner. The foreman (Robert Wilke) confronts Bill with his suspicions, resulting in Bill fleeing with a flying circus troupe that was visiting the farm. He returns a year later with the arrival of the harvest season. All the tensions and schemes come to the fore at this time, as the farm is plagued first with locusts and then a mighty wildfire. As his farm burns, the farmer confronts Bill over his duplicity, resulting in an argument in which Bill kills the farmer with a screwdriver. The trio then returns to the road to elude their pursuers, with Abby swearing to amend her wicked ways. They’re apprehended by a group of lawmen, who shoot down Bill in a hail of rifle fire. Days of Heaven ends with Abby and Linda living a new life; Abby has inherited the farmer’s land, and Linda is at a boarding school. Things are far from settled, however, as the film’s final moments show Abby leaving town on a train with a group of soldiers departing for World War I while Linda runs away from school with a friend.
Malick’s moving, poetic evocation of pre-modern America succeeds due to its unwillingness to moralize. The lives of the migrant workers are shown as endless toil, as commented on by Linda, “From the time the sun went up, till it went down, they were working all the time, non-stop. Just keep going. You didn’t work, they’d ship you right out of there. They don’t need you. They can always get somebody else.” The characters share a tight-knit community full of lively laughter, good music, friendship, and good cheer. Their pastoral lives prove a marked contrast to the “dark Satanic mills”, as William Blake puts it in his poem, Jerusalem [And did those feet in ancient time].
Although set in the past, for which Malick seems to have a fondness judging from the loveliness of his cinematic gaze, Days of Heaven is not nostalgic, nor is it intended to be, as he admits to French journalist and film critic Yvonne Baby in an interview from May 1979:
“It would be difficult for me to make a film about contemporary America today. We live in such dark times and we have gradually lost our open spaces. We always had hope, the illusion that there was a place where we could live, where one could emigrate and go even further. Wilderness, this is the place where everything seems possible, where solidarity exists – and justice – where the virtues are somehow linked to this justice. In the region where I grew up, everyone felt it in a very strong way. This sense of space disappearing, we nevertheless can find it in cinema, which will pass it on to us. There is so much to do: it’s as if we were on the Mississippi Territory, in the eighteenth century. For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more.”
For Malick, Days of Heaven was itself the promised land, a two-hour respite from the harshness of modern living. “Like those of the film, these were not people of the soil, but urban dwellers who had abandoned their city, their factories. Rather than criminals, it would be fairer to say they lived on the margins of crime, fed by elusive hopes. At the time of the film, those who worked the seasons hated their jobs and the farmers did not trust them. They could not touch the machinery: if something was breaking, they had to signal by raising their hat on a stick. To distinguish themselves, they were always putting on their best clothes. I had noticed that myself when I was a teenager. To the farmers they were bringing—and this is still true—a piece of their homeland and of new horizons. And farmers sat down to listen—charmed—to hear the story of these workers.”
He continues, “Already the farmers were almost nothing more than businessmen and they felt nostalgia for those days of yesteryear where they were themselves caretakers of their earthly riches. Workers and farmers were embodying people whose hopes were being destroyed, some more than others, by opulence or poverty. All were full of desires, dreams, and appetites, which I hope permeates [Days of Heaven]. For these people, happiness comes and goes, they are fleeting moments. Why? They don’t know, just as they don’t know how to achieve happiness. If they see before them another season, another harvest, they feel unable to build a life. Though this is familiar to a European, it may seem puzzling for Americans. Americans feel entitled to happiness, and once they manage to find it, they feel as if they own it. If they are deprived of it, they feel cheated. If they feel it has been taken away from them, they imagine they have been done wrong. This guilt I have felt from everyone I’ve known. It’s a bit like a Dylan song: they have held the world in their hands and let it slip through their fingers.”
He concludes, “As for the title, it is a feeling that a place exists that is within reach and where we will be safe. It is a place where a house will not rest on the sand, where you will not become crazier by fighting again and again against the impossible.”
By situating Days of Heaven in a mythic landscape rather than a nostalgic mode, Malick raises the possibility of facilitating a dialogue with the past, which is riddled with hard and unpleasant truths as well as the virtues he speaks of. By being unwilling or unable to talk about painful, sensitive subject matter, we run the risk of things festering in the darkness. Myth, when uninterrogated, so often blossoms into propaganda and fascism.
In his loving, lingering look at a twice-vanished world, Malick acknowledges that there was plenty of good along with the terrors and privations of the American agrarian past. Indeed, Days of Heaven raises questions about modernity, neoliberalism, and the supposed triumph of late-stage capitalism while simultaneously critiquing the Agrarian Myth, Manifest Destiny, and the Myth of the Noble Savage. In the process, he offers an alternative to the propaganda of uninterrogated nostalgia, again heeding Blake when he cautions, “We are led to believe a lie/When we see not thro’ the eye.”
Baby, Yvonne. “May 1979 Interview (New Full-Length Version)”. Facebook.
Blake, William. Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. Anchor Books. 1965.
Cotton, John. “God’s promise to his plantation“. Digital Puritan.
Cords, Nicholas and Gerster, Patrick. Myth America: A Historical Anthology. Brandywine Press. 1997.
Hamilton, Chris. “The Agrarian Myth in Suburbia: Relating Materialized Culture with Actualized Sustainability”. University of Colorado, Boulder. (dissertation). April 2022.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform. Vintage Books. 1961.