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The Good Life of Helen K. Nearing
Margaret Killinger

University of Vermont Press
2007 • 170 pp. 25 illus. 6 x 9"
Biography / Sustainable Living / Sustainable Agriculture

$19.95 Hardcover, 978-1-58465-628-9

"While dispelling myths, Killinger upholds the basic integrity of the simple rural life Nearing promoted until her death, in 1995. To Nearing's skills as a gardener, builder, and writer, Killinger adds another: marketing genius."—Boston Globe, Sunday edition

A lively biography of the famous homesteader and author Helen Knothe Nearing

In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Helen and Scott Nearing moved from their small apartment in New York City to a dilapidated farmhouse on 65 acres in Vermont. For over 20 years, they created organic gardens, handcrafted stone buildings, and practiced living simply on the land. In 1952, they moved to the Maine coast, where they later built what became their last stone home. Through their 60 years of living on the land in rural New England, their commitment to social and economic justice, their numerous books and articles, and the time they shared with thousands of visitors to their homestead, the Nearings embodied a philosophy that now is recognized as a centerpiece of America’s “Back-to-the-Land” and “Simple Living” movements.

Although both Nearings wrote a variety of autobiographical works, this is the first comprehensive biography of Helen Knothe Nearing (1904–1995). Killinger examines Helen’s spiritual formation as a member of the early-20th-century Theosophical Society, her complex relationship to “old left” socialist Scott Nearing, and their lives together first in New York City and later as pioneer homesteaders in Vermont and then in Maine.

Although deeply respectful of her subject, Killinger brings to light some of the central paradoxes of Helen Nearing’s life. The Nearings’ door was always open despite Helen’s impatience with “company.” And her abiding belief in living the principles of a simple “good life” did not impede her willingness and ability to market those principles with great success. As Killinger shows, Helen K. Nearing almost single-handedly created the Nearing mythos, still very much a factor in the ongoing interest in this remarkable couple.

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“Long before it was fashionable, Helen Knothe and Scott Nearing practiced the Spartan tenets of self-sufficiency by homesteading their extensive properties, first in Vermont and then along the Maine coast, where their strict, almost militant adherence to the principles of organic farming, vegetarianism, recycling, and pacifism were translated into and then calculatedly marketed as the underpinnings of a return-to-nature philosophy they termed the ‘good life.’ Although the Nearings themselves wrote numerous books detailing the genesis and mastery of this mode of living, these hugely popular treatises were self-congratulatory, idealistic renditions that neglected to fully credit the contributions others made to their purportedly independent lifestyle. Killinger's masterful biography not only corrects the record, it cunningly reveals Helen's early devotion to theosophy and the occult, sheds light on the mystical origins of Helen's romantic devotion to the older, domineering, and philandering man she dedicated her life to, and reinforces the iconic status she cultivated and deserved as an ardent and charismatic proponent of a purposeful life.”—Booklist

"The Helen Nearing who emerges from the pages of Margaret Killinger's biography is a complex and contradictory character, a pastoral idealist and a vigorous self-promoter, a difficult woman but, nonetheless, an inspiration to many."—Down East

"Helen K. Nearing . . . with her hustband Scott Nearing, were among the most influential proponents of what has come to be known as the back-to-the-land movement. One can't help but admire their ferocious self-determination and integrity, even if one recoils slightly from the chill of their aesthetic purity."—Valley News


“Helen Knothe Nearing was one of the great people of the 20th Century. Her Maple Sugar Book got me started sugaring. Helen's husband was remarkable too, but got most of the publicity. Helen was 'just' his wife. Now her story is told. Read it, women all over the world.”—Pete Seeger, songwriter

“Helen and Scott Nearing's contemporary relevance is astonishing: their lives enacted a truly counter-cultural resistance to environmental degradation, economic exploitation, and pervasive militarism. They lived their lives as an affirmation of higher values. For the first time their story, and their message, is vastly deepened by an inspiring biography revealing Helen's influence on the meaning and practice of the Nearings' 'good life.' Margaret Killinger has done for Helen what she resisted doing for herself—she has brought her out of the imposing shadow cast by Scott and has let her life shine with insight and brilliance.”—Dr. John Saltmarsh, author of Scott Nearing: The Making of a Homesteader and professor in the Department of Leadership in Education, University of Massachusetts Boston

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MARGARET O. KILLINGER is an adjunct assistant professor in the Honors College at the University of Maine, Orono.

Sun, 2 Feb 2014 10:31:17 -0500