This phrase, biblical in origin, relates to the Promised Land: “And take your father and your households, and come unto me: and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and ye shall eat the fat of the land” (Genesis 45.18). The imagery of the Promised Land features prominently in colonialist rhetoric which likened America’s settlers to the ancient Hebrews, and the ideal of living off the fat of the land is central to the American Dream. Despite having been systematically oppressed by those settlers and their descendents, during Reconstruction African-American freedmen began to absorb some of this utopianism in the form of democratic idealism. In Mississippi, huge numbers of people migrated to the uncleared downlands with the hope of carving out a life of self-sufficient freedom. These dreams were effectively crushed by a new constitution introduced in 1890 by which they, along with poor whites, were politically disenfranchised. Increased lynchings, Jim Crow laws, crop failure and flooding cemented this disillusion and contributed to the Great Migration of 1916-1930, during which some 1.25 million African Americans left for the North.
The centrality of the ‘fat of the land’ to the American Dream — and that dream’s ultimate emptiness — is nowhere better exemplified than in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937).