A Refugee from a Small Town Looks at America's Sometime Love Affair with Main Street
Almost every President in this century has been a small-town boy, and we have just elected another one. Why is this?
The presidential image is associated with the small-town myth. More of us live in big cities, but our leaders rise up from small towns. The President is an ideal—he's got to represent solid hometown values. An urban candidate would not project these qualities. If you make it big from a small town, it means you've lived the American dream. That makes all of us feel good.
And that helped Reagan?
Reagan is the John Walton of politics. Jimmy Carter could never play the game as well. He put on town meetings, but it was an act. His personality just didn't allow the folksiness that Reagan has perfected. Reagan has the wholesome quality of the small-town boy who goes out into the world but keeps the simple virtues.
Aren't small towns in fact models of democracy?
In the ideal, they're a place where you have a chance to participate in government on things that affect you. The reality has often been that a few people run the town. The rest just go along with them. Nobody wants to drop the folksy facade. Boosterism is very important. Boost, don't knock.
What are your personal feelings about small towns?
I have an ambivalence that I think is very American. Mine is a love-hate relationship.
What things did you love?
Crawfordsville was a good place to grow up. It was a stable world—it was a school, a church, the places you hung out, the shortcuts you took. I remember the sound of the chimes playing outside the church on Christmas Eve. There was a tree with a fork that made a perfect football goalpost.
What did you hate?
There's a suffocating conformity in small towns. The idea is not to rock the boat, not to question. Ezra Pound once lived in Crawfordsville, and he lost his job teaching at the local college for taking a woman to his room. Even when I was a kid, I felt the tyranny of public opinion about people I knew. The idea is not to question the ruling code. The punishment is gossip.
Do people really know everyone else's business?
You think they do, and that's enough. It limits your behavior.
Historically, didn't small towns make a significant contribution?
The town had useful functions when we settled the country. The Puritans' religion dictated a sort of Utopian town, really one big congregation. When they moved west, the town served as a fortification, a place where some semblance of civilization existed under extreme conditions. For farmers, it was a way station between city and country. Even today it serves as a counterbalance to the mass society—a psychic refuge from the city that keeps alive a sense of human scale and community. The bottom line is that towns affected more of our history than cities.
How are towns depicted in our literature?
That goes in cycles. Our early storytellers captured the small-town myth. After the Civil War there was a rise in literary realism. Authors like E.W. Howe and Hamlin Garland caught some of the boredom and loutishness of these towns. But as urbanization increased at the turn of the century, a lot of popular writers like Booth Tarkington praised small towns. It wasn't dog-eat-dog in his sentimental stories.
Then what happened?
There was a reaction against that. Theodore Dreiser showed the way by refusing to cotton to this code of genteel literature. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Sinclair Lewis' Main Street lifted the lid off the small town. They wrote about the towns they knew, and their books were taken up by people who had moved away from small towns and wanted to reassure themselves that city life was better.
How did the towns react?
They worried that real estate values would go down. In Lewis' Sauk Centre, Minn., the model for Main Street, there was a great outrage. Years later the townsfolk realized Lewis had made them famous, and they embraced him. Now they have a Sinclair Lewis Museum and the main street is called "Original Main Street."
What did women contribute to small towns?
They always had an important role. The wealthier ones took over cultural affairs. And they became a strong force in the morality of the town. In the '20s and '30s culture and uplift became less important, and more middle-class wives became fixtures in the home. All the while the towns were pretty dreary, dirty places. Women could persuade men to improve their position, and cities became the magnet. Small towns were in disrepute. Now cities have become unmanageable and the small town is a retreat. Most Americans today say they'd like to live in a small town.
Is there really an exodus back?
Yes, gradually. Some of the movement to the suburbs was an attempt to recapture small-town life. That dream has been tarnished because suburbs have inherited city problems. So people are moving from the suburbs to small towns. But they're looking for the small town that used to be, and they aren't going to find it.
If they did, would they want it?
Probably not. These people like countryside, but they want urban values too. The dirt road is nice, but as soon as it snows, they want it paved.
Does the stream of newcomers cause problems for the towns?
It strains resources and creates new tensions. That threatens the virtues of small-town life that people are seeking. So a lot of towns are trying to control growth. There's an idea of cluster towns, where one town has the factories, another the shopping areas, a third the health care, and so on. It would give small towns more stability; they could limit themselves rather than trying to be everything.
Does this mean that the small town of Norman Rockwell is dead?
No, though modern transportation and communication have caused small towns to lose a lot of the autonomy they once had. They still believe they're separate from the larger society, but they've become part of it. I think small towns are a happier place today than when they were isolated. And they still have a more relaxed pace, a general friendliness and fewer physical discomforts than cities.
Would you ever go back to one to live?
If I could find the ideal place, I might. The positive memories overshadow the negative ones.
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