Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review--Small-Town Dreams

In Willa Cather's My Antonia, as elsewhere in her stories, small towns don't fare well. What thrills her heart and soul is the country she remembers as a child, the land she calls "the Divide," an area of immense proportions peopled amicably by immigrants from all over the country and the world. Life was a joy out there in the wilds.

If you have ever visited the place where she grew up, rural area largely deserted by the throngs of homesteaders who once made the whole country a community, you'll know it's hard to believe her reverence.  Most people wouldn't want to live there; few do.

But to her, Red Cloud, Nebraska, the small town where she moved when she left the Divide, was nowhere near as fulfilling. When the immigrant people moved to town, they moved into a place far more sluggish and stultifying, far more narrow, and less--far less--ripe with adventure.  Small towns, in Cather's book, had a distressing habit of taking the shine off really interesting people, pushing them through conformity apparatus created by gossip and nosiness and preening self-righteousness.

She left, of course. For a time in her life, Willa Cather watched joyously as Red Cloud disappeared in her rear view mirror, as had literally millions of others back then. The First World War changed a ton of things in world history, but it certainly had an effect on thousands of doughboys from America's small towns. "How you going to keep 'em down on the farm, now that they've seen Paree?" wasn't just a cute little post-war ditty, it was a virtual summary of American behavior. 

In a fascinating compilation of distinguished biographies, Small Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys who Shaped America, John E. Miller documents a shift which emptied Main Streets throughout the Midwest, closed down schools and businesses, and left an abundance of what seem ghost towns all over the landscape.

America's heartland, in actuality, is, today, its cities, not its small towns or its still vast rural areas. The population shift has left its small towns gasping for life, really, and made them little more than dots on blue highways only journalists on the lookout for eccentrics (oddly enough) ever travel, otherwise little but fly-over country.

What's worse, Hollywood seems to relish dramas in which plain-old ordinary people, city folk, wander out into rural backwaters only to encounter hellish creatures, retards and idiot savants (think Deliverance) or loveless, luckless parents (think Nebraska--not the state, the movie). What our polished stories offer us is the image of ghost towns full of zombies or closeted criminals, as the world of the back forty is just a sprawling Bates Motel.

What Miller shows, clearly and proudly, is that in its hay days, America's small towns birthed generations of men of influence. I'm not exactly sure why he chooses men only, but he does, citing his list of prior publications as being perhaps unequally weighted with women. He begins with Frederick Jackson Turner, who, more than anyone, touted the powerful effects of white America's burgeoning spread into the what white America considered the continent's open spaces, as if no one else was there.

Turner grew up in Portage, Wisconsin, during the 1860s, when that small town at the confluence of two Wisconsin rivers was, in fact, the edge of the frontier. The man sometimes cited as the first American of significant authority in its own history began his work by studying his neighborhood, Miller says, and then simply stayed with the thesis throughout his life: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development."

Miller's gallery includes 21 portraits of individuals, most of whom need no introduction--William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ford, George Washington Carver, Bob Feller, James Dean, Walt Disney, Lawrence Welk, John Wooden, and Ronald Reagan; and ends with America's wholesale leviathan, Sam Walton.

A few along the way aren't necessarily household names.  I'm ashamed to admit I never heard of plainspoken Alvin Hansen, who grew up on a farm three miles west of Viborg, South Dakota, just an hour or so away from my home. Had I taken an economics class somewhere along the line, I'm sure I would have run into him; but that he isn't celebrated regionally today may well be because he is still referred to as "the American Keynes," and thus generally disdained by the robust voting blocks right here in his neighborhood.

Nor had I heard of Oscar Micheaux, the African-American who spent some time homesteading in South Dakota, then wrote a novel or two about it (The Homesteader is now on my Kindle), but whose fame and fortune was far more celebrated in the nation's Black community because he was the foremost African-American film maker before integration. Micheaux was the first African-American to create a feature-length film, a piece of work that he created based upon his own experiences homesteading near Gregory, South Dakota. I had no idea.

Small-Town Dreams is a really fascinating read, especially if you like biographies, as I do. Just about everyone between the covers is a household name, but few of us, I'd guess, know their stories--and they're interesting and enlightening. 

I kept thinking there was an argument forming, that the arrangement of bios would eventually encourage a thesis to the effect that the Midwestern small-town had some kind of important influence on the character of these accomplished American boys. I wasn't wrong--it did; but the argument I expected was never advanced. Miller steps back several times in the book to make very clear that while it might be nice to think that small-towns had significantly similar effects, those effects simply aren't there. 

Some of these men couldn't leave the small-towns of their childhoods fast enough. Some looked back with feverish disdain. Some worshiped their boyhoods from afar, really never returning. Some worship was pure fantasy. Some, as Americans did for a time, created myth. Some claimed great allegiance, yet, like Henry Ford and Sam Walton, did more to destroy small-towns than keep them vigorous.  Some hated their boyhoods and, like Sinclair Lewis, said it aloud as he did in Main Street, then, when the spit and vinegar died away, backed off later in life.

The real thesis here, and Miller admits it freely, is that any attempt to explain behavior on the basis of some single feature of a biography--like one's small-town past--is impossible. The human character is just too complex. With that admission, Miller steps back and talks somewhat about the importance of "place" in our lives and, perhaps, the withering away of place in a culture so mobile, so connected, so media-driven. "There is no there there," Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California. 

I don't know that Miller would agree, but he would be tempted. When mirroring strip malls adorn the environment of all of our lives, we're not doomed, but we may well have become little more than a huge small-town, 300-million strong, most of whom carry the stultifying sameness Cather disdained. 

That would be sad. 

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