Once upon a time, my father-in-law says, there were more farms just outside our windows, more families and bigger families living right out here. Once upon a time, country schools dotted the townships, one every couple of miles, schools that became less viable as sections of soil slowly were emptied when people left. Those schools are long gone, but here and there some of the better ones still stand, even though they haven't been schools for close to fifty years. The rural Midwest, save for the North Dakota oil fields, sometimes feels more like an open-air museum than any kind of brave new world.
It just so happens we live in a bona fide anomoly, Sioux County, Iowa, where somehow the populace is capable of keeping its kids at home, not shipping them out like its numberless cattle and hogs. Sioux County, Iowa, boasts a median age that's among the lowest in the state, topped only by counties that are home to the state's major universities. Why do they stay here?--is a good question.
Most of the rural Upper Midwest looks as if it's lost heart, thrown in the towel--downtown businesses departed, streets and avenues gapped by emptied lots where once upon a time real families lived in thousands of tiny frame houses.
Factors too abundant to mention created the demise of an active rural culture, and of small-town life, which is not to say such things don't exist here and just west on the Great Plains. Instead, the broad and seemingly endless place where I live is called "fly-over country."
People still live here. I do. When I die, I will have lived in small towns for a lifetime, minus four years.
I've been reading John E. Miller's Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America, a title so old-fashioned and politically incorrect you might wonder whether anyone will read it save those who, like me, got one free. If you like history, it's a marvelous book because it tells you more than most of us know about household names--Henry Ford to Sam Walton, Bob Feller to John Wooden, James Dean to Meredith Wilson, small-town boys who made it big in the city.
Carl Sandberg is here, a token writer (although most all of these people did some kind of autobiography), as is, as you might guess, Sinclair Lewis, a novelist who may well have done more to bury small-towns than anyone else wielding a pen. Miller claims that Sherwood Anderson was complicit in the war against small towns; Winesburg, Ohio is hardly celebratory. But no one's pen was as icy as was Sinclair Lewis's. Main Street (1920) didn't just pillory the sheer little-ness of rural folk, but pinned them (us) up before the world as if we were a donkey's behind.
Miller commends Lewis's sophisticated wit when he tells the story of Main Street, a true publishing phenomenon, "one of the most sensational publishing events of the twentieth century," he says, and he's right. What the novel features is "droll depictions of the stultifying conformism and the mindless complacency that characterized small-town living."
And America's reading public, including many residents of its own then still-plentiful small towns, ate it up. As did the world. Ten years after the publication of Main Street, Sinclair Lewis became America's first Nobel Prize winner, which is more than a little odd today, given Lewis's near disappearance from the canon.
Miller tries to save the man by saying that such acidic reportage was undertaken by a man who really loved what small towns could be, which is to say Lewis was bringing 'em down just to build 'em up. I don't know if I'd call that analysis sweet or silly, but I don't buy it.
He also says that that novel was everywhere, and it was. In 1966, my high school English teacher, a woman we called "Granny Goehring," assigned it to our senior English class. The fact that I didn't read it wasn't her fault or Lewis's; I didn't do my work. I didn't feel like it, I suppose. But I don't remember reading a word--and I still haven't.
Here it is, my own high school copy--I kept it because I defaced it, not because I didn't like the novel, but because I was a senior in high school who could care less about English class. (Not all the handwriting is mine, by the way.)
But I do wonder, now, so many years later, why Granny Goehring determined that if we were to read one contemporary novel during our senior year, it should be Lewis's bitter Signet Classic diatribe against small towns exactly like the one in which we all were living. She wasn't critical of her world. I don't remember cynicism or irony or anything less than a desire to communicate what she thought of as the blessings of literature.
Why would she require a novel that made us look really stupid?
I'm guessing it's because, as Miller says, Main Street was a phenomenon. And even English teachers can succumb to a real, tsunami-like phenomenon.
Lewis isn't responsible for the death of hundreds of small-towns in the Upper Midwest. It would have happened without him or his Nobel Prize. He didn't empty our streets.
Maybe today I should read the novel. After all, I spent 40 years teaching literature, not Main Street but other Lewis novels. Granny Goehring, I'm sure, would be shocked to know I may well be her only graduate who spent his whole professional life doing her own work.
I've got the old copy right here. Who knows what I'll learn? Might be fun. Millions thought Lewis was fun. Millions.
Once upon a time Main Street was an assignment. Maybe it's time I get down to work.