Last year I wrote about driving through some Midwestern small towns and having a somewhat mystical feeling that the spirit of the American people still lived there. This was not an original sentiment, of course; Americans have a long tradition of pride in their small towns, which are thought to embody the community spirit, work ethic, and moral values that represent the best qualities of our nation. The small town where I grew up was unusual for its liberal ethos and the presence of a substantial middle-class black community. Nevertheless I think my experience there was broadly similar to that of most small-town Americans. The drawbacks of life there – the geographic isolation, self-satisfaction, and petty local politics – were more than compensated for by the safety, friendliness, and the feeling of knowing one’s neighbors and being known by them. These qualities, so easily taken for granted then, now are almost painful to contemplate. They seem the qualities of a world that is rapidly passing away.
For as long as Americans have been extolling the virtues of their small towns, other Americans have been attacking the mythology by attempting to expose those towns as uncultured, shallow, judgmental, hypocritically pious, and just plain ugly. Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, and other native sons labored in earnest to expose the petty and ugly sides of small-town life. Lewis carried out the definitive attack in his novel Main Street (1920) and other works which followed. I was reminded of this book recently while listening to a recorded collection of American poems put together by John Derbyshire.* Introducing Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” (whose name means “a view of death”), Derbyshire notes the reference to the poem in Main Street, in which the ladies of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, meet to study culture in their Thanatopsis Club. Lewis’s choice of this comically inapt name for a club where ladies discuss poetry without actually reading any poems serves his satiric intent. Gopher Prairie is culturally dead.
Small towns can no longer be said to represent America as a whole; fewer than 10% of Americans now live in them. And yet they remain somehow representative of the American soul. If American culture as a whole is in decline – certainly the view of this writer – then it is natural that small towns would reflect that decline in their own way.
And so they do. In a review of Richard Davies’s Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America, historian Amy Greenberg lays out the sad facts.
As Richard O. Davies states….”modern America, with its dominant urban culture, has now passed [small towns] by, relegating them to the cruel obscurity that comes from being abandoned by a railroad or left off the federal interstate highway map” (p. 1). The casual visitor to most of these towns will note this decay immediately. Central business districts are devastated, shopfronts are boarded up, and both streets and once elegant houses are in advanced states of disrepair.
It is those features not automatically apparent to casual visitors that constitute the real tragedy of modern small-town life. Populated primarily by the elderly and by families attracted by the cheap rents, towns of less than 10,000 have larger concentrations of the poor, on a percentage basis, than cities do. Health care is generally inadequate, and both underfunded schools and social services are severely taxed, while domestic abuse, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy are on the rise. (p. 267)
My visits to various Midwestern small towns confirm this general picture. Many of the mostly white residents of these areas are overweight and shabbily dressed; tattoo parlors and seedy bars suggest a degraded social milieu. Some towns still look nice, and one senses that the churches are thriving; others have been partly engulfed in suburban sprawl. Still others, and my hometown is like this, have redefined themselves as local tourist attractions – with pricey gift shops and restaurants making up the core of visible commerce, while most residents commute to jobs outside of town. The physical entity survives; the old community is mainly gone.
Despite my conservative sympathies I do take Lewis’s critique of small-town America seriously. He was a socialist and hardly unbiased, but he knew small-town life intimately. Lewis drew on his experience as the son of a doctor in Sauk Centre, Minnesota to tell the story of Carol, a college-educated, progressive, idealist, who marries Will Kennicott, a decent if extraordinarily conventional local doctor. Lured by Kennicott’s invitation to use her education and artistic talents to bring beauty, culture, and humanitarian ideals to his hometown, she finds herself constantly watched and usually derided by local residents, who resist every project she undertakes and resent her sense of cultural superiority. She makes friends with several like-minded nonconformists, whom she loses one by one, and has a flirtation with a younger man who admires her. Finally, she leaves her husband to live with her son in Washington for two years, where she associates with various progressives but never decides on a new life course. In the end, she returns to Kennicott, and the novel ends with her acknowledging that she has been “beaten” in her attempts at reform but still determined to resist the town’s narrow, shallow ways:
“I have won in this: I’ve never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept my faith.” (p. 451)
In terms of the Three Pillars of American Civilization, Carol’s faith is in Culture. For her, literature, plays, and public architecture are needed to turn the shanty-like Gopher Prairie into a sophisticated European-style community. Mixed in with Culture is the idea of Progress, which to her means mainly moral progress – the replacement of the town’s Old Testament moral code with modern, scientific, humanistic standards of conduct. She has no active concern with Morality, though she is not personally inclined to immoral behavior.
The citizens of Gopher Prairie believe in Progress too – but to them this means such things as concrete pavement, a nice “rest room” for farmers’ wives, street lights – things strictly material. As for a code of conduct, they rely strictly on old-fashioned Morality – on watching over your neighbors and ostracizing those who violate the moral code. For Culture, the occasional banal movie and patriotic poem are quite sufficient for these practical people.
Lewis, of course, largely sides with Carol, though the narrative makes her naiveté and impracticality evident from time to time. Was his attack on the small town justified?
No doubt he was right in decrying the downsides of small-town life: the ugliness and crude materialism; the rewarding of mediocrity and ostracizing of the weak or different; the false piety, the carefully-maintained class system hidden beneath the veneer of “democracy.” And yet today, when the Main Street he describes scarcely exists anymore, the question for us is not so much whether to condemn or defend the small town, but to see what that critique meant in the context of our history.
Their limitations and problems of small towns were bound up in their origins. One thing that Lewis’s brief allusions to the history of Gopher Prairie remind us of is the extraordinary speed with which these thousands of small towns sprang up as America extended westward during its frontier years, from about 1790 to 1890. With fertile land available at low prices, it was possible for most people willing to work hard to achieve, if not opulence, certainly a much-improved standard of living. The small towns existed to serve the farms and local industries.
As a result, culture was limited to that which was familiar and non-threatening to the community. Conformity was reinforced by the smallness of the population, and probably by the fact that those who did not fit in could move on to somewhere else, while those with artistic or intellectual inclination would make their way to the cities. Those with wealth and business or political skills formed themselves into a sort of local oligarchy, leading to a well-defined pecking order. Meanwhile, in northern states like Minnesota, large numbers of immigrants from places like Sweden and Germany lived with some tension alongside the Anglo-Saxon stock, a tension sometimes exacerbated by the socialistic ideas, or the Catholic religion, that some of them brought.
By 1920 American civilization and culture were coming into their own, and it is hardly surprising that people like Lewis became increasingly discontented with the cultural life in the small towns, which must have seemed decades behind the times. Did Lewis’s critique affect the small towns directly? Probably not much. (It is amusing that Sauk Centre, after a period of anger, eventually made its status as “the original Main Street” a point of pride.) But the critique of the small town was symptomatic of a growing gap in values between the cities and towns, or between the intellectuals and the masses. Main Streeters held on to the church as the center of community life and arbiter of morality; they were rightly suspicious of Socialism and understandably in no hurry to adopt woman suffrage. Yet their position remained a reactive one that could not alter the development of the larger society into ever more “progressive” ways. Socialism, suffrage, theosophy, humanism, free love – these words inspired in them fear and contempt that, to Lewis, was absurd and exaggerated. Left to herself, Carol Kennicott did not divorce her husband. But 90 years later, after decades of rising divorce and illegitimacy rates, can we still share her faith in a flexible, tolerant code?
Though the small towns may have been harmed by short-sighted leadership, much of their decline can be traced to economic and social policies of the post-World War II era. Greenberg’s review mentions the development of the interstate highway system, federal mortgage programs that encouraged large-scale suburban housing, and farm subsidies that favored agribusiness over family farms. Larger trends like the promulgation of television also altered American life in ways that hurt the towns.
It seems unfortunate that a more salutary relationship did not develop between the cities and small towns of the United States. One could wish that small-town America had been a bit more culturally nuanced, so that they did not feel the need to ban any book in the library that mentioned adultery. One sympathizes with the victims of wrongful ostracism that angered Lewis so. One could also wish that the intellectuals in the cities had held more respect for the values of the heartland. Our civilization is, after all, made up of both the urban and the rural, intellectuals and common folk. Divisions between these sectors, and alienation from the mother cultures of Europe, have surely contributed to the weaknesses which are now endangering our national existence.
In particular, the experience of the 20th century inured all of us, in town and city alike, to a dizzying level of material development and a constant flowing in and out of people. Towns like the fictional Gopher Prairie were not nearly as stable as they may have appeared to be from the outside. All of this makes me wonder if Americans are too accepting of change, and strangely passive about it despite our general activeness in other areas. Could our confidence as a young and successful nation have helped to blind us to the implications of the 1965 Immigration Act, which opened our gates to the mass non-Western influx that is wiping out the society that created Main Street? Did the constant growth and change of America make us today a people unable to call for a halt to growth and change?
I do not believe that a “return” to small-town society is the way to save our country from the forces that threaten it. But Main Street is part of our history, and part of our soul. It may live again in some form if we work to make it happen.
*The CD is worth buying, though not slickly-produced like those produced by large publishers; but be sure to email Mr. Derbyshire before attempting to order it online.
Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1948 (1920).
Amy Greenberg, “Babbitt Who? The Decline of Small-Town America,” Reviews in American History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (June 1999), p. 267-274.