The Fate of Small Towns is the Fate of America

camden

In discussing Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street in last week’s essay, I was mainly interested in Lewis’s condemnation of the moral and intellectual character of the American small town of his day. How fair was his picture of small-town life? Undoubtedly there was much truth in his portrayal of the shallow materialism, smug-mindedness, anti-intellectualism, enforced conformity, and physical drabness of his Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. On the other hand, most of these shortcomings were hardly unique to the small towns, while their work ethic, community spirit, safety, and other virtues that were once taken completely for granted now seem like rare treasures. What fools we have been – to allow ourselves to believe that greatest achievement of our civilization has been mere economic productivity!

However, it is also true that we cannot talk about morality and culture in isolation from socioeconomic factors. The rise and decline of the American small town is inseparable from the history of the larger society, a point that was driven home to me again and again while reading Richard Davies’s Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America (1998). “A century or more ago,” writes Davis, “[small towns] occupied a central place in the overall scheme of things, but modern America, with its dominant urban culture, has now passed them 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)

Davis’s book tells the story of Camden, Ohio, the town of his birth and birthplace of the author Sherwood Anderson. Its story parallels that of thousands of other American small towns. The first white settlers arrived in 1803, purchasing sections of the pristine forest at $2 an acre at the terms of the Land Act of 1800. Like David Crockett, Ohio settlers started by slaughtering the amazing profusion of wildlife that was available for the taking, as they took on the arduous task of clearing the forest for farming. Camden lay in the economic orbit of Cincinnati, and produced pork and grain for that market. By 1850 it was home to some 400 persons, with another 750 living in the surrounding farmland. Railroad service reached Camden in 1852; electric service in 1883.

Adapted to its function as a local economic hub in the national network of agriculture and industry, “by the end of the nineteenth century Camden was indistinguishable in appearance, form, and function from some ten thousand similar communities spread across the land.” (p. 44) Davis paints a detailed picture of the physical environment, dominated by the banks and the churches, and the moral ethos, likewise attuned to the mandates of economic productivity and moral propriety. The largely middle-class citizenry was divided into upper, middle, and lower sub-groups with invisible but universally recognized boundaries. The values of the town are familiar to all of us, if only in our imagination:

Certain behavioral characteristics were expected of those enjoying substantial social standing; sobriety, diligence, probity, reliability, and a responsible work ethic went a long way toward determining one’s standing in the community. Residents believed in the inevitability of Progress, a benevolent but demanding God, and the American Dream. They were unquestionably patriotic. (p. 46)

In a small town, everyone knew everyone else, and while that meant unacceptable or nontraditional behavior was quickly identified and powerful community sanctions imposed, it also meant that the protective cloak of the community was available in times of emergency or need. Criminal activity of any type was extremely rare. (p. 47)

By the mid-1920s telephones, automobiles, and radio connected Camden to the larger region and to the national culture. The future looked bright, but Camden’s very connectedness was undermining its former self-sufficiency. Local merchants lost business to the department stores of Dayton; movies replaced the Vaudeville-type entertainment of the “Opera House.” These phenomena were harbingers of the great changes in national life, propelled by technology and national social and economic trends, that would ultimately reduce towns like Camden to shells of their former selves. Davis describes these changes decade by decade. First came the Depression, with plummeting agricultural commodity prices leading to a wave of mortgage foreclosures. The Depression shook residents’ belief in efficacy of their work ethic, and, as they came to depend on government funds and to subordinate their activities to the mandates of centralized planning, it reduced their actual self-sufficiency. Davis describes the impact of the Depression as follows:

In confronting the cruel realities of the massive economic collapse, residents had to wrestle with the realization that many of the fundamental values upon which they based their lives were no longer viable. It was no longer possible to explain the existence of poverty as the result of laziness or personal failure. They now recognized that they did not have control over their own economic futures. (p. 89).

Subsequent events contributing to the surprisingly rapid decline of the small town included World War II, the suburban boom of the 1950s, the interstate highway system, the spread of television, and other familiar events in our history. By the early 1960s, the decline of America’s small towns was evident to all and seemed to be irreversible. As someone born in the mid-1960s who grew up in a small town and imagined it to be a stable, secure type of community, Davis’s book helped me to understand various physical and institutional features of my town as historical phenomena. I could also see how various events in my town over the years were symptoms of the general unraveling of small-town society that he describes. In the entry that follows this one I will try to articulate some of the issues and questions that the rise and fall of America’s small towns raise for those of us trying to recapture some aspects of our traditional culture.

References

Richard Davies, Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

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6 Responses to The Fate of Small Towns is the Fate of America

  1. Gintas says:

    “shallow materialism, smug-mindedness, anti-intellectualism, enforced conformity, and physical drabness”

    Most of that applies to any liberal hive (aka “city”) today.

  2. stephenhopewell says:

    Ouch. Yes, what did those progressives achieve in the cities (and suburbs) after their attack on the small towns?

  3. Hannon says:

    Thank you, Stephen. I enjoyed both installments about small towns and look forward to the third. Do you have any thoughts or resources regarding mid-size city/town entities, say 30K to 150K souls? I can’t help but wonder about their cultural and economic importance considering the gloomy condition– for traditionalists– of both small towns and large cities. They almost seem strategic somehow.

  4. stephenhopewell says:

    Hannon, thank you. I don’t have any particular thoughts about the medium-sized towns; that’s an intriguing suggestion. However, I am thinking about the condition of our cities as the subject for more research. Davies points out that after WWII, the sense of “urban crisis” led to policies that focused on that and harmed small towns – and since the urban crisis overlapped to a large extent with the “black” crisis, this suggests small towns were being indirectly harmed by those “urban populations” which they rarely encountered in person.

  5. Dr.D says:

    I’m coming to this rather late, but any way …

    Particularly for Hannon, I have lived many places around the country, and when it came time to retire, my wife and I decided we wanted a medium small city in the upper midwest. We came to Dubuque, IA, a city of 60,000 and I’m pleased to say that it is a really very good place for white people to live.

    We do have some blacks in town, and the city government is pushing “diversity” and “multiculturalism,” both signs of insanity. That said, at least at the present time, it is a very good place to live with a strong economy, reasonable cost of living, fairly good schools (I’m told, I have no children in school any longer), and relatively modest housing cost. It has not always been this way. Twenty five years ago, when I lived in a nearby town, Dubuque was on the rocks because their two big industries were in trouble. Today the financial base is much more diverse. One of those big industries is gone completely (the packing plant) and the other has shrunk so that it is not such a big factor in the local economy. A number of other companies have come to town, and things look pretty strong for now, provided Zero does not wreck us all.

    I’d have to say that I think this is true of a number of other similar towns in the upper midwest also.

    • stephenhopewell says:

      Thanks, Dr. D. I will try to give this comment more attention when I return to the subject in the future. The question of the best place to live and make a stand is one I often ponder. As I do the question of what careers or sectors of society may be kept safe for traditional Americans.

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