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