Popular culture seems to have two general depictions of small towns.
The first is a naive, sleepy, hamlet where nothing ever happens,
populated with lovable eccentrics and warm-hearted folk (always folk,
never people). Generally this setup sees the return of the prodigal son
or arrival of an outsider, almost always from the “big city,” of which
the townies speak with disdain. The protagonist will eventually fall in
love with a more wholesome type of woman and realize what he’s needed
all along is a simpler kind of life. See television shows like Northern Exposure and Ed, for example. The other stereotype involves a placid calm that masks a swirling tempest of murder (Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), violence, racism (Pudd’nhead Wilson),
small mindedness, and cowfucking (that would be Faulkner). The most
accurate depiction of life in a small town I have ever seen, the TV
show Friday Night Lights, is constantly in danger of being canceled. No one wants to watch it.
- Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town by Robert Pinsky. 106 pages. University of Chicago. $16.00.
Americans love the myth of the small town, while the reality is a little harder to come by. Small town culture is actually in decline, which maybe explains the renewed nostalgia. We are an increasingly urban species. Timothy Clack states in Ancestral Roots that by 2020, 60 percent of the Earth’s population will live in cities. We crowd together in our big city centers while the small towns face dwindling populations and increasingly destitute main streets. Kids who grow up in small towns, myself included, talk of “getting out” and “escaping.” Those left burdened with running the family farm or trapped by poverty or bad luck are looked upon with pity. When couples decide they’d like a slower way of life these days, they don’t move to the small towns — they move to a suburb, many of which try to recreate the small town ideal. Unsuccessfully. The lawns might look the same, but while small towns often painfully feel like they’re sealed off from the outside world, suburbs exist in relation to the city. You meet your needs — food, work, entertainment — in the city and retreat to your suburban hideaway. This is why you hear people who live in the Chicago suburbs referring not to “Chicago” or “the city” but to “downtown.”
It’s no wonder this keeps reappearing as the ideal of what life should be — somewhere between Andy Griffith and Our Town, where everyone knows your name and the streets are safe enough for the kids to play in them. Of course everyone who grew up in a small town knows that these two extremes — the picture perfect cozy little town and the hidden nightmare — are both wrong. Yes, everyone in a small town does know your name. And your father’s name, and your age, what car you drive, what prescription medication you’re on, and what you were up to the night before. And while there are episodes of domestic violence and the occasionally shocking suicide statistic, especially in the very rural areas, towns are hardly the breeding grounds for lynch mobs and serial killers that some might suggest.
Robert Pinsky grew up in the small town of Long Branch, New Jersey, and focuses on small towns in his book Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town. The essays were originally given as a series of lectures, encompassing both Pinsky’s personal experiences and depictions in film and books. While the material is rich — Willa Cather, Mark Twain, Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, a KKK rally, the death of a president — the book is unfulfilling. The essays and lectures are so concerned with detail and trivia — for example, did you know that Sturges invented smear-proof lipstick as a teenager? I now do — that they forget to say anything sweeping and interesting. The sharpest section of Thousands of Broadways is a section quoted at length that reconsiders the Stage Manager’s speech at the end of Our Town as told by a character in a Faulkner story. “Nothin’ much happened. Couple of people got raped, couple more got their teeth kicked in…” It was written by Kenneth Tynan.
When the majority of the writers and filmmakers Pinsky examines were working, the town was the center of American life. Most of the population either lived in one or traveled there from the countryside to conduct business. Today the center of culture, education, entertainment, employment are all focused in the cities. The small town does not represent anything in contemporary society other than itself. When you want to write an epic, you set it in the city. The small town is no longer America, except in the pandering talk of politicians. And yet still the mythic ideal persists. Perhaps we have collectively seen too many Jimmy Stewart movies and long for a wholesomeness that no longer seems to exist. If it ever did. Even when Pinsky was a child, the common refrain was that Long Branch had seen its better days, a holiday retreat of the rich so lovely that President Garfield, languishing after having been shot, wanted to return there. It was in that town that Pinsky first learned to be embarrassed of his ambition to be a writer, told by well-meaning men in the town that he would never find work. Perhaps most annoying is Pinsky’s inability to define what a small town is. He uses the word “town” to sweep up pretty much anything that isn’t New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, as if a small rural town in Kansas exhibits the same behavior as a resort town on the Jersey Shore.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Thousands of Broadways is barely covered: how the creative soul, the free spirit, the intellectual, the artist, and the writers feel about their childhoods spent in small towns. Small towns love an eccentric — if you don’t believe me, ask a Kansan what they think of the Garden of Eden sculptures in Lucas — but they don’t always handle the ambitious or the iconoclast so well. Many writers hold their small town roots in contempt, as Jonathan Franzen does in his essays on the subject. Others — like Willa Cather, who is profiled in Thousands of Broadways — credit their hometowns for character and talent. In Cather’s semi-autobiographical novel The Song of the Lark, a famous singer leaves her hometown of Moonstone for the big city of Chicago only to discover, as Pinsky puts it, “Chicago turns out to harbor provinciality and plausible mediocrity, [while] Moonstone turns out to harbor seeds of high art.”
“No matter how much you want to, you never unbecome the place you came from,” essayist and novelist Rebecca Brown once wrote. As a native of a very isolated town of 1,200 people — we had to drive an hour to get to a supermarket — I can say it’s odd to see so little of your life reflected in the culture at large. I was one who fled and escaped, but I also hold quite fond feelings for where I grew up, and not much gets me angrier than a lazy or stereotypical depiction of the Midwest. But the era of the small town has passed, and if all we ever remember are these false versions, we’ll never understand what we’re losing. • 22 July 2009