"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Keeping The Wolves At Bay–Civility, Rectitude, Principle, And The Quiet Resistance Of A Small Town

The Blanton Clarion’s first publisher, Harrison Nichols, had come to the prairie in 1920 after making his fortune in New England in lumber and shipping.  In a story out of Main Street, he had followed his love to Western Minnesota, invested his money in land, and soon was the town’s most prosperous citizen; and he, like Sinclair Lewis was taken with the town’s decency, patriotism, faith, and optimism.  Although it was, not unlike most small towns in America, somewhat insular and resistant to change – not the place for idealists or entrepreneurs – Blanton was still very American.  Its fundamental values, morality, and ethical probity were what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they formed the Republic. While the residents of Blanton looked at news from the great cities of the new America with curiosity and interest, most had no desire to leave the town in which they were born and grew up. 

Image result for images book cover lewis main street

Two generations later when Harrison Nichols’ grandson took over the paper, the community had changed little.  It had survived the Depression, the commercialization of prairie farmland which had left many small prairie towns empty and farmhouses abandoned, and perhaps most importantly the waves of social change which had radically restructured American society and reoriented the principled values that had been at the center of its life.  Resistance or opposition to these progressive waves was not difficult for Blanton because few of those with ‘alternative lifestyles’ felt any desire to go there; nor were there any minorities to speak of.  The black exodus after the Civil War bypassed them.  The Illinois Central travelled far to the east, and few freed slaves, even had there been a whistle stop in Blanton between Mississippi and Chicago, would never have chosen life on a cold, bleak prairie. 

So in many ways, Blanton was indeed ‘the town that time forgot’.  Time had shown itself to be disruptive, uncivil, divisive, and contrary; and if the town’s social perimeter had become tighter and less permeable over the years, no one was complaining.  The America its residents saw on the news was definitely not the country they recognized.  While unfailingly patriotic – Blanton boys had died in all America’s wars -  the town never wanted to join a mainstream which had become muddied and lifeless.  Residents knew that the other America was encroaching, and that soon their livelihood and way of life would be swallowed by the social waves sweeping from the coasts; but they remained in place.  There was something to the idea of place itself that held them.  Blanton was more than just a town that had lasted for over a hundred years, essentially unchanged and intact.  It was a town of generations; houses lived in by successive Hammonds, Parkers, Carpenters, and Joneses; park benches sat in by grandmothers, climbed on by grandchildren, and repaired and restored by their relatives. 

Act I of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town begins with a description of a small town in New Hampshire:

The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mountain.  Well, I'd better show you how our town lies. Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station. Polish Town's across the tracks. Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street's the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there. Baptist is down in the holla' by the river. Catholic Church is over beyond the tracks. Here's the Town Hall and Post Office combined; jail's in the basement. Here's the grocery store and here's Mr. Morgan's drugstore. Most everybody in town manages to look into those two stores once a day.

Public School's over yonder. High School's still farther over. Quarter of nine mornings, noontimes, and three o'clock afternoons, the hull town can hear the yelling and screaming from those schoolyards. This is our doctor's house, Doc Gibbs'. This is the back door. This is Mrs. Gibbs' garden. Corn…peas...beans...hollyhocks…heliotrope… and a lot of burdock. And this is Mrs. Webb's garden. Just like Mrs. Gibbs'. Only it's got a lot of sunflowers, too.

Nice town, y'know what I mean?

Image result for images book cover wilder our town

Eudora Welty writes of a similar town in Delta Wedding. Although there are some strains within the Fairchild family – the marriage of outsiders Troy and Robbie are potential disruptions to the perfectly-ordered running of the plantation – none of them ever amount to anything.  The folds of the family are too welcoming and absorptive.  It is too big, too old, to established in its traditional ways, propriety, good taste, and humanity not to tame the most rebellious.

Delta Wedding is not only the story of a multi-generational, closely-knit family but its simplicity extends beyond the plantation.  Welty chooses not to write about the Civil War or Reconstruction, both of which were only decades before her story of the wedding.  The plantation is a physical and historical enclave.  The only past that has any importance for the Fairchilds is the one of their ancestors.

Image result for images book cover welty delta wedding

Sinclair Lewis, perhaps best-known for his criticism of the insular, ignorant, and self-satisfied burghers of the Midwest (Babbitt) in Main Street he is far less critical, and although he first depicts the small Midwestern town of his birth in an unfavorable and predictable light, he later expresses admiration for its energy, optimism, faith in progress, and solid values.  Any society, he observes, has inwardness – a self-protective instinct to keep disruptive ideas out – but there is a distinct value to a culture which has an undeniably moral and ethical core.

When Carol Milford arrives in Gopher Prairie she feels lost and depressed.  The town is small, simple, and unattractive.  There are no arts, no beauty, and no poetry.  It exists only because of the rich prairie land around it, the money to be made, and the services to support it.  It is a miserable place without culture.  She resists and makes repeated attempts to introduce ‘culture’ to the town without success.  It is not only insular, simple, and conservative; but obstinately resistance to change.  However, over the years, she realizes that the town’s cultural indifference is nothing of the sort.  In her desire to remake the town in her ambitious cultural image, she ignored the unique, fundamental culture of its own. A community which valued place, permanence, family, and civility most definitely had culture, perhaps not ‘high’ culture, but a a level of ethical and moral consistency which in many ways surpassed it.

Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables also wrote of place, permanence, and history; and although critical of the corrosive inbred nature of socially hermetic places, he could not help but see their importance.

The street in which it up-reared its venerable peaks has long ceased to be a fashionable quarter of the town; so that, though the old edifice was surrounded by habitations of modern date, they were mostly small, built entirely of wood, and typical of the most plodding uniformity of common life. Doubtless, however, the whole story of human existence may be latent in each of them, but with no picturesqueness, externally, that can attract the imagination or sympathy to seek it there.

But as for the old structure of our story, its white-oak frame, and its boards, shingles, and crumbling plaster, and even the huge, clustered chimney in the midst, seemed to constitute only the least and meanest part of its reality. So much of mankind's varied experience had passed there,—so much had been suffered, and something, too, enjoyed,—that the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart. It was itself like a great human heart, with a life of its own, and full of rich and somber reminiscences.

Image result for images hawthorne house seven gables

‘The town that time should forget’ was the headline of an editorial in a well-known Eastern newspaper whose journalist did a feature on Blanton – a small town whose residents boasted of its principles and fundamental values but whose lily-white, conservative values were in fact racist and indicative of the white supremacy which resided throughout the country under the cover of probity and traditionalism.  The journalist, like the fictional Carol Milford, overlooked and ignored the internal culture of the town and how a community uniform in race, ethnicity, and social and religious values, need not be prejudiced. Cultural homogeneity does not imply injustice.

He was not alone, for many of his colleagues made the same wrongful assumption and worse, conflated individual towns’ experience with a national one.  All small towns are socially ignorant.  Cultural uniformity ipso facto is defiant racism. They are obstacles to progress, social justice, and progressive reform. 

The opposite is true.  The values of homogeneous societies such as Blanton or the fictional towns of Lewis, Wilder, and Hawthorne, are more representative of high culture than any more diverse.  The values of Blanton – rectitude, honor, respect, discipline, compassion, courage, and honor – have been the attributes of advanced civilizations since Greece and Rome.  The educational principles of Cato the Elder incorporated into his diptychs for future Roman leaders included this moral code as even more essential than military strategy, civil governance, or law.

Blanton should be looked to for guidance not with opprobrium and mistrust.

Some critics have suggested that the sense of place was really what gave Welty’s later works distinction; and that novels like Delta Wedding were examples of how the ‘place’ of the Delta and the Fairchild plantation was a metaphor for place and family:

Place is vitally important to Welty. She believed that place is what makes fiction seem real, because with place come customs, feelings, and associations. Place answers the questions, "What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?" Place is a prompt to memory; thus the human mind is what makes place significant.

There was indeed human mind in Blanton, and far too little outside city limits.

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