Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Thematic—Political Mythologies

Small-Town USA

The mythical place that stifles and nourishes.

Phil Christman

Glo (detail), 1997, by Patrick Faulhaber (1946–2016), Dallas Museum of Art; Texas Artists Fund/ Bridgeman Images; Estate of Patrick Faulhaber.

It seems harder to write honestly about small towns than about other settings. A city in a novel can be dystopia, utopia, or mere backdrop; the country, the wilderness, can be simultaneously rich, threatening, alien, and homey. But with rare exceptions, the small town in contemporary literature is either a hell to escape from or a heaven to return to. The default lenses, long in place, are Dandelion Wine and Winesburg, Ohio.

This bias is not only literary; it has become a part of how those of us who grew up in such places make sense of our experiences. When we talk about the place where we were raised, my sister and I unconsciously illustrate this split. Her memories are pastoral and nostalgic. People worked hard; there was optimism in the air, a sense of community. I remember feeling this way in my earliest childhood; after about age ten, what I mostly remember about the place is how angry people were. I remember a vast peevishness and spitefulness, people swerving their cars “jokingly” at pedestrians and forcing joggers (me) into ditches and throwing their trash at you through the window, conversations that consisted mostly of epithets. I remember—as observer, participant, and victim—a culture of bullying, hazing, and sexual harassment so pervasive that you could not precisely demarcate these activities from normal behavior. And I remember the bizarre, asymmetric rage, the kind of rage that, if you wanted to dignify it, you could compare to the epic snits of Greek mythology. But I don’t want to dignify it. One night, a coworker casually threatened to kill my father over some meaningless workplace dispute—my father was, if I remember correctly, the night janitor at the time, not an authority figure of any kind, nor particularly disliked. Well, that is arbitrary enough to be something Zeus might do, but let’s not call it epic.

You can catch a person at a bad time. The same is surely true of places. The divergence in childhood memories between my sister and me can be put down to differences in disposition, moral commitments, and ideology, but most of all to economic history. She graduated from high school a few years before the enactment in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement; I graduated a few years after. The town still boasted two largish employers when my sister went off to college; by the time I did, we were slowly losing both. Imagine a storm front moving quickly through a small place. Not until I moved to the soulless, inhuman, anonymous city, where I lived, at first, in neighborhoods that caused visiting friends from back home to shudder—though actually it was racism, plus secondhand memories of the crime-beset 1970s, that caused this reaction—did I finally feel able to conduct myself with the openness and friendliness that are supposed to mark small-town manners in particular.

Making Small-Town Meaning

But then a small town might well be angry; it is asked to do everything. It must manufacture or mine or grow or process some two or three things as intensively as possible until, one day, it must not. When this day inevitably arrives, and storefront after storefront goes dark, we demand that the place turn on a dime, and ask why its leaders didn’t “plan for the future.” The Michigan town where I grew up has, at various points, gotten by on milling, tourism, the boiling of sugar beets, truck manufacturing, pickle processing, oil refining, and the nearby presence of a liberal arts college, which is another sort of place from which we seem to expect everything.

Along with everything else we ask them to make, we ask small towns to make meaning. The small town is the place where we still number the generations, where (as Grace Olmstead describes in her recent memoir Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind) a person might still be known mostly as so-and-so’s grandchild. It’s the place that moralizes the all-powerful alien Kal-El into the kind, humble Superman, a dichotomy that recent iterations of the Superman story have only sharpened. Kal-El is raw capacity; Superman is processed power, power that has been given a name, a meaning, a story, a relationship to other beings. The town is the place where you learn the value of a dollar, the meaning of a hard day’s work, before you find your true life in the city. Its continuance after you leave, in turn, symbolizes the unchanging reality of these moral verities: Superman never goes mad with power because Smallville is still there, steadying him at a distance. This mythic role perhaps accounts for the difficulty of writing about the small town in the realistic, rather than the eulogistic or satirical, mode. We use the first one when we feel that our particular small town lived up to these impossible promises; we use the second when it didn’t.

Perhaps the smallness is the point: as if only at a particular scale can we see human relations in their fullness. Only in a small community, according to this line of thinking, can we really know what we are doing. In the city, meanings and connections are multiplied until we can’t see them at all. In the country or the wilderness, we may feel that our actions take place outside the grid of human meaning entirely. Aristotle argued that the ideal polis would be small enough that each citizen (who for him would not constitute anything near the entire population) could know “what sort of man” every other citizen was. He considered Athens far too big. Modern estimates vary, but one common calculation suggests that it boasted a population of about 300,000 people, about a tenth of whom were citizens. Ten thousand was a better population for a Greek polis—to us, that’s a small town. Just as, from Aristotle’s perspective, Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex was the ideal play because it portrayed a single action, in a single day, and thus allowed the spectator to see the action whole, a polis the size of a modern small town afforded a full view of social relations, a stage on which life was depicted A to Z. This may be the primary mythic role that small towns play in our politics: the stage that is just the right size.

But these tasks of meaning making, of symbolizing for others’ benefit, require the small town, precisely, not to change too fast. Meanwhile, we demand that such places upend their entire local economy as soon as their fragile node in the regional economy is disrupted, often by some far-off decision over which the town had no control. It’s impossible. A place will certainly be grumpy if its value depends on its ability to square a circle.

The Revolt from the Village

Like so many things that seem ancient and unalterable, this particular set of pressures on small towns arose not long ago for weird reasons. Geographers Brian Page and Richard Walker, in their 1991 article “From Settlement to Fordism,” argued for the centrality of the story of midwestern economic development to that of American capitalism generally, and, in turn, for the importance of towns to that story. “Manufacturing,” they wrote, “was part of the settlement of the Midwest from the beginning, not a later addition to a previously established agricultural base…. The foundation for Midwestern growth was a broad, synergistic process of agro-industrialization.” Towns in the Midwest did not, in Page and Walker’s theory, develop simply as conveniently equidistant locations between farm settlements where trade could happen; they were “busy centers of trade and processing essential to the settlement process.” Sometimes they were sited at the same time as, or before, the “surrounding farmland” was settled. Country, city, and town grew together, a web.11xBrian Page and Richard Walker, “From Settlement to Fordism: The Agro-Industrial Revolution of the American Midwest,” Economic Geography 67, no. 4 (October 1991): 281–315, https://doi.org/10.2307/143975.

At the same time, as literary scholar Jason Stacy points out, nineteenth-century Americans had already drafted the New England small town into a mythopoeic role. Such places served for nineteenth-century readers as “a founding community that exhibited a natural morality unmoored from the encrusted and pretentious rituals of the European past.”22xJason Stacy, Spoon River America: Edgar Lee Masters and the Myth of the American Small Town (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2021), 14. Thus, the New England village, in literary depictions, can have some of the wildness, the unpredictability, of country life. It can be strange, not simply flat. Think of Hawthorne’s haunted towns, or, much later, of H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham. A person could say many critical things about Arkham, but the “stifling small town” story doesn’t easily apply to it, unless it is the reader’s last breath that is stifled, by a tentacular appendage of indescribable horror.

But the midwestern town, Stacy contends, was depicted somewhat differently. It was an “inheritor of values of a mythological founding generation” and a “battleground for the characteristics and actualization of those values,” with the result that it “became the center of a conflict about the future of the country itself.”33xIbid., 35. Colonized within living memory, unlike, say, Concord (already two centuries old when Emerson moved there), these new places saw themselves as exemplary of America’s entire short life. For early midwesterners, the small town offered an epitome of the country itself, from settler to settee.

Exemplarity can be a curse. If the children of pioneers come to distrust the thing their parents built, then the places that each stand as synecdoches for that thing will in turn invite a more critical look. Thus the stage is set for another myth. The early 1920s saw a “revolt from the village” among serious American writers. Or at least, it saw the popularization of that idea, via an essay by Carl Van Doren.44xCarl Van Doren, “The Revolt from the Village: 1920,” The Nation 113 (October 12, 1921): 407–12. He pointed to Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of unusually blunt poetic epitaphs for the residents of a fictional Illinois town, as well as Sherwood Anderson’s collection of linked stories, Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920). According to Van Doren, these books exposed the deep frustrations and hypocrisies that wriggled under the wholesome surface of small-town life. As Jon Lauck shows in From Warm Center to Ragged Edge (2017), these writers did not necessarily think of themselves as having rejected the prairie towns they wrote about.55xJon K. Lauck, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge: The Erosion of Midwestern Literary and Historical Regionalism, 1920–1965 (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2017). Still, the paradigm Van Doren seemed to establish remained influential—it may have affected how subsequent midwestern authors saw themselves, and it certainly affected how they were read. Today, too, it’s often the splashy but misleading bits of journalism that get debated the longest. People still use the term “hysterical realism” when far better James Wood coinages have fallen into disuse. Or, to take an example that pertains to the issue of small towns: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016), a book that is smug and off-putting at every moment when Vance is describing anyone other than his grandmother, has been turned into a movie, while Sarah Smarsh’s far more interesting and nuanced Heartland (2018) has not. And the writers Van Doren considered are all arguably purveyors of escape-from-the-village stories. Anderson’s George Willard leaves Winesburg; Lewis’s Carol Kennicott leaves Gopher Prairie, though not permanently. As for Masters’s characters, they judge their own and others’ lives with the freedom of the dead, and they occasionally make the afterworld sound like a city, referring to their visits with the ghosts of the great and the famous.

Thereafter, it’s easier to list small towns in American art that serve as sites for the examination of pathology, hypocrisy, or the ways a soul is stifled, than towns that serve simply as neutral settings. Faulkner’s towns, as much as he loves them, as rich as he finds them to be, are still interesting to him partly because they are the places where the warped history of America must constantly be faced, and where it often crushes the protagonists (poor Quentin Compson, jumping in the river). Towns in westerns are still half wild, and therefore full of possibility, but particularly in the revisionist westerns of the later twentieth century, they are often places where we see the prefiguring of an American tropism toward violence or greed. In Toni Morrison’s novels, we often encounter small, mostly black towns or black neighborhoods whose relative insularity and independence allow black characters the dignity of moral choice somewhat unconstrained by interference from white people, even when this means depicting these characters doing the sorts of crimes that groups of white Americans commit with such numbing historical frequency. When the hard-pressed, intolerant citizens of Ruby, Oklahoma, in Morrison’s underrated Paradise (1998), destroy the Convent, a place on the edge of the town that has come to serve as a home for wandering and castoff women, it’s an illustration of a human obsession with hierarchy, which we can see operating in its fullness—again, because the smallness of the place allows us to see the origins and effects of the crime from beginning to end.

The trope of escaping one’s awful hometown, meanwhile, had emerged in the Midwest—the revolt against the village. And like other midwestern goods, it has been exported. Literary critic Rachael Price points to Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel The Last Picture Show as a southern example.66xRachael Price, Beyond “Main Street”: Small Towns in Post–“Revolt” American Literature, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 2016, ScholarWorks@UARK Theses and Dissertations, http://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/1476. In the movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967), bank robbery and probable early death are preferable to the boredom of Rowena, Texas. Joe Buck quits small-town Texas to do sex work in New York City in Midnight Cowboy (1969). The Last Picture Show became, of course, a popular and critically praised film in 1971.

Why does it now seem natural to us that a small place should stifle? For the same reason, I suspect, that the small town offers the possibility of knowing everyone, of seeing each social interaction and political choice whole from one end to the other, of making meaning. It is so easy to make the wrong meanings. The small town is a terrible place to be misunderstood, because the misunderstanding is frozen in amber. It’s no good having everybody know you by your name, if they all agreed to forget your actual name early on, and stuck you with some epithet you outgrew ten years ago, or that never fit at all. It’s a well-worn example, but think about the way a small town classifies a young woman as a “slut,” how rarely the term corresponds to an unusual enthusiasm for consensual sex, even if we grant the dubious premise that such an appetite merits an insulting name. If we only called people “sluts” because they were unusually easy, it would be guys who suffered most.

Of the supposed “revolt against the village” writers, I find Anderson the most interesting. Lewis is easily dispensed with; his books have real pathos, if you stick with them, but his mocking tone too often marks him as one of the prigs he wishes to attack. You have to read through his bluster to get to the good stuff. Masters I like somewhat better, for the way his epitaphs argue with each other—for instance, the young man who piously recalls his parents, and who we soon learn is (unbeknownst to himself) the illegitimate child of a woman he doesn’t know. But the summative mood of the poems always bothered me. It’s as though Masters thinks that by devoting a series of poems to the town’s buried secrets, he is telling the full and final truth of the place. He’s a small-town man himself: He thinks he really knows who everyone secretly is, whereas, in the story “Paper Pills,” Anderson offers us the image of Doctor Reefy, trying to put it all into words, but then distrusting those words, rejecting them:

He was forty-five then and already he had begun the practice of filling his pockets with the scraps of paper that became hard balls and were thrown away. The habit had been formed as he sat in his buggy behind the jaded gray horse and went slowly along country roads. On the papers were written thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts.77xSherwood Anderson, “Paper Pills,” Winesburg, Ohio (New York: NY: Dover Thrift, 1995), 11.

On one level, this image simply suggests the kind of stifled-artist figure who often turns up in stories of town life. (Ah, if only he could have gone to New York!) But at the same time, it’s a picture of someone who doubts his hypotheses about life. Language chases the inexpressible, and loses. We know only that we know nothing. This is a just, though hardly convenient, way to think about our neighbors, even if we have seen them every day since kindergarten.

Places Aren’t Tests

It suggests something about the hollowing out of the American economy that, by the 1990s, even those living in actual cities had begun to make the story of the town we must leave behind their own. Consider young Will’s desperation to leave Boston in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. In the 2017 film Lady Bird, the titular heroine longs to escape the fishbowl of Sacramento, a city of more than two million souls, a place that would surely have thrilled and exhausted the teenaged me. A writer and teacher recently told me she struggles to talk the young writers she teaches into staying in town. She lives in Chicago. If you feel stifled by Chicago, that’s your fault.

The problem runs a great deal deeper than feeling stifled, of course. What people are is scared. If a beginning writer is tempted by the prospect of writing for some sub-Netflix show in Los Angeles or turning out clickbait in the Big Apple, it’s a sign of a culture that does not know how to funnel people into meaningful work, or how to pay them a decent wage while they do it.

We occasionally hear the argument that city people who grew up in smaller places should simply return to their hometowns. I first encountered this argument during college, in an essay by Wendell Berry. At the time, the only social role I could realistically imagine myself fulfilling back home was “incongruously well-read, and not infrequently stoned, gas station clerk,” which was a type of guy my town had offered in abundance. (God bless each and every one of these fellows, who introduced me to the music of David Bowie and the writings of Lester Bangs, and who kept the fountain drinks flowing while I whined about some crush.) In Olmstead’s Uprooted, mentioned before, she weighs the question of whether she should return to Emmett, Idaho, where she grew up. After offering a rich and nuanced discussion of the economic forces and history that first made and then partially unmade Emmett, not neglecting to name the role of colonialism and racism in that story, Olmstead gives the only possible answer, which is also a deflatingly commonsensical one: Maybe? If other commitments—my marriage, the kids, work—allowed it?

Another writer who has weighed the issue of moving back home, with all of Olmstead’s seriousness and none of her common sense, is the conservative blogger Rod Dreher. After his sister died, tragically young, of cancer, he wrote a book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013), in which he made a fairly standard paleoconservative argument for the greater moral value of small-town life and small-town people, with their strong ties and thick commitments. (You can find all of these things in cities. It’s your approach to city living, not the fact that you’re in a city, that makes the difference.) He then did something that makes him both greater and sillier than a mere pundit: He acted on the implications of his flawed argument. It is the job of pundits to issue diktats by which they have no intention of living, to advocate austerity while speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival or drum up a war in which their child will never fight. But Dreher actually picked up and moved to a place where he hadn’t felt welcome, out of sheer conviction. A 2017 profile in The New Yorker suggests that the experiment failed:

Over dinner—Dreher, who was observing Lent, confined himself to oysters and crab cakes—I learned what had happened when he moved back to St. Francisville. “The thing that I dreamed of and hoped for just didn’t work out,” he said. “They just wouldn’t accept me—not my sister’s kids, and not my dad and mom. They just could not accept that I was so different from them.… All that mattered was that I wasn’t like them. It just broke me.” He fell into a depression and was diagnosed with chronic mono, then went into therapy and read Dante.88xJoshua Rothman, “Rod Dreher’s Monastic Vision,” The New Yorker, April 24, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/01/rod-drehers-monastic-vision.

I am, I should say, one of the many people who usually pay attention to this writer only when they want to find out what their friends are angry about. If Dreher more often practiced such self-defeating moral seriousness—rather than the moral idiocy of blaming George Floyd for his own death, of laundering the reputation of Viktor Orbán, of gossiping incontinently about trans people, and the other things for which Dreher is largely known these days—I might more often read him for other reasons. Nevertheless, whenever I think about this episode, I feel genuine sadness for Dreher. (It is a very good thing that we cannot always limit our sympathy to people we approve of.) Besides the immense frustrated sincerity visible here, I see—or perhaps I project—a certain desperation for acceptance that is characteristic of a person whose social skills took till college to kick in. When a place rejects you, you never stop wondering whether it’s your fault; the whole memory becomes like a test you wish you could take again, now that you’ve finally studied for it.

But places aren’t tests. Indeed, one of the signs of a healthy community is that it’s robust enough to tolerate a little difference. Dreher reports feeling ostracized in his youth—it’s not clear to me how much his town at large, as distinct from his family, perpetrated this ostracism—over unimportant details of disposition. He liked to read, to look at art, to listen to Talking Heads, and this marked him as a weirdo. Obviously, I don’t believe that anyone should be made to feel deficient for lacking these qualities (well, maybe the last one). But perhaps, in an era when economic and racial elitism go about under the name “right populism,” while underpaid graduate students are scorned as “elitists,” this needs to be said more often: Nobody should be made to feel deficient for having these qualities, either. When we treat it as axiomatic that small towns have no use or place for such people, that if you have ever liked a French movie you had better just hurry to the nearest city, we forget that part of being a community is leaving room for the diversity of human nature. (What I am saying about differences in interests, in dispositions, in gifts and talents, applies with even greater force to, say, differences in race, religion, or one’s relationship to one’s assigned sex role.) A healthy community doesn’t need to spit people out over trifles. It doesn’t even need to spit people out over real issues. When small towns do so, it is a sign of weakness, a weakness that it is not up to those of us to fix who have found all the promises of small-town life fulfilled elsewhere. Equally, when people who have spent their lives in cities assume that all small towns practice these sorts of exclusions, it is a sign of another kind of provinciality, another kind of brittleness.

What Is a Small Town to Do?

In fact, such assumptions appear to be at odds with the reality of many small towns—at least the ones that are flourishing according to the standards we currently use. A think tank recently ranked all of America’s “micropolitan” areas. Summarizing that ranking—in which Bozeman, Montana, placed first—one reporter wrote that successful micropolises tend to be defined by, among other traits, “travel, tourism, and recreation as key industries; prevalence of professional services…and research universities and four-year colleges.”99xRon Starner, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Small Towns,” Site Selection Magazine, March 2019, https://siteselection.com/trustbelt/the-7-habits-of-highly-effective-small-towns.cfm. These places may be small, but they don’t spontaneously combust when confronted with a little learning.

These findings are, however, depressing in another way. The picture of a successful town presented here is of a place that has given up any hope of surviving without the patronage of people who live elsewhere, that is, in cities—where, presumably, actual things are still being made. The so-called successful town offers those people nice scenery (travel and tourism), some things to look at while they recharge. Also, it educates their children at its “universities and four-year colleges.” The perpetual attempts to “disrupt” that sector—attempts that boil down to “replace in-person instruction with MOOCs and teachers with underpaid tutors and remote graders”—will, if they succeed, leave many of these towns with a set of empty, pretty buildings and an expensive gym to maintain. Perhaps there is nothing else for small towns to do at this point; economic interdependence of some kind is unavoidable, an aspect of our creaturely nature, and it would surely be better to live off tourism than to destroy, as small-town industry often did, so much natural beauty and biological richness.

So what is a small town to do? One school of thought, advocated by Princeton professors of civil and environmental engineering Deborah Popper and Frank Popper, is the idea of “smart decline”: planning intelligent ways to live and use existing space without assuming that the city or town will ever again experience upwardly spiraling growth.1010xSee for example Deborah Popper and Frank Popper, “Smart Decline in Post-Carbon Cities,” Resilience, July 20, 2010, https://www.resilience.org/stories/2010-07-20/smart-decline-post-carbon-cities/. This is understandably a hard sell, although Youngstown, Ohio, has apparently signed on.1111xSee for example Alexia Fernández Campbell, “The City That Embraced Its Decline,” The Atlantic, July 7, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/the-city-that-tried-to-stop-growing/490313/. How will a city know when it’s time to lean into its decline? At what point will the context that makes a town worth fighting for have collapsed so completely that it must throw in the towel? And who should decide when that time has come—the residents, or an onlooker armed with a spreadsheet? Another approach is offered by civil engineer Chuck Marohn, founder of the blog Strong Towns, an online home for a community of like-minded writers on land-use planning and related topics. Marohn’s ideas, like Popper’s, are complex and worth fuller exposition than I can offer here, but one mark of his approach is his insistence that towns turn a profit.1212xSee for example Daniel Herriges, “Does Your City Run a Profit?” Strong Towns, June 25, 2020, https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2020/6/24/does-your-city-run-a-profit-how-would-you-know. Capitalism seems baked into such an assumption, which will make Marohn’s argument seem intuitively trustworthy to people who find capitalism essentially convincing, and downright suspicious to those of us who don’t.1313xSee for example Asher J. Kohn, “The Weak Logic in Strong Towns,” October 30, 2017, https://www.asherjkohn.com/blog/2017/10/30/the-weak-logic-in-strong-towns.

What is indisputably useful about both the Poppers and Marohn, in any case, is that they urge the citizens of small cities and towns to slow down and think about what they’re doing. This is the very possibility that small towns are supposed to offer: a theater in which to contemplate more fully the impact of your single life, your choices. It’s surely untrue that we can save every place—climate change alone makes this impossible. But we will think better about these decisions if we take it as axiomatic that any place where people now live is worth saving. Not because of the role it plays in some national mythology, not because of the values it embodies (it probably doesn’t embody them any better than lots of other places), and not because it makes the ethical life somehow realer. It is worth saving because people live there. And because, as climate change worsens, many other people will need many small and large theres to go to.