Wednesday, October 31, 2012
The Battle of the Red Books and the Blue Books: The literature of the town vs. the literature of the country
If you look at the map, the association is as clear as day: the denser the population, the more liberal the political leanings—and the sparser the population, the more traditional. But it is more than just politics that divides the red states and the blue states.
From before most of us can even remember, we are soaked and steeped in the distinction between the town and the country. As far back as Aesop, we are told that the ways of the city are not the ways of the country, and that, in fact, the country life is more solid, more stable, and more satisfying.
Aesop's Town Mouse, having visited the Country Mouse’s home and found the lifestyle too quiet and the cuisine too plain. He convinces the Country Mouse to return with him to the city, where there are “sweetmeats and jellies, pastries, delicious cheeses, indeed, the most tempting foods that a Mouse can imagine.” On its face, the city offers luxuries unattainable in the country, and the country mouse is dazzled. But as soon as he has availed himself of these delicacies he is confronted by the servants, the dog, and, worst of all, the cat. The Country Mouse stopped in the Town Mouse's den only long enough to pick up her carpet bag and umbrella.
"You may have luxuries and dainties that I have not," she said as she hurried away, "but I prefer my plain food and simple life in the country with the peace and security that go with it."
I think I understand the Town Mouse’s impatience with the country. Shortly after we were married, my pregnant wife and I moved from the suburbs of southern California to the rustic environs of small town Kentucky. When we first visited the small town in which we still live, we were charmed by the old-fashioned main street, with the bandstand in the park in front of the courthouse and the classic beauty of the little college in town—not to mention the lush green of the fields and horse farms that seem to go on forever.
But it wasn’t long after we moved when other things began to loom large: There was little in the way of restaurants, fewer choices at the grocery store, and if you wanted to shop for clothes, you had to drive for an hour to Lexington to do it. Everything seemed to close at 5:00 p.m. And don’t even ask about Sunday: Nothing was open, and you were on your own.
We traveled back home frequently with our two, three, and then four children. And, for a time, we might have moved back to what we perceived to be civilization if we could. We missed the luxuries and dainties.
But the years began to tell on our way of looking at things. The trips back to California became less frequent and less gratifying. The polluted air, the crowded roads, the endless asphalt—I don’t remember noticing them much when I lived there, but they came to seem chief features of the landscape. Where were the cows? Where were the corn fields? Where were the patches of woods and the occasional deer crossing the road? Why did no one wave to you when you drove by?
Our three boys had by then spent a good part of their childhood tromping through the creek that ran through our backyard (or fishing in it), and our daughter had already taken to horseback-riding (which eventually became her profession). We left as unwitting town mice, but every successive trip contributed to our transformation into country mice.
There was something about the country that seemed more solid, satisfying, and safe—and there was something about the city that was artificial, anxious, and threatening. And this was not our judgment only, but the judgment of time and civilization.
The ancient Romans loved to tell the story of Cincinnatus, who, after serving as Roman consul, retired to his country estate. When Rome’s enemies later began to rise against them, the Roman senate sent a delegation to his farm to beg him to return to lead the country out of its crisis. They found him, the story goes, at work with his plow. He returned to Rome and led it out of one of its darker moments and, as soon as he had accomplished his purpose, gave up the absolute powers they had granted him and returned to his farm in an act that George Washington consciously copied when he resigned after his second term as first president of the United States.
Washington, a farmer himself, saw in Cincinnatus the same agrarian virtues that animated the many Virginia planters who attended at the birth of this nation. In fact, if you visit the Capitol Rotunda today, you will find the famous statue of Washington. He is leaning with one arm on the fasces, the cylindrical bundle of bound rods and axes that represents civil authority, and behind him is a plow. Jefferson too extolled the virtues of agrarian life. If you ever visit the Jefferson Memorial, walk to the back of his giant bronze statue and notice the two things sitting behind him: a column of corn and column of tobacco.
Once you notice the prevalence of these symbols on almost every statue and pediment in this nation’s capitol city, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this nation’s founders saw the agrarian life as anything other than the seedbed of virtue.
And literature joins history in its testimony to these values. The story of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse is joined by innumerable others in the case for the country. Children’s literature in particular is full of it. It is hard to imagine Laura falling asleep to the sweet strains of Pa’s fiddle in mid-town Manhattan. Wilbur was “some pig,” but would not have been so “terrific” in a place other than the barn in which he lived. And good luck finding blueberries for Sal in the cement jungles in which many of us live.
In fact, it is striking when you consider how few children’s stories take place in a city. The lessons which we are admonished to learn (or which, more frequently, are taught implicitly) are country lessons. When Almonzo’s father in Farmer Boy is showing him how to plant a wheat field, he tells him the story of a “lazy, worthless boy” who was sent to sow a field, but who instead poured the seeds on the ground and went swimming, thinking no one would ever know. “But the seeds knew, and the earth knew,” and in time, when the weeds finally grew, they would tell of his wickedness when even the boy had forgotten it.
It is hard to imagine what urban analogy could be employed to make a similar point. There is something about the fields and forests that allow the moral imagination to run free, and something too particular and artificial about the things of the city to allow what happens there to be universalized. What F. Scott Fitzgerald called the "urban distaste for the concrete" seems to militate against the poetic. For some reason we seem to know ourselves better when we are closer to the soil. In fact, it is worth observing that the word “human” comes from the Greek word humus, which means “earth” or “soil”—that from which, according to Genesis, we are made.
We are more and more in thrall to the artificial, as Levin, the protagonist of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina sees when his city-dwelling brother comes to visit him at his country estate. His brother sees it as a place to escape to for leisure, while Levin sees it as a place to work and live in. Shoulder to shoulder with the peasants mowing the fields Levin finds “a remedy … for every folly,” and finds in his wife, Kitty, who also loves the country, a down-to-earthness that grounds his life in reality. So too in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, a story in which Stephen Kumalo, an old, Black Anglican priest leaves his tribal home in the country on a mission to find his son who has left for the fleshpots of Johannesburg, and who is in trouble. Johannesburg in Alan Paton’s story is a modern Babylon that has taken and corrupted his son.
Our modern lives are spent more and more in company with man-made things. We build man-made houses in man-made subdivisions in which we watch our man-made television sets and eat our increasingly man-made food, enabling us to lead our man-made lives and think our man-made thoughts. The country life, far from being “at odds with God and man,” as the pastor tells the reclusive Uncle Alp in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, is a life closer to the things that God made.
There is a distinction made in the old material logic of the medievals between man-made artifacts, whose pattern and purpose are imposed on them from without, and natural objects, whose pattern and purpose are really in them. The wood of a tree has its formal and final cause buried within its very being, whereas a bed has its pattern and purpose imposed on it from the outside by man. This is why, said Aristotle, if you were to bury a wooden bed in the ground and it sprouted, it would sprout a tree and not a bed.
In the old classical conception of the cosmos, natural things not only seem more real, but really are more real. So when we surround ourselves with unnatural things, we should not be surprised when we find that we have been distanced from our natural selves.
Heidi, who is being raised by her grandfather in the mountains, is taken to Frankfurt, Germany to be the companion of Clara, a young disabled girl where she turns the house upside down with her impulsiveness, driving the stuffy Miss Rottenmeier to consternation and the more good humored servant Sebastian to fits of suppressed laughter. Used to going out first thing in the morning “to see whether the sky was blue and the sun shining, and to say good morning to the trees and flowers,” Heidi finds the doors of Clara’s house nailed shut and no view at all from the open front door. She was “like a wild bird in a cage, seeking a way through the bars to freedom.”
She is sorely unhappy there, and her very health deteriorates. Clara’s doctor recommends returning Heidi to her mountain home—and after later visiting Heidi and her grandfather, the same doctor ends up recommending that Clara too be taken to Heidi’s mountains.
There are stories set is small towns, but seldom in big ones. Small towns are towns in which humans not only live, but, being human-sized towns, they are towns into which they can comfortably fit. Margaret Wise Brown’s Mike Mulligan, Jane—Eleanor Estes “middle Moffat,” Robert McClosky’s Homer Price—all live in the kind of small towns that still dot the red state landscape.
The nihilist modern adult stories that make up so much a part of modern literature are set exclusively in the city. All the modern tales of alienation and despair—Gogol’s Overcoat, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment , Tolstoy’s "Death of Ivan Ilych," Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Sartre’s Nausea, Camus’ The Stranger—They all take place in an urban setting, far away from the hundred acre wood.
But the allure of the city is strong, and more and more of us eventually end up there at some point. The boy in Robert Penn Warren’s “Blackberry Winter” sees a strange man walking down the road and onto their farm. He is an outsider who asks for work, but he is a threatening presence, invading the innocence of the life of the boy and his family. He wears tattered city clothes and seems to represent the more modern industrial life. After he is told to move on by the boy’s father, the boy follows him for a ways down the road. Finally, the tramp turns to him, saying “You don’t stop following me and I’ll cut your throat …”
“That was what he said,” said the boy, “for me to stop following him. But I did follow him, all my days.”
There are exceptions to this thesis of course, even among children’s books. Curious George, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Trumpet of the Swan are all set in the city, although even in these the country is often resorted to as a moral refuge and for spiritual relief.
In fact, much of the country life that once thrived in America has atrophied. Anyone who drives the side roads of America can see it: small towns which have been bled dry by the nearby interstate and commercial districts which have taken away the thriving commerce that the main streets of this country once enjoyed. In my home state of Kentucky, the demise of the tobacco culture has left ghost towns where there were once thriving townships .
Conversely, there are many cities which enjoy a more thriving culture, with their burroughs and smaller districts. In these places the very density of the architecture has prevented the larger stores like Wal-Mart from luring people away from the smaller businesses. Here small groceries and corner hardware stores still thrive in a way that is no longer possible in small towns, where the siren song of the strip malls lures many a shopper to her ruin. There is still a community in which you know the butcher at the market, and the waitress at the local coffee shop, and where you are on a first name basis with your doctor, and your mechanic, and where the barber who cuts your hair is the same one who cut it when you were a kid.
You can find a little bit of the country even in many cities.
When Heidi’s grandfather is asked what will become of Heidi if she never goes to school, he responds, “She’ll grow up with the goats and the birds. They won’t teach her any bad ideas and she’ll be very happy.” Most of us wouldn’t go that far. Still, some of us are sympathetic to the judgment of Beatrix Potter, who, after telling of Timmy Willie, the country mouse in The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, remarks, “One place suits one person, another place suits another person. For my part, I prefer to live in the country, like Timmy Willie.”