IN a newspaper office in a Western town of 17,000 population, forty years ago, sat three young men discussing an editorial by Edward Bok in his Ladies’ Home Journal. Bok deplored the tendency of young people to set out for the nearest big city to make their start in life, and stressed the advantages of the small town both as a place to work and as a place to live. The young men voted, ‘Very good, Edward,’ and wrote him a joint letter to that effect, explaining that they were publishing a small-town daily and getting a lot of fun out of it, and proposed to see it through and carve out their destinies, if any, in the old home town. Two years later those three young men were settled down to their lifework in New York.
One became a publisher, another a banker, and the third an advertising man. They prospered after a fashion, experienced varied fortunes, but within fifteen years were successful enough to have homes in small towns within commuting distance of New York, and after another fifteen years to move to the actual country fifty to a hundred miles away, spending long week-ends there during the summer. Two of those men are now dead, but the third lives on a modernized abandoned farm six months out of the year, surrounding himself as far as possible with the environment his boyhood knew: earth, trees, grass, horizons — the things he thought he hated when he shook from his feet the dust of his native town. When business compels him to visit the city, he escapes back to the country with a long sigh of relief.
The country to which he now escapes is no substitute for the town he abandoned forty years ago. Here he is but one of a number of summer denizens, an alien in a New England community, with no background, no roots, no integral part in the local life. His being there at all is an instinctive response to the call of the earth which is dormant in the soul of any city man whose first twenty years were spent in mowing the lawn, milking the cow, and spading the garden. Those hated chores of boyhood become the recreations of later years, but they do not entirely recapture the no doubt fanciful glamour which surrounds his youth.
Such is the case history of many an inhabitant of the big city; or, if his means are straitened, he spends fifty weeks in a narrow flat with two weeks in the country as a vacation. Those who boast two homes lead strenuous double lives, traveling long distances daily or weekly for the satisfaction of seeing something besides brick and mortar and asphalt. They are not city-born, nor in a real sense city-bred. They came hither to seek their fortunes because of the legend which still persists that opportunities here are greater and more numerous. Let a young man have a gift or aptitude, or even a dash of ambition, and he feels that remaining in the small town which nourished him is hiding his talent in a napkin.
When George Ade was asked, ‘A good many bright young men come from Indiana, don’t they?’ he answered, ‘Yes, and the brighter they are, the sooner they come.’
And George Ade, who certainly had his hour in the bright lights of Broadway, now lives on his Indiana farm.
One result of this obsession, this naïve belief in the chances fortune affords in the big city, has been to divide the country into metropolises and home towns, though the line cannot be drawn sharply. One man’s metropolis is another man’s village. It is not always New York the young adventurers seek, each with an industrial captain’s baton concealed in his knapsack, nor even Chicago. It may well be Denver, or Cleveland, or St. Louis. All that is necessary is that the city shall be appreciably larger than the seeker’s present domicile. It is merely the lure of the new and strange contrasted with the known and commonplace; the escape from ‘ I knew him when . . .’ We have all experienced the difficulty of growing up, of achieving recognized maturity, in the place where the older inhabitants have known us from birth, where we are still Clint Calkins’s little boy Ernie, even after we have reached voting age.
But there is more to this tendency big-city-ward than desire to escape from boyhood environment. The young people believe the metropolis bristling with opportunities, that their talents, unappreciated at home, will be quickly recognized abroad — and this also is sometimes true. The big city does have more opportunities than the small one, and more successes, just as it has more failures, more has-beens, more dullards and plodders, for the simple reason that it has more people of all kinds. It is likewise crowded with young hopefuls seeking that mysterious and elusive something known as ‘opportunity.’ The chances are relatively no greater, the rewards relatively no more satisfying; and, if attained, they seem to lead in the long run back to the country.
All my business life I have answered letters from aspiring men and women who sound me out as to the wisdom of dropping everything and coming to New York to get into advertising. Their home is a small town, they urge, and does not offer any opportunity. Patiently I explain that advertising is one of our most widely distributed commodities, that the work can be done wherever men sell goods, that if they have any aptitude for it they can start where they are. And this advice holds good for medicine, salesmanship, architecture, dentistry, or newspaper editing.
The spell of the great city has broadcast a glamour that is far from real, and at the same time given life in the small town a drabness that is equally undeserved. The small-town ‘hick,’ the country ‘rube,’ are as rare as the city ‘slicker.’ None of them ever existed in a statistical sense. They are literary figures. They are states of mind which are found everywhere, in the big cities as well as the smallest hamlets, exactly as the shrewd man-of-the-world type is found everywhere. There are vacuous bumpkins living in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and there are men in small towns whose dress is urban, whose manners are urbane, who have culture, worldly wisdom, savoir-faire, polish — whatever it is that bumping against one’s fellows in big cities is supposed to impart. It is n’t riding in the subway, or seeing the Empire State Building, or struggling with the crowd on Forty-second Street, that makes a man largeminded. That merely develops the special skill of coping with crowds, just as cultivating the soil develops weather wisdom. After all, it is as broad as it is long. The boulevardier cuts no better figure in a cornfield than the farmer on Broadway.
If there was ever real ground for the sharp differentiation between town and country it disappeared before the equalizing influence of improved communication and transportation. Thanks to the radio, people now speak as sloppy English in the country as in the city; the movie tells them what clothes to wear, and they wear them. The ubiquitous motor is congesting traffic on Main Street as well as State Street. The farmer who walked up Broadway with his ancient carpetbag, raising the hackles of every confidence man in sight, is part of folklore. He is more apt to drive his Cadillac up to the Waldorf or the La Salle.
It is an ancient and honorable controversy, the argument over the comparative advantages and disadvantages of town and country living. The dispute is as old as literature, probably as old as towns. Æsop had something to say about it, and Horace was deeply concerned as he weighed the dust and noise of the arena against the peace and quiet of his Sabine farm. La Fontaine did it into a fable, which to my surprise I found was about rats, though the literary allusions are always to ‘The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.’ At any rate, the moral is that, while there is greater abundance of food in the city, in the country one eats in quiet and safety. But, on the other hand, those two inveterate cockneys, Dr. Johnson and Charles Lamb, saw no charm in country life. Johnson thought the best prospect in Scotland was the road to London. But the question has been given what advertising men call ‘a new slant’ in recent years by the changes that inventions have made in modes and manners, and needs to be reconsidered on a fresh basis.
When, a few years ago, I attended the fortieth reunion of my class at a Western college and met the classmates and contemporaries I had not seen since our common youth, I was struck by the fact that there was no essential difference between those who had passed their lives in small towns and those of the same estate whom I had known in New York — none, that is, in dress, speech, manner, or way of living that set them off as having missed something essential. On the contrary, many of the small-town magnates seemed to have had a fuller, richer, more satisfying existence than their counterparts in the populous cities.
These were naturally the successful men of their communities, though for that matter failure, while less conspicuous, is no more bearable in urban than in rural surroundings. But I am here concerned with those who elected to remain in small towns, preferring, as the old proverb has it, to be first in a Nubian village rather than second in Rome. These are the men who might have gone to the big towns and been proportionately successful there.
They had worked out their careers in towns having from thirty thousand inhabitants down to as few as five thousand. They were farmers, bankers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, manufacturers. They were small-town men, but they did not seem to have smalltown minds. They got about; they knew men; they were interested in large enterprises; they had had varied experiences. Some of them were trustees of the college. All had connections, social and business, with other towns, other states. After leaving college, some had gone East for postgraduate work or professional training, and returned to start in the home town; others took over the paternal bank or store or factory. They married, had children and grandchildren, and some of these had settled close by. None of them seemed to feel he had chosen unwisely. Their lives were as full, as gracious, as satisfying, apparently, as lives anywhere.
Success, of course, is measured by various yardsticks, but a work that satisfies, ample material return, and a pleasant environment cover what most of us desire. The last is the most important, for there is no doubt that a man can make as good a living in a small town as his ability can achieve; the doubt lies in whether the living, when made in such an environment, is worth while.
There was one man at this college reunion who might stand as an extreme example, for the town where he lived boasted less than five thousand people — what is known as a ‘tank town,’ where through trains do not stop (a negligible deprivation in these days of motor cars), where picturesque characters are supposed to gather around the grocery stove (the chain stores have put a stop to all that); an ordinary small Western town with no great advantages in the way of location, scenery, or architecture; not a show town or model city, but a town that has been conditioned by a hundred years of pleasant, not-too-hectic living. A good satirist could make it sound ‘hick’ with a few strokes of the pen.
Martin Leigh is the banker of that town, the only banker. After graduating from the fresh-water college, he had his year at Harvard, and then entered the family bank, established by his grandfather, a pioneer on the prairies. Though the town is small, it is the trading centre of a large farming community, which means it has shared the ups and downs of agriculture; but, despite moratoriums, bank holidays, and farm mortgages, the bank is sound and solvent.
Leigh’s home is a roomy, rambling, and comfortable structure, enlarged to accommodate a growing family and different conceptions of social needs. Its wide lawn is now covered with stately old trees, and there is a vegetable garden, and charming flower gardens, and a pasture for the cow. Two maids, or rather one maid and a strong ‘woman by the day,’ do the housework, but that does not preclude the mistress from taking a hand, as she is well qualified to do, and thus linking her domestic life more closely with that of her neighbors’ simpler homes, for one of the amenities of small-town life is the limit public opinion sets on ‘ show-off.’ There are men in each of these little communities who have the means to splurge in domestic establishments, — butlers, livery, uniformed chauffeurs, — but the native good sense of the community, the persistence of the pioneer ideal, keeps them on a plane little above that of their neighbors, and life is simple and wholesome, with much income saved.
In Leigh’s home have been entertained people of note in public affairs, in letters, and in business. He himself mixes in politics a bit, has represented his state in national conventions, and takes a decent interest in the governing of the small town, to which he has given a community house and playground. The family travel widely and people come long distances to see them. Chicago is but a hundred miles distant, over the straightest, smoothest, and fastest roads in this country, and Leigh drives to the big city to attend board meetings and is home in time for dinner, which most of the townfolk call supper. All the family go up for opera, concerts, plays (though the movie is effacing that diversion), as well as dinners, parties, and other social affairs, giving them all the metropolitan life they need or desire.
One attraction of the small town is that it justifies the motor car, which congestion in the big cities has practically nullified. In the small town one starts the ride from the front gate. In five minutes he is in open country, instead of spending the first and last hours of a drive threading congested purlieus. A car is hardly needed for the daily rounds in so small a place. The bank and business quarters are but five minutes’ walk away under trees that meet in a Gothic arch overhead. There is a large garage on the home place, a car for nearly every member of the family, and no bills for storage. The cars are washed and kept in order by the useful man who milks the cow, mows the lawn, and takes care of the gardens. He can drive when necessary, but does not wear a uniform, a peaked cap being the only concession to the change of status from hired man to chauffeur.
In ten minutes by car Leigh can be on the links of an eighteen-hole golf course (dues twenty dollars a year), beside a winding artificial lake created in the dimples of the rolling prairie, its simple clubhouse the centre of much entertaining. Simple, we say — but that does not preclude cocktail parties, pajamas and shorts, or barebacked sun-bathing. The fads, follies, and fashions of supposedly more favored resorts are all found in these small towns for those who want them, but one advantage is that they are not compulsory.
The cost of such living is less than for similar privileges and environment in a big city. Isolated small towns are self-contained, make their own standards of living, and set the price as well as the pace. Not only are the necessities of life cheaper, but there is no occasion for some expenditures that the city renders imperative — transportation, for instance, with its steady outlay of nickels, dimes, and half dollars for subway, bus, and taxi; no constant call for tipping, no thirty-five dollars a month for car storage. But Leigh’s clothes are made in Chicago, his wife’s dresses in New York, and sometimes in Paris; his children, after graduating from the local college, attend Eastern universities. It is a safe bet that $25,000 a year in the small city will buy as much of living as $100,000 in New York, discounting the so-called greater opportunities — provided living in the small town is at least as satisfying as living in the metropolis.
Of course Leigh is exceptional in his own town, but he is not exceptional the country over. Every small town has its quota of such men. In the gathering I spoke about there were at least a dozen small-town business men whose names are in Who’s Who, — from towns such as Madison, Wisconsin; Elgin, Illinois; Oberlin, Ohio,— who seemed more than content. Certainly they showed no curiosity about New York. As a matter of fact, they knew it as well as I, who have lived there forty years.
The big city was ably represented by Jack Basset, who might almost serve as a symbol of the country boy who wins a fortune in the big city. Son of a Methodist minister, he grew up in the small town where the college was situated. On graduation he went to New York, took up banking, and in time found his métier. More manufacturer than banker, he became an expert in a specialized field growing out of our complicated economic system — that of nursing sick businesses. He has a genius for pulling factories out of the hole and making them pay. When the bank took over such an industry he was put in charge, and just now he is president of a large corporation with offices in New York and ramifications elsewhere. He has a small but perfectly ordered apartment in New York, where he spends five days a week, but his legal residence is a five-hundred-acre fancy farm in the Berkshires, with bathing pool, trout stream, pedigreed cattle, and cages of pheasants, which requires the services of twenty-eight men to keep it presentable for the brief survey its owner is able to give it. To reach his ‘farm,’ Jack rides a hundred miles by train and twenty by motor, every week, for the sake of forty-eight hours in the country.
The place is well worth the trip, but one cannot help feeling he gets little out of it at the expense of considerable time and trouble, that he could have it every day if his factory and offices were near at hand, as they might easily be, — New England is full of factories, — and that a much simpler arrangement for country living would have sufficed to satisfy the instinct to return to the land. It is doubtful if he gets more pleasure out of his elaborate place, especially when you consider how little he sees of it, than Martin Leigh does out of his less pretentious home.
The other day the editor of a small country weekly in upper New York received a classified advertisement which piqued his curiosity. A lawyer announced he would be in certain neighboring towns on certain days prepared to give legal advice, and in his home town, a small village, on other days. The editor investigated and got a good story. The advertiser was a successful New York lawyer who had deliberately abandoned a promising city practice and settled in the small town with the intention of building a second career in that unpromising territory, for the sake of giving his sons the advantage, which had been his as a boy, of living in the country. The heritage of small-town memories which so many Americans possess is something for which there is no substitute. For a boy, at least, a big city is a barren waste beside the unfailing attractions and diversions of the country.
Emporia has given William Allen White all the background he needed to become a national figure. It was as a lover of his native soil that he wrote the ringing editorial, ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’ — and he did not belie his faith by running off to New York when his words set a nation talking. Emporia made White, but White has put Emporia on the map. He has pictured small-town life in In Our Town with all its warmth and color and humanness. But more convincing still is his continued satisfaction with life in Emporia. He does n’t just write about it. He lives it.
But enough of the material side. It is obvious that practically everything which can be bought with money is as accessible to the small-towner as to the big-city man. The deeper satisfactions of life in small cities or large villages lie elsewhere — in nature and human nature, the country and the people.
There is something in us that demands contact with elemental forces — earth, sky, wind, sun. There is a philosophy that comes from nearness to the land, tilling the sod, caring for animals, coping directly and at first hand with nature. Outdoor men, farmers, cowboys, shepherds, sailors, hunters, engineers, have it. I often felt it in my boyhood in the farmers that I knew, strong, quiet, thoughtful men. The earth does things to you — the smell of freshly turned sod, the sun on the back of your neck, running water, the tremendous systole and diastole of nature, giving each month of the round a significance; in the city they are but names on a calendar.
The Greeks put the idea neatly in the legend of Antæus, whose strength was renewed by contact with Mother Earth. The only way Hercules could overcome him was to get him off his feet.
The small town is still linked to the soil. It has more affinity with the country than with the big city it so mistakenly emulates. Its people are still aware of the procession of the seasons, seedtime and harvest, sunrise and sunset, the night and its stars, which for the city dweller — his earth plated with concrete, his sky narrowed by brick canyons — have almost ceased to exist.
But the best thing about a small town is the people who live in it. I say this boldly, knowing how often that element is seized upon as a subject for ridicule — their dullness, banality, narrow lives and interests. The point is that the indictment simply is not true. There are such people and such conditions in small towns, just as there are in large cities, for the human race is plentifully supplied with all kinds; they average about the same everywhere. The inhabitants of the small town are no worse and no better than people everywhere, but in the small town you know them, as friends, neighbors, acquaintances, over a long span of years, lifetimes often, and they know you for what you are — a sobering but an inspiring thought. In the small town you do not need to pretend; you can be yourself. This may irk some minds, who will prefer the anonymity of the big city, but to a normal person there is something heartening in being an integral part of a community. Be sure of this: if you find the small town dull, the lack is in you. You no doubt bore the people.
Neighborliness! That is the touchstone of the small town. Our common, ingrained humanity finds expression and overleaps mere social distinctions. The girl in the Western Union office rejoices audibly over the good news we are telegraphing, and condoles with us over a misfortune. She goes to our Sunday school. The carpenter and painter take a friendly interest in their work, with none of that slapdash indifference of city artisans, here today and gone to-morrow, and they do odd jobs for you not countenanced by their unions. The old postman sits down in your porch to look over this week’s Time before leaving it, and tells you he is sorry there is no letter from Betty this week — Betty being your married daughter who lives in Texas. The postman has known her from babyhood, when she used to sit on the gatepost waiting for the mail; now she has daughters of her own. One is surrounded by this warm, friendly, genuine interest which is neither prying nor curiosity, which does not fail in times of trouble. It is the thing country folk miss most in large cities.
The neighborliness of the small town is an honest tradition from pioneer days when the early settlers ‘changed work’ and helped one another with bees and house-raisings, as is done still among farmers at threshing time. The neighborly exchange of simple social life, from porch to porch, over the back fence, the casual daily meetings on Main Street, still go on, but they are accompanied now in even the smallest places by social functions which differ little from the same festivities in large cities.
Besides qualifying for the smalltown virtue of neighborliness, some of the people are intrinsically interesting and worth knowing for their own sakes. There are characters distinguished for culture, achievement, experience, and personality far more individual than if their corners had been rubbed off by the friction of metropolitan life. In a big city you might see such famous people, but in the small town, if you are worthy, you are privileged to know them. They are part of the life of the town, dramatis personæ of the play for which you have a reserved seat.
I recall such people in a town of less than 30,000, men and women — a Latin teacher who was a gifted conversationalist, a cobbler whose astute socialist arguments dismayed smug reactionary business men, an editor who in his leisure hours became an authority on the geology of the state, a Catholic priest who was the best of good companions, a lawyer whose library was a collection of rare first editions. Stories, each one of them. To know them was an experience, an adventure in friendship.
One is aware of the continuing stream of life. Mankind is seen as a whole, in all its relations, instead of such detached segments as impinge on one’s consciousness from the milling crowds of a great city. You may thus behold, if you live long enough, the span of five successive generations — births, marriages, and deaths, the vagaries of heredity, the changing fortunes in human lives. I recall in my boyhood a stern bearded man, son of the first pioneer of our village. I knew his son and his grandson, and, did I still live there, I should now know that grandson’s grandson, and such experiences are repeated for other family strains. The lives of such dynasties constitute books, books read with a touch of nostalgia by detached floating human elements living in big cities. There is as much romance, adventure, drama, tragedy, in any small town as in any similar-sized group in a large city. For one to whom a human being is the most interesting animal in the world, there is unfailing entertainment, and food for thought too, in the changing panorama of life in a small town.
What is often disparaged as the gossip of a small town is its most vital quality — interest in human history. After all, what is the difference between the country-wide interest in the marital adventures of Barbara Hutton, or the struggle for possession of Gloria Vanderbilt, and the same curiosity, tempered in this case by friendly interest, regarding the marriage of Mame Littleton of our town, whose birth notice in the local sheet we read, it seems, just the other day, whose father and mother are our friends and neighbors, whose grandfather we looked up to with awe as children as one of the ‘rude forefathers of the hamlet’? The county correspondence in country newspapers comes in for a good deal of ‘joshing,’ with its grist of seemingly trivial social affairs, but what essential difference is there between those paragraphs and the items in the society column of a metropolitan newspaper?
Small towns have culture, often in greater degree, relatively, than any large city. There are college towns in the Mississippi Valley (and elsewhere, too) — Oberlin, Marietta, Jacksonville, Galesburg, to name but a few
— with a high I. Q. The public library at Galesburg is one of the best in Illinois. The use of books there during the depression rose to 16.7 per capita a year, which librarians will tell you is a high score. Nor is that due to the presence of Knox College, for the students have their own unusually complete library. There are some fine libraries in homes, and many books and magazines in others, study clubs which really function, — the two best have met continuously for forty years,
— musical societies, little theatres, all the paraphernalia of culture.
Forty years ago a discerning French journalist, Madame Thérèse Bentzon of the Revue des Deux Mondes, wrote of one of those prairie college towns: —
We visit the town, which is charming with its shady avenues and its verdant boulevards. It covers a vast extent, trees and gardens occupying much of the space. Green trees surround the principal buildings. There are a few mercantile streets, but they are quietly busy, as befits a town where trade is only a secondary matter, which has never cared for anything but religion and learning. The elegant quarter is filled with very pretty middle-class houses, mostly of painted wood, but of every architectural style. Lawns encircle them; they seem to be scattered over a meadow. The entire town is scrupulously neat. . . .
Am invited to several houses in the town, where I find the best of company — women simple, and at the same time well informed, talking on all subjects and asking intelligent questions. Evidently contact with the college is a constant stimulus, and the society of the professors a precious resource. Some have traveled, but they are not possessed by that feverish desire for change which I have remarked elsewhere, nor is there any trace of pretense or affectation — which is restful. The diversity of religious denominations in this little town, which is so devout as a whole, is singular.
Under the impact of movie, radio, and motor car, the town has changed; some of its peace and quiet have vanished; it is bigger, noisier, more crowded, but its inner life is much as Madame Bentzon saw it. And there are many such in that great plain between the Alleghanies and the Rockies.
If I have inclined too strongly toward the Middle West, it is only partly because I know it best, but more logically because that region is the heart of the United States. The towns are widely scattered, each the centre of its own broad farming land, hence isolated and self-contained; less overshadowed by big cities, and able to lead its own life and develop its own individuality. These towns are the projection of a recent pioneer impulse, and many of them are less than one hundred years from virgin prairie. But the thesis holds good for small towns in other sections of the country, the East and the far West, provided they have not sold their birthright for a mess of industrial pottage. For it is the farm towns that to-day look best and reveal a charm and inviting prospect which few factory towns have yet learned to acquire.
The small towns are our greatest asset. It is time we took stock of them, those middle-sized, middle-class, bourgeois burgs which it is so easy to mock, though few who have lived there have escaped their charm and amenity. A wistful longing for them has built up a flourishing business in New York, selling out-of-town newspapers. The movement toward decentralization already under way, which made Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building obsolete before they were completed, will give them new significance.
‘God made the country,’says the proverb, ‘and the devil made the city.’ Between God’s country and the devil’s city is the small town, combining the best features of both.