Escape From the City
FIVE years ago my family moved to a middle-class suburb. I must run the risk of striking a note of snobbery by designating it as middle-class, because there is no other way in which I can set it into its own peculiar niche. It is middle — midway between those leisured towns whose spacious dwellings and sweeping lawns proclaim the advantages of wealth, and the scrubby, unkempt communities of the truly poor. Ours is neither.
Seen in its more becoming seasons of the year, Middleville is a pleasant-looking town. In summer, its gardens (tended for the most part by the householders themselves, without benefit of professional help) are gay splashes of color along its elm-bordered streets. Forsythia comes like a sudden burst of sunshine in early spring, no sooner vanished than the lilacs appear in a purple froth, and the delicate white of the bridal wreath. The summer is a long and crowded procession of color, ending in a splendid finale of dahlias and golden glow. A little later, and the maples blaze all up and down the streets, the elms toss their bright coins prodigally to the wind, and the air is heavy with the bitter-sweet scent of burning leaves. Winter, too, has its special beauty, — mornings white with snow, and every branch of every tree a finely drawn pen line, — incredibly lovely, a study in contrast without color. But there are days and weeks of utter dreariness, dripping, naked days when the trees stand gaunt and shivering, when the gutters are slick with slush, and the houses appear in all the barren ugliness of their architectural errors. At such times Middleville is a sniveling hag, with rheumy eyes, and dank hair about her shoulders.
This is the place to which I brought my city-born children. With the memory of countless city miles trudged behind a baby carriage in the interests of fresh air and sunshine, with the ever-present menace of city traffic driving me from the crowded centres, with the hideous lack of privacy endured by apartment dwellers still fresh in my mind — what a haven was Middleville to me and mine! A wide yard where two small sons and a daughter could play seesaw and plant, ‘gardens’; rooms full of unadulterated sunshine; and no downstairs neighbors who, unlike Longfellow, took no sentimental pleasure in the ‘patter of little feet.’ True, there were some among my better-heeled relatives who regretted that I couldn’t have moved to a ‘nicer’ suburb, but them I squelched promptly and virtuously. Middleville was a nice suburb. And what did they mean by ‘nice,’ anyway? Good, simple American people (look at their neat, respectable little homes). What better or more wholesome atmosphere could one ask for American children?
That was five years ago. And in these five years I have learned that, with a town as with an individual, there is much that does not meet the eye upon a first casual meeting. I had, indeed, a faint foreshadowing of that fact shortly after our arrival. My sixyear-old was busy with a small hoe in the yard, while I watched him from the porch, happy in his manifest contentment. Presently two neighbor children drifted up and stood staring. ‘Hello!’ said Kevin, and then, as there was no reply, went philosophically back to his work. At length one of the boys spoke. ‘ Have n’t you got a car ?‘ he demanded. Kevin replied, cheerfully, that we had not. ‘Then,’ said the little lad triumphantly, ‘you got no right to live in this neighborhood.’
This, I admit, was a shock. Where were my kindly, simple villagers? Where indeed? I realized now that our coming had been treated with complete indifference. No housewife had bustled up to my door with offers of assistance or a loaf of fresh-baked bread to ‘help out till we got settled.’ No friendly face had greeted us in any doorway as we went to and fro. Ah, well — I had always lived in New York and Chicago. Perhaps my impression that one did such things in smaller towns was merest fantasy. Yet the incident disturbed me. It implied a hostility wholly unforeseen. It was tinctured with something small and mean. What sort of parents must such a child have sprung from?
As the weeks wore on, I sensed more and more that what I had mistaken for a negative lack of interest in us and our affairs was really an active resentment. The girl next door, her eyes sliding away from me as I worked in the garden, offered many unpleasant little truths for me to gnaw upon in private. ‘All the neighbors said such mean things, — of course, you being renters, — and the way they talked about your furniture!’ So they had stood behind drawn blinds and squinted at our battered and beloved household gods as they were carried from van to house — the dear old rosewood table which had belonged to my great-grandmother, the bedsprings that had been the scene of all too many pillow fights! So they had told each other that we’d come from a ‘colored neighborhood’ — a conclusion drawn presumably from the presence about the place of a stout black scrubwoman !
I sat alone, savoring each bitter mouthful, and it seemed as if my quiet, pleasant home were hedged about with horror. That they could not hurt me I knew. I knew them now to be ignorant and, therefore, pitiable. What lay most heavily upon my spirit was the discovery that humanity could be so degraded, could put forth so poisonous a plant in the midst of this peace and beauty. And, when the first reaction was over, I resolved to be blind and deaf and dumb to my neighbors. I had no need of them. I would raise my children and plant my flowers and sweep and garnish my home, independent of them all. I would not hear the ‘thin gnat-voices.’ In winter, with a fire burning bright upon the library hearth, I would be safe within my own life — safe with my own people, safe with my books. They were my friends, tried and true. I looked at their ranks upon the shelves, and thought of Gissing’s ‘ragged veterans.’ My old friends — Conrad and Hardy, Shelley and Keats and Emily Dickinson, Candide, Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard. These and other things — a fragrant cake fresh from the oven, a blue bowl of calendulas upon a table, rooms gracious with the soft sheen of old furniture and worn old rugs brought, by a roving grandfather, from Persia. What more did one need for contentment?
All of which was, and is, quite true, but, like many obvious truths, it is only a part of the whole. What I had reckoned without was the pliability of childhood, the amazing faculty of youth for taking on the color of its surroundings. And, to make plain what this implies in the present instance, I must draw a more detailed picture of Middleville. Not the streets and houses and stores, not the face and figure of Middleville, but its mind and spirit, its ethics and its aspirations.
For the inquirer who does n’t care to scratch below the surface, Middleville is simply a community of twenty-five thousand, about nine thousand of whom are ‘on relief.’ I should say that the majority of the unemployed are skilled laborers of one sort or another, — carpenters, builders, and so on, — for it is a town of higher-type manual workers and the lower strata of ‘ whitecollar’ men. Its government is by a town council consisting of a president and six members elected by the voice of the people. A volume could be written about the politics of such a town, and the surprisingly large sums which change hands when there is a paving or a water-main contract to be let, but these are matters which do not concern me directly, however complex and farreaching may be their effect upon the life of the private citizen.
The field of education, however, is something that immediately concerns my family. Middleville is provided with four public grade schools. The teachers in the one of which I have first-hand knowledge are predominantly young, fresh from normal school, and, in some cases, amazingly incompetent. In the third-grade room, I have counted three misspelled words in a paragraph that the teacher had written on the blackboard. More than once my children have been corrected for pronouncing a word properly. ‘Eye-talian’ was one of the required pronunciations! There is apparently no attempt to teach good speaking; the wealth and color of the English language are as unknown to them as Sanskrit. Speech, in the schools of Middleville, has degenerated into monosyllabic incoherence, and he with the loudest voice wins.
Nor has the written word fared much better. We point with pride to our school library (where the Junior Literary Guild selections rub elbows with Gene Stratton-Porter). Yet the sixthgrade library period is given over, once a week, to lectures by a lady not officially connected with the school, who extols the virtues of a certain set of ‘encyclopedias,’ comparing them with the standard works to the derogation of the latter — the sequel being that the same enterprising person makes a point of calling on all sixth-grade parents during the course of the year, introducing herself as ‘one of Junior’s teachers.’ Other examples of the same surprising tendency occur — public education reduced, let us say, to its lowest terms, and demonstrating the proposition that we have included in Middleville a subject not generally found in the curriculum of the grade school: namely, practical lessons in sales promotion.
But this is a digression. There is, so far as I have been able to discover, no attempt to introduce the classics, ancient or modern, to the students of our schools. They emerge from the eighth grade with only the sketchiest smattering of ‘book learning.’ On the other hand, no courses in manual training are given, though much talk is heard concerning the ‘practical value’ of education, and fitting the child for his place in the present-day world. The local Parent-Teachers’ group seems largely concerned with raising money for gymnasium equipment, and much time is given over to arguments about parliamentary procedure. One phase of the educational picture which has struck me is the fact that our schools are an ever-available laboratory for anyone who wishes to impose his pet phobia upon the plastic mind of childhood. An emissary of the W. C. T. U. addresses the upper grades on the Evil Effects of Alcohol on the Human System ; the Legion sends one of its gifted orators to inform the eighth grade of the perils of Communism and the duty of every loyal fourteen-year-old to be shot, if necessary, for God and country. The flag is raised, the national anthem is pounded to shreds on a loud piano, and anyone with the temerity to suggest that love of country might take some more constructive form than mawkish sentimentality or militarism would be branded a subversive influence.
As to progressive forms of education, they are unknown in Middleville. So far as I have been able to discover, there is no attempt to develop the individual child. There is no provision for the ‘backward’ student. He is placed in the same classes with those of normal intelligence, and if he spends four years in the third grade — well, who cares? No social training is given, and the teaching of biology would be cried down by a thousand upstanding churchmen. Yet children of twelve go about in pairs, unchaperoned, till the small hours, and at least one girl and boy of seventh-grade age (and ‘good’ families) are known to have had sex relations. In short, young Middleville’s knowledge of life is of the unhealthy brand meted out by Hollywood. For every child spends Saturday afternoon at the local movie, rain or shine; and the owner, astute business man, has discovered that if he runs a picture unfit for juveniles on Saturday, and Little Women on Wednesday or Thursday, the kiddies wall come twice that week.
The only field in which our schools would seem to have been eminently successful is that of orchestral music. Free instruction in all the instruments is given, and the result has been a band and an orchestra of surprising attainments. Yet it is only fair to add that this is due rather to the tireless labor of the talented young director than to any great measure of coöperation on the part of our good people. There was the recent occasion when the orchestra parents preferred to spend three hundred dollars on uniform capes for the children rather than buy some of the bass instruments which were so badly needed. Aggressive fathers declared in meeting that blue serge with red linings would stimulate a desire among our young to become violinists and cellists — a sort of musical-comedy route to Mozart and Beethoven.
My personal experience has been confined, so far, to the grade schools. We have a township high school, larger than many colleges, which serves Middleville and several neighboring villages. Of this I have no first-hand knowledge, though the appearance of the slouching boys and half-clad houris I have seen milling about its doors of an afternoon has seemed to me unprepossessing.
Passing from the question of education to the more general aspects of culture and social conditions, I find myself confronted with an imposing difficulty. Have I, after all, the right to generalize? Certainly I do not know all the twenty-five thousand souls of Middleville. Is it not possible that, hidden behind one of these prim stucco fronts, there is some solitary man or woman who loves the same gracious and enduring factors which to me mean the whole difference between living and mere existence? Small, intangible impressions recur to my mind, — a word, a shadow of wistfulness upon a plain face, a sense of incompleteness, of reaching out and drawing timidly back into the rigid pattern of the whole, — and the possibility that here was one who had been forced unwillingly to conform. If there is such a one, it is to him that I owe my apology. Yet I have met Middleville’s Best People — women whose names grace the local society notes each week — and we have spoken across a vast chasm, and in different languages. Ruth, ‘standing amid the alien corn,’was no more a stranger than I in this, my country.
I have heard their shrill voices in a room full of bridge tables, and the topics they discussed were the movies, ice-box cake, and radio comedians. But dominating all else was the insistence of each individual upon her material possessions: a new refrigerator, a larger car, a son’s college education, tossed like a beautiful firecracker into the midst of the conversation. ‘I told Walter he was crazy to spend so much on it. . . .’ Chain letters, ’Bank Night’ at the local movie, and the Walkathon which charmed our first families for three months — a number of disheveled girls and boys plodding drearily around a platform erected in an ex-garage. ‘What will we ever do without the Walkathon? What’d you think of Mickey? Mickey and Ann were the ones I liked all along. ... I just cried the night they dropped out.’ Mickey and Ann — Homeric tragedy to the matrons of Middleville.
There they sit behind their cards. Is there a constructive idea, the germ of an abstract thought, behind any of these bland faces? Have their minds and souls gone down the drain with the dishwater which they throw out three times a day, or have they shrunk from disuse to so infinitesimal a size that the ladies have forgotten their existence? I wish I knew.
The arts, in our town, are neatly catalogued and assigned to their proper places. They do not interfere with the real business of living. The most exclusive women’s club meets once a week for the pursuit of culture, and culture wears some strange disguises. Now it is a faded lady in classic draperies who discourses upon Charm, or the correct use of English; now a buxom intellectual who reviews the latest best seller. (That, as the members will tell you complacently, saves you the trouble of reading it yourself.) For, indeed, books are a commodity not included in the average Middleville budget. There is the public library, where ‘a good love story’ is always in demand, while the masters stand gathering dust upon the shelves. And there are the drugstore rental shelves, where pornography flourishes. Apparently they do a good business. Occasionally a Middleville woman buys a book — the movie edition of one of the more romantic classics. But most of the homes are singularly free from reading matter. A pile of screen magazines, a case of Miss Alcott’s works, and the Bobbsey Twins, shunted into a dark corner of an upper hall — this is the average home library.
As to pictures, we point with pride to the Middleville Arts Club, which has an annual exhibition at the high school. It is, I imagine, a sort of unofficial salon des refusés — old mills galore, floral pieces as neat as any undertaker could wish, and portraits of leading citizens, warmly clad. Last year there were two or three canvases of merit. The rest might well have been done by a maiden aunt of the nineties. Nevertheless, it is a tiny spark of creative spirit, however feeble, alight in our darkness.
Pictures in the homes are confined to hand-painted photographs of the children, cheap reproductions (mostly of Whistler’s Mother), and a certain type of originals known among professional artists as ‘buckeyes.’ A buckeye can be produced in one hour by an accomplished sign painter, but the owner will tell you naïvely that she has seen sunsets exactly like that — a bit of artistic criticism to which I, for one, have never found an answer.
The arts of decoration are in almost as bad a way among us. The choice and arrangement of furniture seem to follow a pattern as custom-bound as our outward morality. If, as has been said, one’s home is the expression of one’s individuality, the people of Middleville must be distressingly alike. The overstuffed chair with a lamp drooping above it, the lounge with its end tables, the secretary-desk, and the pseudo-Oriental rugs — identical in every well-thought-of menage. And if one pampered lady ventures to stuff a Jacobean dining-room suite (machinecarved in Grand Rapids) into her home, it gives rise to as much awed comment as if it had come direct from Holyrood.
Music is represented chiefly by a group of some twenty women choristers from the Methodist Church, who give frequent concerts during the winter, and who are, I believe, not quite so competent as the grade-school orchestra. This, though, is probably a matter of personal taste.
But drama and the dance are the arts which Middleville has taken to its bosom. We have at least two flourishing ‘academies’ where the children of the privileged class are instructed in the intricacies of ‘tap’ and elocution, and it is nothing short of a disgrace if any child whose father makes $2000 a year is not exposed to these advantages. Not a school or church entertainment can be given without some tot going through her paces, or some future Bernhardt giving her side-splitting rendition of ’Junior at Sunday School.’ (I have long wondered if these self-sacrificing mothers plan to storm Hollywood with their talented young, or if they have a weather eye cocked toward the four-a-day.) Periodically, the more advanced students give a play. I do not know where Miss Popp and Mrs. Thrum get the dramas which they single out for production, but they are, at any rate, most amazing — deadly little affairs whose ingredients are, roughly, ten per cent homely philosophy and homespun virtues, another ten allegedly humor, and the remainder the priceless and time-honored hokum. So much for the little-theatre movement in Middleville.
Religion in our town is a social affair. One joins a church in order to ‘know people.’ One remains in it to take sides in the petty squabbles and confusing issues which are ever vitally present. Catholic or Protestant, there seems little choice. All are concerned primarily with the raising of money, secondarily with the externals of morality, or, more accurately, of respectability. Even those sects whose ritual is one of tradition and dignity appear to attach little spiritual significance to religion. The deeper needs of the human soul are casually disregarded. The churches concern themselves with the questions of whether we shall permit liquor to be sold in Middleville, whether a fourth-grade teacher shall mention the descent of man to her innocent pupils, whether the local movie magnate shall be coerced into showing pictures suitable for children. (And the answer to all these is No.) The ladies play bridge and hem diapers and sell doughnuts for the glory of God, and the rector gnaws his fingernails and wonders about the mortgage.
Among us, morality is reduced to its simplest terms. Middleville housewives go about in clothes so impeccably unattractive that no frail brother would give them a second glance. Their faces are forbidding, unlit by any fires, and they address a neighbor’s husband with a stiff and awkward formality which avoids even the appearance of evil. Our communal conscience is a lively one. We have no saloons. In fact, the demon rum (as well as the demons gin, whiskey, and dry Martini) cannot even be mentioned in our dramas, Slot machines are taboo. Yet our movie house and the street in front of it are packed with moral citizens every Wednesday night, when fifty dollars is given to the holder of a lucky number — proving, I suppose, that even in Middleville there is a certain piquancy in the idea of something for nothing.
This, then, in a few words, is the middle-class suburb as I have come to see it.
Has my picture been one-sided, my colors too crude? Have I, perhaps, blinded myself to Middleville’s peculiar virtues — the little instances of individual kindness, of courage, of friendship, which have occurred from time to time? Perhaps. Yet, looking back, these seem to have been confined to a small and scattered few among my acquaintance. Vastly overshadowing them is the impression of a widespread sterility— shallow minds accepting standardized fallacies, hearts in which shoddy and obvious sentimentality has usurped the place of true greatness, poor spirits groping after something cheap and glittering, when all the while the stars are just overhead.
And what of my children? All very well for me to sit, supine and content, over my books, but what of them? Are they to grow up adoring the shabby deities, reaching for the false goals, of Middleville? And suppose we shook this dust from our feet, should we not find ourselves in another Middleville? Our income, these depression years, is probably about the average one of the ‘ better element ’ of the town. So we are bound to it by economic chains. No private schools open their doors to the sons and daughters of the poor but intelligent. But for the grace of God, my children are doomed to Middleville, to its mediocrity and its darkness, its folkways, its hostility to the unknown and the divergent pattern. Is it possible that they may grow in, but not of, it? It is on this forlorn chance that I pin my hope for the future.