12 Jun 2011

The Small Town and the Big City

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There must be something special in the water of certain small towns, like Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where guys like Rush Limbaugh and Terry Teachout come from, and Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, that immunizes people from there who move away to the bright lights of the big city from becoming brainwashed and totally absorbed into the community of fashion which loves big cities and itself and loathes and despises ordinary small town America.

Terry Teachout is a rara avis, an astonishing intellectual polymath who knows everything about music and the arts and who also writes seriously on politics. Terry is the unusual intellectual Bohemian, who works harder than any Wall Street Law firm associate, writing articles and books and, for a number of years, working as the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic.

Someone like Terry would typically be expected to take the New Yorker magazine’s point of view that Manhattan is the center of the universe surrounded by an insignificant cultural wasteland, some fortunate few of whose unhappy natives succeed in escaping to the metropolis.

Terry Teachout has got to be the only major professional critic in New York who would say anything like this:

I left my home town a few months after graduating from high school in 1974, and since then I’ve only returned as a visitor. Not so David, my younger brother, who chose to settle in Smalltown, U.S.A., and has never lived anywhere else. He and his wife live three blocks from my mother’s house. If there’s such a thing as a model citizen, he fills the bill with room to spare. Among countless other valuable things, he’s served two terms on the city council and is a member of the board of trustees of his church, and whenever anyone in Smalltown now has occasion to mention the name “Teachout,” they usually mean him, not me.

I’m proud of my brother’s achievements, and more than a little bit jealous of them. In particular I envy his deep roots in the soil of Smalltown. I can’t claim to feel that way about New York City, where I’ve lived for the past quarter-century but to which I have no special attachment save for my love of certain people who live there.

For me, “home” is where Mrs. T is, and that changes from day to day. We moved to a new apartment last November, but we’ve spent so little time there that most of our belongings are still packed in cardboard boxes. So far this year we’ve “lived” in upper Manhattan, rural Connecticut, various parts of Florida, and a string of hotel rooms in Chicago, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. Right now we’re in Smalltown, but we’ll be driving up to St. Louis on Thursday, and a week and a half after that we’ll be on our way to Pittsburgh.

Truth to tell, I’m about as close to rootless as you can get, and because I come from Smalltown, where people tend as a rule to grow where they’re planted and stay where they’re put, this rootlessness has always seemed strange to me. I ought to feel at home somewhere or other, but when I moved away in 1974, I lost the sense of belonging that I possessed throughout the first eighteen years of my life, and since then I’ve never managed to recapture it.

This came as a surprise to me. I always figured I’d find a job in town, marry a Smalltown girl, start a family, and become a pillar of the community. My brother did those things, but I pulled up stakes and became a rambling man, moving from city to city in search of an identity that it took me the better part of a lifetime to find, insofar as I can be said to have found it. At various times in my life I expected to become a concert violinist, a lawyer, a high school teacher, and a psychotherapist, none of which I ended up doing. Instead I’ve paid the rent by working as a bank teller, a jazz bassist, a magazine editor, an editorial writer, a biographer, and a drama critic.

My brother and I, in short, have both led typical American lives. It is fully as American to stick close to home as it is to become a wanderer, but it’s the wanderers who get most of the press, perhaps because we’re the ones who write it–and I’m not so sure it should be that way. I left home to find myself, but my brother didn’t have to leave home because he knew who he was. I call my mother every night, but he sees her every day. I write books, but he has a grown daughter. I like to think that my work may ultimately prove to have some lasting value, but I’m sure that he’s done more to make the world a better place.

Read the whole thing.


I understand Terry’s point of view perfectly. I’m another of the smart, bookish kids who went away to college and did not come back. In my case, my hometown was dwindling into a ghost town (that’s what happens to mining towns when the industry dies), and there isn’t even a there anymore that anyone could go back to.

I’ve always been aware that I was better read, more widely informed, and had found wider horizons for myself and developed a lot more expensive tastes than the people I grew up with, but I also remain conscious that I never had to go to work in the breakers as a schoolboy or risk my life everyday in the mines to support a family. I’ve never deluded myself into believing that being luckier, more affluent, and liking foreign films translates into making somebody a higher level of being.

One Feedback on "The Small Town and the Big City"


But being smarter, better read, more widely informed, DOES make you a “higher level of being”. That fact, of course, doesn’t vest you with the authority to make decisions for lower levels of beings. Which outlook, it seems to me, is one of the core distinctions between conservative and liberals.

That notwithstanding, I’ve still not seen much evidence that a small group of higher level beings has a higher probability of making good decisions than millions of lower level ones.


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