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August 01, 1980 - Image 7

Resource type:
Michigan Daily, 1980-08-01

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Dissecting sr
The mention of the American small their growing acquisitiveness. This
town often evokes fond recollections of marked the onset of the cash nexus
quaint houses, oak and elm lined society America soon became, and
streets, front porch rocking chairs, never loses touch with this
stodgy but benign citizens. We perhaps dev een
know better than to indulge our Land, free land in the West wooed the
nostalgic impulses, or at least to tem- New Englander dissatisfied with the
per them with a healthy skepticism authoritarianism of the Puritan elect,
pruthem it fa. Rihaty skeis those men controlling the villages
grounded in fact. ichard Lingemans before the town meeting intreduced
Small Town America (G. P. Putnam democratic decision making. And n-e
and Sons, 547 p.the irs N England creasing immigration to New England
communities that rose up slowly in the meant less land if one stayed n the
early 17th century, Lingeman traces East. The migration westward began in
the development of the small town as it earnest in the early 1800s. Small farms
moved westward to the midwestern were ironed out of the forests of Ohio
pioneers towns, the lonely, locust- and Illinois. As cheap land became
ridden farms of the Great Plains, and scarce, men moved farther and farther
the mining and sow towns of the far west. Lingeman relates the difficulties
west. Ater 1890, he goes on to dissect of pioneer life in incredible detail-no
the small town's attempt to ward off the facet goes unexplained. On the other
evil values of city life and in- hand, his occasional lack of selectivity
dustrialization while simultaneously slows the pace noticeably.
courting the big business so necessary But when Lingeman reaches the
to a town's survival. In the process, Great West-the mining camps and
r little is left unexplored, from cow towns, the fuel of American
very to a ts le isxre ar- myth-he finds his niche. The narrative
economics to architecture to leisure ac- becomes more than merely infor-
tivities to sex roles. Even the rationale mative, it becomes entertaining. The
for street numbers reflects larger tren- balance between his analysis of the
LINGEMAN'S TREATMENT of the stories behind the myths and his own
NEMgAN TRAME NT sos the witty interludes refreshes. The quantity
New England village is inauspicious, of information is truly remarkable
especially in comparison to the quality ougot t s b rok y re abe
of the remainder of his study. The sec- throughout the book; here, the quality
tion revolves tiresomely around the of his presentation matches the quan-
ideals of the Puritan community: con- tity.
formity, mutual protection and aid, and THE MINER'S amazing blend of lust
spiritual advancement. Their impor- for money and frivolous expenditure,
tance needn't merit mention as often as among other things, leaves one
Lingeman does. His attempt to fit every min t after a fora
detail from Puritan life into this mold mner to rise up after a performance
mirrors the New Englanders own ob- and with gruff shyness ask if the acting
session with social rigidity. For- company would honor him by accepting
tunately, both the author and the a small gift of $500 worth of gold dust in
unhappy citizens head west. The sec- appreciation for their fine performan-
tion, however, is hardly without respite. Lingeman explains that many towns
Lingeman's exploration of economic had two edistinct sides: one for the
dealings does justice to the obvious to ditin s: ne for the
complexity of life New England. In- respectable citizens, another for the
dividual personalities also enliven the cowboys or miners, brimming with
otherwise encyclopedic account. 'Rev,. aoos bordellos, and gambling
Ebenezer Parkman's diary offers the establishments. Crime was frequent on
EbenzerParkan' diay ofersthe the latter side, but the storeowners on
expected religious platitudes along with the respectable side could leave their
an abiding concern for financial sup- establishments for hours without
port from the parish. Parkman's fearing robbery: cowboys were ram-
worries signal the passing of the bunctuous but they were not dishonest.
Christian community founded by the Lingeman vividly reproduces the grit-
Puritans as the communal ideas of the tguyectmn fteea
pious townspeople came to conflict with ty, gaudy excitement of the era.
The period between 1890 and 1910 saw

The Michigan Doily-Friday, August 1, 1980-Page 7
nail own life

"the apotheosis of the small town." The
characterization here is partially
ironic. Though many thought (and
still think) the small town flourished
during this period, Lingeman adds that
such a view necessitated overlooking
the onset of industrialization, which
made competition unbearable for many
farmers and small town craftsmen. The
mass exodus to the city had begun and
its business success ethic infected the
easy-going relations of small town
merchants and their customers. Those
townspeople who despised the city still
believed in progress, in getting ahead
even at the expense of the community,
that cardinal virtue of small town
America. And yet, the small town often
clung to its old and now empty ideal of
self-sufficiency, though it depended
more and more on the city for trade and
commodities. Even farming, far from
an arcadian alternative to the evils of
industrialization, became a com-
bination of big business and industry.
Infected by the contagion of progress,
the towns tried to attract industry,
which they thought meant substantial
tax revenues. But it never worked out
that way.
Lingeman devote an entire chapter to
class distinction in small town
America. He delves into the
narrowness and the conservatism and
jingoism reflected in the small town's
often stagnant politics. But his portrait
never verges on hopelessness or
cynicism. While exposing the illusion-
ridden lives of many small town
citizens, he maintains a healthy
nostalgia of his own based in fact.

Edgar Lee Masters and others all con-
demned the repressive village hiding
its secret sins and Lingeman
acknowledges this repression. But he
also credits the virtues of small town
life. In the last chapter of Small Town
America, "Town and Community",
Lingeman discusses the problems fasc-
ing towns today, especially large scale
land development and agribusiness,
further evidence of conglomenate in-
filtration. While lamenting the
divisiveness within the small towns,
Lingeman believes that community can
still be restored.
Small Town America concludes with
an epilogue in which the authorreturns
to the hometowns of several famous
chroniclers of small town life: Mark
Twain, Anderson, Masters, Lewis,
Cather. It is fitting that several of these
writers harbored love-hate relation-
ships with their hometowns. Small
towns can still provide a haven in a
heartless technological, imper-
sonalized urban world, but the stuff of
some townspeople's illusions can be
unrealistic and stagnating. The town
can only survice by confronting modern
problems; many refuse the challenge.
As comprehensive a social history as
Small Town America is, its exclusions
are significant. Lingeman deals little
with the small town in the south of the
New England town in the
Revolutionary or 19th century periods.
Despite these oversights, the major
patterns are well-documented. One
only wishes the author had been more
consistently exhilirating rather than
merely encyclopedic.

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