Books by Robert Wolf

Released: June 1, 1999

An appealing collection of simple but diverse writings by seldom-heard American voices. A teacher and a former Chicago Tribune columnist, Wolf has amassed selections culled from nine years of conducting writing workshops with amateurs in various rural communities. Wolf hears America singing by recording poems and essays by the homeless, farmers, commune inhabitants, and residents of small river towns—the most common and least represented element in our urban, urbane culture. What weaves these pieces together is a sense of sadness and nostalgia because a way of life is disappearing. Wolf sees the rapid technological advances of the past few decades as increasingly dehumanizing. Jettisoned in its wake, he theorizes, are the thousands of mentally ill homeless, the newly unemployed and impoverished, the low-tech and depressed small-town dwellers, and the abandoned company ghosts of the manufacturing era. Local education has failed in the misery belt "because those driving this society are, as a class, anti-intellectual and unimaginative." These elegiac themes dominate. The homeless bemoan the lack of decent employment; the farmers recall a bucolic past before pesticides and conglomerates—when they were "embraced by the land"; and the children of provincial midwestern towns are eager to leave their homes and dead-end futures. Among the older generation, any machines that don—t improve phones or TVs can only bring trouble. One of the anthology's standouts is Mary Ann Fels, who graphically describes her decision to break with some of the formal, decor-related wedding traditions of the Amana Church in Iowa, where the wrong haircut earned one excommunication. The old German Board of Trustees were anxious to host the increasingly rare ceremony, but they asked the couple "not to do anything too wild." None of the contributions will be mistaken for literature, yet the writers have much to say that has not been heard and is worth preserving. A vivid, folk-art look into rarely documented American lives. Read full book review >