SMALL TOWN AMERICA by Richard Lingeman


Email this review


Lingeman sets out to investigate the storied American small town and, though he arrives at no startling new interpretations, he does take us pleasantly from the beginnings of the town as religious community to its apotheosis by the turn of the 20th century to its decline through industrialization and urbanization. The image of the quiet New England town was carried west by pioneers; but it was economics, not religion, that shaped the settlements. In the new midwestern towns of the early 1800s, the residents tamed their surroundings by setting up first courthouses and churches, then later planting trees--hallmarks of conservatism and stability. The railroad gave life to the select towns that won out in the competitive bidding for the privilege of being a whistle-stop, and soon mining camps and cow towns, homesteads and prairie junctions were all scattered over the American landscape. Lingeman is particularly interested in the literary figures these towns produced, men and women who made it big in the city but carried with them their small town origins, sometimes wearing them like a badge: Willa Cather, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson. These writers created different images--those from the prairie regions became realists, ""pointing up the grim side of life, the narrow, provincial cast of mind that dominated"" while the writers from further west emphasized ""romance, unpredictability, extremes of nobility and evil."" But by the end of the 19th century the cities were providing the excitement: the small towns, unwilling to forge an alliance with agrarian radicalism, became more than ever bastions of conservatism. ""The town came to stand for opposition to Reds, radicals, labor unions, foreigners and immigration, saloons and liquor, Catholics and to some extent Jews--all ills of the big city."" Almost, Lingeman says, opposed to all fun in general. Yet still the town figures in our national imagination--as myth and base, repose and sanctuary. A ""nostalgie de la rue"" is thus perpetuated, one that Lingeman himself admits sharing and that others will respond to.

Pub Date: June 24th, 1980
Publisher: Putnam