"Why I Live in a Small Town"
by Bess Streeter Aldrich
Reprinted from the "Ladies' Home Journal" - 1933
There are fiction writers who would have us believe that just three types of people inhabit small Midwestern towns. There are those who are discontented, wanting to get away; there are those who are too dumb to know enough to want to get away; and the rest are half-wits. Not qualifying for the first section, I must, perforce, belong somewhere down the line.
Spring on the Aldrich House Lawn
Our town is small. In fact, to speak of our "town" at all is rank hyperbole, for it is not even a town, but is incorporated as a village.
It is so small that, with the exception of Main, the streets are not called by their names and you have to look on a map or an abstract to find out what they are. We glibly say "over by Clement's" and "down by the high school," and in the last few years have been putting on airs by saying "across the park" instead of "the meadow."
It is so small that we have to go to the post office for our mail, where the postmaster knows everyone so well that a letter coming in one day addressed briefly to "Clara," minus any surname, immediately found its owner by the process of elimination.
It is so small that whether you choose to or not you are obliged to hear the band practice every Monday night in the old G.A.R. Hall. Not that it is such a hardship. To be sure, its repertoire may not be so extensive as the late Mr. Sousa's and it may be top-heavy with brass, but it's a good little band at that.
"Tell why you continue to live in a small town," wrote the editor. The question makes me stop and wonder. Perhaps it's inertia - just small-town stagnation. But I do not think so.
It is true I do not always stay here. Out of the twelve months of the past year five of them were spent away - three on the West Coast and two in the pine-and-lake region of Northern Minnesota. But my home is here. Good friends are here. I live and do my work here where the streets go unnamed, and the one train and one bus each way per day slip through town with few passengers, and the band lustily executes Poet and Peasant and Under the Double Eagle March.
No one and no circumstances are compelling me to remain. In the eight years since my husband's death there has not been a day that I might not have packed the typewriter and moved to Lincoln or Omaha, my state's two largest cities, or to any big city east or west. Not that I depreciate the many advantages of living in one of them, but to me they are for visiting, and my little town for home.
It was just twenty-three years ago that as a young married woman with a two-month-old baby girl in my arms I arrived at the boxlike station and was met by my husband, who had preceded me by a few weeks. I had not wanted to come to Nebraska. My earliest recollection of hearing the name of the state was a picture of my mother sending me over to the church basement with some old clothes and dried apples which she explained were to be sent to the poor folks out in Nebraska. The impression persisted, so that when my husband and my sister's husband negotiated for the purchase of the bank here, I was not at all enthusiastic about the move. I did not want to wear old clothes and I did not want to eat dried apples.
On the day on which we arrived there was a typical Nebraska dust storm of no modest or refined proportions under way. But my loyalty to the state of my adoption insists that I digress here and explain that the old windstorms are becoming less and less frequent. No doubt it is the diversified farming as it is practiced today which has steadied weather conditions in the Midwest. In the days when the hot winds blew from an unbroken expanse of stubble fields and barren lands, serious damage was done. But under modern conditions the landscape is broken with such regularity by crops still unmatured that serious damage from winds is no longer likely.
Si Mairs, whom the menfolks had hired to meet us, was at the station with a two-seated surrey and team to take the women of the party up to the cottage that my husband had rented. Because the wind was blowing so hard that I would not trust my baby out of my arms, my husband and my brother-in-law wheeled the empty cab up to the house, while my sister, mother, the baby and I rode in state with Si. Si was not sure which of three cottages at the end of the street was the one Mr. Aldrich had rented, but it did not take me long to pick it out, for through the blasts of dust I could see my best upholstered rocking-chair, a wedding present, sitting on a little porch with an arm hanging limply down at its side, evidently broken in shipping.
Through the gusts of dirt we hurried up to the little cottage, and it was then that I had my first taste of Nebraska small-town hospitality. Si's sister had come in to get the dinner, which was all ready for us. On my stove and with my own dishes she had prepared a delicious meal for the strangers, that they might feel welcome.
I have experienced it a thousand times since -- that warm-hearted hospitality, loyal friendship and deep sympathy of the small town. And it is these characteristics and others of the better features of the small town and its people that I have tried to stress in my short stories and books.
Why quarrel with a writer over realism and idealism? After all an author is a glass through which a picture of life is projected. The picture falls upon the pages of the writer's manuscript according to the mental and emotional contours of that writer. It is useless to try to change those patterns. If one writer does not see life in terms of grime and dirt, adulteries and debaucheries, it does not follow that those sordid things do not exist. If another does not see life in terms of faith and love, sympathy and good deeds, it does not follow that those characteristics do not exist. I grow weary of hearing the sordid spoken of as real life, the wholesome as Pollyanna stuff. I contend that a writer may portray some of the decent things of life around him and reserve the privilege to call that real life too. And if this be literary treason; make the most of it.
Much water has trickled down Stove Creek since that long-gone day. The baby girl I clutched in my arms from the force of the prairie wind has been married several months now. The two boys who followed her into the family circle are of college age and studying away from home; while a third boy is here in the seventh grade.
Once a story of mine, syndicated in a newspaper, carried in brackets an indulgent explanation from an editor that the writer "goes right down into small towns and mingles among the people for her material." Could anything sound more smug? As if I had gone slumming with drawn skirts. I have not gone small-townish for material. I am small-townish.
Of course, to be honest, I admit I would not choose this little place if I were driving across country seeking a town into which to move. I may have expressed something of that in the introduction to a Lantern in Her Hand, for, while the Cedartown of the story is fictitious, it is frankly located in this section of the country.
"Cedartown sits beside a highway which was once a buffalo trail. if you start in one direction on the highway and travel far enough, you will come to the effete East. If you travel a few hundred miles farther in the opposite direction, you will come to the distinctive West. Cedartown is neither effete nor distinctive nor is it even particularly pleasing to passing tourists. It is beautiful only in the eyes of those who live here and in the memories of the Nebraska-born whose dwelling in far places has given them moments of home-sickness for the low rolling hills, the swell and dip of the ripening wheat, the fields of sinuously waving corn and the elusively fragrant odor of alfalfa."
After all, it is contact and familiarity that help endear people and places to us. I came here in a happy day and perhaps I am trying to cling to old happiness.
As I write, I have only to glance outside my study window to see in the cement of the driveway the tracings of a fat hand with grotesque square fingers, a date of nine years ago, and the straggling initials C.S.A. I have one son who has always had a perfect obsession for leaving his footprints, not only on the sands of time but in every piece of new cement about the place. There are hands and feet of every size, width and length on sidewalks, driveways, steps and posts, all duly signed and dated.
I would be absurd to say that the sight of that traced hand outside my study window holds me here, but it may readily be a symbol of all that does. I would not be possible for me to follow four young people with widely diversified tastes and talents out into the world -- and to keep the home with its old associations means more to me than any advantage gained by moving cityward.
Unbreakable Radii Of Love
This is the home my sons and daughter knew in childhood, and I have a notion that in this rather hectic day of complicated life it is well for young people to have some substantial tie which still holds them to the anchor of unchanging things. You cannot break the radii which stretch out from the center of a good home. They are the most flexible things in the world. They reach out into every port where a child has strayed -- these radii of love. They pull at the hearts of the children until sometime, somewhere, they draw the wanderers all back into the family circle.
Small-town people are popularly supposed to be narrow. And yet -- are the realities of life narrowing? Birth? Marriage? Death? Small-town life is not artificial. It need not be superficial. Calvin Coolidge, in his autobiography, has expressed it in his simple, effective way: "Country life does not always have breadth, but is has depth."
Small-town people are no longer mere isolated villagers. Although the whiskered farmer gent with the straw in his mouth is still the joy of the cartoonist, there is no character which adequately represents the Main Street man. Small-town people move about now, go places.
When I was a little girl, we used to drive six miles out in the country to an uncle's -- jog ... jog ... jog over the country roads. And, incidentally, it had one advantage. It gave us time to see things -- pink bouncing Bets a the side of the road ... a meadow lark's nest ... all the little wild things that we so easily overlooked now while the needle trembles toward sixty. From our small town, in far less time than those six miles used to consume, we drive on a paved road up to Lincoln, with its beautiful homes and parks, its wonderful capitol, its ninety-eight churches and its four universities. An hour in the opposite direction finds us in the still larger Omaha.
Our physician and his wife recently took a Cuban trip ... a young chap has just gone down to see South America for a month ... my daughter's girlhood chum across the street studied music in Paris last summer. Even Heinie Mollen, the cobbler, put down his hammer last fall and went out to take a look at Hollywood to see if the stars really looked like the pictures tacked up on the walls of his shop.
Keeping An Author Humble
A small town is a good place for a writer to live. Not only is he close to the people, and so close to life in the raw, but also it keeps him humble. For instance, if you are a professional writer, living in a small town, perhaps on the day on which you are coming home from the post office with a letter from the committee that a story of yours has been judged one of best of the year and chosen for the O. Henry Memorial Award volume, you meet an old man who stops you and says: "Say I just been readin' one of your stories." Ah, you think, everyone reads them -- the O. Henry committee, young people, middle-aged, old men; babies cry for them. "Yep," he says, "it was the one in the --- Well, I forget the magazine, but it's one my daughter takes." You overlook a little thing like that and wait for him to go on. "Anyway, the name of the story was ---- Say," he apologizes, "that slips me too." Oh, well that's a mere bagatelle. What's a title? "Anyway," he brightens, "The story was about -- " He takes off his cap and scratches his head. "Don't that beat you? I clean forget what the darn thing was about."
And there you are. If a story was not clean-cut enough for a nice old man to remember overnight, it wasn't very good.
Then there was the time I had received the annual report showing that a book of mine had been third in sales for the entire country for the year. With that rather pleasant bit of news uppermost in my mind, I went to a little social affair in my small town. when I sat down among the ladies, I made a remark about just coming home from Lincoln -- that I had been so busy at the desk, I had not been there in five weeks. A little woman looked up from her fancywork and said:
"Did you say you hadn't been there for five weeks? Well, isn't that queer! I was in Lincoln yesterday myself and stopped to buy some groceries. When I gave the groceryman a check he said, "I see you're from the town where Bess Streeter Aldrich lives. I suppose you know her?' Now, will you tell me," she questioned earnestly, "if you hadn't been in Lincoln for five weeks, how that groceryman could have remembered your name all that length of time?" Humble? I'll say they keep you humble. A prophet in her own village isn't a prophet at all, but just a woman who buys groceries. And isn't that as it should be?