Armchair Peregrinations

The following is a review of the book Main Street on the Middle Border by Lewis Atherton that I wrote for a course in American social and intellectual history.

Born in 1905 in Bosworth, Missouri, and growing up in the nearby county seat of Carrollton, Lewis Atherton was intimately acquainted with all the small-town, Midwestern American traditions, habits, and ways of life he would later document in his book Main Street on the Middle Border. This comprehensive "social and economic history," as he calls it, spans the years 1865-1950, and is a richly detailed account of regional life in America during its most formative years.

Atherton researched the material for this book during 1950-51. The historian draws heavily on local newspaper accounts, but also relies extensively on periodicals, reminiscences, and regional novels, all of which give force to the documentary nature of the work. From lists of items in general store bins (tea, coffee, dried peaches, beans, rice, corn meal, prunes, dried apples and oatmeal) to titles of inspirational speeches at Chautauquas, Atherton spares no detail, relentlessly furnishing the reader the evidence for this history of eveyrday life during quite extraordinary times in American history.

Although oral history was a prominent form of documenting the Depression era, Atherton sticks with the traditional sources for his account rather than incorporating extended selections of spoken words from the inhabitants of the small towns he writes about. As it stands, his work is more authoritative than purely readable, but his prose is spare and forceful, hardly judgmental in tone, and contains understated humor and empathy for the people and customs he writes about.

The early sections of the book set the stage, providing an account of the beginning years on the Middle Border. The region consists of those dozen or so states we traditionally consider to be the Midwest. This was land that had been rapidly filling up since the early and mid-19th century when waves of immigrant farmers, land speculators, small businessmen and their families began staking out new lives following land rushes to the prairie frontier.

Each six miles or so the farmers had to have a market town because of the primitive state of transportation. From these hamlets, often containing no more than a livery stable and general store, sprang the developing little towns that became bitter rivals for location of the seat of county government. From the spirit of rugged individualism and hard work of the early settlers evolved that animating power of civic pride and boosterism that becaame grist for so many later novelists. Atherton mentions that the town of Baxter Springs, Kansas, hoped to become the "metropolis of soutern Kansas." Some boosters even took to pirating county records off to their own villages to strong-arm their way into becoming county seats.

Atherton delights in recreating the details of the struggles of these optimistic towns, and time and again refers to three in particular: Algona, Iowa; Rockville, Indiana; and Gallatin, Missouri. These become prototypes of the towns that caught on, survived and more or less prospered into the 20th century, although none achieved the size and greatness their founders had hoped they would attain. After all, there could be only so many Des Moines, Iowas or Kansas Cities.

These emerging towns all had at least one hotel, and usually the inhabitants aspired to be like city people, but this was difficult in a raw land, for as the author notes, "Only by conscious effort could upright folks on the frontier husband the cultural graces." Inevitably, townspeople were "inclined to look askance at country ways" when farmers came to market on Saturday.

What developed in these towns was a sort of "idealized village" concept centered on family life, church and school, with keen observance of local morality, and, therefore, the necessity for a large measure of conformity. It was supposed to be a "classless" society where everyone could find his or her place and a sense of belonging. But there were, of course, always those who ignored the middle class code of respectability, particularly the "lower classes."

How were these values inculcated in the young? Repeatedly Atherton refers to the influence of he McGuffey readers used in all the schools. Preachers and newspaper editors agreed with William Holmes McGuffey that individuals could rise in the world through their own efforts and that virtue was rewarded. These beliefs meshed perfectly wth the prevailing "Cult of the Immediately Useful and Practical," a no-nonsense approach to life, highly judgmental and intolerant of the non-conformists. In McGuffey's world, dreamers and artists need not apply -- just farmers, millers, carpenters, barbers, blacksmiths, tailors, and the like.

"Prying eyes, gossip, and pressure to conform" were the price to pay for belonging to the community, a price too high for Hamlin Garland, althogh his rootless life was a constant harking back to the "idealiized village" that never really existed despite his many attempts to find and create one for his family. The debunkers such as Sinclair Lewis savaged small-town mores and narrow-mindedness, but despite the social critics whose loyalties were in the cities, the small town held its own. Those bonds of belonging, that fierce boosterism and pride in "sense of place" overshadowed what to some may have appeared to be a dull and monotonous existence.

Atherton maintains that "nostalgia for one's youthful kinship with the spirit of Tom Sawyer never departed from adults who grew up in Midwestern country towns." This "nostalgia," which I think Atherton shares, does not deter his persistent efforts to present the widest variety of portrayals of small-town life. Mark Twain may have provided some of the more realistic accounts, but for every cynic like Lewis or Edgar Lee Masters, there was a Zona Gale with her "gallery of saccharine portraits" which had wide appeal.

Inexorable changes sweeping the country in the early decades of the 20th century took their toll on the small town. Chain stores came to Main Street, radio and movies displaced vaudeville and plays at the Opera House, and organizations became increasingly specialized, the result, Atherton says, of stresses in modern culture which had fueled the need "to join." The Chautauquas, which had provided old-fashioned entertainment, speeches, and moral uplift, departed the rural scene by the 1920s.

Despite the changes in their way of life, townspeople in the Middle Border didn't change their overall outlook or philosophy very muich. The foundations of church, home, and school remain powerful. They continue to have "something larger than themselves to cling to," and this remains a communal sense of belonging. A "real country town" continues to be a place where people speak to one another as they pass along the street.

It is easy to see how negative stereotypes of small twons such as provincialism, social and intellectual isolation, fear of new ideas, and others, are perpetuated. But Atherton is wise enough to take into acoaunt the reverse side of these criticisms. This he does, not through sentimentality, but with an evenhandedness that is notable. Timeless traditions such as county fairs, summer band concerts, literary societies, civic clubs, church socials, and small school systems are not only alive and well in many areas, but really are irreplaceable components of American culture.

Small towns everywhere have their share of moralizers, class-conscious social strivers and opportunistic "solid citizens." Also, as Atherton points out, some people have loathed the small town life but could never escape to any type of larger world. But then there was Herbert Quick, an Iowa farm boy who became a teacher, lawyer and novelist. Writing in his autobiography about a small-town boyhood, he says, "I have spent a good deal of my life in such communities, and I have never failed from time to time, and at important crises in my life, to make contact with the souls who led me outward and upward." Atherton, I think, would endorse this statement.

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