Small towns, Nigeria, Springsteen, Sinclair Lewis and Beijing
We can't choose when or where we are born. Who hasn't thought about how fortunate we are to have been born here rather than (fill in the blank) — especially if the blank happens to be a place like, say, Nigeria.
Imagine living in a country where the government can't protect children in school. No, I am not dredging up Columbine or Sandy Hook. If you revel in the NRA and rue Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, relax. Think Nigeria, where just last month (April 2014) more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped at gunpoint in broad daylight. That makes the problems in our local school system look like child's play.
Or think Afghanistan and Pakistan in South Asia; Syria, Iraq, Yemen, or Gaza in the Middle East; Somalia, the Sahel, Nigeria, Guinea, Zimbabwe, or the, ahem, Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa; closer to home, think Haiti, Colombia, or — much closer — Ciudad Juarez. And be thankful you don't wake up in Ukraine every morning or just about anywhere in the Caucasus.
We place a high value on freedom, including the freedom to choose how and where we will live. But nobody gets to choose the circumstances of his or her own birth. We can't choose our parents, skin color, language or social class.
Even our religion is often a roll of the cosmic dice. "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." How (or whether) we observe the Sabbath, for example, is more like an accident than a conscious choice. The reason many of my friends go to church on Sunday is the same reason many of my other friends go to a synagogue on Saturday.
We're lucky to be born in America, but we don't all see it that way. Take Sinclair Lewis, for example. Lewis was born in 1885 in the small town of Sauk Centre, Minn. Despite — or perhaps because of — his humble origins, he became the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. His most famous book is "Main Street," published in 1920.
"Main Street" is a story of life in a small town (modeled on Lewis' hometown), especially the life of a young woman, a city girl, who marries a small-town doctor. Her efforts to elevate the cultural level of the community are rebuffed. An outsider, she becomes a lightning rod for the petty individuals who personify the worst attributes of provincial life.
The book has been described as a double-edged satire aimed at small-minded townspeople and the pseudo-intellectuals who disdain them. Lewis was unsparing in his depictions of real people given fictitious names.
The Sauk City Herald wrote: "A perusal of the book makes it possible for one to picture in his mind’s eyes local characters having been injected bodily into the story.” It sold 180,000 copies in the first six months, but it was banned in nearby Alexandria (a popular resort town surrounded by lakes that was once my home away from home). Trust me: Scandinavians don't appreciate nerdy neighbors airing dirty laundry in public.
Alexandria is also home to the famous Kensington Runestone, described in Wikipedia as "a 200-pound slab of greywacke covered in runes [inscriptions] on its face and side." Ask a local true believer and it proves "that Scandinavian explorers reached the middle of North America in the 14th century." The problem is "…experts identify it as a 19th century hoax." Obviously, these experts have never heard of the Minnesota Vikings.
Bruce Springsteen is another famous guy who didn't have great things to say about where he grew up. These lyrics tell a story about his experiences growing up in Freehold, N.J.:
Now main streets whitewashed windows and vacant stores Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back.
"My Hometown" is Springsteen's optic on a working class in decline during the Reagan era, as unions were under siege, Walmart was waging war on Main Street USA and small towns were aging, depopulating and generally falling on hard times.
About a year after the song was released, 3M closed its factory in Freehold, putting a big slice of the town's labor force out of work. Springsteen did a benefit show for the affected workers in 1986 and spoke truth to power: "What goes unmeasured is the price that unemployment inflicts on people's families…I'm here to say that…after 25 years of service from a community, there is a debt owed to the 3M workers and to my hometown."
No place is perfect, but some places are less perfect than others. To repeat: think Nigeria.
Sinclair Lewis and Bruce Springsteen were (are) both cut from the same cloth. It's a durable fabric found in small towns — which reminds me of a John Mellencamp song:
Well, I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
…I can breathe in a small town
You can't say that if you happen to have been born in Beijing.
Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams. He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular Visit Tom’s blog at http://open.salon.com/blog/dakotaki.