Friday, September 12, 2014

`Towns Where Everything Lingers Too Long'

“In America, we have them, too—old towns
huddled under forests,
or alongside the kind of rivers that always seem to
flow calmly
into the west.” 

If an American collective consciousness survives in a mobile, fragmented, multicultural age, surely it contains a small town, preferably Midwestern, a reassuring memory fed by movies, books, old photographs and, for some of us, living there. Nostalgia feeds it, faith in a simpler time and place. You don’t have to remind us of the gossip, narrow-mindedness and provinciality because you find that in Manhattan too. 

“Here are the antique shoppes, the oak lane walks, the
the slow falling snows,
and cellars and attics and antebellum porches and the
tinny sound
of old radios. 

“Towns that never flourished, towns where everything
lingers too long,
where moss grows under the shutters of dilapidated houses,
and no one seems young.” 

“Shoppes” reminds us “small town” is a brand, packaged and sold like “artisan bread,” but the romance remains. William Maxwell excavates a pre-World War I Illinois town in Time Will Darken It (1948): “Of certain barns and outbuildings that are gone (and with them trellises and trumpet vines) you will find no trace whatever. In every yard a dozen landmarks (here a lilac bush, there a sweet syringa) are missing. There is no telling what became of the hanging fern baskets with American flags in them or of all those red geraniums. The people who live on Elm Street now belong to a different civilization.” 

“Rip Van Winkle towns. Winesburg, Ohio. Poker Flats.
Hannibal, Missouri.
The heartbreak town of Grover’s Corners and the
dog-eared one
Of Yellow Sky.” 

The catalog of small towns, fictional and otherwise, commences: Washington Irving, Sherwood Anderson, Bret Harte, Samuel Clemens, Thornton Wilder, W.R. Burnett (with William Wellman). 

“And out of the river, the mist,
and deep in the forest, the devil;
where the world’s just an eagle’s wing in the dusk, or
a cloud
or the moon growing pale. 

The devil entices the good man
who ventures too far.
The river’s too dark. You’ll lose your way, you’ll drown it is
even under the stars.” 

A primal American scene. The westward tug. Hawthorne and Irving again. Willa Cather and Dawn Powell. Tell Taylor and Paul Dresser (Theodore Dreiser’s brother.) Orson Welles and Rod Serling. 

“Morning town, Frenchman’s Bend, Lonesome Dove,
Gopher Prairie,
Eatonville, Cooperstown, Old Eben Flood lying
drunk on the hill
over Tilsbury.” 

On with the catalog: [Malvina Reynolds?], Faulkner, McMurtry, Sinclair Lewis, Zora Neale Hurston, Cooper (and Marly Youmans?), E.A. Robinson. 

[The quoted passages, read consecutively, constitute Dick Allen’s “Sleepy Old Towns” in This Shadowy Place (St. Augustine’s Press, 2014).]

No comments: