Rural America: A Divided Perception

Thoughts about small-town living vary widely depending on whom you talk to.

Excerpted From
Not From Around Here
By Brandon O’Brien

America can’t decide how it feels about its rural and small-town parts.

On the one hand, our poets and politicians have waxed eloquent about the simple virtues of rural life for more than a hundred years. At least since Henry David Thoreau spent two years in a simple cabin by Walden Pond, Americans have sensed that to truly live life the way we were meant to live it, you have to leave behind the distractions of civilization and engage nature in spare simplicity. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau begins, in his 1854 account of his rural experiment. He wanted “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he said. He could only do that, he believed, by retreating from society into the wild. In addition to poets seeking life to the full, our rural places were home to frontiersmen and pioneers who tamed the West and crossed snow-capped mountains in search of the American dream.

Others around the same time had a less romantic view of frontier life. A journalist named George M. Weston used 1850 census data to summarize the condition of poor white people in the American South. The majority of them “retire to the outskirts of civilization,” he observed, “where they lead a semi-savage life, sinking deeper and more hopelessly into barbarism with each succeeding generation.” Weston believed they would be better off if they moved into industrial cities, where “the general average of education and intelligence is raised by the facilities afforded by density of population.” One historian summarizes America’s divided perception of rural places in this way:

“In his most favorable cast as backwoodsman, he was a homespun philosopher, an independent spirit, and a strong and courageous man who shunned fame and wealth. But turn him over and he became the white savage, a ruthless brawler and eye-gouger. This unwholesome type lived a brute existence in a dingy log cabin, with yelping dogs at his heels, a haggard wife, and a mongrel brood of brown and yellow brats to complete the sorry scene.”

By the early 20th century, intellectuals in America were betraying a clear bias in favor of city life. Sociologist Edward Ross set out in 1905 to classify all human beings into “four types of intellect” and identify where in America the different types are most likely to be found. The lowest type of intellect “has few ideas.” They are rural people that congregate “about seaboard and lakeboard, in all the mountain regions, and on the great plains.” On the next rung up are folks who enjoy “safe, commonplace, profitable occupations.” They are kind but intellectually dull. They make up a quarter of the population and “predominate in the South.” The third type are principled and hardworking, make up about 20 percent of the population, and can be found from New England through the Midwest. The highest type is “marked by breadth and balance, clear perceptions, sound judgment, careful reasoning, and critical thinking.” They are the minority—making up just 1.5 percent of the population. They are found “here and there in cities.”

At this point in history, the rural people these commentators had in mind were most likely the sort of solitary wilderness dwellers we think of as squatters or pioneers. That is, these commentators weren’t necessarily talking about farmers in small communities across the heartland.

And for that reason it is all the more remarkable that the legendary Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken made an interesting move in the 1920s when he broadened the stereotype of the ignorant woodsman to include the citizens of small-town Dayton, Tennessee. Mencken traveled from Baltimore to Dayton in 1925 to cover the trial of John T. Scopes, a substitute high school teacher who was charged with teaching human evolution in violation of a local statute. Mencken could hardly believe the resistance. And so in his reporting of the Scopes Trial in 1925, he commented not only on the court proceedings but also on the general tone and tenor of life in small-town Dayton.

At first, the newsman was impressed by the condition of the town. “The town, I confess, greatly surprised me,” he wrote to his urban audience. “I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with . . . pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria.” Instead he found, “a country town full of charm and even beauty.” He goes on to register his surprise at the quality of the town’s infrastructure and economy: The houses are surrounded by pretty gardens, with cool green lawns and stately trees. The two chief streets are paved from curb to curb. The stores carry good stocks and have a metropolitan air, especially the drug, book, magazine, sporting goods and soda-water emporium of the estimable Robinson. A few of the town ancients still affect galluses and string ties, but the younger bucks are very nattily turned out. Scopes himself, even in his shirt sleeves, would fit into any college campus in America save that of Harvard alone.

Soon enough the court proceedings soured Mencken’s view of idyllic Dayton. In the end, he considered the rural and small-town people of Dayton stupid for privileging the Bible’s account of creation over the theory of evolution. “They know little if anything that is worth knowing,” he said, “and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.” This is a problem not just in Dayton, he said, but also among the vast majority of Americans who live outside of cities. It’s a remarkable observation not only because it is crass and condescending but also because of the sheer scope of his denunciation. At the time he proclaimed the hordes of Americans outside of cities to be woefully ignorant, half of the American population was considered rural and the other half lived mostly in villages and small towns.

Mencken couldn’t wait to get out of small-town America.

He’s not the only one.

There’s a strong clear message in American culture that rural and small-town places are for leaving. Maybe there’s no shame in being raised there—maybe there is. But when you have a chance to take matters into your own hands, the best thing you can do is leave. It’s an idea so dear to us that it has anthems in popular culture. The narrator in Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 breakout album Born to Run spends forty minutes describing the “town full of losers” he lives in and making plans of “pulling out of here to win.” He paints vivid pictures of dead-end jobs and useless high school diplomas and disappointment and addiction in small-town New Jersey that shrinks in shame in the shadow of Manhattan. He articulates America’s centuries-old sentiment about small towns when he says, “We gotta get out while we’re young.”

For many Americans, real opportunity lives outside small-town and rural America. You gotta get out while you’re young.

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Excerpted from Not From Around Here: What Divides Us, What Unites Us, and How We Can Move Forward by Brandon O’Brien. (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.