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No Nostalgia

Does Norman Rockwell reflect all small, rural towns?
Norman Rockwell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Does Norman Rockwell reflect all small, rural towns?

Hello, Radio Readers. I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, for our Fall 2022 Read, “Rural Live: Revisited.” Sherwood Anderson’s novel, Winesburg, Ohio, is set in a small rural town in mid-America of the early 1900s, a time in history when phones, automobiles, and electricity were not yet available through rural America. So, let’s not be surprised that in Winesburg people talk to each other, face-to-face, they walk to get places, and they live in semi-darkness. What might surprise is the absence of nostalgia for that pre-industrial life.

For rural nostalgia, we have Norman Rockwell’s portraits. A smiling elderly family doctor. Or two generations of moms and dads and children gathered about a table laden with platters of down- home food. Political campaign ads do a number on rural life…. dad, mom, daughter and son, a dog. Fit and tan, Anglo, standing with arms over each other’s shoulders and around waists, smiling in grassy meadows, squinting against sunshine. Promises to reduce taxes to rates low but sufficient to support all democratic institutions, not just families, but schools, churches, to maintain highways and law enforcement, with jobs and houses with picket fences on tree-lined streets for all.

Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio doesn’t sing a charming song about small towns. What holds the town together? What but inertia keeps these folks in Winesburg? What is there to do? Characters aren’t described at work but as hanging about in bars or walking and talking late into the night. They are schooled to enter a workforce not prepared to employ them. Elders and parents are inattentive or absent, searching for entertainment, employment, and entanglements. Which, as I hear myself right now, seems radically contemporary, as if the novel had been written last year, not a hundred years ago.

By the time I first read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, I’d been away for some years from my own hometown in central Kansas, a town so small, it’s been called a village. Everyone knew everyone, by name and family history. Oddly, Anderson’s novel validated my small town experience, especially that I felt known, related. This is mostly because of the unending recitation of family names, marriages and births across generations of extended family. The aunt who married the fellow from the next county over, the blood kin of third and fourth—sometimes sixth cousins; the great-great uncle who built a fortune from nothing, the spendthrift son, the daughter who ran off to the city. In school, our teachers were either the parents of our own parents’ childhood friends, or themselves our parents’ friends. My classmates I’ve known all my life. Most businesses were locally owned, and those who served the municipality were also local. There wasn’t a great deal of mobility, social or geographic.

After recounting all this to a friend who’d grown up very differently, in a tough, broke, and broken-down city neighborhood, I earned the nickname of Opie, the sweet-faced innocent of the fictional rural small-town of Mayberry, the setting of a popular television series syndicated for generations. Though I knew it wasn’t a compliment, that nickname, I didn’t resent it; why would I?

For many years since, I’ve lived in Dodge City, Kansas, which really can be a great place to raise a family. Unemployment is low, churches have strong congregations and dioceses. The costs of educating children are weighed against levels of taxation at state and local levels. We value our rural western history of self-reliant individuals. Prominent families engage in public service. Our population is diverse and multicultural.

Like Dodge City – is where you live—a small rural town? What might Sherwood Anderson say? What would it look like to Norman Rockwell?

For High Plains Public Radio and Radio Readers Book Club, I’m Jane “Opie” Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas.

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Fall Read 2022: Rural Life Revisited 2022 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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