Anxietyville, USA

The Wilton (Conn.) Bulletin recently interviewed Richard Russo. Because Russo writes about small towns, and because the Bulletin is a small-town paper, a few of the questions revolved around small towns:

To Mr. Russo, Facebook resembles an attempt to create the sense of community found in small towns. “What is Facebook but an attempt to replicate something lost, a real community? People in small towns can’t avoid each other,” he said. “They have to take each other into account, which may be both the best and worst thing about them.”

What about writers like Sinclair Lewis who have disparaged small towns? “Sinclair Lewis saw such places as breeding grounds for parochial stupidity,” Mr. Russo said. “He’d probably feel the same about Facebook, where like-minded morons gather and draw solace from the fact that there are so many others out there with identical misconceptions. Sherwood Anderson, with whom I feel a closer kinship, saw in isolated small town lives an inner richness.”

Russo expands on this kind of ambivalence over small towns in a personal essay, “High and Dry,” in the new issue of Granta. His hometown, Gloversville, New York, was defined by tanneries and glove manufacturers during his childhood; once the bottom fell out of the industry, a sense of community in the town began to erode. It’s a familiar small-town tragedy, but Russo persistently resists romanticizing it, even if he’s not as dismissive as Lewis. Russo describes receiving a book in the mail about Gloversville from a man named Vincent DeSantis, and reading it prompts him to think both about small-town charms and small-town toxicity (literally—those tanneries pumped out a lot of carcinogens). The upside:

A community, even one dominated by a a single industry that hates competition, still needs grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, insurance agencies, clothing stores and car dealerships. Residents need schools and teachers and libraries and a movie theatre, and when you lose the industry that underlies those other enterprises, these inevitably become endangered. It’s not just the mills that are abandoned when the good times—if that’s what they were—stop rolling. You also lose, as Mr. DeSantis points out, part of your identity, your reason for being, a shared sense of purpose that’s hard to quantify.

But:

[S]ometimes people are so proud of what they make that they willingly overlook its true cost. That Gloversville once had an identity based on a common sense of purpose is a potent argument. It is used, for instance, to expalin the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe, and what are they if not symbols of communal wealth and belief. Given the technology of the day, the pyramids are even more awe-inspiring, at least until one remembers they were built with slave labour. Closer to home, the Confederacy was a case study in shared values and cultural identity, whose foundation, of course, was slavery.

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