Management & Labor

Small- Town Prophets

Granville Hicks, the literary critic, would have been a hundred years old a few weeks ago. Hicks died in 1982, and so he isn't exactly a household name anymore--I didn't know much about him myself until I ran across a copy of "Small Town," his portrait of the village of Grafton, New York, written just at the end of World War II. But the story is worth remembering, both for the unusual life the author led and for the ideas he emerged with after decades of personal struggle.
by | November 2001

Granville Hicks, the literary critic, would have been a hundred years old a few weeks ago. Hicks died in 1982, and so he isn't exactly a household name anymore--I didn't know much about him myself until I ran across a copy of "Small Town," his portrait of the village of Grafton, New York, written just at the end of World War II. But the story is worth remembering, both for the unusual life the author led and for the ideas he emerged with after decades of personal struggle.

Grafton was and is a settlement of fewer than 2,000 people, nestled in the Berkshire hills east of Albany, just a few miles from the Vermont border. Hicks bought a house there in 1932, when he was teaching at nearby Rensselaer Tech, and moved in permanently in 1935. It was a scruffy little place, down on its economic luck. Most of its residents were beleaguered dairy farmers and laid-off textile workers.

Hicks was a strange arrival for several reasons, one of them much more significant than his status as a Harvard-trained English professor: At the time he settled in Grafton with his family, Hicks was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.

You wouldn't exactly expect the Welcome Wagon in that situation, but Hicks insisted that the taciturn inhabitants didn't cause him much discomfort. The truth, he explained, was that "anyone who wasn't a Republican was an oddity. A Communist seemed only slightly more dangerous and slightly more bizarre than a Democrat."

Even so, it's pretty clear that, for the first few years, the town and the Communist dealt with each other at arm's length. Hicks chopped wood and raised vegetables, sent articles in to New Masses and other leftist journals, and rode the train down to Manhattan occasionally to talk revolution with his old urban comrades. Grafton essentially left him alone.

Then two events took place that changed Hicks' life dramatically, and changed the life of the town significantly. In August 1939, Russia announced that it had signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Hicks resigned from the party and renounced Marxism forever. Two years later, the United States was at war. Freed of his ideological baggage, Hicks plunged into small-town life with all the loyalty and conviction he had once applied to revolution and class struggle. "I know that loyalty isn't enough," he admitted. "But it is something. It is the chief corrective to greed and malice."

Hicks organized a Civilian Defense Council, and served on it for four years. As the war wound down, he converted the organization into a permanent Community League, and became a director of that. He set up a committee to build a library, and lobbied for the creation of a volunteer fire district. He was elected school trustee, and launched a bi-weekly town bulletin. "I had become, rather abruptly," he wrote, "a person to be reckoned with in community affairs."

He had become something else as well: a believer in the ordinary American small town as the last bastion of the communal values he had once groped for in the thicket of leftist ideology. Hicks remained a resident of Grafton for the rest of his life, dipping into civic affairs while writing an influential literary column in the pages of the Saturday Review. The more complex and bewildering postwar society seemed to him, the more convinced he was that the secret of improving American life was to be found in the personal relationships of town and village, and that one day, appreciation of small-scale community would return.

"I have long recognized the importance of the `big' end of the problem," Hicks wrote in "Small Town," "Now I have come to see the importance of the `little' end and to feel that it is nearer my size. It does not take a mass movement, armed with all the technology of modern propaganda, to raise the quality of life in a small town. The individual can count if he wants to."

There is nothing new about intellectuals romanticizing village life. The conflict between small-town bashing and small-town idealizing has been a central element in American thought for the past century, in fiction and non-fiction alike. Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson saw the villages of their youth as bigoted, constricted places that forced intelligent people to lead hollow, unhappy lives. On the other hand, Thornton Wilder's town of Grovers Corners was a repository of all that was decent, honest and unpretentious in American civic life.

Throughout the decades, the only real constant has been that while intellectuals jousted with each other over the nature and meaning of small-town existence, the towns themselves were drying up. In 1910, 62 percent of Americans lived in communities with populations of 10,000 or less. In 1950, shortly after Hicks wrote his book, the figure was down to 48 percent. By 1990, it was 18 percent.

But as powerful as those changes have been, they have never quite been sufficient to eradicate a strain of messianic prediction that someday, for some reason, America would begin to rediscover the importance of its small-town roots.

The same year that Granville Hicks was writing his book about Grafton, a equally committed cadre of academics was traveling the country declaring the inevitability of small-town renewal in the postwar period, and proclaiming it to be all but essential for the survival of American democracy. Baker Brownell, a Northwestern University sociologist, organized a renewal program based on the principle of community self-examination, obtained funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, chose Montana for a pilot project, and set out with an army of researchers and advisers dedicated to nursing the state's ailing towns back to robust good health. "Rural life is the normal milieu of the human community," Brownell taught. "Thousands of years of human culture confirm it. Cities have come and gone."

The Montana Project bore relatively little fruit, but one of Brownell's co-workers, Richard Poston, emerged from the effort as an unshakable prophet of "small-town renaissance," wrote a book by that name in 1951, and spent the remaining half-century of his life writing and preaching that a small-town revival was inevitable--it was a mandate of history and human nature. In his late seventies, retired as professor of Community Development at Southern Illinois University, Poston threw himself into the rebuilding of Cairo, Illinois, a depressed Mississippi River town. When he died last year, at the age of 85, it was with the firm belief that the renaissance was on its way, even if he himself might not live long enough to see it.

All of this may sound a little crazy--the messianic pleadings of a fringe sect that isn't willing to accept plain demographic facts. Certainly their timing left a bit to be desired. During all those years when Richard Poston was traveling the country preaching his gospel of rural revival, the interstate highway system was turning small towns all over America into ghost towns, their Main Street storefronts boarded up and their more prosperous inhabitants departed for brand-new subdivisions strung haphazardly along the highway. After a small rural population increase in the late 1970s, fed mostly by resource extraction in Appalachia and the Mountain West, the 1980s proved to be the most disastrous decade for small-town America in recent times.

The 1990s, however, provided a surprise. Last year's Census data are now in, and they show conclusively that while small-town America isn't booming, it has begun a mysterious comeback. Altogether, there are 2,303 counties in the United States that the Census labels as rural or "non-metropolitan." In the 1980s, a majority of them lost population. In the '90s, three-quarters of them gained people. They experienced a net in-migration of 3.5 million, compared to a net out-migration of 1.4 million in the 1980s.

There is no simple explanation for why this happened. Some rural counties grew because prisons were built; some because of new manufacturing plants; some attracted retirees; some became popular for their scenery and recreation.

But every demographer who has studied this situation concedes another point as well: A large and growing number of professionals in their productive years are moving to small towns for reasons of security, sociability and community participation. They are opting for small- town life for reasons similar to the ones that drove Granville Hicks to Grafton in the 1930s--they are looking for a rootedness they feel is absent in suburban America.

Until recently, this was not an option for most people for reasons of technology and communication. But the Internet, e-mail and the laptop computer have removed many of the obstacles. What the Census shows is that several million people chose in the 1990s to take advantage of the new geographical flexibility that technology had given them. As the respected demographer Kenneth M. Johnson carefully puts it, "a selective deconcentration of the American population is occurring."

Now, of course, something new has happened. The nation's biggest city has been attacked by terrorists, right at the symbolic heart of its commercial culture and economic life. As we have all heard endlessly since September 11, American attitudes and habits will change over the coming months and years, in ways that nobody can foresee right now. I certainly have no crystal ball.

One thing I hope is that the destruction of the World Trade Center will prompt a renewed sense of pride and loyalty in our big cities, one that will rebuild lower Manhattan and cause city-dwellers to appreciate the dense urban landscapes they inhabit.

But even if something like that takes place, I'm reasonably sure that millions of people will look at the situation another way, and decide that safety, security, comfort and community all dictate moving to a smaller place somewhere far from the skyscrapers, where they will know and trust their neighbors and where quiet, walkable main streeets can play the role that city neighborhoods used to play in their lives. In that case, Ken Johnson's "selective deconcentration" of the 1990s may turn out to be only the beginning of a profound demographic change in the new century.

And in that case, some of the hopelessly impractical small-town prophets of the 20th century, prophets such as Granville Hicks and Baker Brownell and Richard Poston, may turn out to have been right in the long run. Not on the timetable they imagined, or for the reasons they expected, or in the way they would have wished--but mostly right, nevertheless.

That's the way it is with prophets--you don't want to make the mistake of dismissing them before all the facts are in.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Management & Labor