A few weeks ago after a faculty meeting, one of my departmental colleagues and I hopped into my brown Subaru (still sporting the “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker if you’re wondering) and headed off to meet some other colleagues at the local brew pub. As we drove along, my friend told me about a home-improvement headache she was contending with after a serious wind storm hit Colorado Springs earlier that week. The fence separating her property from the house next door had blown down, and she had been on the phone with her neighbor all day to sort out the repairs and insurance liability. Not missing a beat, I recited a few lines from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again
She grimaced, good-naturedly irritated by my interruption, and said, “What in the heck are you jabbering about?” I said, “Seriously? You don’t know that Frost poem?” She said, “Is he the guy who wrote that sentimental drivel about ‘the road less traveled’ and some cliché about ‘the road not taken’? I think I whimpered as though she had struck me and may have responded snarkily that she should go look up some rap poems or something. Noting my huffiness, she immediately added, “I guess I’m just not that familiar with his other stuff,” and we returned to our conversation about her fence. But the exchange has stuck with me for a while.
Don’t get me wrong. My friend is brilliant, clever, kind, and beautiful. Before we left for the pub, she was conversing in Spanish and discussing Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with one of our other colleagues. We began working at PPCC the same year, she, near the beginning of her career, and I, two thirds done with mine. Despite an almost twenty-year age difference, we were pals from the beginning. Our conversations can move from highbrow to lowbrow in seconds. For my fiftieth birthday, she took me to see Dumb and Dumber To [sic] because we fancy ourselves the female incarnations of Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne. We are the most unpretentious pretentious academics I’ve ever known.
We probably get along so well because we both grew up lower middle class, though her descriptions lead me to believe her childhood might have been more difficult than mine. Not that my parents weren’t quirky and above raising hell from time to time, but any tendency toward white trashiness in my family was tempered by regular church attendance and strong ties to the community—and its nosiness, for better or worse. As the Miranda Lambert song says:
Whether you’re late for church or you’re stuck in jail, hey, word’s gonna get around.
Everybody dies famous in a small town.
I think what made me a little sad about our Frost conversation wasn’t so much that my friend has no emotional attachment to the poet, but that she was not personally acquainted with the characters Frost wrote about: country neighbors mending a fence, the young, tortured couple at odds over the death of their first child, the old man who remembers being a “swinger of birches” as a boy. For me, Frost’s rural characters are as familiar as my own family members, so I’m instinctively and sentimentally protective of them.
Frost’s subject matter may be out of favor with young academics for a couple of reasons: He’s a dead white guy, and he wrote a lot about people in the boondocks. But it’s not just academics who are underwhelmed by rural America and her people. For a lot of white collar professionals and suburbanites, flyover country is largely an uninteresting locale at best, a place from which to flee at worst. Aside from yearly pilgrimages to the country to buy their kids a Halloween pumpkin, they don’t interact much with the people there. They pass through warily on their way somewhere else. The division between rural and urban (or suburban) Americans remains pronounced.
To be honest, as a young person, I probably felt the same ambivalence toward my small-town upbringing. In the early 1980s, when my friend was still in diapers, I was watching Dynasty and having dreams of becoming a rich and famous…somebody or another….and traveling the world on private jets. I couldn’t wait to get away from what I perceived as the insignificance of my hometown. But after years of traveling the world tourist class and being stuck in rush hour traffic in medium to large-sized metropolitan areas, I now find the tranquil excitement of rural America more appealing than ever.
“Tranquil excitement” may seem like an oxymoron, but I don’t think it is. My family members back home in Alabama have a vibrant social life that makes mine look positively dull. They are far more involved in charitable work and community life than I’ve ever been. My cousin Monica’s homeschooled kids have been taking classical piano lessons for years. Although I couldn’t wait to dispense with piano as a teenager, they’ve actually devoted the time and energy to developing their musical talents. But they’re also country kids, so they must go to one of the Birmingham suburbs to take lessons. If they want to put those talents to professional use, they’ll have to leave the community. The exodus from America’s small towns may be inevitable, but it’s too bad that most of the traffic is usually headed out of town and more people don’t stop for a friendly visit. They might learn a few things.
When Mike and I find ourselves traveling eastward across Kansas, we always enjoy listening to one particular AM classic country and western radio station. Every half hour the station announcer provides the latest Chicago Board of Trade commodity market report. Maybe hog and wheat futures are inconsequential to many Americans, but we listen enthusiastically as we drive through the country’s bread basket. When the market report ends, some song like Jim Reeves’s “Welcome to My World” comes on, and I’ve located another off-the-beaten path locale or a county museum on the map to divert us for half an hour. We’ve visited the hometowns of Dwight Eisenhower, Amelia Earhart, and Melissa Etheridge, among others, and have only scratched the surface of things to do in Kansas alone, not to mention the rest of the nation.
Last summer when we were traveling on U.S. 50, I insisted we stop by the city park in Holcomb, Kansas, to pay our respects at the memorial of the Herbert Clutter family, murdered by drifters and immortalized in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Capote wrote of the town’s unremarkableness:
Until one morning in mid-November 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.
This is good stuff that gets your artistic talents acknowledged and serialized in the New Yorker, but Capote was just a little too flamboyant and egotistical to see the truly exceptional elements of Holcomb. (As a fellow Alabamian, I think he should have known better.) The small memorial in the quiet city park is a testament to the anonymous residents who still take the trouble to honor and mourn the Clutter family years after the notoriety of the case has faded. Most did not welcome the publicity, but they accept their town is now part of American history. The memorial is striking because it only devotes the last two lines of several paragraphs to the Clutters’ violent deaths. Most of the inscription honors their contributions to the town during their lifetimes. Perhaps the townspeople hope that those who know Capote’s version of the tragic story will remember that four remarkable people—not literary characters—died for little more than $40.
The wonderful thing about higher education is that it encourages people to travel and experience new things. Unfortunately, I think our schools may neglect to teach stories about some of the people and cultures within our own land. While it’s great to learn about South American, Asian, Caribbean, or African culture and art, it would be even better if people knew more about their own country’s unique creative and historical contributions as well. Perhaps it might even make more Americans a tad less antagonistic toward one another.
Many people who express horror at the stereotyping of would-be immigrants to the United States appear to have no trouble ignoring or caricaturing rural Americans. For all the complaints about putting a wall on the Mexican border, few seem to mind erecting a figurative barrier between themselves and their fellow citizens.
Luckily, my friend and I will continue to laugh and argue regularly about art and life. She knows it keeps me young. We may have traveled different paths, but at least we’re willing to stop and chat at the crossroads.
You can follow Dana Zimbleman at her blog site: academicredneck.com