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Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future
Oxford University Press, 2013
520 pp., $27.95
Naomi Schaefer Riley
A Nice Place to Leave
In 2001, David Brooks penned a piece for the Atlantic called "One Nation, Slightly Divisible," in which he described crossing the "meatloaf divide," going from Montgomery County in Maryland to Franklin County in Pennsylvania. "From here on," he writes of his road trip, "there will be a lot fewer sun-dried-tomato concoctions on restaurant menus and a lot more meatloaf platters." The differences, of course, were not just in the menu. "On my journeys to Franklin County," Brooks wrote, "I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu—steak au jus, 'slippery beef pot pie,' or whatever—I always failed." This, in turn, led Brooks to an astute observation:
No wonder people in Franklin County have no class resentment or class consciousness; where they live, they can afford just about anything that is for sale. (In Montgomery County, however … almost nobody can say that. In Blue America, unless you are very, very rich, there is always, all around you, stuff for sale that you cannot afford.)
This idea that living in Red America (mostly made up of smaller towns in the South and Midwest) places some limits on residents' desires is a theme throughout Robert Wuthnow's new book. In Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future, the eminent Princeton sociologists offers the results of more than 700 interviews with people in 300 towns scattered among 43 states. Wuthnow paraphrases one of the interviewees saying, "It is easier to feel comfortable about what he has." Not only is there little conspicuous consumption in his small town, but the man says, "You can't buy stuff" there.
As Wuthnow writes, "the scale of a small town establishes a kind of symbolic boundary around a person's aspirations. It says, realistically, this is what I think I can achieve. With this orbit of accomplishment, I will be content with whatever happens because other sources of satisfaction are present as well."