Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America
John E. Miller
Univ Pr of Kansas, 2014
544 pp., $34.95
James Calvin Schaap
In Willa Cather's My Antonia, as elsewhere in her stories, small towns don't fare well. What thrills her heart and soul is the open country she remembers as a child, the land she calls "the Divide," a landscape of immense proportions peopled amicably by immigrants from all over the country and the world. Life was a joy out there in the wilds.
If you have ever visited the rolling, red hills where Cather lived as a child, a stark Great Plains landscape long ago deserted by homesteaders who once made the whole area a community, you'll know it's difficult to buy her reverence for the place. Most people wouldn't want to live there, and few do.
Red Cloud, Nebraska, the small town where she moved when she left all that open country, must have seemed nowhere near as fulfilling. When the fresh-off-the-boat immigrant homesteaders moved to town, they moved to a place she appeared to see as far more sluggish and stultifying, far more narrow, and less—far less—ripe with adventure. Small towns, in Cather's book, had a distressing habit of scouring the uniqueness off peculiarly interesting people, ushering them into conformity created by untoward looks, gossipy nosiness, and preening self-righteousness.
She left Red Cloud, of course. For a time in her life, Willa Cather watched joyously as her childhood home disappeared in her rear view mirror, as did literally millions of other small-towners back then. My Antonia was published in 1918, just before the First World War altered the course of world history, and affected thousands of doughboys from America's small towns. "How you going to keep 'em down on the farm, now that they've seen Paree?" wasn't just a cute postwar ditty; it seemed a virtual summary of American demographics.
In a wonderfully readable compilation of distinguished biographies, Small Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys who Shaped America, John E. Miller documents the shifts that emptied Main Streets throughout the Midwest, closed down schools and businesses, and left an abundance of ghost town detritus on what has become, once again, a greatly empty landscape.
That's not the story of Miller's book, however. The story is the stories of men whose childhoods were spent in the small-towns all of them left behind, but some of them never left spiritually. Miller's Small Town Boys is a museum of big men from small towns.
America's heartland, in actuality, is, today, not the rural Midwest at all but the country's cities. "Heartland" is a misnomer really because demographics have long ago shifted away from the country's agricultural center. There still is a breadbasket, but Iowa, where I live, is the heart of nothing but the map these days. Small towns still exist within our own vast rural areas, but the population shifts which began more than a century ago have left those small towns gasping, made them little more than dots on blue highways only journalists travel, on the lookout for eccentrics in yawning fly-over country.
Hollywood seems to relish dramas in which city folk wander out perilously into rural backwaters only to encounter hellish creatures (think Deliverance) or loveless, luckless parents (think Nebraska—not the state, the movie, and August: Osage County). What our most high-gloss storytelling offers is ghastly burgs full of zombies or closet criminal minds, as if the back forty is just a sprawling Bates Motel.
What Miller shows, clearly and proudly, is that in their heyday, America's small towns birthed wholesome generations of men of influence. I'm not sure why he chooses men only, but he does, citing his list of prior publications as perhaps unequally weighted with women.
He begins his stories with Frederick Jackson Turner, who, more than anyone, touted the powerful effects of white America's burgeoning spread into what it considered the continent's open spaces, as if no one else had ever lived there.
Turner grew up in Portage, Wisconsin, during the 1860s, when that small town at the confluence of two rivers was, in fact, the edge of the frontier. The man often cited as this country's first historian of significant authority began his work by studying his own neighborhood, Miller says, then simply stayed with the thesis throughout his life: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development."
Miller's gallery includes 22 portraits of individuals, most of whom need no introduction—William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ford, George Washington Carver, Bob Feller, James Dean, Walt Disney, Lawrence Welk, John Wooden, and Ronald Reagan— and ends with America's retailing leviathan, Sam Walton, once reputed to be the richest man in the country.