By Spencer Short | Press Play July 17, 2014 at 6:03AM
At some point in the second half of the twentieth century, the way in which we think about the American small town, its particular brand of community and stability, began to shift. "What happened," according to Frederic Jameson, as he wrote in an essay in his seminal 1991 collection The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, “is that the autonomy of the small town (in the provincial period a source of claustrophobia and anxiety; in the fifties the ground for a certain comfort and even a certain reassurance) has vanished.” Thus, for Jameson, “[w]hat was once a separate point on the map has become an imperceptible thickening in a continuum of identical products and standardized spaces from coast to coast.” This "thickening continuum," a byproduct of our appetite for cable television, franchising and box stores, and other modern amenities, posed a radical threat to small town identity. As Jameson describes it, the American small town was once (but no longer) "contented with itself, secure in the sense of its radical difference from other populations and cultures, insulated from their vicissitudes and from the flaws in human nature so palpably acted out in their violent and alien histories." Of course, Jameson's proper subject is actually the popular conception of small-town self-identity and, to the extent his commentary attempts to speak for small towns, themselves, he's guilty of a bit of simplification. In other words, what Jameson describes is not necessarily your experience of small-town America. And it certainly wasn't mine.
I grew up, and spent my childhood, living in the same neighborhood, in a small town in the northeast corner of Maryland, tucked up against the Pennsylvania and Delaware borders. Elkton, named for its position at the headwaters of the Elk River, which itself curled off of the tip of the Chesapeake Bay, had a population of just over 9,000 residents when I left for college in 1990. Elkton is the largest town in Cecil County. Like so many (but certainly not all) rural American counties, ours was predominately white and conservative—in 1990, in fact, it was 95% white with 90% of its population living in neighborhoods that were, themselves, more than 90% white. People today are most likely to be familiar with Elkton from a few road signs that clip by as they bisect the county heading north or south on U.S. I-95. In a different era, it was known as an American Gretna Green, the marriage capital of the United States—the result of liberal marriage laws so well known that, when Ben Walton ran off to marry seventeen-year-old Cindy Brunson on Season Seven of The Waltons, the couple headed for Elkton. Those days are mostly gone, though wedding chapels still dot Main Street.
Not all public awareness of us has been so benign. The Elkton Walmart has, in recent years, been the site of no small amount of cruel cultural absurdity, including xBox-related near-riots, customers superglued to toilet seats, and dead bodies in Chrysler Sebrings. Digging deeper, there's also the county's occasional flirtation with the Ku Klux Klan, from rallies on local farms in the 1960s and -70s to Klan-run anti-Obama meetings held in Elkton municipal buildings as recently as last year. It doesn't matter that these rallies generally packed more bluster than bite, with gawkers and protestors outnumbering participants. For many residents of neighboring counties the area remains "Ceciltucky": defiantly redneck, anachronistic. That view isn't wholly misguided. To some extent, it's even a source of pride: my fifth grade gun safety class at Gilpin Manor Elementary culminated (to my enormous delight) in a teacher-chaperoned field trip to a local state park where we were given bolt-action rifles to fire on paper targets.
My memory is both more complicated and more sentimental than these data points might suggest. Yes, there's the recollection of perfectly-seasoned blue crabs piled high on newspaper-covered picnic tables (with buttered and salted silver queen corn nearby). The .99 movie theater in downtown Elkton where I saw Rick Springfield in Hard to Hold in 1984, the first movie I ever attended without parental supervision. And, although there was ample bluegrass music and square dancing, there was also the all-black-but-me Parks & Rec basketball team on which I played (a cherry-picking) point guard and the mostly-Catholic-but me CYO basketball team on which I played (a less-effectively cherry-picking) point guard (and that once lost a game against a Wilmington, Del. team 99-27). There’s also no question that I spent a large portion of my teenage years dreaming of escape—into what, I had no idea. When I go back, however, (and I do, when I can) it’s these memories that I’m revisiting. But it's also true that (contra Prof. Jameson) many of us welcomed the intrusion of outlet malls, the internet, cable television, that whole thickening continuum thing. Because, in an essential paradox, the extrinsic, pan-American homogeneity that Jameson maligns resulted in diversity within our small towns, an increase in both the variety and quality of services and products. Improvements in the quality of our day-to-day lives that helped narrow the sprawling distances between how we saw ourselves and how we imagined everyone else in the free world lived. In other words, the isolation and radical difference that Jameson places at the crux of small-town self-identify may be nothing more than a symptom of perspective. In the end, I suppose, my struggle to define my own experience keeps frustrating and coloring the way I watch a variety of well-received television shows, including Fargo, True Detective, Justified, and Rectify, that have aired over the last few years. Each of these shows has significant strengths—strong, charismatic performances, sharp direction. But it’s no accident that the complexity of the moral universe at issue in each show is dictated by location and perspective—by just how much the writers confuse traditional representations of small towns or rural life for the real thing.
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