The city has been the setting for most cultural expression. Movies, art, literature, music, and the stage have all flourished in urban environments. This has been true for all of human history. It has also been true that city life has filled the content of these mediums. Pastoral work has had its times, but the city just demands and receives more attention. This makes sense, cities allow for a greater mingling of cultures, peoples, and opinions. They attract wealth and have always provided sources of entertainment. The country has always provided the food, but the city provided the liveliness of a nation. So artists in various mediums captured this. Artists today still capture this.
This is what makes literature that focuses on the land appear more romantic. It connects us back with a more primitive existence, even if that existence is only 50 years old. To do this well is not easy. It requires a familiarity with rural life not often found by the average person today. When it is encountered in older works, those who do it well, were most certainly raised outside of the great European cities (Paris, London, Rome, etc.). If they weren’t raised away from the throbbing masses they certainly lived among the country often. *
I live in a great sprawling metropolis of several million people. This is a new experience for me. I was raised in a very tiny town** for most of my life. I have been to small town rodeos, small town festivals and fairs. I remember driving a half hour to the movies, or in my pre-teen years needing to ride for an hour to the nearest movie theater. I grew up familiar with the land. I remember having friends who had barns, and cattle. I remember the excitement of the nearest town getting a Sonic.*** Despite all of this I only longed to live somewhere larger. And since quitting high school I’ve only moved to larger cities. I wouldn’t trade living in cities for any amount of country, there’s too much convenience and life to them.
However, over the last few weeks I survived finals by reading Cormac McCarthy and listening to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. It’s impossible to not think about the land of America when doing any of this. I followed up McCarthy with a Willa Cather book, My Antonia.**** Both McCarthy and Cather make a big deal of the land. McCarthy doesn’t romanticize the desert of the American Southwest so much as artfully remind you of its value and harshness. Cather sweeps you away into the grasses of Nebraska and reminds you that America used to look very differently.
Both these writers use the land like a character in their storytelling. Sometimes it feels like the protagonist more than the setting because of their descriptive skills. While reading their work I couldn’t help but think back to times spent fishing, or hunting through a cornfield for a lost baseball. I was reminded of experiences at the rodeo and my summer working on a tomato farm. Living in the country was not a romantic experience like cheap art makes you believe. It was far more like the times depicted by McCarthy and Cather. My family was unique to rural Arkansas. We weren’t outdoors-men or farmers. We were oddly educated for our location and have since migrated to larger cities. But when a writer accurately describes the reality of rural life I’m reminded that although it’s very different from the city it’s the reality for millions of people. In fact it has been the reality for much of human history.
I would bet that most of the literature read today is set in the city. And that when the country is brought in it is either overly romanticized in an elegiac fashion or depicted in a rather ignorant back-woods manner. Realistic depictions of the land in literature have to be as complicated as those that depict a city. The complexity of humanity is matched only by the complexity of nature. Good writers understand this and use it to heighten their stories. Bad writers create one-dimensional worlds where the conclusion was destined from the start.*****
The pastoral should not be forgotten, but as both McCarthy and Cather have shown the reality of the country is much harsher than mere nostalgia allows. As readers we must be aware of this. We must notice when the truth of a story has seeped into even the setting of it. I also believe that we must not forget the reality of the country, it has been central to humanity since we came into being. So let us commend the authors that bravely preserve it for us today.
As always please leave your thoughts, comments, or questions below.*****
Notes: * I promise this will all make sense, just stay with me.
** Village would be a much better description.
*** The drive-in fast food restaurant.
**** Chosen because a friend picked the letter C and the number 7.
***** For a great example of this read Ayn Rand’s Anthem then any pioneer work by Cather.
****** In case you’re wondering McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Willa Cather’s My Antonia were the inspiration for this post.