Here’s a bit of small talk on small towns. Small-town America. Iconic phrase, conjuring rural state of Maine population centers. I’ve been rereading Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street about a young woman interested in remaking a small rural town in Minnesota in the early 20th century. Carol’s focus is cultural. She’s a former St. Paul librarian, initially hopeful of elevating the quality of social and cultural life by encouraging artistic and intellectual pursuits in some small town. Her own hopeful is a medical man in the town of Gopher Prairie and she is the glamour he’s hungry for, encouraging her to marry and come home with him to work the town into something wonderful through her inspiration.
“Come on. Come to Gopher Prairie. Show us. Make the town — well — make it artistic. It’s mighty pretty, but I’ll admit we aren’t any too darn artistic. Probably the lumber-yard isn’t as sumptuous as all these Greek temples. But go to it! Make us change!”
Sinclair Lewis is careful early to show Carol’s waxing, waning, waxing interest in town transformation.
My first reading was (as are all my first readings) not close. I’m not sure, in my happiness with the telling, whether I understood just how early this was a thing — a popular ideal of town transformation by inspired individuals. But I recognized early small-town universality. Main Street immersed me imaginatively in what I was encountering in the late 20th century Midwest, in Pennsylvania, and then in Maine. In small towns we meet and greet daily people known, if not intimately then socially, in ways city people generally don’t experience. In my city background nothing touched the lack of universal acquaintance until, ironically, the Internet changed all. Globally it expanded the connection paralleling small-town mores, gossip, and censure. Gopher Prairie’s newest citizen, Carol Kennicott, discovers that town transformation is not the interesting artistic and engaging pursuit of her hopes.
The phrase recurring in Main Street is “10,000 Gopher Prairies.” Sinclair Lewis is a master at displaying the life of Main Street to deepen a feeling for its pervasiveness across America.
Carol Kennicott met her match and more in boosterism, which vied to remake the town after the vision of another individual from away, the hearty but coarse Honest Jim Blausser. Carol’s spouse and everyone else becomes mesmerized by the prospect of remaking the town on the basis of manufacturing… away from its established communal farming project — the thing that first build Gopher Prairie. The Doc lost faith in Carol’s project and took to the new vision of boosterism.
I live now in small-town Maine and have developed small-town fiction through Maine studies, both formal and informal. This state is full of small town news and newspapers, events and small incidents able of being woven into fictive settings. Here you get an idea of Jackman’s size:
One such event recently played out in Jackman the small Maine town, population 862, not far from the Québec border. In this incident you get the idea of would-be town transformer “from away,” but in real life.
The small rural town of Jackman Maine hired a town manager who six months later began an online campaign to remake their town in his image, in the image of his online fantasy world New Albion. New Albion was once mooted as a name for Canada, according to Wikipedia, and Albion has a long classical, philological and legendary history. Tolkien apparently loved the word and its associations, naming one of his characters Albion, called also AElfwine, connected to Elendil and Númenor. This is in passing, to show the name’s standing: the town manager did not reference JRRT. There is a real Albion, Maine, settled according to Wikipedia, “in 1790 as Freetown Plantation by [a] Congregational minister.”
One Maine online satire suggested the board should have Googled their new hire to find out what his references evidently did not provide. Namely, that the town manager had transformative ideas based on what he claims is not racism but a sincere desire to build a northern white enclave in New England. His main desire, as he explained to the press, was to build up the New England white communities and restore pride in whiteness.
Jackman is a hopeful sportsmen center, mountains and woodlands and lakes, drawing tourists who love outdoor pursuits: hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, skiing and snowshoeing, that kind of lively recreation. Why would anyone want to make this community into anything else? What makes me sad over Jackman’s dilemma is an amount of money it costs the small-town of mostly blue and green collar (service sector) to rid themselves of the town manager. $30,000. With this money in hand he will refrain from suing them, even though his position had been probationary. Plus, he’s opening an online account to help him relocate his family. At this writing he has raised $20.
Although the town manager said confusing and self-contradictory things about his New Albion vision, his iteration includes, “While I’m not an absolutist on race understanding… I do believe to the extent we voluntarily separate, the happier every group will be as they regain self determination.” Sun Journal reportage.
An odd thing about many of the small-town transformers is their “innocence.” One of my hopeful characters is not unlike Carol Kennicott or the Jackman town manager in desiring to change the town: character Gloria Faye is focused on sociological changes. Yes, the former town manager seems an innocent, I’m fairly sure, but this is not to excuse him. I mean that his project is a hopeful one, just as Carol’s project for artistic elevation, and Gloria’s work on sociological transformation is based not on the cynical urge to profit and move on to the next town, such as the booster man did in Gopher Prairie. They care about the vision for its own sake.
You may say, innocent? Why didn’t the town manager leave Jackman without taking the money? Because he needed to support his family. His goal was not to make money but to elevate the community in accordance with his illusion. So I would put him under the heading of delusional ineptness. Witness another of his quotations: “it’s no accident unattractive women make up the vast majority of feminists…. Their issue is less with the roles men and women play, and more with resentment about the lack of attention they draw from men due to these attributes.” Hilariously inept. The Sun Journal quoted this from an online alternative right social networking site.
Maybe some kind soul will start a fundraiser to repay Jackman for its cost and troubles?
The map gives you some idea of population distribution. Consider the roads. When you look above the New Hampshire border and along that with Québec, you get an idea of northern Maine sparseness. Not many roads up there.