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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

American tumbleweed

“We live in a time and place in which we are conditioned to leave our hometowns,” Dreher reflects. “Our schools tell our young people to follow their professional bliss, wherever it takes them. Our economy rewards companies and people who have no loyalty to place.” Probably most importantly of all, “The stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders who were dissatisfied and lit out for elsewhere to find happiness and good fortune” (on Ron Dreher's The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.)
Call me intrigued. I've seen a number of reviews of Dreher's book, and I have an interest in the topic--Lousiana, the death of a sibling, the idea of a local habitation where one knows and is known. (The review I quote from I saw via Prufrock.)

I was born to two people who were strongly tied to place but left home. During my childhood, my father worked a multitude of jobs--when I was born in Aiken, South Carolina, he worked at the Savannah River Power plant. Later we moved to Gramercy, Louisiana, where he was a chemist for a sugar refinery. Then he went to graduate school at LSU in Baton Rouge. Then we had six years out of the South, a three-year stint teaching in Kansas followed by three years as a research chemist in Wilmington, Delaware. It wasn't until I began high school that we settled in Cullowhee, North Carolina. After the NASA cutbacks, it was difficult to be mobile. My father, an itchy-footed Georgia sharecropper's child who joined the Army Air Corps at 17 and flew on a B-17 as tail gunner in World War II, finally stayed in one place. My mother finally was able to keep a job she loved. Cullowhee is one of the few places in my life that feels like a constant.

My years in Gramercy and Baton Rouge are far more vivid to me than they should be, given that I left the state at seven, after second grade. Intensely colorful, the images in my mind seem to hold a kind of joy. The scattering of pictures suggests paradise. Everything that lodged in my mind was excessive, beautiful, bright, glittering, or just plain curious. Anything that came afterward could only be a fall, and what came after was endless miles of wheat bending to the wind, and a horizon that seemed like forever.

When we moved to Louisiana, we were a small family suffering from grief. In Gramercy I raced with my neighbors, shouting in the Cajun French I no longer remember, racing past the tomatoes that grew up into the trees, over the winking spiders, wearing my green and pink lizards as earrings. The past and time fell away.

For the last 14 years I have lived in a small Yankee town of about 2500. As a place where many people are extremely conscious of whose ancestors lived here, it can take a long time to feel reasonably "at home." The overlong and snowy winter always reminds me that this is not my place, as do other things. But I have friends here, and my three children did most of their growing-up here. I am glad that it is on the Appalachian spine, and that the hills run down to the Blue Ridge. I have a place here.

And yet, I do not know exactly where I belong.

Some years ago my mother tried to buy her family home in south Georgia, a beautiful Queen Anne house built by my grandfather. I have no doubt that I would have felt deeply tied to that little spot, the house and grape arbors and fruit trees. But I would not have become part of the community by virtue of birth, no matter how beloved my grandmother was in her little town.

What is the cure for our American wanderers, who have no place fully their own? Does it matter that "the stories that shape the moral imagination of our young, chiefly by film and television, are told by outsiders?" And how does that impact writers, who have long written out of place?


  1. Perhaps you would not have remained as deeply tied to place as you are had you actually stayed there. That is certainly true for me, who am a Philadelphian although I despise that place, as the site of suffering for years on end. It made me, and I remember it.
    These things can be paradoxical.

  2. True, and one can argue anything on these topics--devil's advocate has much to claim.

    I'll paste in an in-response link from a facebook comment about rootlessness... Shall go dig it out.

  3. Interesting! I've certainly had many thoughts recently on place as we look through my late in-laws' family photos of life in the old country and then in Canada, so much like that of my own family. Though rooted for a couple of decades in the middle of Canada, we all eventually went west. Yet the past is still a part of us, leaving us always with some longings and thoughts about 'what ifs'. I know, I'm speaking of the immigrant experience, another variable on rootlessness and place. Moving on has been the experience of mankind since we arrived on this earth, as O'Grady summarized in his excellent essay.

    As you say, one can argue anything on these topics.

  4. Yes, there were certain things about moving north that I regret very much--people who needed me, and I was not there.

    So is being west, near the water, closer to your childhood in some ways than being marooned in the center of a continent?

    Just a link from O' Grady. It's actually by John Daniel.

  5. Oops sorry, yes it is by Daniel.

    In some ways being near water may seem Finnish though my family was not by the sea in Finland but near rivers and lakes, even in Manitoba. Finland has no mountains, just a few big hills, other than in Lapland.

    Yes to the regrets of not being with loved ones when in need. I think the biggest regrets felt by my parents must have been about leaving so much family back in the old country. We were all too poor in the early years to visit. My mother never saw her mother again and I did not know my grandparents. That's the immigrant story for so many in the 'old days'. Traveling is faster and easier today as are communications. Of course, as I was a child coming here, my ties are much more centered in Canada.

  6. Ah, that's so sad--never seeing her mother again! And the grandmother missing out on both daughter and grandchildren. Even sadder than you not knowing your grandparents.

    It is interesting how different going to a new country has been since the time records began to be kept. Long ago, you went away, and neither you nor the people you left could know who was alive or dead. And now we can text and call and Skype and fly and so on. So simple in comparison.

  7. Reading Tolkien, I've been thinking about American rootlessness -- he lost his father at an early age, moved to England from South Africa, moved half a dozen times as a kid. All that intense nostalgia for the Shire, for a settled English home -- it struck an American nerve, and Americans took it for authentic Englishness, but really it was another Colonial longing for something he was always on the outside of.

  8. Oh, I completely agree with that--and I think of all of us who were toted from place to place as children (and who often couldn't stop as adults, though he did) feel a nostalgia for somewhere--where? And I think people who live in one place all there lives sometimes get that uncanny feeling that this place is not my home, and that is a kind of spiritual nostalgia as well.

    I also agree with Tom Shippey when he talks about Tolkien feeling the dearth of legend and fairy tale in England--lost legend that it once must have had before the Norman Conquest. And that's a kind of longing too, a sort of nostalgia for what is past (particularly if you are immersed in languages and lore, as he was.) Also, it's a kind of rootlessness because the root that once struck deep is now gone (although in Wales there is Arthurian legend, of course.) Shippey talks about Tolkien desiring to "reconstruct," to harmonize contradictions in ancient texts, to hark back to a world that he believed had been a living one, at least in the minds of the people.

    Dale, have you read "J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century?" Shippey has some very interesting things to say about Tolkien, the various books, mythology, good and evil, the weaving of a whole cloth out of fragments of the past, etc.

  9. No, I haven't! I should. I kept up on Tolkien criticism for a while, and Shippey's first book about him was good. But that was fifteen years ago or more. (There was almost nothing decent written about him at that point; mostly awful, awful blither :->) I should read it; I bet I'd like it.

  10. I really liked it--my copy is all marked up. Things in it really stirred my imagination. And how often does that happen in a book of criticism? Not as often as I marked in that book! I feel pretty sure that I wrote at least one poem that was triggered by something in the book.

  11. I'm one of those people who have bounced around his whole life. The last nine years in Seattle is the longest period of time I've lived anywhere. I think of myself as vaguely Southern, vaguely East-Coast, but I couldn't point to a specific location that was "home" to me. Yet I feel a nostalgia for some youthful place, a place that must not exist, I suppose. A couple of years ago I figured out that one constant theme in my writing is a desire for place, though not necessarily a geographic place.

    And then I think about Joyce, who grew up in Dublin, and when he left Dublin he was happy to be shut of the place, and then spent the rest of his life writing about nowhere but Dublin. I don't pretend to know what that's indicative of.

  12. It is rather a mystery, the whole business of place and no-place and the odd longing one has to belong to a place. I've bounced my whole life until landing here (brrr!), though I definitely think of myself as a Southerner, my roots going back there for more than two centuries, and much of my life spent in the South. A Carolinian, I suppose, and a summer Georgian. Cullowhee, Chapel Hill - Carrboro, Gramercy, Baton Rouge, Collins, Lexsy: those are some of my places, the ones that seem to matter most. Cemeteries in Aiken and Georgia, too, and certain loved houses.

  13. Maybe one day you will go back there to stay.
    I am happy here, but I can see myself going elsewhere sometime, or I would if it weren't for the fact that this is the only place our health insurance is good. I think perhaps somewhere else in CA might work though.

  14. I'd like to live where you can actually get some Vitamin D every day without also getting pneumonia!

    Your insurance is only good in-state? That seems powerfully weird.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.