It used to be the case that journalists from NYC only went out to the boonies to report on crimes. If the crime or scandal was big enough, they’d be there. For all other cases, there was the news services. It was the New Yorker (and, to an extent, Mencken’s magazine, the American Mercury) which first started sending writers out to take the temperature, so to speak, of the boonies. The New Yorker established the U.S. Journal format, with its man on the courthouse steps or in the coffeehouse interviews to establish the temperament of the burg that the reporter was passing through. At the same time, the scandal and crime driven impulse was also, understandably, cultivated. A merger of the two types takes place in the essays that Calvin Trillin collected under the title, Killings. The book came out in 1984; it has recently been reprinted, to some well deserved hoopla. The pieces cover the period from the late sixties to the early eighties. Not all of the pieces are from small towns – in fact, most of the venues where this or that person was dispatched were mid sized cities: Knoxville, Savannah, Riverside, etc. However, during this period Trillin could have stayed in NYC and written about any variety of homicide you care to ponder. These killings have an interest beyond the events that brought together victim and perpetrator, and that interest is very much the social setting – the different cultures of the provinces. They are, as it were, litmus tests of the spirit of the age, as it was bottled in these places.
The New Yorker also sponsored the project of another writer at about the same time, which ended up in the book Special Places: In search of small town America. This was penned by Berton Roueché, who was better known as the New Yorker’s medical writer. Roueché went and spent time in various small towns – towns of less than 20,000 people – in a swathe of America that included the Midwest and Texas. His travels (which bear the title of a search, instead of, say, an investigation, or a survey – a search being less prosecutorial and more open-ended) took in the towns of Stapleton, Nebraska, Welch, West Virginia, Hermann, Missouri, Crystal City, Texas, Corydon, Indiana, Pella, Iowa, and Hope, Arkansas. In other words, his search brought him to small towns in Anglo America. The partial exceptions are Crystal City and Hope, Arkansas, but Roueché never traveled to a small town that was mostly black. The overwhelming whiteness of his search is not something Roueché, or his editor, William Shawn, who prefaced his book, thought about.
The book has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted. It has no reputation, unlike Killings. But to my mind it is a counterpart to the more famous book. It encodes a way of reporting on what we see, now, as Red America, that huge transcontinental swamp of GOP voters, where the lines are about inauthenticity and urban formlessness that still rules the narrative. Even though it is now the NYT rather than the New Yorker that now supports this kind of thing, the archetype of small town America still weighs us down. It is white, it is mannered, the flowers bloom there and everybody meets and eats brunch at the Pancake house on Sunday. And of TV, and its pervasive influence, there is nary a whisper.
In the list of towns that dot Roueché’s “search”, the one that stands out today is Hope, Arkansas, which is now famous as the town where Bill Clinton was born. But when Roueché visited, in 1982, Clinton was not a name to reckon with or recognize. He was just another southern Democratic governor, apt to drop an aw shucks or a gosh when showing emotion, who’d been removed in the last election. The most interesting politician in town for Roueché was the vice-mayor, Floyd Young, who was black. Roueché interviewed him, which is almost as far as Roueché went on the politics of the small town places he was searching – evidently, he was not in the business of finding politics. It found him, though, in the sermon he attends in the Hope Baptist Church, where the minister defends war and capital punishment on an Old Testament basis. And then there is a comment that resonates retrospectively, made by a rather slick businessman he interviewed – Vincent Foster, still kicking at that time – who confides that he knows where to get liquor in this dry town, and it doesn’t involve driving to Texarkana, either: “All I got to do is pick up the phone over there and dial a certain number. And I’m not talking about moonshine.” Thus spoke the voice of Clintonism avant le lettre. It is all about pull, man.
Roueché’s reporting style is of a dense descriptiveness that was favored during Shawn’s tenure at the New Yorker. There is not a store on a main street in the towns he stays in that remains unnamed: in Welch, West Virginia, he observes six automobile agencies including Hall Chevrolet-Oldsmobile, he stays at the Carter Hotel and eats at the Mountaineer Restaurant. He notes that Herman, Missouri has two funeral homes and registers them for the reader (Toedtmann and Grosse and Herman Blumer). He tells us that there are four chief business streets in Corydon, Indiana, and that the Corydon State Bank, the Town and Country Shop, Nolan L. Hottell insurance, the Corydon (weekly) Democrat, the sherrif’s office and the county jail, and the Corydon Dollar store are all on one of them. Roueché specializes in the approaches to a town – he favors towns that have rolling hills on the outskirts, have a river, are found in a pleasant valley, and are attached to the life of the land. To give him his due, when he pretty good at giving vent to the stray rhapsodic sigh, in the great American tradition:
“I spent the better part of a month in deep southwestern Arkansas – in Hope (pop, 10,290), the seat of Hempstead County – and the sun shone every day of my stay but one, and the nights were mild, and many of them were moonlit, and almost every night I fell asleep to the long, slow faraway whistle of a freight train. I arrived in mid-March, in the first full rush of spring, and the day I left, in the second week of April, the pell-mell Southern summer had begun. I saw the jonquils bloom and fade, and the azaleas and the yellow bells and tulip trees, the wisteria and the redbuds, the peach trees and the apples, and I watched the big willow oaks that line the streets burst almost visibly into shading leaf.”
Those “ands” come from Hemingway, who took them from Twain, who took them from the common speech, who took them from the Bible. That affection for the flowers, that landscaper’s inventory, is strewn about the discovery literature – every “searcher” of the American landscape falls for the flowers and the fruits. And why not? I do myself. In fact, while Roueché was in Hope, I, unconscious of his very existence, was very probably working on my part time job for a landscaping company one hundred twenty miles South of him in Shreveport, strewing grass seed. Nature, remade, is what we are about, we Americans, we invasive species.
It is interesting, or irresistible, do a where are they now? with Roueché’s towns – to note, for instance, that the country of which Welch, West Virginia, is the county seat has the distinction of having the highest drug overdose mortality rate in the country at the moment. Roueché, in his quest for small town life, was too good a human to ask the question I always ask when passing through East Texas and country Louisiana and the rest of it: aren’t these people bored? Too good a human – but certainly lacking something as a reporter if this question never came up.
It comes up in Trillin’s book.