The Book Club

Leaving Home Town Is as American as Apple Pie


Since I’ve made two jokes at Ray Suarez’s expense, I must tell you the line that circulates within the considerable ranks of Northampton, Mass., writers about Tracy Kidder and his inward focus on house and home. Kidder’s next book, the line goes, will be titled Desk.

I find myself with two residual questions from our topic volumes: whether, thinking of Home Town, it’s best to live where everybody knows your name, and whether, thinking of The Old Neighborhood, development trends are good or bad for the country as a whole.

Kidder ends his book by lauding Northampton as a place so resplendent “people dream themselves back here when they dream of home,” suggesting Willa Cather’s mythic small town of Moonstone and the dreams it inspired in Song of the Lark. Surely many Americans, who move more often than citizens of any other country, lose something when they shift from place to place and don’t retain lifelong contacts with the friends who knew them when they were young, can’t have regular extended-family gatherings because the family’s radius is a continent instead of a few blocks, and so on.

But doesn’t the leave-home assumption of the contemporary American lifestyle have its pluses, too? Moving around keeps people vibrant, open to the world, agreeable to change; it helps make the economy efficient and society flexible. It’s no surprise that the earlier, home-town-based American culture was much less tolerant of race, sex and religion than is today’s culture–since you now have no idea what kind of person your new neighbor will be, best that you learn to coexist with all kinds. By getting away from home towns and traditional expectations, we sacrifice sentimentality but gain the chance to become ourselves. On balance, my guess is that the end of the small-town milieu is good for America, though of course there are times when, like Wilder’s Emily, many of us wish we could go back to our 12th-birthday party and have it held in Grover’s Corners.

The Old Neighborhood makes its strongest case against the burbs by saying that white (and middle-class black) flight creates core city zones where poverty becomes “like a wrecking ball” for those left behind–this a favored theme of the sociologist William Julius Wilson. There’s no doubt this is true, or that the failure of the most affluent of nations to do more for those mired in the cycle of poverty can be seen as the most powerful indictment of current U.S. domestic politics.

Isn’t it also true that the period of migration from old cities to suburbs and the Sunbelt has coincided with the greatest improvement in standard of living any country has ever achieved, including the greatest improvement for minorities? Today the black middle class is twice the size of a generation ago; black education levels have risen almost to the levels of whites; the black-white wage gap is shrinking; university opportunity is now universal; structural unemployment is amazingly close to eliminated; and there are other indicators that the tide of society is raising maybe 90 percent of boats. Perhaps American trends in community and in economics and social openness are positively, not negatively, correlated. Maybe most Americans are now better off because of the way the country has grown, not in spite of it.

That’s all for me. Stop by at the stoop tonight, on your walk home from the dry-goods store.

Note to Ray Suarez’s booker: It’s just amazing how easy it is to confuse “Ehrenhalt” and “Easterbrook.” Remember, I’m the one who called your boss “learned” in exchange No. 1.