NANCY EBERLE is a member of what she regards as
an exciting, "astonishing" new force in American life. A couple of years ago she moved--with her husband, their two teen-aged sons and their young daughter--from the sophisticated Chicago suburb of Evanston to the small Illinois town of Galena, 150 miles west. She writes: "For the first time in the history of this nation since the westward expansion, more people are moving from the city to the country than the other way around." She continues:
"The statistics tell the story. In the '60s, metropolitan areas showed a gain of almost six million and nonmetropolitan areas showed a loss of almost three million--both through migration. Between 1970 and 1978 however, the influx to metropolitan areas had slowed to a mere trickle --566,000 spread out over 288 metropolitan areas ranging from New York City to Billings, Montana. Meanwhile, the rural areas had not only stemmed the outgoing tide, but had picked up 2,875,000 people. Rural counties were gaining people in the '70s as fast as they were losing them in the '60s!"
The Eberles found a 200-acre spread of land just outside the town limits of Galena, with the Mississippi River in the near distance. On it was a farmhouse in primitive condition--among the amenities it lacked, perhaps the most basic was running water--that they moved into and set about improving. The work was hard but the rewards, at least as Nancy Eberle reports them, were great: they lived closer to nature than they ever before had; they learned many means of self-sufficiency; they were able to make their money go much farther than it had in Evanston; they met interesting, agreeable and hospitable neighbors; they set down roots in a community with a real history.
Best of all, according to Eberle, they got away from the city. Although she makes an obligatory bow toward the "excitement and exhilaration and sense of endless possibility" of cities, her hatred for urban life is palpable: "The pollution of the air around us, the muggings and rape on our streets, the traffic tie-ups, the train breakdowns, the depersonalization of the places we live by chain stores and franchises and housing developments, the fragmentation, the regimentation, the alienation, the incivility--is it for these that we pay $150,000 for a house or apartment and $45 a month for a commutation ticket or carfare?"
What we have here is the voice of aggrieved privilege. Nancy Eberle does not appear to be concerned about the deep, enervating problems of the cities: the gap between revenues and expenses, the greater gap between the incomes and expectations of the lower and middle classes, the drain on the resources of local governments that has been created by fixed obligations. No, Nancy Eberle is upset because the cost of housing in the best parts of town is skyrocketing and that cute little knitting shop is being razed to make way for a chicken-wings franchise--that, at least, is the impression her book most forcibly conveys. So to deal with this staggering series of blows to upper-middle-class comfort, Nancy Eberle and thousands like her have conveniently discovered the virtues of life in the country.
A decade ago in the South we had a phrase for it: white flight. In that case it was the flight of whites from the public schools, which had come under court orders to integrate, into "Christian academies" and other private schools--the ones that have recently been granted tax-exempt status by our generous administration. In the case of the back-to-the-small-towns movement, it is white flight from the heterogeneity of urban life and from the fears it engenders--most specifically, the fear of black-against-white crime. Since many of those making this flight are upper-middle-class, college-educated people who like to think of themselves as liberal, they no doubt would heatedly reject this argument; there is no mention of racial tensions in Return to Main Street. But they lurk beneath the surface, and not far beneath, as surely as they did in the South in the early '70s.
The most notable characteristics of the towns to which these people are fleeing are easily identified: they are small, and they are white. Though Nancy Eberle and other cheerleaders for the movement prefer to describe it as a "return," it has all the earmarks of an escape. Consider this paragraph:
"Why do they come to the country? To live closer to the natural world--the world of trees and rivers and rocks and lakes and woods and fields and wildlife that is, after all, our ultimate home; to escape pollution, crime, traffic, noise, indifference, rudeness, regimentation, high prices and low returns; to lead a life less focused on getting and having--free from the 'Buy! Buy! Buy!' drummed at the consciousness from every quarter like the sound of someone else's radio on the subway; to live a shared life, husband and wife, parents and children, where intimacy is not an epiphany but grows out of common experience; and finally, to live a simpler, more integrated life. Can the country provide these things? The answer, from this admittedly partisan corner, is a resounding yes. But the country provides something else as well--something so long-forgotten that it is not even missed: a sense of community."
The real passion of that paragraph is reserved not for the bucolic attractions of the countryside but for the harsh aspects of the city. When Eberle writes "Buy! Buy! Buy!" you can almost hear her fingers smashing in fury against the typewriter. When she refers to "someone else's radio on the subway," it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that she has in mind black and Puerto Rican teen-agers with their "street stereos." Her reference to "common experience" and "community" suggests, to me at least, not the positive qualities that Eberle claims to emphasize but a negative one: circling the wagons in homogeneous defense against an alien, hostile, multi-racial world.
The only people in this smug, self-righteous book are happy, contented white folks who live out thar on the land, live it up at potluck suppers and auctions, swap yarns with neighbors who just happened to drop in for a spell. Eberle and her family and their neighbors are entitled, of course, to these pleasures and to brag about them. But to represent such a life as a realistic alternative for more than a few people is naive and irresponsible; these people are runaways, not settlers.
There is, finally, one rather important little piece of information that Eberle somehow manages to decline to pass along, amid all her joyful prattle about farming by horsepower and laying by canned goods for the long winter ahead. She declines to say how the Eberle family can afford to live the country life. It is true that their expenses declined greatly when they moved to the country, but they still need income--and Eberle is far from clear about how they get it. The reader must therefore be excused if he concludes, as I did, that they have sufficient wealth salted away, whether earned or inherited, to ease their passage to the Peaceable Kingdom and to support them there. If that is indeed the case, then Nancy Eberle's separation from reality is even greater than her book otherwise indicates.