Not long ago I had a note from a fellow whom I'd known more than a quarter-century ago when we were boys growing up in the Southside Virginia town of Chatham. He told me that after two decades of roving the nation and the world as a journalist, he had returned to Chatham to live -- not merely to the town, but to the house in which he had been born. He continues to travel and to write, but with Chatham rather than New York as his base -- much, he noted, to "the puzzlement of my New York colleagues."
His letter comes to mind because I have been reading a book ("Return to Main Street," by Nancy Eberle, to be published later this month) that describes a noteworthy reverse migration that began during the 1970s. The 20th-century pattern of country-come-to-town is doing a dramatic turnabout; in considerable numbers, Americans are moving from cities and suburbs to small, rural towns -- places just like Chatham. The phenomenon may or may not prove to have long-range ramifications, but it clearly reflects a disenchantment with urban/suburban life and its manifold vexations. The old romantic vision of the country town -- Huck and Tom, Penrod and Sam, that little house on the prairie -- seems to be regaining its once-powerful place in the national consciousness.
It is not difficult to understand why. Life in the cities is tough, and is almost certain to get tougher as the president and Congress persist in tossing out the urban baby with its bath. If there is to be a dispersal of the population, even a relatively insignificant one, the strain on the cities and the overcrowded conditions within them may be reduced -- as also, less beneficially, may be the cities' tax base, since the back-to-nature movement is primarily one of the middle and upper-middle classes. The small town has played a crucial role in the shaping of the American character; that it is undergoing a revival is probably, on balance, good news.
But it is a revival in which I shall not take part. Given the nature of my job, it would be easy enough for me to live in a small town; the weekly trip to Washington that I now make by train from Baltimore could just as easily be made by car, or a combination of car and train, from any one of many lovely little towns within a hundred miles of downtown Washington -- I like the looks, for example, of a little place in Maryland called Lineboro. But for reasons having something to do with experience and something to do with conviction, I am sticking with the city.
This is not to say that my memories of life in Chatham are any more painful than most run-of-the-mill childhood memories. By and large they are happy ones. My family moved there in the summer of 1949, when I was 9 years old, from a suburb of New York. In a time when the South was still alien and mysterious and distant to northerners, the mere act of moving there was in itself thrilling. Into the bargain, my father was taking over the headmastership of a girls' boarding school; I was free to roam its hundreds of acres of farmland and woods, to visit its stables and henhouses and silos, to use its tennis courts and playing fields -- and of course to admire, however shyly and from afar, its students.
The town of Chatham was a few minutes' walk down the hill. Then, as now, it had about 1,800 residents. There was a grocery store called "Mick or Mack"; I have never known why. Of the two drugstores, I preferred the one run by Mr. Les Jones, at whose counter an ethereal chocolate ice cream soda was available. There was a five-and-dime, the name of which I can no longer remember, and a Western Auto, where I browsed the bikes and baseball bats. There were substantial edifices in which to worship the God of the Baptists and Methodists; there was a library, and a courthouse that could have been designed by William Faulkner -- its inhabitants probably were.
I attended the Chatham Elementary School, known to my mother (and thus to all the family) as the "Alimentary School," in vexed imitation of the local accent. One of my classmates, a boy seemingly fated to spend his life in the fifth grade, endeared himself to me forever by possessing two thumbs on his left hand, with a little one growing out of the standard-issue one; he was my first exposure to the world of Flannery O'Connor. My friends were boys with good, solid names like Henry Hammer and Billy White and Claude Whitehead; we played baseball and football, invented games in the woods, listened to Al Helfer and Bill Stern on the radio, talked about girls.
I loved Chatham then, and I suppose that I love it still. Each time my wife and I drive south on Rte. 29, I insist on foregoing the Chatham Bypass and taking the grand tour, in particular to see once again the great shade trees and large frame houses that make Main Street the embodiment of everything those two words evoke in the American imagination. The tour takes about 10 minutes; it always leaves me awash in memories.
Not all of which are good ones; and there's the rub. I hated being sent away to boarding school at the age of 11; yet the limitations of the Alimentary School virtually commanded that I be. The town was beautiful but narrow; blacks existed in conditions not much better than those of slavery, I knew of only one Catholic family and no Jews, and with my Yankee accent I was a sitting duck for the class bully and other malefactors. There was a harsh, constipated censoriousness in the air; religiosity and self-righteousness went hand in hand in this citadel of fundamentalism.
Most of all I felt an incredible distance from the life of the real world. Obviously I was influenced by my parents, who missed the northeastern world in which both had grown up. But like country boys and girls for generations before me I dreamed my own city dreams -- dreams made all the more vivid by radio broadcasts that brought into the Virginia evenings the sounds of baseball in St. Louis and dance bands in New Orleans. Quite literally I could hear train whistles in the night; more than anything I wanted to follow them, as soon enough I did.
I am told that in the 20 years since I left it for good, Chatham has made great strides. My parents, who were still there at the time, were amazed by the way the town accommodated itself to integration in the early '70s, with grace and a biracial determination to strengthen the community. The social life of the town is reported to be more relaxed, even to the point of tolerating cocktails; in my day, Demon Rum was held to be as wicked as Satan himself. Television and improved roads make the joys (and sorrows) of the larger world more accessible; admittedly the "big city" is still Danville, but who expects perfection?
Still, the lure does not arouse me. I admire my friend for returning to Chatham, and I envy him the close connection with his past that the move has given him, but I am a city boy for the duration. In part this is because I am not persuaded that the negative characteristics of small-town life -- isolation, enforced intimacy, meddling townspeople -- have significantly changed. But in larger part it is simply that I prefer to live in cities.
Yes, I know that two weeks ago a man was murdered just a few houses away from us; that I feel it necessary to lock the house if I take the dog for a 10-minute walk; that I carry a walking stick on nocturnal strolls less for support than for protection -- all this in a "safe" neighborhood! And, no, I do not propose to rhapsodize about the symphonies and the museums and the lectures and the various "cultural advantages" that defenders of cities are so quick to cite; in the age of communications, these amenities are available to just about anybody, anywhere.
I live in the city because: I need frequent, sometimes abrasive contact with the whole rainbow of humanity; nobody thinks I'm weird because I decline to attend the church of my choice; I do not have to drive 300 miles to find a recording by Tal Farlow or a book by Peter Taylor; big-league baseball is more interesting than high school football; the newspapers are better, and they publish them every day.