Here's a tip for trendies: Keep an eye out for Hick Chic. The first to spot it was my friend, the ferociously opinionated novelist, who recently commanded as follows: "Here is your assignment. Would you please write an essay explaining why in a nation full of yuppies, conservatives and materialists, with college campuses full of business students and future lawyers, rural poverty is all the rage, as in 'Love Medicine' and 'The Beans of Egypt, Maine'?"
The books to which she refers are, respectively, a collection of interconnected short stories by Louise Erdrich about poor rural Indians in South Dakota and a novel by Carolyn Chute about poor rural white folks in Maine. They are indeed all the rage. "Love Medicine" has won the National Book Critics Circle's prize for fiction (quite deservedly so, too) and "The Beans of Egypt, Maine," has actually managed to work its way onto the lower rungs of the paperback best-seller lists.
If these books were isolated phenomena they could be dismissed as such, but they are not. Ever in search of fads to embrace, the urban middle class has descended on the boondocks with a vengeance. New Yorkers, in their pricey punk raiment, crowd into with-it restaurants that feature the cookery of rural Louisiana (Cajun) or Texas (Tex-Mex) or North Carolina (Bar-B-Que). What used to be called hillbilly music has in recent years put on glitzy airs, renamed itself "country," and offered up a sanitized sound that urbanites, in their infinite ignorance of all things alien, fancy to be the real thing.
Hick is big in the movies, too, especially if it involves beleaguered farmers desperately clinging to their own postage stamps of native soil. Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard are the Ma and Pa Kettle of the '80s, Sally Field bids fair to be the reincarnation of Ma Joad, and Jane Fonda out-minnies Minnie Pearl. From "Country" to "Witness" to "Places in the Heart," Hollywood's gone so consarned bucolic it jes' about makes you want to snap your galluses and fiddle up a few rounds of "Turkey in the Straw."
Not merely that, but surely as night follows day the academics follow the trendies, and so it is that "a new rural history" is sweeping through the campuses. According to a report last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, there is now "a 'rural history network' within the Social Science History Association 'to stimulate and discuss the new history' " that members of the professoriate are now unearthing. All of this mighty labor has borne fruit, and our knowledge is being expanded through documents bearing such titles as "German Seed in Texas Soil: Immigrant Farmers in Nineteenth-Century Texas" and (this one sounds especially appealing) "Frontier Farming in an Urban Shadow: The Influence of Madison's Proximity on the Agricultural Development of Blooming Grove, Wisconsin."
That the academics are on the prowl amid the silos and haystacks is easy enough to explain: The academics are always on the prowl, especially of late in the history departments, where the current fashion for "grass-roots history" has rendered virtually anything a respectable subject for study. If we're going to have "grass-roots history," then what could be better than to study, well, the grass and the roots? What indeed? Plow on!
But the explosion of Hick Chic among the urbanites and the yuppies is, as my perplexed friend suggests, rather more difficult to fathom. The only green objects of which these people have any direct knowledge are ferns, the only red-dirt ones are exposed bricks, and the only harvests that really mean anything to them are the ones in Colombia. The fad scarcely seems explained by an atavistic longing for the land, since these people are entirely too shallow to have longings any deeper than those for Bavarian automobiles, French chocolates and Alpine holidays.
But therein may lie the explanation, or at least an explanation. The urban faddists haven't fastened on Hick Chic out of any inherent merit or interest that they discern in it, but because they see it as yet another product with which to bedeck their lives. The real life of the countryside is as distant to them as the real life of Jupiter, perhaps even more so, and even if it were right at hand it would hold no appeal for them. What they like is the idea of country and the various artifacts associated with it.
The idea of country is that there are all these really earthy people out there in Arkansas and Georgia -- you know, real people like Sally Field and Jane Fonda -- who do all these quaint things with the land, just the way the transplanted yuppies do in Vermont. Yes, they do lead a hard life (thank God it's them and not us), but there's a nobility of soul to their daily labors that sends a shiver down the spine and a tear down the cheek, especially when the closest we ever get to it is the neighborhood art-film theater. The thing about country is that well, gosh-darn it, it makes you feel good all over. And if you're talking Amish country, that just plain makes you feel downright noble.
Especially when you're surrounded by the artifacts of country -- artifacts, as has by now been amply documented, being what urban trendy is really all about. Going country means that you get to order all these neat things from all those neat catalogues that are every good yuppie's principal reading matter. You get to order Shaker furniture -- you can even make it yourself, from kits, if you go for the hands-on approach to self-gratification -- and quilts made up from the cutest old odds and ends of cloth. When it's time to water your ferns you can put on your dungarees -- not blue jeans, mind you, but real country dungarees -- and if you want to, you can close your eyes and pretend you're sloppin' the hawgs, just the way Buddy Ebsen used to do.
But what we're talking about isn't "The Beverly Hillbillies," not for a moment. That witless old television show was strictly for proles, for the great unwashed -- for country people, if you will. No, what we're talking about now is country for the new sophisticates, the people who know that the ultimate destiny of barns is to be rehabbed into nouvelle-cuisine restaurants. After all these years of struggling, country has made it: Country is hot. With an oink-oink here, and an oink-oink there, here an oink, there an oink, everywhere an oink-oink! And wouldn't Jeremy Irons be wonderful as Old MacDonald?