Speak Your Piece: Who Needs to Go North – or West or Anywhere — to the Big City?
A popular narrative in rural American is that you need to get to a big city as quickly as you can. But what would happen if we stayed in, or moved back to, the places we’re from?
When I was in my impressionable, and mostly stupid, early 20s, a formative influence in my thinking was the southern writer and editor Willie Morris and his memoir, North Toward Home. Born in 1934 and raised in Yazoo City, Mississippi, Morris went on to the University of Texas, where he edited the campus newspaper, The Daily Texan. He was a Rhodes Scholar, and then returned to Texas to edit the liberal Texas Observer. From there he graduated to the big time of New York City, becoming first an editor and then in 1967 the youngest ever editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine.
Part of the theme of North Toward Home was that Morris had escaped the conservative south and moved north towards a more compatible and progressive culture. Morris left Harper’s in 1971 and eventually returned to Mississippi, south toward home. Writing a number of other books and spending the last years of his life as writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, he died too soon in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1999.
I can recall hearing Morris speak to an overflow crowd at UT-Austin in about 1965, reading passages both wise and hilarious from his forthcoming memoir. When it was out I eagerly bought and read the book, and it became a part of my plan to escape my Texas roots. Well, I thought, clearly any thinking person needs to move north toward our real homes, the ones we missed out on by the bad luck of our unenlightened parents’ geographical obtuseness. But we can try to recover by moving to the big city. And the move is not just to New York or Washington or San Francisco or Europe. It can be from the rural parts of any state to Des Moines, Dallas, Charlotte, Atlanta or Denver or either of the Portlands. Just get me on a bus or in my VW bug to anywhere.
Is this what has happened to so much of rural and red state America? Those of us who had an excessively and arrogantly high opinion of ourselves could not wait to “get out of here.”
What if we had stayed? Or returned? And not returned to the liberal enclaves of Austin or Madison or Chapel Hill, but to the places where we grew up? What if the Clintons, in 2001, had returned to Arkansas, rather than settling into mansions in New York and Washington, DC?
This makes me also think of my wife and her brother. Born and raised in small-town west Texas, they left for college in Houston and New Orleans, went on to grad schools in Palo Alto and Austin, and then, like so many others, never considered moving back home. He spent an academic career in California, while she has lived and worked in DC for four decades. They went east and west toward home, to anything except small-town Texas.
I also think of the late Clay Cochran, one of the founders in the 1950s and 60s of the rural housing movement. Clay coined a word, “metropollyanna,” which he defined as the conviction that sooner or later everyone would move to the big city and live happily ever after.
But what if Hillary Clinton – post White House — had gone back to Arkansas – or Illinois — and run for the U.S. senate there?
A bit of history: before Obama, the last three democratic presidents – Johnson, Carter, and Clinton — were all from rural America. Just a thought.
Joe Belden is a writer and consultant based in Washington, DC.