Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future
by Robert Wuthnow.
Princeton University Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 498 pages, $35.

Small towns, as Robert Wuthnow points out in his ambitious new book, are not municipal subdivisions of large metropolitan areas. Rather, they are modestly sized (population 25,000 or less) independent communities that feature boundaries or centers that usually make topographic sense—which is to say, locales where smallness of scale, agricultural links, and terrain (call it “spatial signature”) conspire to create a place that people can commit to by being born there, or settling there, or even (this is frequently a wish) dying there. Hence these towns are hard to kill.

Though small towns are pretty much everywhere in serious decline owing to the widespread devaluation of landedness, a swing toward corporate (absentee) ownership, and tolls exacted by mining—small-town residents nearly everywhere now have to put up with boarded-up storefronts on top of limited access to cultural amenities like symphonies and theaters—these communities are still numerous. In the United States alone there are over 30 million people living in 14,000 small towns scattered across every conceivable kind of landscape, be it West Texas Llano Estacado, upstate New York’s Southern Tier, Appalachian hill country, or Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, and though a few of these communities have lost even government offices and health care providers in addition to taverns and stores (therefore ceasing to exist), most of them are proving to be surprisingly resilient.

Take Cadiz, Ohio (population 3,353), the town where this landowner shops, goes to mass, and does business. Every small town requires a founding narrative if it is to cohere and command loyalty, and luckily for Cadiz the authoritative genesis story is succinct (it’s all in the name: Cadiz became “Cadiz” in honor of potential trading partners who had endured a British naval blockade every bit as devastating as the one the planters were subject to, in the 1790s, when Washington and Secretary of State John Jay forbade Ohioans to trade with Spanish-occupied New Orleans) and easily called to mind in times of stress, for starting in the mid-1930s Cadiz’s prolific surrounding farms were completely stripped in order to lay bare Pittsburgh No. 8 coal. By 1975 the town and the county seated here had lost 75 percent of its tax base. Instead of an outlying district distinguished by widely distributed property ownership, locally adapted apple orchards, robust wool production, restful oak-bottom picnic spots, plentiful drift mines, and multiple satellite artisanal operations, most of Cadiz’s countryside became ruled by just one landowner—Consolidated Coal—and its vistas defined by orange streams, spoil bank mazes, silted lowlands, abandoned tipples, highwalls, and signs warning visitors of the frequent use of explosive AirMite charges.

Not surprisingly, Cadiz’s once-vibrant downtown business district collapsed.

Yet community spirit has been unflagging regardless of whether town coffers have been empty or full, and village histories have been scrupulously (if flinchingly) maintained. Baseball continues to be taught in real earnest at a park made out of reclaimed land; Presbyterian, Italian, and Polish gentry who profited from coal still serve on important advisory boards and haven’t skipped town; enterprising newcomers have converted abandoned strip mines into profitable elk preserves and ATV trail systems; homecoming parades, volunteer fire department fish fries, and salutes to veterans of foreign wars are still well attended; and even when coal was king you could always play eighteen holes of stimulating golf on a verdant, chemically treated course that was and still is perched on the rim of a bomb crater that yawns seemingly without limit to the south and west. Dare I also mention the horse-and-buggy Amish clans who have arrived in force to claim unravaged farmland to the north, and the Texan and Bayou-based fracking crews who have appeared to tap oil and gas trapped in rock two miles deep?

My point is that small towns can be wondrous places with ample opportunities for make-or-break deals that count, and therefore it is exciting to discover that somebody out there in the academic community is paying attention and making an effort to catalogue small-town life forms and perhaps even explain them.

Robert Wuthnow is Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, where he has written engagingly and sweepingly about the changing faces of American religion. His new book, Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future, turns out to be the third installment of a similarly ambitious series of books that together constitute a portrait of the American heartland. Loose Connections: Joining Together in America’s Fragmented Communities appeared in 1998, and Remaking the Heartland: Middle America since the 1950s came out in 2011. Yet the book under consideration here also stands on its own as a disciplined study of the real towns that most people’s ideas about the American heartland and its purported values are based on.

Wuthnow’s thesis is that though small-town residents do in fact talk a lot about community and neighborliness when asked to explain the benefits of small-town life, small towns are not especially rich reservoirs of social capital, nor uniquely effective incubators of family values that the rest of the nation ignores at great peril. On the contrary—and this is Wuthnow’s chief point—tales about neighborliness are neither more nor less than stories that small-town residents tell in order to affirm a common identity and thereby survive as the small-scale, topographically determined community they in effect already are simply by living together and not understanding their place as a platform for getting to some other place. “Community is imagined,” Wuthnow states, and then he makes haste to add that the symbolic dimension to community “makes it no less real.” It’s a convincing argument, and his corollary argument that prospective emigrants to small towns should not expect to find the “family values” they tend to want to find is equally persuasive. Moreover, Wuthnow balances this latter kind of assertion with winning reflections on the benefits of “downward mobility,” should persons be looking for a “deliberate,” which is to say “examined,” life.

Wuthnow’s argument suffers, however, because the book does not engage the reader as consistently as it should, given its subject matter, for three reasons. First, Wuthnow appears trapped by a methodology that depends on standardized interviews; his pre-scripted questions can’t help but become leading questions. To an important degree, Wuthnow and his many assistants hear what they want to hear. Second, authorial observations are too oftenplatitudes. It is one thing to occasionally drop a line like “good communication and careful planning are the key to a successful campaign,” and quite another to systematically follow up such lines with a patronizing stunner like “living in a small town it’s easy to feel beleaguered by the outside world.” Third, despite claims that his book debunks simplistic red-state/blue-state categories, Wuthnow frequently accepts and even plays off of them, wasting his reader’s time. The sections of the book that detail small-town residents’ views regarding “moral decline” are particularly weak.

Would it not have been possible to interview a small-town resident who provides a venue for “nude dancing” in addition to a small-town resident who bemoans the appearance of billboards advertising such entertainment? Or to at least state correctly why small-town residents might logically tend to oppose abortion before explaining that small towns may be less monolithic in their opposition to abortion than it would first appear, given that pro-choice advocates are uncomfortable with absolutes and probably speak up less often? It would seem so, yet Wuthnow consistently passes on these sorts of opportunities, just as he passes on an opportunity to ferret out and scrutinize homemade populist viewpoints, rather than the more easily lampooned Tea Party variant on view in these pages. Why the lapse? Why didn’t Wuthnow capitalize on these sorts of opportunities? Was it because small-town residents can’t think and have no original thoughts to share? I suspect it’s because Wuthnow wasn’t sufficiently invested in the making of Small-Town America. He himself says at one point that after writing Loose Connections and Remaking the Heartland he was left with “a great deal of unanalyzed data.” It stands to reason that he might have needed a vehicle to help him dump that excess information.

But I am just speculating here. The point is that American small towns do not yet have the portrait they deserve. Wuthnow’s book surely has merit as a sketchbook, but if we want a picture that really does justice to the oceanic aspects of alleged frog ponds, revealing small towns in all their improbable specificity, we will have to wait a little longer.  

Will Hoyt used to be a carpenter in Berkeley; now he builds housing for oil and gas crews tapping the Utica Shale in eastern Ohio.