Decline of the American town studied in Illinois, Connecticut

August 04, 1991|By Maude McDaniel




Ron Powers.

Random House.

317 pages. $22. On a Fourth of July visit to Marshfield, Mo. (population, 5,000), President Bush spent more time celebrating small towns than the victory in the Persian Gulf, according to the Washington Post, ascribing to them "the kind of values that carried this country for over 200 years."

The same day, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Powers appeared on a network morning show, pushing his new book, "Far From Home." Subtitled "Life and Loss in Two American Towns," it chronicles the apparent demise of Cairo, Ill., and Kent, Conn., prime examples of the American small towns that are dying unnoticed under the rumble of big-city disintegration. With them, says Mr. Powers, goes "an essential culture rooted in obligation and the perception of a common good."

Funny. The president didn't mention any of that.

Mr. Powers sees the small town as the "crucible of necessary American innocence." In fact, the myth of the small town is such that we are inclined to accept as well his corollary that the withering of the small town has provoked "a moral blight" that has "spread upward and outward through the life-system of cities."

His two doomed towns have nothing in common except their size and fate. Cairo, about whose past and present he has little good to say (he calls an adjacent slum "a necrosis attached to a larger scrofula"), has shrunk to an official population of 6,300, "dying slow and . . . dying mean," a "locus of evil" with a "sulphorous [sic] legacy of corruption, wretched luck, and murderous temperament," all of this complicated by violent racial conflict, industry flight and continuing political power struggles.

Into this baleful scene steps a nattily dressed, miracle-working, audience-craving redeemer and community organizer, Richard Poston, bent on saving the town through its own heritage and empowerment. Mr. Powers' picture of this complex, fanatical, TTC idealistic old man is an ambivalent one -- admiring, appalled and worth the price of the show.

Kent (population, 2,640) is a different story. Himself a bit player in its drama of destruction, Mr. Powers is considerably more benign to his fellow actors. If Cairo is hell sustained, Kent is paradise lost, the archetypal American dress town, done in by affluence instead of atrophy.

Under the influence of its bucolic beauty and old-fashioned traditions, "jaundiced city-dwellers" moved in, hoping to "rebuild some kind of lost affection for our fellow men, some affirmation of community." Unfortunately, in seeking to share these treasures,

they destroyed them. Local services jammed up, old families got priced out of town and volunteer fire companies, meals-on-wheels and the civic vitality of stable, town-meeting government withered away in the wake of weekenders, who "never got involved in anything, never joined the organizations, never took responsibility."

Born in Hannibal, Mo. -- subject of his earlier fine book, "White Town Drowsing" -- Mr. Powers writes with a sense of irony ("Heritage . . . the wave of the future") and with implicit passion, but his personal inclinations are obvious. Distaste and a gentle mockery for even its most upright citizens seem to pervade his sections on Cairo, while Kent and its people appear to be the salt of the earth scattered by unlucky circumstance. (Also, in Cairo, he fails to follow up on the militant black pastor who's not home when called on, the Black United Front and a developing elegiac tone about Mr. Poston.)

Both Cairo and Kent are left hanging rather anticlimactically, and readers will surely be alert to word of either town in their newspapers. In the end, though, it seems to me, as a citizen of a larger small town going through its own version of the trauma Mr. Powers describes so memorably, that the present hard times for small towns are neither cause nor effect, but a microcosm of the spiritual and economic breakdown going on all over the country. These towns will begin to recover from their Cairo-style muggings, or their Kent-style hijackings, only when the nation figures out how to clean up its neighborhood.

Ms. McDaniel is a writer living in Cumberland.

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