Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture
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Plains Folk: Searching for Athens
Tom Isern, Professor of History
A pop singer a generation ago sang about "looking at Lubbock, Texas, in the rearview mirror." The lament of young people leaving, lured by the bright lights that beckon from east or west, has been a commonplace for a century in the region stretching from Texas to Saskatchewan.
The demographics of out-migration are hard. I think the cultural effects on the people of the plains are just as significant. Whereas we often celebrate the good life of country and town in the wide open spaces, at the same time we harbor the sense that we are missing out on something--that we live in a hinterland, that somewhere in a city exciting things are happening.
I live in a flourishing city on the plains border, and a university town at that. Frequently I meet people who therefore think I live in another world entirely, that I inhabit a cultural percolator bubbling with intellectual activity. I do have the pleasure of working with many of the best minds on plains, no doubt, but the truth is, when we talk, we talk mostly about gardening, and family, and fishing.
Literary artists navigate the borders between country and metropolis. The Great Plains produce an astonishing amount of literary talent--most of which relocates to distant cities, close to agents, publishers, universities, and espresso bars. The expatriate prairie writer, flourishing in the city but unable to shake the dust of Red Cloud, Archer City, Fessenden, Hutchinson, or Eastend from her boots, is a recognized type. She loves the old home town, and hates it, and sleeps fitfully.
Historically, few writers of note--Angie Debo of Marshall, Okla., comes to mind as an exception--remained at home on the plains. During the past 15 years or so, however, there has been a noticeable trend for writers to return or relocate to the prairies. They rest uneasy. They want to be where they are, and they participate in community life, but they know, or suspect, that they remain outsiders, a feeling that now and then befogs them oppressively. This comes up in private conversation and occasionally bursts into published prose. Who can forget Kathleen Norris's impassioned chapter on "telling the truth" in a small town? At your own risk.
To all parties in this situation I commend the closing chapter of "Wolf Willow," the mixed-up memoir by a great prairie expatriate, Wallace Stegner. It is entitled "False Front Athens." It is full of bitter promise. The "Athens" part of it, of course, is an allusion to the literary and architectural glories of that seat of Western Civilization, but hardly a reader of Stegner realizes that the reference originated right on Broadway of Stegner's old home town, Eastend, Sask.
In the dining room of Jack's Café, to which Stegner returned in 1953, preparing to write, hangs a photograph of the Parthenon. The café has been run by Greeks, with whom Stegner closely identified, since the 1910s. Stegner describes Eastend as "as good a place to be a boy and as unsatisfying a place to be a man as one could well imagine."
In a much-quoted closing line, one that sticks in the craw of most every plainsperson who reads it, he says of the village, "Give it a thousand years." It sounds insulting. Or at best, patronizing.
Plainspersons, take heart, and reconsider, for the line has been misconstrued. Stegner speaks of time, not chronology. What is a thousand years? Only a watch in the night.
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