Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Places That Have Made Us

If you've been keeping a rough list of what's on my mind based on the contents of this site (and may the sweet lord help you if you have), you know that list includes: The benefits/anxieties of living in New York; the influence of family; the necessary conditions for maximizing personal creativity; and whether the AP has recently posted anything about drunken, illiterate lunatics getting mauled by zoo animals. Well, forget about that last one and you'll understand why I was so taken with a recent essay called "Medium Town" by Mark Oppenheimer. It's elegantly written, earnest in the good way, and I found myself nodding along with at least 80 percent of it.

In the piece, Oppenheimer, who lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and has written two books about religion, considers several aspects of place and ambition, including the notion that many aspiring writers share, which is that living in a big coastal city is "stimulating to the creative faculties, that somehow the street life of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or the Castro in San Francisco, energizes their prose and expands their imaginative capacities." Oppenheimer isn't convinced:
It's true that an extraordinary number of the hip American novels of the last twenty years have been set, at least in part, in New York. ... And nearly every popular young fiction writer one can name lives in New York: Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Jennifer Vanderbes, Gary Shteyngart, Dara Horn, Benjamin Kunkel, Edwidge Danticat. The New York afference is so prominent at this moment in time that Meghan Daum garnered an odd amount of publicity for moving to Nebraska — she wrote an essay about it, then a novel. You might have thought she'd bought a two-bedroom co-op on the moon. ... And while time will tell, it seems that the most lasting fiction writers working today live away from New York: David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro (if I may bring in a Canadian), Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, and of course Roth and Updike. None of them lives in a big city, unless you count Chabon, who lives just miles from San Francisco. Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo would seem to be exceptions, but it is interesting to note that Pynchon is from Long Island originally, and DeLillo was born in the Bronx and attended Fordham University. They are locals, not aspirants.
But even more than his take on location's importance (or lack thereof) in fueling artistic output, I was interested in Oppenheimer's thoughts on the broader psychology of being attracted to mega-cities:
I don't mean to suggest that there's anything necessarily wrong with living in New York, or that there aren't fine writers, and fine people, who live there. ... But I believe that for many people—not all—there is something neurotic about an attachment to the big city. After all, most of us do not come from the big city; we come from small towns, medium-sized towns, suburbs, exurbs, farms. Those are the places that made us. If we like who we are, like what we've become, then might there not (be) something disordered about turning our backs on our nativity? The flight from our regions and regionalisms is, in this way, not so different from the flight from our ethnicity, or our religion, or our family ties. It bespeaks an inner conflict, which is always a kind of sadness. ...

To me, living in a medium-sized town is, like going to synagogue or settling into domesticity with my wife, baby, and dog, a form of humility. It's what I want to do, but it also sends a message that I do intend: I don't have wisdom that's any better than the accumulated wisdom of generations before me. Raising children, paying a mortgage, raking leaves, knowing who my alderman is—these were the tasks that were set before my father and grandfather, and even if, by dint of more income or more education, I could be released from them, I don't think that that would make me a better person or open the door to a more satisfying life.
I say "read the whole thing" around here from time to time, and I always mean it, but this time I mean it a little more: Read the whole thing.


Blogger Katy said...

I just moved back to New Haven after 7plus years bicoastal bt LA and NYC, and it's true, that I consider humilty and responsibility hugely appealing (and to the extreme here vs LA)

as I have long suspected, my fellow longhorn and scorpio Owen
would do well to visit your site and my hometown

well done

4:56 AM  
Anonymous JB said...

Thanks for sharing this John.

8:53 AM  
Blogger lmha said...

I printed this out and took it with me on a plane to Norfolk, VA to read on the ride back to Austin. Although Austin is trying really hard to become a cosmopolitan, urbane land of downtown lofts, it still fits the bill for a middle size town in my book. At least compared to a giant like NYC. This essay was great (although I bristled at the mention of hiring child care workers as hiring someone else to live the best part of your life for you.) I definitely don't think that is happening in MY life, which happens to be all the better because it is multi-faceted. Or balanced would be another excellent description.

I related to this writer's life quite a bit. Both the retrospect on childhood and the current version. I also think a primary reason for his life being the way it is has a lot to do with having kids as much as it has to do with where he lives. Having kids slows you down tremendously. It refocuses your attention in a way that causes you to cut the excess garbage and savor the delicious. I'm big on small things - daily simplicity that is wonderful, celebrating seasons, holidays, meals, artwork, train rides. Having a child makes you talk to your neighbors and get outdoors. Having said all that, I can't imagine having a child in a city like NYC or Chicago (having just taken my young children to Chicago). It's too hard. The big cities aren't user-friendly for families for the most part. And in all candor, the point that resonated most with me was the author's comment on his acceptance that living in a mid-size town is an acknowledgement that he didn't figure out anything greater than his father or grandfather. I really got that--in some ways I'm trying to live a larger, better life than my predecessors but in many ways, not. I read that and thought, yeah, exactly. Stop hating on domestic life. It's quality life. It's the place you want to end up, for the most part. It's satisfying, it's deeply heartfelt, it's certainly not "giving up." I think that people with kids, especially people happy with having kids, tend to feel that they are living a more "mature" version of life than the childless, just as the childless urbanites I know probably think I'm stuck in some suburban hell of cleaning, cooking, and Barney that they shudder to imagine. (thankfully my kids never developed a taste for Barney, but they do have plenty of annoying substitutes). Having kids DOES make you more mature because it causes you to self-sacrifice so much, give up those endless parties and time-wasting activities you still manage to have time for when you are childless. But it also provides you with a level of love, deep feeling, emotion, and concern that you've never, ever experienced without kids. anyway, I'm waiting on a plane so my rambling will stop for now. Thanks for the great article.

8:39 PM  

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