Small Town Values

     As campaign season slithers toward its ghastly end, like a repulsive writhing venomous insect, we are hearing a lot about “small town values.” These are supposed to be oh so much better than “big city values.”
     What a bunch of crap. I’ve lived on Indian reservations and in New York City. People are the same. So are their values.
     America is fortunate to have had an expert on small-town values, though, a man who spent his entire life thinking about them and writing about them. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesville, Ohio (1919) was the most influential book of short stories ever written by an American. It’s still one of the best. Anderson’s other works – some half dozen novels, several books of essays and three autobiographies – all are about small towns.
     Anderson, who wrote that he was “fortunate … to have been born poor and in a small town,” knew that small-town values are no better than values anywhere else. He knew, and wrote about homosexuals in small towns who must hide the way they are lest the small-town people beat them to death.
     He knew there are people in unhappy marriages in small towns who pretend to be happy. There are mean vicious small-minded people in small towns who prey upon others, who make love to other people’s wives, become alcoholic, tell lies and die miserable after spending a lifetime inflicting misery upon others. And there are the fortunate few who live and die, mostly, happy.
     Small towns or big towns have nothing to do with happiness, or with good and evil. Big cities are not the problem. The “curse of the world,” Sherwood Anderson, our national expert on small towns, wrote, is “Slickness.”
     “It is the curse of the world, this slickness. It is in too many of our diplomats, our statesmen, governors, politicians, business is lousy with it. … ‘How can I use this man or woman? What can I make this one do for me?'”
     The vicious frauds who hold office and who are running for office today by trumpeting their “small-town values” have no values at all, beyond this revolting slickness.
     Anderson told a story on himself about this. He wrote ads for national magazines for several years, then ran his own mail-order paint company. He was on his way to making a lot of money – he did not become serious about writing until he was nearly 40.
     One day as he was dictating a letter, Anderson realized his entire life was a fraud. He could write ads and sell paint and persuade people that his paint was better than anyone else’s – but it wasn’t. He was just slick.
     On a day in late November 1912, Anderson dictated to his secretary: “The goods about which you have inquired are the best of their kind made in the -” Then he stopped. He could not go on.
     He wrote in his Memoirs: “‘It is now or never,’ I said to myself, and I remember that I kept smiling.”
     His secretary said, “You are sick.”
     Anderson walked out of his office, gave up his company and became a teller of stories. He did it because he could not stand to live anymore with his own slickness.
     U.S. politics today is nothing but this slickness. It truly is the curse of the world.
     Our slick “leaders” are not only dishonest, corrupt and stupid, they are viciously corrupt, aggressively stupid; they inflict torture, murder and duress upon people all over the world, in our own small towns, not because these people are stupid, but because they are not stupid in precisely the same way as our “leaders.”
     It’s not bad enough that we have become a country of torturers and murderers – we have done this for no reason.
     During the Great Depression, as Will Rogers said, we drove automobiles to the poorhouse. Today we are driving better cars there, but the slick guys have stolen the poorhouse, evicted the poor people, let the poorhouse go into foreclosure, and given it back to the bank. Now the government is throwing more money at the bank because the poor people have nothing left to steal.
     “It was a time of too much greatness,” Sherwood Anderson wrote in the happy days between World War I and the Great Depression. “Great generals. Great statesmen. Great hatreds sweeping up through the world. Great writers glorifying war. Great diplomats at work. It was a flood. It was to me terrible, unbearable.”
     Anderson got a letter from the writer Waldo Frank, who called him a “great man.” Then Frank came to visit in Anderson’s little rented room.
     “I spoke of the letter I had received,” Anderson wrote. “‘It was vile,’ I said. I asked Waldo Frank to leave my room and not to return.
     “‘There is all this talk of “greatness.”‘ It is your disease and you are trying to give it to all.’ I declared that no such thing as a great man could exist. ‘I am trying here in this room to hang onto something and you come to destroy it. … The struggle is hard enough without you and your goddamn “greatness.”‘”
      Those are small town values. They’re not great. You can’t use them to sell paint.

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