An Associated Press news article reports this morning that the rural United States now holds only 16% of the population. In 1910, the year my mother was born, 72% of the population lived in rural areas. It’s no surprise to me that more and more of us live in cities, but one sentence in this article is stunning: “Many communities could shrink to virtual ghost towns as they shutter businesses and close down schools, demographers say.”
I worry for what’s going on out there in rural America. How can its remaining people have a voice in our country when they make up such a small percentage of our population? I fear that the smaller their numbers, the easier it will be for those in power to overlook them. Another article in my morning paper reports that folks who live in rural areas have more chronic health problems and less access to quality care. How will this situation ever improve as the economic slide and the population drain continue to hit the rural areas the hardest?
When I return to my hometown in southeastern Illinois these days, I’m saddened by how far its fallen into disrepair. A number of homes are abandoned or neglected, my childhood home among them. The last time I drove past it, I could tell that no one was living there, and I remembered how well my father and mother always cared for it. It sits on a double lot, and I could see the fruit trees my father planted behind the house, now in need of pruning. I saw the detached garage looking more rickety than I’d ever seen it. The shrubs around the house were overgrown. The mailbox on a post by the front step had its lid hanging open. The grass was wild and badly in need of cutting.
I recall what Nick Carraway says in The Great Gatsby: “Instead of being the warm center of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe.” He’s talking about how his native land felt to him after he got back from the Great War and then decided to go East where he met Gatsby and Daisy and Tom and Jordan and got caught up in the ragged edges of their lives. At the end of the novel, when Nick knows he’s going to return to the Midwest, he recalls the train rides of his youth, coming home from prep school and later from college in the East. He talks about the train coming into Chicago’s Union Station, and how when it pulled out again into the winter night, it took him into what he calls “the real snow, our snow,” the snow of his native Midwest:
We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.
That’s my Middle West–not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name.
As is the case with Nick, this feeling of coming home has never left me even though it’s been over thirty-five years since I’ve lived in Illinois. I made my way out a long time ago. I went where school and work took me. My heart’s still there, though, in the small towns and on the farms that were so much a part of my growing up. Perhaps I do penance for leaving by writing the books I do about that place and my characters who live there. I suppose I’m in the position that so many of the people who have fled for the cities are in; I’ve had to go where the better opportunities are. Sometimes, like now, I feel guilty about that. I feel guilty that the novels, and stories, and essays I write about that place can’t do more to fix what’s wrong. At the least, I hope that I provide, along with a number of other writers who write about the forgotten places, a voice in the literary world for those people who are shrinking, every trace of them threatening to disappear.