The Forgotten Places: Our Shrinking Rural Areas

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.


  1. Byron Edgington on July 29, 2011 at 5:41 am

    …borne back ceaselessly into the past. Gatsby wasn’t the only one who was living in a strange, alien world.

    • Lee Martin on July 29, 2011 at 1:21 pm

      Byron, maybe most of us are living in strange, alien worlds, trying to find our way back home.

  2. Ned Stuckey-French on July 29, 2011 at 11:48 am

    We’re home again in Indiana as I write this, Lee. Or rather, as I quote this: “So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.”

    • Lee Martin on July 29, 2011 at 1:20 pm

      Ned, I’ll never be able to read that line from GATSBY, as I did yesterday, without thinking fondly of you and Elizabeth. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I hope you’re both having a lovely summer.

  3. Julia Munroe Martin on July 29, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    This is so very sad — such a vital part of what America used to be now disappearing.

    • Lee Martin on July 30, 2011 at 12:06 pm

      Julia, I’ve long watched the small family farms in my part of southeastern Illinois coming under the ownership of corporate farms. This isn’t to say that there’s no longer the children of farmers continuing to farm the family land, but it’s becoming harder and harder for the generations to continue. Recently, the Amish have been paying high prices for land in my home county. Guess I should have held on to my 80 acres longer than I did 🙂

  4. Babz Maxwell on August 2, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Lee, even here in Springfield, the very Capitol of Illinois, we feel overshadowed by the politics of Chicago. Our little city is very rural at heart, and our conservative ways are trampled over by the northern metropolis we folks south of I-80 consider another state! The old proverb, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is ever so true in politics as well as anything else. The farmers, the small hamlets, the mom and pop businesses AREN’T heard. Well, possibly they are heard, but they are certainly ignored. And I know all too well the decay of the little town we grew up in. Let’s face it; wasn’t glorious back then, but nothing compared to today!

    It was a bittersweet experience for me. It wasn’t all bad, but there was more than enough struggle for me to want out as quickly as possible. I confess to loving my life here, and tho I love and miss my folks, I loathe the trips back home. How I wish I could get them out of there. But change is difficult the longer one stays put.

    I do so enjoy reading your works on the life that we knew so well. You don’t sugar-coat it, you just bring memories back to life. A large part of who we are was etched in those years when life was a bit safer, a bit slower. I would ride my bicycle out in the country for miles, wade the creek out at the park on the east end of town, catch crawdads and turtles, and drag home bags of snakes, much to my mother’s dismay. We kids would be gone all day, and our parents never even worried about us. We weren’t tethered to cell-phones, afraid of kidnappers, or bogged down by endless schedules of soccer, dance class, football, gymnastics, and all the other activities that are expected of kids today.
    In the evenings I would ride my bicycle down to my grandparents house, and there they would be, every evening, sitting on the front porch, just watching the evening pass. Neighbors would call out to neighbors, sharing a bit of gossip, and a handful of the days freshest produce from the garden out back. A far simpler life.
    Most of us don’t even have porches on our homes. What would be the point? We have decks out back, with tall fences for privacy. No one “drops in” on anyone, because we are always busy, always trying to cram in one last thing before going to bed. What a life.

    Oh, dear. You’ve got me on a roll now. I’ve said enough. Thanks for all your writing. It’s such a joy. Take care. babz

  5. Lee Martin on August 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Babz, thanks so much for sharing those memories. I had no idea you were a snake collector! See the things folks don’t know about each other, even in a small town? I agree totally about the disconnection among people that is so prevalent today. I think often of those days when Sundays were for visiting, and rarely did someone call ahead. They just dropped by, and there were lots of afternoons spent on front porches just telling or listening to stories. I often wonder if that’s where I first began to be a writer, just listening to the stories that folks would tell.

    • Babz Maxwell on August 2, 2011 at 8:43 pm

      I loved it when the conversations would trail off into the “dark” side. Ghost stories and tales of what was haunted! Of course I couldn’t SLEEP on those nights!

  6. Lee Martin on August 3, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Babz, the “dark side” in Sumner was never very far from reality. I was fascinated with stories of people’s misdeeds and misfortunes, and there seemed to be an abundance of such stories. I suppose that also influenced the writing that I do now. I try to be very compassionate to my characters, no matter how badly they’ve treated themselves and others. I just try to understand where their missteps and bad deeds come from–what need in them.

  7. Robert Cates on September 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Perhaps nostalgia is a disorder of the conservative world-view. My family is from south central Illinois and I fondly remember my times visiting grandparents and cousins there. But it is a life that seems to refuse to recognize that change happens. Rather than embrace change, they fear it, and are undone when it inevitably intrudes. Are their voices heard versus the hustle and bustle of Chicago? What rural area of the country does not resent the greater voting power of their local metropolis. And it is resented because the city is the antithesis of rural life. Rural life is home and hearth and family and warmth. Except when it is narrow-mindedness, bigotry, vested interests, no jobs.

    • Lee Martin on September 2, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      Robert, I think your comment points out the necessity of looking at a place and its people from all angles. No doubt that thie things you mention (narrow-mindedness, bigotry, vested interests, and no jobs) coexist with the values of “hearth and home.” Too, we should be careful of lumping people together. For every narrow-minded person who exists in any particular place, there’s probably another person who’s very liberal in his or her attitudes. Well, I’m not sure it’s always an equal match, but you get my point. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment.

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