Letters From the Country

If we are truly serious about life we are going to have to stop thanking people for sharing. It isn’t enough response to whatever has been offered. It is half ingenuous, and sometimes it is insincere, and often it is patronizing. It is the dictum excrementi of our decade.

Letters from the Country by Carol Bly

Though most of the essays in Carol Bly’s Letters from the Country were written in the early 1970s, they feel as relevant to our current decade as they were to the era of Nixon, Vietnam, and the start of the farm foreclosure crisis. That may be because our times aren’t so different from those days thirty years ago as we might like to image. Or it may be because these letters are written in the tradition of the Jeremiad, prophetic calls to our better angels, that is as timeless as it is timely.

Bly apologizes for being “shrill,” but these essays are hardly that. Rather, Bly has a quietly rumbling voice: though she writes candidly, and doesn’t shy away from making very specific condemnations when they’re called for, she is for the most part reasoned and loving in her criticism. Her main topic is the decay of civic culture in the “lost Swede towns” of southwestern Minnesota, and her deep affection for the people in these towns comes through in every essay. If she is critical of some of the people and institutions in these towns, it’s because she expects better of them and knows they can rise to the occasion. Indeed, her dismissive tone is reserved for the urban elites of the Twin Cities; her jokes at the expense of the small towns are gentle and tinged with love.

The letters cover a variety of topics: education, farm labor, civic organizations, rural community and culture, the arts, and the quality of conversation. They were originally published as a monthly column in the Minnesota Public Radio Magazine (now Minnesota Monthly), and as such the collection has a somewhat scattered feel. Still, Bly’s voice is consistent throughout, and if not holding together as a coherent piece the collection is certainly informed by a coherent set of values.

Many of the letters have practical recommendations for organizing civic life in small towns. Bly considers the paucity of humanistic education in the small towns; the educational elites have written off the rural areas as lacking opportunity or inclination for fulfilling work, and instead have herded the inhabitants into “vocational education.” Bly’s response is both hard-headed and open-hearted, and surely applies as well in today’s economy as that of the 1970s:

It isn’t fair that a deliberately impractical education which examines the verities of human life should be such a marvelous help to the self-image or the general ego strength and yet be limited to the gentleman. For years and years liberal arts graduates have taken up the best jobs in American, while others, whose coursework promised upward mobility, have desperately taken “business” courses without any suspicion that they were running their race on the layby track. Now that jobs are less and less rewarding, and for the most part people in rural areas cannot get the jobs they want, it is doubly unfair to keep the schools headed toward job preparation. They could much better be teaching preparation for the other two-thirds of our lives.

Indeed, Bly’s thoughts echo those of the classic post-”dot com” collapse study of the plight of white collar workers in the early 21st century, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.

Other letters are more concerned with intimate personal relationships, and this is where Bly’s humor comes through. She is, for example, dead set against the “extended family,” and extols the value of the nuclear family as an institution that can better nurture creative and resilient people. “I have been thinking about the positive side of a Minnesota blizzard,” she writes in “Extended vs. Nuclear Families.” “Another of the blessings is that extended-family occasions come to a halt. Thank goodness.” The extended family is stultifying because it forces an environment where dissent is quashed:

There are conversations that can kill:

“Ja, you can sure tell there’s more snow coming from where that came from.”

or

“You’re a lot safer in a jet than you are on U.S. 212 I don’t care what they say.”

The problem with the above remarks is not that they’re untrue or dull: it is that one can’t reply, “To tell you the truth, I think I’m on the other side of that one.” It is impossible to dissent.

Bly calls the bluff on many of Minnesota’s most cherished myths, particularly “Minnesota Nice.” She considers the Minnesotan tendency to avoid controversy and conflict a stultifying tendency, inimical to true civic life. She proposes intentionally conflict-laden events, where people with real, deep divisions are forced to interact about those topics. Her ideal of civic life is not a place where everyone gets along; it’s a vision of candor and conflict that leads people into creative solutions for common problems.

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