Letters from the Country
Carol Bly’s Letters from the Country, which first appeared as columns in the magazine of Minnesota Public Radio from 1973 to 1979, is a “pick and choose” book, each essay short and succinct. All, however, are informed by the author’s intelligent and liberal point of view and, at least by implication, by the larger thesis of the book. That thesis is that the repression of controversy and strong feeling in the rural, largely Lutheran parts of the upper Midwest (what Scott Fitzgerald called “the lost Swede towns”) is making for a generation of people who refuse to express opinion for fear of controversy. This fear of strong opinion she relates particularly to the two overarching national problems of the early 1970’s—the Vietnam War and Watergate. In both cases, says Bly, rural Minnesota refused to take a strong position in the controversy, just wanting the unpleasantness to be over. (One wonders how the presidential candidacy of Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy was viewed in her area.)
The book is, in effect, a political analysis of what is wrong with a large part of America, and anyone with any experience with small towns in whatever region will find much in Bly’s descriptive analysis that rings true. Bly’s judgments stem from a classic (that is, conservative) liberalism: a thoroughgoing rationalist, she is critical of the Church, pop psychology, and cultural relativism of all kinds; she believes in education and the power of education to change both people and social structures. The American social hierarchy, she maintains, is sustained by the lie that some people have an ethical or aesthetic sense and some do not. The truth is that “some people are conscious of their ethical or aesthetic nature” and others are not. For Bly, what rural America most needs is a new level of awareness. Accordingly, she does not stop with the description of what is wrong; she always has several creative suggestions of ways to remedy the situation. Here are some of them: stop teaching technique in English and art classes and instead teach art appreciation and “Ag(ricultural) Lit.”; talk with children about the content of their creative endeavors; preach sermons on Saul’s approval of St. Stephen’s stoning and Jesus’ turning the tables on the moneychangers; purchase the works of the artist-in-residence (so that they can be criticized); let the AFDC mother with the monotone voice sing in the choir; organize a group to meet weekly and write a novel collectively about the town; appoint a senior citizen to be a mail-order-resource person for books, records, tapes, conference announcements; stage the William Shakespeare play and the Wolfgang Mozart symphony locally, but bring in the professionals sometimes so that people can hear and see what is truly excellent; organize “enemy evenings” where a topic of clear importance to rural people (such as the building of a shopping center) is debated by local people knowledgeable and committed.
She is at her best when providing telling vignettes of small-town life: the annual “Open House” at the John Deere showroom; how the generation gap is changing as young people are coming back to the country with their new ideas—natural foods, wood floors instead of wall-to-wall carpeting, Virginia Woolf posters on the outhouse door, interest in oral history; the hostility of the church women’s circle to an unorthodox newcomer; the joy of long, heavy physical labor in the fields; the wonder of a Midwesten blizzard; a recipe for a funeral dinner. She is refreshingly unimpressed by such institutions as the extended family—to which most “liberals” now uncritically hearken—and is able to call for a hiatus on those huge family gatherings in which no one is allowed to discuss a controversial topic for fear of disturbing the “nice day.” Of course, it is the woman who is culturally charged with keeping the peace, with always being positive, with doing most of the work and serving for these gatherings. Bly claims that woman’s “civilization-upholding stance,” inculcated from childhood, forestalls clear thinking, expressing opinions, criticizing, being negative. Instead, the typical rural Minnesota female spends nearly three hours a day in the “idle social intercourse” of the twice daily coffee-drinking with no controversial or argumentative subjects allowed. Only at fifty-five, says Bly, do such women wake up to all...
(The entire section is 1822 words.)