The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, APRIL 2, 1939
Country Boys Write Better Books
--By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: Sometimes Mr.Cash, for all his many strengths--and he had far more than faults--nevertheless allowed his own limitations to haunt him to the point of perhaps none too little parts of rationalization, every now and then, as plainly exhibited, albeit quite harmlessly, here. While it is true that had Cash grown up in a large city in the South, he might never have had the impetus or full input to write the book he did--or, having the impetus and input, neverthless, he might have been peer-pressured out of it, as economic competition in a city also extends even to the realm of producing ideas for publication. But for budding young writers in large cities and on farms, little stock should probably be placed in Cash's musings here, bred of his own experience.
And, no doubt, he probably did not intend to deter anyone with something to say from writing--be they from a lonely ranch in Idaho, a farm in Kansas, or a suburb of San Francisco or Charlotte. As he told some admiring Charlotte area female college students in April, 1941 in response to the question of how one should become a writer, "You just have to have some ideas and say them." Probably, there is no better advice to be given. And from personal observation, having spent large segments of youth in small towns--including some time in one near where Cash spent his formative years--and then being transposed at a young age to a relatively small city, spending college days in a village atmosphere, and ultimately winding up in a small village surrounded by a huge metropolitan area, it can safely be said here that there is no magic formula or place which produces the desire and impetus to write. It is either there, and usually from early on, as with an artist who draws or composes music, or it is not. It is usually--as with Cash--the province of the reticent, as a means of self-expression; the one crucial ingredient necessary for the writer, as has oft been stated, being that of memory.
And as for fodder for fiction, all places and each have their own unique input and unique, as well as universal, problems large and small--just laid down in different cadences and mandating different approaches for penetrating the mask--the mask which every place displays until you get to know the people behind it more closely. Indeed, perhaps sometimes in small towns that mask is even maintained with greater tenacity than in cities. After all, the hustle and bustle of a city requires for human sustenance that you get closer to a few people--albeit often more desultorily--than would likely be acceptable or comfortable in a small town, where there is normally greater permanency, but with it, also greater doses of superficiality to maintain the peace over the course of a long period of time in one plat.
But, take it as you will. Cash appeared to view it otherwise in 1939. Whether he would have continued still to think so today in a far more mobile society with more gentrified small towns and bedroom communities serving larger cities fifty miles or more away, and all just as able to receive cable or satellite television--well, it is doubtful. And Cash, himself, for all his posturing here, obviously always remained restive to leave the small, library-less towns of his youth behind as he did more than once in the Twenties, and finally did permanently in 1937.
One curious thing that anybody who inquires into the history of writers must notice is the astonishing number of them who grew up in villages or very small towns. The great cities contribute few of them, in proportion to their population. And not many of them come from farms. From villages and very small towns--that is the origin of most of them--from Shakespeare and old Dr. Sam Johnson right on down to the Lewises, Dreisers, Faulkners, and so on of our own time.
But perhaps it is not really curious when you think about it. Farmers are too isolated. The boy growing up on a farm has a chance to observe nature, the way of dumb beasts and the way of man with the soil. But he has no considerable opportunity to observe numbers of men in society. And so he is likely to be barred from writing by the very poverty of experience. Moreover, the life of the farm is essentially a life of action. The boy who has grown up in it is likely to continue to want action, and to tend to discharge emotions directly, whereas writing, like any art, is essentially a matter of sublimation.
The city, on the other hand, is too complex. The boy growing up in it sees the dizzy parade always before his eyes. Contacts with people are brief and passing. He knows little or nothing of their history or thoughts. And the continual kaleidoscopic play of phenomena tends to confuse him, to make it difficult for him to distinguish essential fact from non-essential ones. He has always to view the world in macrocosm. What adds to his difficulty also is that the city is always masked. Men and women in it live under a disguise of conventional make-believe, which makes it hard to penetrate to the real truths about them.
But the village is the world in microcosm. It brings men and women together to live in close contact, but not in such numbers as to breed confusion. In almost any one taken at random, you can find virtually all the types and traits of humanity on view--the miser and the wastrel, the prim puritan and the prostitute--greed, hate, kindliness--anything at all. There it is spread out before the eyes of the growing writer of the future, as it were, in simplified form. And in all its native shape. The village has its conventions, too, of course, but its people live too closely together for convention to hide the facts about anybody. Those facts make up the staple of conversation in such a place, and the boy growing up hears and knows the intimate history of everybody, observes them always not as mere shapes which have stepped out of the void to be swallowed up therein again in another instant but as continuous personalities whose present is explicable only by their past.
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