A Requiem for the American Village

Paul Keith Conkin, Author Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. $57 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8476-9736-6
Americans yearn for community, yet in these wise, trenchant, iconoclastic essays written over the past quarter-century, Vanderbilt University historian Conkin suggests that this hankering may be partly misplaced nostalgia. From colonial times onward, he says, close-knit towns and villages were also exclusive and repressive; local majorities freely repressed unwanted minorities, even enacting laws to restrict freedoms of expression and to strictly regulate economic activity; cities, towns and states routinely violated the Bill of Rights until well into the 20th century. Calling himself an ""Appalachian refugee"" and a child of the Depression, Conkin ambivalently explores the erosion of community bonds in an age of pluralism, mass culture and cosmopolitan values, looking back with his own sense of nostalgia to his boyhood on a small farm in rural Tennessee. In several of these 17 essays (most published here for the first time), he turns a sympathetic but skeptical eye on Americans' quest for communal solidarity. He surveys ""cooperative commonwealths""--agrarian, Tolstoyan or Debsian socialist collectives presaging 1960s hippie communes--a movement partly inspired by the 1890s utopian novels of Edward Bellamy and William Dean Howells. All these colonies, he notes, floundered due to internal disputes and contentious leaders. Other pieces in this wide-ranging collection include a reappraisal of the 1925 Scopes trial; a debunking analysis of the 1930s Agrarian circle (John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, etc.), who harked back to an idealized vision of a yeoman South; and a typology of biographies (eulogistic vs. iconoclastic). Conkin celebrates American pluralism and tolerance of diversity as he mourns tight-knit local communities, which, in his estimation, have all but disappeared. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/10/2000
Release date: 01/01/2000
Genre: Nonfiction
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