“Give Me the City”

By Sherwood Anderson

Editor’s note: The following article appeared originally in the New York Sunday World Magazine on February 23, 1930, pp. 4, 14. It has not been noted in Anderson bibliographies and was sent to us by Walter B. Rideout.

I think this matter of where and how you live is a highly personal one. Most of us who live in the country or in small towns do so because the cost of city life scares us. I went recently to New York with a small town man. The swarms of people crowding into the subways and hurrying along the streets frightened him. “How in God’s name do they all make a living?” he said. He liked going to the city all right. You may say all you please about the movies and the talkies, the radio etc., but they aren’t the real thing. If you think the talkies, for example, create the same feeling in the audience that can be had from actors performing there before you on the stage, in the flesh, you are foolish.

As far as I can see, and in spite of the telephone, the radio, and the talkies, life in the country and in the country town is just as isolated as ever it was. The automobile is something else. With an automobile you can go to the city.

The people feel isolated too. Most people who live in such places resent city people. Why? They have a notion that city people after all have a better time. That always makes anyone resentful. People in the city do not have the same feeling about country and small town people. There are no popular words like “hicks” and “yahoos” applied to them. Writers try occasionally to plaster them with such words, but the words do not stick. The city man, when he grows a little tired, or when spring comes and he thinks of his boyhood in the country, of going swimming and fishing, of the leaves coming green on the trees and the fragrance of new ploughed fields, grows sentimental and wishes he were a country man again–but he never gets ashamed of being a city man.

But thinking of new ploughed fields is a quite different matter from ploughing those same fields. Believe me, that is true.

The tendency of modern American life is toward concentration, living in the mass, in great centers. People in general want to do what everyone else does. There used to be a saying regarding the state of Indiana, “It is inhabited by people who started West and lost their nerve,” and you might almost say that about any present day town. The towns are inhabited by people who started for the city and lost their nerve.

The people of the towns will resent this saying, but not so much. They are used to being slammed. They don’t mind much.

They know, for example, that in the minds of most city people men, say, like Senator Brookhart and Senator Heflin, represent them. There is some truth in it too. Not much, but some.

After all, even a city man should remember that his father and mother probably lived their lives in the country or in a small town. We all have to admit our fathers and mothers were grand people. If we ever give up that idea things will go to smash.

The very things so often held out as relieving the monotony of small town and country life, that is to say, the radio, the movie etc., as a matter of fact do not do it. One of the most charming features of small town life and country life used to be the opportunity it gave for the development of individual idiosyncrasies.

What older man does not remember with regret the small town of twenty-five years ago? For one thing we had the saloon then. It was a gathering place. The men of the town–not the good men but all of the more colorful, old and young, rascals and braggarts–gathered there. There was a big stove at the back. As the evening wore on and drink mellowed the customers things happened. There were arguments and even fights. Men argued about infant damnation, about politics, war, etc. Speeches were made, stories told. There were good stories told too. Abraham Lincoln learned the trick in such places and at one time there were Abraham Lincolns in every town.

It is one of the nice little pleasant fictions of the modern world that the coming of the radio, the telephone, the talkie and all that has made such intimate contacts between men unnecessary. The same men who used to gather in the corner saloon now go to the talkies, I suppose, or they stay at home and listen to the radio.

They can get something every night. How marvelous! They can hear a widely advertised New York preacher preach one of his sermons, they can hear a professional jokester get off his jokes, the children can hear bedtime stories. Dear friends of radio land, good night!

That is one of the nice things about the city nowadays. You can, sometimes, in the city, escape all that. You can even escape the talkies and the radio. In the country nowadays they are everywhere. Every crossroad store has its radio, and it is always going. You have to go pretty far back in the country to escape the city nowadays.

It seems to me that this is what has happened. There came a movement toward the cities. The young men went, not the old man. That certainly gave an impetus to city life. For years all the best young blood of Europe came to America. That made America, gave it vitality and go.

The young countrymen and small town youths going to the city made the modern American city. In a large way you could say that the ones who did not go were the ones who hadn’t nerve or vitality enough to go. They were the left-overs and the ones who got stuck by circumstances. They stayed in the small towns and in the country, envying their more adventurous brothers who had gone to the city. That must have been what gave them the inferiority complex about the city.

In a purely material way I do not think there is much doubt that dollar for dollar you can buy more for your money in the country than you can in the city. It isn’t all beer and skittles in the city, that’s sure. If, for example, you have to live in New York as a clerk and have to travel night and morning for many miles in the subway, life must be fairly rough.

But life is rough in the country too. On the whole it is dull. People are sharpened by contacts. You get more contacts in the city and, I think, on the whole, life becomes proportionately interesting.

You have to ask yourself what you are interested in–is it people, food, women, music, painting, architecture, thought? The city will give you what you want. There you will find groups of people interested in your subject. It is all very well to sit in the country and to write and receive letters, but it isn’t the same thing as talk, personal contact.

There are a half dozen men right now to whom I would like to say certain things I do not want to say in letters. If I were in New York I would see them all within the next two days.

Of course there is nature. There are fields, mountains and streams. Just below the place where I sit writing there is a charming valley. A highway runs along the edge of a hill above the valley. There is a car, two cars, standing up there beside the road. The people in the cars, men and women, have evidently been struck by the beauty of the scene. The cars have stopped there and will stand there a long time. The people will gaze off across the valley, seeing the river that runs down through it, the fields, the farmhouses clinging to the sides of distant hills, the color coming into the trees in the distant forests. But they will be city people. Depend upon that. A country man would not stop thus. You never saw one do it.

Why, the book that has always meant most to me, in giving me this feeling for the out-of-doors, “Memoirs of a Sportsman,” by Ivan Tugenieff, was written by a city man sitting as he wrote in a Paris apartment. I am sure of that. He sat there thinking of the country man longing for the country and wrote those tales, so fragrant with wood and wind.

Then he went to the country, stayed for a time, until he could no longer bear the dullness, and hurried back to his city apartment.

And in the country to which he went there were no radios, no talkies. I dare say that made it possible for him to stay longer and enjoy himself better than he ever could have had he gone to the country or to a small town, say in our own Middle West in our own day.