Looking ahead to the demise of Europe’s feudal arrangements, the French enlightenment philosopher, Charles de Secondat Montesquieu, wrote about the pros and cons of various non-feudal alternatives to a monarchy flanked by a landed aristocracy. He argued that a republic-based democracy was the most ethical form of government, but he stopped short of endorsing it for his native France. Montesquieu believed that a democracy would cease to function well as citizens began to lose the “feel” of their history.
It is significant, I think, that Montesquieu did not say “knowledge of their history,” though clearly a lack of such knowledge can only be a detriment to democracy, too. But lacking what it feels like to build a nation, to strive for equity and justice, that is the crippling blow to democracy, according to Montesquieu. So how can citizens retain the feel of their history? How can a democracy stay vibrant?
Throughout time, this has been accomplished by passing stories down from one generation to the next. But recall Plato’s account of old King Thamus from ancient Greece. “You have created something that will destroy memory,” Thamus told the inventor of the pen. And indeed the written word has eroded human storytelling. Montesquieu’s concern for that point in time when citizens who would lose the feel of their history is directly connected to the erosion of stories well told.
While it is true that the stories of America’s great twentieth century urban authors, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others, remains readily available and, indeed, a predictable feature of public school curriculum; with a few exceptions, the same can not be said for the great rural authors of the twentieth century. Writing as Americans dreamed of an urban future with ever-more labor saving technologies, rural authors were passed over and rarely read. As a result, their work has been out of print for decades, and largely lost to twenty-first century Americans.
This is a loss of considerable significance, in my estimation, and one that demands some kind of action. Over the next few years I intend to work with others interested in saving this work by 1) creating new demand for twentieth-century rural literature utilizing rural teachers who would like to expose their students to this work, 2) keeping pressure on publication houses, particularly university presses, to help keep this work from falling into oblivion, and 3) seeking philanthropic support for the goal of re-releasing some of our country’s best rural literature. Anyone interesting in joining this effort should email me at : firstname.lastname@example.org
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