Archive for March, 2014

Small Town America, by photographer David Plowden, is a favorite book. I wrote and published this review in Springhouse several years ago. The book was published by Henry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1994 (price $49.95) and although it’s no longer in print, it is available via Amazon sellers and used book sites.(1)

The American small town remains fixed in our imaginations. Those of us who have left small hometowns lament, paradoxically, at the changing social forces that beset small communities. Qualities remain fresh in our minds: the excitement that once typified the small business districts; the perceived slowness of time and pace; the ability to conduct serious business transactions on a first-name, handshake basis; the neighborliness along with the provinciality; the easy association of names and families; the lack of privacy that contrasts with the often-preferred anonymity of urban and suburban existence.

When I originally wrote this review in 1996, I had just self-published a set of previously-published essays in a little book Journeys Home. Therein, I remembered my mostly happy childhood in a small southern Illinois town, Vandalia, IL. In the years since I’ve continued to write about my home places, interjecting stories in otherwise my books with topics unrelated to the small-town theme. To use Frank Zappa’s term, the small town (and the larger themes of place and of human community) have comprised my “conceptual continuity.” If you have a similar kind of loyalty to your small town roots, you’ll appreciate Plowden’s words and pictures.

In spite of their seeming simplicity, small towns are very complex places, both in terms of social dynamics and in their potential for varied portraiture. In his introduction to Plowden’s book, David McCullough, author of acclaimed historical biographies, notes how different are the portraits of small towns among works by writers like Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Larry McMurtry (not to mention, he notes such different movies as It’s a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet). Several photographers, like Quinta Scott (Route 66: The Highway and Its People, 1988, text by Susan Croce Kelly), Drake Hokansen (The Lincoln Highway, 1991), Richard Avedon (In the American West, 1983), and the novelist and photographer Wright Morris (The Home Place, 1947, Photographs and Words, 1991) have published haunting photographs of small town people and places.

In this book, David Plowden has brought together 111 photographs of small towns, taken over 25 years, into a composite portrait of “any town” U.S.A. Plowden has published several collections of his photographs. In the accompanying essay, Plowden recalls Putney, Vermont, where he was born in 1932. Liveries, general stores, “tonsorial parlors,” grist mills, and blacksmiths of the town had, by the time of his childhood, largely given way to barbershops and small cafes, local telephone operators who handled all incoming and outgoing calls, busy railroad stations, and a variety of downtown stores. Transactions were informal and trusting. One’s private affairs were public knowledge. The late-1800s facades of the business district featured modern signs more suitable for ubiquitous automobiles. Change inevitably comes, with interstate highways, Wal-Marts, and other franchises. The postwar generation, eager to be progressive, razed old buildings. Grand old hotels became homes for the elderly. Farms became “agribusinesses.” Prominent citizens died. “His” Putney no longer exists.

Many of us understand the poignancy of that change. Several years ago, in a Flagstaff, AZ, bookshop, I found Plowden’s earlier and angrier book, The Hand of Man in America (1973). Using his own words plus an array of black and white photos from around the country, Plowden called attention to the destruction wrought to American landscapes thanks to industry, strip malls, superhighways, and the loss of local heritage. Writing about local change can be subjective, for what is condemned as garish in one era is deemed old-fashioned in the next, and a few of Plowden’s 1973 examples of visual ugliness look to me today as quaint and even nostalgic.

Small Town America, while including concerns about social change, is a more positive though still elegiac account. That’s a value of photographs and judgments like his; they help us track social change and judge the value of structures that are part of our human-built landscapes. Plowden includes a generous number of black and white photographs from towns from New England to the West. He prefers buildings and rooms that hearken to his own childhood and includes fewer architectural steles characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s tourist trade. His exterior portraits include grain elevators, quiet railroad crossings, Victorian-era commercial blocks, and other styles and ornaments of vernacular architecture. He includes one photo of a wonderful old gas pump that still carries its glass crown.

Most of Plowden’s photographs depict interiors: antique hardware cabinets still in use, heavily used roll-top desks, general stores, barbershops, theaters, hotels, taverns, post offices, courtrooms, lodges, libraries, schools, and churches. I love one church interior that has the old-fashioned wooden display board for weekly attendance and offerings. Such photographs call attention to the towns’ “glory days” yet testify that the furniture and fixtures of bygone eras are by no means removed from everyday life, nor rejected for not being modern.

He also photographs several people: a horse trader, a rare blacksmith in the full regalia of his trade, a kid on a bicycle, children in school, a librarian, a judge, farmers, a barber, a tavern owner, a woman who runs a restaurant, a bearded restaurant customer working on his beer, and other small town folk. Like Quinta Scott’s Route 66 individuals, and unlike Richard Avedon’s Western people, Plowden’s several portraits of small town people look natural, in the midst of their life and work, and by no means unhappy. They’re the kind of people you and I know well.


1. This book is one of several books that Plowden (who turned 81 last October) has published, like the recent Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden. His website is davidplowden.com.

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securedownloadThis website tugs at my heart strings. It provides a brief history of Yale Divinity School, where I earned my masters degree in 1982, and includes two of my teachers, Robert Clyde Johnson and Colin W. Williams, and faculty I knew, Harry Adams and Aiden Kavanaugh, and Dean Leander Keck. I’ll always be grateful for my studies and friendships at YDS!

At the moment, though, I’m interested in the section that credits the eighth Yale president, Timothy Dwight IV (1752-1817), for getting the momentum going for the eventual establishment of Yale Divinity School.

I’ve a collection of early 1800s travel books. They’re related to the history of my hometown, Vandalia, IL, when it was state capital in 1819-1839. I love the old writing style of travel authors of the era (including, to me, an abundant use of commas), and the interesting things the authors’ observed and preserved. These records of people, places, economy, and landscape are now indispensable to historians.

securedownload-1Knowing Timothy Dwight’s connection to my beloved school, last fall on a whim I purchased Dwight’s Travels in New England and New York. It’s a four-volume set, the first edition printed in New Haven by S. Converse in 1821, and includes all the maps. The books record economic and social aspects of New York and New England during the 1796-1817 period. Leafing through Dwight’s volumes provides a wonderful sense of northeastern life at that time.

My wife is a university president, and I love Dwight’s preface about the rigors of his work.

“In the year 1795 I was chosen President of Yale College. The business of this office is chiefly of a sedentary nature, and requires exertions of the mind almost without interruption. In 1774, when a tutor in the same Seminary, I was very near losing my life by inaction, and too intense application to study. A long course of unremitted exercise restored my health. These facts, together with subsequent experience, had taught me, that it could not be preserved by any other means. I determined, therefore, to devote the vacations, particularly in that autumn, which includes six weeks, to a regular course of traveling. In September 1796, the execution of my design was commenced; and the first journey mentioned in these letters, was accomplished. Before its commencement, it occurred to me, that a description of such interesting things, as I might meet with in my excursions, would probably furnish amusement to my family. I therefore put a note book into my pocket, with an intention to set down in it whatever should suit my inclination…”

He goes on to say that the note book was substituted with a regular journal, and he resolved to observesecuredownload the rapidly changing area of New England (and later he added New York), to preserve its aspects for posterity and to address misrepresentations of New England about the region by other writers.

In his “Journey to Province Town,” page 79 of Volume III, we read:

“The houses in Yarmouth are inferiour to those in Barnstable, and much more generally of the class, which may be called, with propriety, Cape Cod Houses. These have one story, and four rooms on the lower floor; and are covered on the sides, as well as the roofs, with pine shingles, eighteen inches in length. The chimney is in the middle, immediately behind the front door; and on each side of the door are two windows. The roof is straight. Under it are two chambers; and there are two larger, and two smaller, windows in the gable end. This is the general structure, and appearance, of the great body of houses from Yarmouth to Race Point. There are, however, several varieties, but of too little importance to be described.”…

Why quote this paragraph? It’s the first use of that term “Cape Cod house.”

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I always wonder how many of us, deep down, worry whether we are lovable—even in the presence of love, perhaps even in the presence of a lifetime of love. Feeling unlovable can be impervious to contrary evidence. Unfortunately, feeling unlovable leads to harmful things: anger, depression, neediness, insensitivity, perfectionism (directed toward ourselves and/or toward others), and so on. We act unlovingly toward others—and that in turn hurts their ability to love.

If you feel unlovable amid other people, can you feel loved by God? I wonder if it’s possible to feel loved by God if your inner self is in pain so that you can’t quite believe others love you. 1 John 4:20 is easy to paraphrase in this regard: how can you receive the love of the God whom you haven’t seen, if you feel too wounded or guarded to receive the love of people whom you do see and know?

John Wesley is the well-known founder of the Methodist movement, and in 1766, when he was 63, he wrote the following candid thoughts to his brother Charles. The brackets indicate places where historian Richard Heitzenrater translates Wesley’s Greek terms.

“In one of my last, I was saying I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple, one of the [God-fearers]. And yet, to be so employed of God! And so hedged in that I can neither get forward or backward! Surely there never was such an instance before, from the beginning of the world! If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange. But I never had any other [evidence] of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason’s glimmering ray. I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal.” [1]

What a remarkable admission! This is nearly thirty years after Wesley’s famous experience of the “warmed heart” which had been such a profound event for his Christian pilgrimage, and many years into his overall ministry. As Heitzenrater notes, other people had told him similar things about their own capacity for love. Was Wesley a fraud, or was he trusting God amid his own limitations?

Of course we love God with our emotional feelings, but feelings are notoriously changeable and inaccurate. I remember times in my life, for instance, when I felt very lonely and believed I was not a good person. Looking back, I think: what about all the people who loved me? Were they irrelevant? I wouldn’t have thought them irrelevant, but my sad feelings were so strong. Of course, I thought God didn’t think much of me, either–what a “pitiful” kind of spirituality, completely different from the liberating, empowering Gospel! I had the love of God but I didn’t feel it.

Because of our feelings, we can also feel condemned by God when, in fact, we are not. I love this Martin Luther quote: “Troubled consciences are like geese. When hawks pursue them, they try to escape by flying, though they could do it better by running. On the other hand, when the wolves threaten them, they try to escape by running, though they could do it safely by flying. So when their consciences are oppressed, men run first here, then there; they try first this, then that work … the one true and sure way of healing the conscience is what David [in Psalm 51:8] calls ‘sprinkling,’ by which the Word [that is, the free justification of sinners through God’s grace alone, not our good deeds] is heard and received.” [2] We need to hold to God’s promises in God’s word when our feelings and faith aren’t “meshing” very well. (The converse is also true: we could feel very smug in our faith, or full of sufficient self-love, but we’re actually drifting from God).

Unfortunately, I also associate the love of God (in any religion) with an touchy or angry defensiveness when one’s religion seems persecuted. I’ve felt frustrated when friends were up in arms about a political issue which, to them, makes them feel angry and persecuted in their faith. (That’s a big reason why I stopped posting political things on social media, because I also felt that anger which is the opposite of biblical hesed.) Somehow, a fervent love of God translates into often knee-jerk political outrage which, to me anyway, never sounds very loving. In this case, a person might feel emotionally filled with God’s love but also filled with some very negative feelings.

Loving God is indivisible with loving others, including people whom we might otherwise despise. Oops! That makes love of God a much more difficult prospect than having loving emotional feelings toward God. But the prospect of loving others can also give us an excellent guide to our progress in loving God.

Read Romans 12:9-21. Although the Greek biblical word agape is well-known and means a Christian kind of love, I actually prefer the Hebrew word hesed, which can be translated “steadfast love” or “loving kindness.“ “Love” is easy to say and to declare, but loving-kindness (hesed) implies something active. This Romans passage describes so well aspects of an active, self-giving love: you treat your persecutors with kindness and benevolence, you try to abandon your feelings of pride and stubbornness, you refrain from cultivating your inner, vengeful feelings and from taking revenge, you work together with people without competing for praise and credit.

These are difficult things, emotionally and practically. Haven’t you met Christians who had a “don’t mess with me” approach to life? Haven’t you met Christians who were gossips (or you spread gossip, too)? It’s difficult to bring negative feelings and habits in line with God’s love. We’d rather not pray for blessings for people who are jerks and worse; we’d rather get back at them. Forgiveness is difficult; bitter feelings lodge in our souls and resist healing. Love requires prayer, strength, common sense, and advice from friends. Love is not just an emotion but always entails doing good for others, as God does good for us (1 John 3:17-18, 4:7-8).

And yet … how happy we can become, when we can grow past difficult, bitter, or selfish feelings and love others as God loves us! The Gospel is good news because God loves us undeservedly, no matter how we feel. In turn, God does not expect us to love others through our own psychological efforts, but instead gives us power, grace, and an indefinite number of new chances to love.

Loving and serving others seems to have been Wesley’s secret for dealing with his faith-struggles. Wesley had a busy career of preaching and administration but also writing and hands-on service. Heitzenrater notes that “Wesley always seems to have had the ability to preach beyond the limits of his own faith… Since the first days of his field preaching, John Wesley’s own sense of assurance had been buoyed up by the gospel. He considered this evidence of God’s activity in to other persons as an important means of his perceiving God’s providence and of knowing God’s will. And he was becoming more aware that God’s presence in his life did not always depend upon his perception of it” (pp. 224-225).

If someone like Wesley had struggles with his faith, then you and I can use his example amid our own longings for God during this Lenten season and beyond.


1. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 224.

2. Luther’s Works, Selected Psalms 1 (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), Volume 12, page 368.


More thoughts on loving-kindness:

I’ve been reading a book called Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussarby Alan Morinis (Boston: Trumpeter Books, 2007). In a section on hesed (or chesed,  חֶסֶד , loving-kindness) on pages 189-190, he discusses “the chesedpersonality.” “The Mussar tradition points out that some people are moved to acts of chesed whenever they are confronted by someone who is in need of their help. Others, however, don’t wait for that sort of opportunity to arrive on their doorstep, but rather search out any chance to act generously in ways that sustain others” (p. 189). Those who do loving-kindness “run after the poor,” as the Sages put it.

Morinis notes that Abraham is the paragon of chesed, illustrated by his hospitality for the three strangers. Morinis points out that the words “run” and “hurry” are used four times in the short story as Abraham rushed to get food for the strangers. He was “infused with the spirit of chesed” so that “this quality defined his very outlook on the world” (p. 189). He also cites the example of a certain rabbi’s students who sought to do three acts of loving-kindness each day—which meant that they often had to go off and look for people to help (p. 190).

Another example is the well-known passage Micah 6:8, where God commands us to “love hesed”—to love loving-kindness. Morinis writes that we can look at our religious life as a kind of score-card wherein we check off good things we’ve done. But the way of Micah is “to stretch ourselves to sustain one another, and the most important dimension of that behavior is to awaken your heart to love the very act of caring for the other” (p. 190).

Respectfully using Morinis’ words for Christian practice, I can think how this active form of loving-kindness, wherein we really love loving-kindness, would be an excellent goal for this Lenten season. Perhaps we could search our hearts for the ways we aren’t very loving, even as we meanwhile extol the beauties of agape. Perhaps we could set personal goals of helping sustain a certain number of people each day or each week, even if our good deeds are never acknowledged, and develop this kind of personality.

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My review of John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (University of Illinois Press, 2012). This review was just published in Springhouse magazine, 30:5.

Postcards are wonderful to collect. Ebay, antique stores, and flea markets provide plenty of opportunities to purchase antique cards. I’ve been collecting postcards from my hometown, Vandalia, IL, for many years: the business district, the Vandalia Line railroad, local highways, the town’s two major hotels, local churches, and motels. One postcard, of a train passing over the Kaskaskia River railroad bridge, is postmarked 1907. Publishers include H. H. Bregstone (a St. Louis photographer), Curt Teich (discussed below), an early 20th century Vandalia photographer named McLeod, and some 1950s postcards by my photographer cousin Don Jones. When I saw this new book Picturing Illinois advertised, I immediately preordered a copy, not only because of the subject but also I appreciated yet another important contribution to cultural history by these two authors.

John Jakle and Keith Sculle have coauthored several books like their “Gas, Food, Lodging” trilogy—-The Gas Station in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1994),The Motel in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1996), and Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age (John Hopkins University Press, 1998)— as well asSigns in America’s Auto Age: Signatures of Landscapes and Places (University of Iowa Press, 2004), and Motoring: The Highway Experience in America (University of Georgia Press, 2008). They also contributed articles to The National Road and A Guide to the National Road (both published by John Hopkins University Press, 1996). Sculle, whom I’ve been pleased to know for several years, is the recently retired head of research and education for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and Jakle is prefessor emeritus of geography at the University of Ilinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Postal cards” were cards sold by the U.S. Postal Service beginning in the 1860s and were used as advertisements. But “postcards” as we think of them—a photo or artwork produced and sold by companies other than the USPS, on which one could write short messages and then mail—began in the 1890s (p. 17). These cards quickly became very popular, not only to be sent but also to be saved. Many people kept postcards in albums and trunks, making possible their later abundance (in good condition) on the antique market (p. 20). The authors point out that early cards accentuated the positive: “images that spoke in superlatives of technical prowess, of economic prosperity, and, as well, of the cultural accoutrements of highened civility that seemingly derived therefrom” (p. 2). The images of business districts were depicted artistically, emphasing visual perspective; sometimes, to reduce visual clutter, the power lines and telephone lines were removed from the photo (p. 3). Several postcard publishers dominated the market (pp. 16-19). For instance, anyone familiar with mid-century postcards will recognize the name Curt Teich and Co., which popularized a linen texture to the cards (p. 18). Not only the postcards themselves, but the messages that people wrote provide a slice of life (e.g., pp. 185-186).

The authors provide an interesting history of Illinois via its depiction in postcards. The book is a handy chronicle of the state from post-Civil War days to recent years. Part one is titled, “Chicago and Its Suburbs: The Metropolis” (pp. 23-113). “No other American city, save perhaps New York City, attracted more attention from postcard publishers than Chicago,” and also, Chicago was a major producer and distributor of postcards (p. x). The authors discuss several aspects of the Chicago area: the major stores, hotels, the stockyards, the lake and river, railroads and factories, ethnicity and race, religion, and other aspects of the city and metropolitan area. About a hundred different postcards are reproduced, reflecting these aspects of the history.

Part two is “Illinois beyond the Metropolis” (pp. 115-184). That is the term the authors prefer, rather than “downstate.” Nearly a hundred more postcards depict business districts, neighborhoods highways and bridges, court houses and churches, farms, lakes, institutions like hospitals and colleges, and other aspects of different places. “Egypt” is discussed on pages 178-179. Of course, Abraham Lincoln is a powerful presence in Illinois’ legacy, and postcards reflect this connection.

The authors provide a good representative sample of Illinois’ towns and postcards. Of course they have to omit many, many Illinois towns that had postcard views. Here are the places they discuss and depict. The downstate cities are: Springfield, Peoria, Rock Island and Moline, Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, East St. Louis, Alton, Quincy, Danville, Jacksonville, and Galesburg. The authors also provide postcards from smaller towns: Bunker Hill, Monmouth, Lincoln, Savanna, San Jose, Vandalia, Niles Center, Pana, Hoopeston, Bridgeport, Union, Cullom, Chrisman, Genesco, Havana, Metamora, Lena, Merna, Harrisburg, Tuscola, Shawneetown, Galena, Pittsfield, and Cairo. Also included are farm postcards from McLean and Vermilion Counties and the Homer, IL area, novelty postcards from Boody and Magnolia, and cards from Starved Rock State Park. The authors include four Vandalia

postcards including one of my favorites, a view of the business district (figure 152B), published by Benke in Salem, IL.

In the epilogue, the authors contrast life in Illinois’ two great areas. Cards from Chicago emphasized the energy and bustle of the city, while cards from other Illinois places emphasized small-town charm, business districts more modest than the city’s, and farming regions. Thus, postcard companies “helped perpetuate the notion that Chicago and Illinois beyond the metropolis were two distinctive social spheres” and “tended to negate the ways in which Chicago and its downstate hinterland were, in fact, closely related” both culturally and economically (p. 188). And yet, the regions of Illinois were also “places where common lifestyles were possible” (p. 188). Ironically, people later in the 20th century tended to gravitate to “the idealized values of the small community, and a preferred iconography of places rooted more in a romanticized small-town pastoralism” (p. 189), the aspects of place that the early postcard publishers of Chicago had valued less.

The translation of history into geography is an important aspect of the cards. “What was emphasized in postcard views was history translated into material culture—especially history as implicated in things architectural or, perhaps better said, at the scale of landscape… Each postcard publisher’s array of images created an iconography in which depictions of the built environment (and sometimes the natural environment as well) combined to visually represent localities. Publishers also sought to picture important events or ongoing activities—history in the making, so to speak. But mainly it was history hardened into geography—places viewed as deriving over time through one or another process of change” (p. 21). Postcards also give people an excellent and positive sense of place, “remembered landscapes and places” that “fulfill actual geographies in interesting ways” (p. 189).

Finding postcards from your favorite communities and places will give you a wonderful and handy look at local history. Jakle’s and Sculle’s book not only give you the background of postcards but an excellent history of the past 140 years or so of Illinois history, with the benefit of showing how Illinoisans themselves viewed their state.

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