Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.–George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905
US (Spanish-born) philosopher (1863 – 1952)
Today I’m going to try something a little different here on Jordan’s Journey. Rather than write about people and places, interesting connections, or even tell you about my research and resources (like last week)… I’m going to explore a bit of the memoir side of this project. Certainly the Jordan’s Journey book has elements of memoir weaved in throughout the text. In the book, though, those very personal elements always serve the overall genealogical story. Here on the blog, there’s room to branch out a bit.
I’ve talked a little before about the difference between my homeland and the city I now call home. This urban versus rural dichotomy is constantly evident to me. I lived in rural Georgia for the first 18 years of my life. My life and experience there is an inseparable part of my identity (even though for many years I wanted nothing more than to escape any association with it–but that’s a whole other story unto itself). I’ve been in New York for 14 years now. I call it my home just as much as that idyllic valley where I was raised.
My foot is firmly in both of these worlds. New York nurtures me in ways that, as an artist, a rural community simply cannot. And, likewise, the Georgia countryside nourishes in me a certain sense of self that is hard to find in New York. Yet I stand there in the middle, a union of opposites, and this allows me to stay centered and still. I can’t imagine having one without the other.
The more I delve into historical research, the more I see that I am not the first to go through this experience. Today, while researching at the New York Public Library, I ran across a short article from 1875–almost 140 years ago–from the Atlanta Constitution. It tells of a Dirt Town Valley native who had moved off to the city and returned home for a visit:
John is a native of Dirt Town Valley, in Chattooga county, and withal a gay and festive buck. Having for some time breathed the air of the city and basked in fortunes smiles, John determined to pay a visit to the scenes of his boyhood. Now be it known that John dresses well. His clothes fit nicely and with his graceful equipose; his linen is matchless in its snowy whiteness and marbleized smoothness. John determined to astonish the natives and he did. His tout ensemble was superb; the fragance of Hoyt’s German lingered around this jovinian curls and imperial. Now some of the boys of Dirt Town Valley thought they knew a thing or two because they had been to New York once and to Rome several times.
They gathered in knots around John upon his arrival, and gazed with rapture upon him. One said: “John, what did such a coat as that set you back.”
John replied with nonchalant air–“well it is a cheap affair. I think it cost me a trifle–some $75.”
“Gosh-darn-it-all” the crowd would exclaim “its dirt cheap!” while their eyes would dilate to the size of a saucer and their months would gape open.
“John, what did you pay for such pants?” was the next query.
“Well, they are only ordinary ones. They cost only $25.”
“Them’s fine shirts, John. How much did they cost?”
“Well, boys, I didn’t expect to stay more’n a day or so and only brought along three dozen. I paid $36 a dozen for them. Nice, ain’t they!”
And he was catechised in this manner throughout. John believed he had created a “sensation” and he had. Next morning as he passed down the street he could hear the boys shouting across the street to one another. “Say, Bill, I only brought down three dozen shirts and am only going to stay a day or two. I want to borrow a couple of dozen to make out a change.”
John returned to the city much improved in physical vigor but he did not tell his city friends of this Idyl of Dirt Town Valley.
Ok, sure, John does seem a little full of himself. Likewise, the Dirt Towners seem a little unrefined. It’s the exaggerations here that make the story so compelling. As I read it through, the words roll off my tongue like poetry. It’s a perfect illustration of city versus country, refined versus rural… whether 1875, 1975, or today.
It comforts me to know that my experience is not unique. I know where John’s coming from. City people and country people just think differently. The day-to-day experiences of these two milieus are at such opposite ends of the spectrum that, of course, given an encounter, they’re going to clash. It’s not that either realm is better or worse than the other… they’re just different. Each party would do well to step back, understand their differences, and cultivate a little respect for the other. I’ve seen both sides of the story. Both worlds have their positives and negatives. And I refuse to align myself with one over the other. If I’m a city dweller so too am I a country man. Both of these exist inside me. I know without a doubt that all people are one, no matter our external differences. This is what my journey into the past teaches over and over.
Rest assured I have learned my lesson from dear John. When I return to Georgia, I won’t bring along three dozen shirts. Just a dozen–a few more at the most–will do the job nicely (I prefer to travel light anyway). And will I return to the city with physical vigor? Maybe… so long as mom doesn’t feed me too much!
“A Dirt Town Valley Idyll.” The Atlanta Constitution (1869-1875). 12 MAr 1875: 3. Historical Newspapers. ProQuest. Accessed 6 Apr 2012.