Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Local Aristocracy and Nationalization of Culture.

A comment by "dearieme" over at Chicago Boyz put me in mind of a conversation that used to be common, but I, at least, don't run into anymore. The America of my youth was more local in its orientation. While the principle of being an American was more universally-held from sea to shining sea, we were still quite provincial. Americans were regional, or even narrower. As a consequence, the phrase "rich people" drew images of North Elm St, North River Rd for us, and only secondarily Rockerfellers, Newport RI cottages, or those people in Southern California. My mother's second marriage brought us into the fringes of that. My stepfather was wealthy and well-placed enough, but he had come from North Haven, CT, and his sons went to Tilton, not St Paul's. For her part, my mother brought in some older local aristocracy, as my grandfather was the first CPA in NH and had grown quietly respectable in the inner circle by the time I was aware of such things. (My grandmother, a social climber, resented that he did not exploit this socially or move her to the North End.) Again, the fringes of the local aristocracy.

High school graduates were discouraged from going to college out-of-state, and going out of New England was met with blank stares. My decision to go to William and Mary was sometimes met with blank stares - people didn't know where it was, and were surprised that one of the smart boys would go to such an obscure school. In my time at W&M there were only two of us from NH - and I knew her, of course, confirming the stereotype that everyone in VA had of NH. That lack of recognition was still true a few years later when I returned. My era was right at the inflection point of this. When my younger brother left college to go to California in 1977 it was no longer considered that unusual.

I suspect there was some regional variation in when this crossover occurred. I had the impression that the schoolmates of the kids from New Haven to DC were more widely dispersed. New Englanders had had their big move in the early 1600's or 1760's (a bunch then went to the Midwest in the mid-1800's), other Europeans came in later and stayed put as well, and that was about it.

The awareness of this in culture was a generation behind when it had actually started occurring. People were certainly heading to California or Florida well before 1971, but they hadn't yet become rich or famous or important enough to be national. When that new fashionable phenomenon McDonald's first came to South Willow St in 1965, no one remarked that the McDonald brothers were originally from Manchester. That only dawned on us much later. The awareness grew that Americans were starting to move all over after WWII, and everyone now understands this migration, especially to Southern California, as one of the great matters of the 20th C.  But that idea was not fully formed by 1970.  People were moving...everyone had a friend or relative out there...but each decision was seen as idiosyncratic. The reasons were still being assembled in our heads.

Interstate highways. More cars. Pacific Theater vets who had disembarked on the West Coast and loved it. Kids who wanted to get into the movies somehow. People who disliked their towns or their families and wanted out. People who wanted nicer weather. We all know those now, and I imagine the people in the receiving cities - Houston, LA, Phoenix, SF - figured out the patterns before those back home did, comparing stories.

Yet culture nationalised even for those who stayed home.  Television and network news became national, or NYC/DC/LA/Everywhere Else national anyway. Local radio has always hung on, because of the auto. Local TV, not so much. Local newspapers, dying. One of my favorite obscurer theories is that teenagers having spending money for the first time in history created a national generational culture, and we Boomers have been annoying the hell out of everyone else since.  Local aristocracies - barely recognised now.  Those of us over 60 can still see names on local business or charitable boards and think "Old Manchester," but it's not so tight now. Rich people move in, move out. They are more part of a national upper class than a local one now.


james said...

Not just the aristocracy--the local talent as well. If you're an actor or singer your scope is either a few local gigs or vast, with not much in between.

Cambias said...

One effect of this, of course, is that the national aristocracy (which aspires to be global) has much less interest in places that aren't New York, Harvard, L.A., San Francisco, and maybe DC. They don't endow a local college, they donate a building to Harvard or Yale. They don't contribute to local causes, they form a PAC to lobby Washington to do something about something.

And they wonder why the people left behind are kind of resentful . . .

Sam L. said...

I grew up in the Midwest. By 1970 I'd joined the AF and had lived in New Mexico and Arizona. I've never lived east of the Mississippi, though I've traveled there.

Donna B. said...

Perhaps a lot depends on where your starting point was in 1971... or 1968. Northeast Texas in 1971 was seeing lots of people leave for California. I think that was near the tail-end of California being both affordable and offering job opportunities.

On the other hand, many native Coloradoans were already lamenting the influx of Californians by 1968.

james said...

Remember Benedict's vows? Stability, conversion, obedience.

Stability is almost as counter-cultural as obedience. I think I moved about 20 times by the time I was 21. (We've been in the current home for 23 years. And the garden dirt is finally starting to be halfway decent.)

Gospace said...

I was having this conversation with my youngest last night, now away at college. His oldest two brothers were born while I was on active duty. They moved every 3 years or so, attending new schools, meeting new people, making new friends. Because we lived in heavily military areas, about 20% of the students left and were replaced each year in the local schools. The locals who were there for all 12 years, even as they stayed in place, made and lost friends from everyone else moving.

We now live in a small town. He went to school K-12 here. Maybe 5 of his graduating classmates weren't in kindergarten with him. His going off to college and being surrounded by all new people is an wholly new experience for him. For his older brothers, just another familiar step. He's having trouble adapting. At least 3 of his classmates have already left college and returned home. With the first semester not even over.

Unlike some of his classmates, he actually travelled in his school years. Destinations including Florida, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Plus numerous visits to Canada with both family and Scouts. A day trip for us. By graduation day a number of his classmates had never been out of state.

Moving a lot, away from family and friends rather than as a general exodus with family and friends, is pretty unique to America, but not all Americans practice it. Tracing my direct ancestors since they arrived in America, I have to go 6 generations before I find someone who died within 50 miles of where they were born. From that same ancestor I can trace a distant cousin living in the ancestral house of a common ancestor. I found an article online in a Sunday supplement on them...

Discounting the Mennonites and Amish, the rough guess my friends and I have is that about 60% of the towns population is related to each other by marriage or blood in 3 jumps or less. And that only a very small subset can't trace any relationship to anyone else in town except for their own children. Pictures of all the HS graduating classes line the main HS hallway, with all the names listed. The same surnames are repeated over and over and over again through the generations. My surname will appear 4 times over 15 years, then never show up again.

Texan99 said...

I grew up in a suburb of Houston, where we were simply swamped by out-of-staters chasing the oil boom. The suburbs were big and sprawling enough that I rarely met anyone markedly different from me in general economic condition. The local neighborhood was strongly Jewish, and economically slightly more comfortable than their Gentile neighbors. There were no genuinely poor people anywhere nearby. Only in college did I run into anyone who struck me as exotically rich: trust fund babies and even a Prince of Bhutan. They were few and far between even there. The small county where I live now is actually much more diverse than I was used to: there's everything nearby from rather severe poverty to impressive wealth--though even the waterfront properties are nowhere near a Rockefeller scale. There's the occasional Garth Brooks or guy who sold his O&G business for $100 million. People come here from all over, or at least a wide swath between us and the North Pole. Not many from either coast. Lots of refugees from cold weather in Minnesota and Michigan and Canada.