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Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Lifeby William Leach
In 1920 Thorstein Veblen, America's most acerbic economist, traveled across the United States, from Manhattan to northern California, and returned to a spot that meant a great deal to him--an isolated cabin on a ridge in a mountain range, bordered by the town of Pescadero and the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Santa Clara Valley on the east. The place was not too far from Stanford University, where Veblen had taught just before World War I. He had built the cabin himself, out of wood left from an old chicken coop owned by the family of Leland Stanford. He had carried it up the mountain in a horse-drawn wagon, along the muddiest of winding routes shrouded in fog.
In the few years he taught at Stanford, Veblen often took refuge in this hideaway. He recovered there (according to a friend, R. L. Duffus, in a later reminiscence of Veblen) a bond with the earth and even with the Norwegian-immigrant village in Minnesota where he moved as a boy with his family, after living in Wisconsin. If the cabin existed today it would be entangled in the progeny of Silicon Valley, with its colossal homes and nearly 200,000 software millionaires, most enriched by the stock market boom on Wall Street. The university, too, has been surrounded by such suburbs as Atherton and Los Altos Hills, where billionaire venture capitalists have erected their gated palaces, their private golf courses, and their own airports, a denouement that even Veblen, champion of engineers but nemesis of bankers, might have found Veblenian.
In Veblen's day the whole region was mostly rural. His cabin stood on a crest that had, according to Duffus, "an untamed quality," "a survival of something that hadn't surrendered to the presence of men." Framed by second-growth redwoods, it was high enough up for Veblen to see a vista of rolling forested hills as well as the emerald-blue Pacific itself; Veblen so loved this dwelling that he acquired legal possession of it and of the land on which it stood. But when he visited from Manhattan in 1920, he learned that a careless real estate agent had sold the cabin as part of a larger sale of the adjacent property. This knowledge, which later proved mistaken (the property had in fact been saved from sale by one of his friends), infuriated Veblen. To him the sale stood for much that was wrong in American society and, above all, in American business enterprise. Veblen despised how many businessmen seemed bent on transforming everything, and land above all, into vendible commodities, how they tended to measure everything from labor to art by its market value, and how they pushed even the most rooted thing into a floating state so that it might be recirculated.
In a rage, Veblen picked up a hatchet and hacked at the shack, smashing every window and terrifying the companions who had made the trip with him. A friend later remarked that he went "at the matter with a dull intensity that was like madness, the intensity of a physically lazy person roused to sudden activity. If there was dispute over ownership, he wanted to make sure that the place would be uninhabitable." He had made the original cabin with his own hands. "He belonged there," Duffus recalled. "He belonged on that mountain. . . . I am not sure he ever belonged in any city."
Veblen nailed a sign to the battered cabin, saying "this property belongs to Thorstein Veblen," then drove back down the mountain with his friends in a strained silence, until one friend had the courage to ask him what the title of his next book might be. "Absentee Ownership," Veblen responded. (The book took three years to write and would memorialize his act of destruction.) By absentee owners, he meant those real estate brokers, investment bankers, and transnational industrialists who owned property at a distance but never worked it, never were "on the ground" (as he put it) to tend it, except as a source of revenue; these men hired others to manage their properties while they did business elsewhere, always alert to new oppor-tunities. Veblen also meant by absentee owners "the American people," whom, by the 1920s, he thought, longed to be "absentee owners" themselves, getting "something for nothing." Finally, Veblen meant himself, for he too owned property at a distance and--what may have galled him most--had failed to protect it. He had hoped that by some kind of magic it would have been saved so that he might someday live there. Veblen had been absent, living clear across the country, in New York City, so far from a place he wanted to keep that he had let it slip away (or so he thought).
This story shows how much Veblen, an exile or outsider practically all his life, experienced the significance of place, how much he wanted to claim a place as his own. Duffus remembered how stirred Veblen became when he spoke of Norway, how "lands [there] had been in the same peasant family for a thousand years." At the end of the twentieth century many Americans feel this same longing, this same need for continuity and stability, and for confident attachment to a place to be from.
But many Americans also feel something of the same rage that overtook Veblen, as well as his longing for place. Like him, they feel betrayed. Like him, they can imagine the ground slipping away. They can fantasize forces and institutions acting ceaselessly, indifferent to their welfare, hammering stability into instability, the fixed into the flexible, the rooted into the rootless.
In the last two decades, we have returned to a world that Veblen might have recognized but on a scale, perhaps, that he could not have imagined. The place-indifferent bankers and money managers, whom Veblen feared, have asserted themselves on a global canvas. So, too, a system of transportation has appeared, featuring a dizzying profusion of highways, gateways, and vehicles--all helping to create a worldwide economic interdependence while challenging the integrity of local places. A vast landscape of the temporary has arisen, peopled with thousands of floating executives and countless numbers of part-time and temporary workers, all unable or unwilling to make long-term connections to their communities. A service economy, whose key industries are tourism and gambling, has grown up to threaten the settled character of towns, cities, and regions. A system of great research universities also belongs to this universe, fostering transnational mobility and a disposition to think and live beyond America.
This book, which I offer more as an informed reflection than as a scholarly history, examines the impact of these changes on the American sense of place. It deals with the weakening of place as a centering presence in the lives of ordinary people. It is animated by the premise that the well-being of most Americans rests on a healthy connectedness to place, and that a wearing away of such a relationship is dangerous.
I do not equate place with community because in recent years community has come to mean practically any group of people joined together by almost any shared characteristic (corporate, academic, racial, ethnic, sexual, and so forth). Community has been transformed into a transparent condition, barely related to concrete geographical places with histories. I also want to distinguish my approach to place from the one espoused by such nature writers as poet Gary Snyder. Snyder considers land or nature as critical to the meaning of place, at the cost of disregarding culture, history, and tradition, or the country as a part of any notion of place. Land and nature are very important, but Snyder writes of the "non-nationalistic idea of community, in which commitment to pure place is paramount" and in which no one can be excluded. There is, I believe, no such thing as a "pure place," and someone, at one time or another, is always excluded. Finally, I do not think of place as property because the transformation of land into property has done as much to destroy a sense of place as to empower and engage it.
Place, of course, may contain or signify all these things--community, nature, property--in some measure, but its meaning is bound to a geographical reality both historical and profoundly lasting. I mean by place in part what landscape writer J. B. Jackson has said of it. Place "is something we ourselves create in the course of time"; it involves the "same timetable" we all share, "the same work hours, the same religious observances, the same habits and customs." At its best, it is the collective outgrowth of our control over our own lives and destinies.
Place has a layered quality for those people who feel it. For most it has taken the form of the country, of the provincial or regional areas of the country (and these provincial areas can exist in cities as well as in rural towns), and of specific hometowns and neighborhoods, each with its own history, its own store of common memories and traditions, its smells and sounds that never wholly disappear from memory. All of these, too, at their best, have been joined together by a common tissue, providing people with a manifold sense of connection and achievement.
Today this tissue is stretched and torn. Although we have extended life chronologically through medical invention and intervention, we have also impoverished the cultural-psychic richness of the world around us. We live longer but emptier, without those nurturing habitats or places which remind us where we came from and, therefore, who we are. Despite the aging of the population and rising levels of debt (both of which should have the effect of slowing people down or making them think twice about "getting out" or "moving on"), many people seem more at sea than they have ever been.
In many ways, of course, this is an old story. From the late colonial period on, Americans have been advocates and captives of the need to move, to get out of town, to end up far from the spot where they began. At the same time, a contending pattern was taking shape, one that encouraged Americans to settle down, domesticate themselves, and forge a coherent identity. The first pattern we might call centrifugal, because it thrust outward and cared little for boundaries and centers; the second we might call centripetal, because it favored centers and boundaries and cultivated a sense of place. Until recent times, the two patterns have worked together, reaching some kind of equilibrium or tension, to create America. After the 1970s, however, this balancing act--itself not always just or fair--has been put in jeopardy, with the centrifugal trend taking over and spilling into every area of life.
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History and Social Science » American Studies » 80s to Present