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Big Town


FOREWORD by Sherwood Anderson

            There it is, the American Big Town. There are the drifting crowds of people in the streets, people in the houses. This town isn’t so big but that there will be the biggest crowds of people on a Saturday night. The best people won’t be out that night. That is the night for workers and for the farmers who still come to this town. All day and every day a river of motors in the streets. Lights are flashing at street intersections and there are well-dressed girls driving sporty-looking roadsters. You will see beautiful women in the Big Town. The Middle West can produce them. There will be strongly-made free-walking women with heads held high. You’ll turn to have another look.
            There are young men growing up, sons of prominent men. They also drive sporty cars. You will see some of them standing before drug stores, memories of small-town life.
            You drift in and out of the towns, look about, go from the little places to the Big Town. There is a brave show of keeping something up. It may well be that the time will come when this period in the history of America will be looked back upon as a peculiarly heroic period. “There was poetry written even then,” men will say. They will read books and learn that lovers lived and loved, that a few men thought clearly, walked occasionally in fields, saw the young corn coming up, saw new leaves coming on trees in the Spring, saw the Fall wood, felt rain and wind on flesh, made music, even made painting.
            America is paying. There is a price to be paid. Go anywhere and you will see the debt being paid. We are paying for lack of courage, for lack of brains. Look at what we were given. Look at what we have done with it. Are we cowardly or only confused?
            You look back upon the mess of the World War. No one tries much any more to make a thing of glory out of that. They keep still. Were the boys who went into it a mess? Hardly. They did a job they were asked, urged, begged to do, a dirty ugly killing job. They got nothing much out of it. Some of them found a few comrades they can remember with pleasure.
            “I have given the best of myself here, the fire and fineness of my youth. I marched and fought through filth and dirt, hoping to come out into the light.
            “You said I would. You said that.
            “What I got was increased darkness.
            “Now they are rigging the game to do it again. You watch. They’ll do it again. They’ll do it to my son.”
            Here is a book about a Big Town of the Middle West. There are thousands of miles of rich long cornfields in the Middle West. You drop down into the great valley out of the Appalachian Range and travel across the floor of the valley at speed for days and days. You pass over broad rivers, you pass white farmhouses set in clusters of trees, you see big towns and little towns. You go on at last into the great rolling stretches of wheat fields . . . the wind playing in the wheat, mountains seen in the distance. At last you come to the western rim of the valley, the Rockies.
            God, what a country!
            What a din going on in the valley now, what a racket, what a lot of meaningless noise. Everywhere in the floor of the valley the roadways are lined with advertising boards. There are thousands of cars flying up and down, people going nowhere specially. Voices are everywhere, flashing lights.
            The talkies are everywhere . . . intensified vulgarity at Los Angeles, spreading itself out. It has learned how to cover a lot of territory. There is a roar overhead. “Look. We’ve got progress. Look. There goes an airplane.”
            They did think they were up to something, didn’t they? They thought they were getting culture and progress with a bang . . . culture with a kick in it. Are they all just noisy, vulgar children? Books like this make you wonder.
            As though the big gods and the little gods wouldn’t come back and laugh. They are laughing now. “Do you think you can do what you have done to this valley and get way with it? Pshaw. Wake up.”
            When it comes to what was, when men had been in there but a short time . . . there were the Libs and Flos of the old “Line,” the streets of prostitution in the bigger towns . . . there were the P. T. Barnums, Blaine, the plumed knight of Maine, Brigham Young. This book gives you another peep back. There was the age of the tobacco chewers, the spitting men . . . of Billy Sunday, his glory just gone from him . . . of Henry Ward Beecher back of him. Let’s have no more of them.
            It’s time for ripping open now. Go ahead. Come on, disillusion us. Let’s have a look. Let’s look at the inner workings of the Y.M.C.A., at the big churches, at industry, at prohibition, at the Anti-Saloon League. Let’s look ‘em all over.
            Let’s look at everything. Let’s have a look. We need a little education. These are tough times. We are nearly all broke. That’s good. Lots of us haven’s any work, no money coming in. Let’s try thinking. We might as well try.
            Pretty soon there will be voices enough. I look for hot times in the Big Towns some of these nights. There is just a thin skin over everything now, over the savagery underneath. It may be savagery and there may be courage, suppressed hunger for something of nobility in lives, for growth of intelligence, down under there.
            Money.  Money.  Money.
            Suppose suddenly money began not to mean anything. That would make the gods laugh. Suppose the doctrine of John Marshall, Mark Hanna, Hamilton, Henry Cabot Lodge, the doctrine of government on which all this we have is built, suppose it began to show up for what it is.
            Eyes popping open, eh? A new time of discussion, of men finding words again, trying to think their way through. We might as well try. They’ve got us all herded in now, pretty well hushed up. This is their time of victory, of triumph. Something may get touched off any time. Some book may start it. Who knows when it will come? It’s coming.
            Money.  The Machine.
            We are at the end of something. When men build perhaps they have to build blindly. Perhaps minds have to go temporarily dead. If men stopped to think, thinking of the shortness of lives, of the obvious uselessness of most effort, they would do nothing. The mind perhaps has to stop working. Men have to live by shibboleths. The hands go on making the beginning of a new, perhaps even a better world.
            Then, after the work time, after the time of men of action, after the blind time, men have to begin to try to see. Their hands have built a new house. They may have to open their eyes to find their way in. They may have to bathe themselves. The mind has to have its turn. That’s something. It may be a groping for a new life.
            Stop.  Look.   Listen.
            We are going into a time of deeper discussion than men, in America, have ever known. We are going into a time like the pre-Civil War days. I’m no prophet. I don’t know when it will come, what will touch it off. It’s coming. I’ve faith in its coming. It is going to cut across everything, tangle everything. There will be questions asked, questions and more questions. There will be toys taken away from children. They’ll cry.
            It’s coming.
            The machine has made a new world for men. It has made new towns, new cities. Here’s one. You wait. You will see presently what a tangled strange time there will be, in the great cities, in the little places, in the Big Towns.

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