I am currently on vacation and so unable to put together much of a post about the current kerfuffle about Jason Aldean and “Try That in a Small Town.” I’ve read the lyrics and they’re bad. I’ve heard that the video is worse. If I had time I would weigh in with the hottest of takes, since this is one of the places where I can say definitively that I’m kind of an expert. But alas. I’m going to confine myself to a reading list—one nonfiction and four fiction—that serve as effective counter-programming to Aldean’s whole thing.
This is an important point, so I’ll put it here at the beginning: the small town is symbolically America. It always has been; this is a point both Poll and I make in our respective studies. Historically, writers and artists have used the small town as a symbolic space to probe the complexities and contradictions of America. These authors don’t idolize small towns; they use them as tools of critique. And often they expose nasty things there: violence, racism, misogyny.
Jason Aldean does the same thing. He sees the small town as a site of violence. But rather than suggesting that this violence is a symptom of something deeply wrong with America, he idolizes it. He pumps it up. For Jason Aldean and his ilk, it is fundamentally good and right that small towns murder people unlike them. By extension, his ideal America is murderous and violent.
This is small-town America as imagined by Pennywise.
That’s what I find troubling about this horribly-written song. Not only that he’s advocating violence but that he’s looking at a genre that has historically seen violence and deplored it and saying “This is what America should be.” I don’t want to say that’s new, but it’s a striking perversion of the formula.
Anyway, I’ve a plane to catch so I won’t say more now. Read these books. Imagine a better world.
Main Street and Empire by Ryan Poll.
This is a central book to all my thinking on small-town literature. I don’t actually agree with a lot of what Poll says here but it’s all said so well and so convincingly that I can’t not recommend it. Poll essentially suggests that the small town works as an imaginary space or covering that allows American imperialism to continue undetected even by the citizens of that empire.
Kings Row by Henry Bellamann
I consider this the first of what might be called the definitive midcentury small town trilogy (unofficial). Bellamann dives beneath the surface of an idyllic small town to expose rot, corruption, murder, and incest. It’s an absolutely bonkers novel that was too weird for Hollywood; the 1942 movie is a pale reflection of this book’s lurid glories.
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious.
The second volume in my unofficial trilogy, this book is Bellamann in a feminine vein. Indeed, the books are so close that you could make a case that Metalious is simply rewriting Bellamann. Be that as it may, this is a book worth visiting and revisiting, particularly for the bold way it foregrounds both women’s sexual desires and the dangers of a world in which a woman’s body and reproduction are not her own.
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King.
Tighter and better-paced than it’s bulkier younger sibling IT,
this is the third book in the midcentury trilogy. On the surface it seems to conform to the dreariest academic truisms about small-town fiction: that the community is pure and any corruption comes from without. However, King is clear that the external evil (vampires) only arrives because of a preexisting internal evil. This is something he’ll explore more in IT, which is a massive and sloppy novel that absolutely deserves to be read.
Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
A novel about a lynching and about the tangled lives of racially separated people in a small town. The ways in which love and violence interact are explored. Worth reading for that alone and for the way Smith exposes the ways even “nice” people can show nasty streaks of cowardice and racism.
And, of course, there’s my book: American Small-Town Fiction, 1940-1960.