A curious fact: geographical mobility in America has been rising steadily since 1900. Americans’ pace of moving gradually slowed in the last decades of the 19th century, as the frontier stopped at the Pacific, until at the turn of the century it reached an all-time low. Then, instead of staying stable, mobility began to rise again, slowly and inexorably, so that by 1960 it was the highest it had been since the Census Bureau began to measure it, and now it’s just a tenth of a percentage point below that all-time high. In 1970 only a little more than half of the population had been living in the same house for five years: Last year the Bell telephone system disconnected more than 20 million phones and connected more than 30 million. In the big cities, of course, the figures are proportionally higher; in Washington, D.C., the most extreme example, less than half the city’s population and less than a quarter of its white population was born there.

These figures don’t go into the telling detail they might, but it’s safe to say that mobility runs highest at the top end of the spectrum—the young, bright, and ambitious are the ones who are moving, and the old and poor the ones who are staying put. The reasons for this syndrome are several. Improved transportation and communication are the most obvious, but there are at least two others of equal or greater importance.

One is that America is becoming fairer, more meritocratic, and as it does it becomes more systematized on a national level. There is, for instance, one company—the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey—that now tests and records the aptitude of virtually every person growing up in America. The results of these tests—the entire national population, ranked according to merit—play a large part in sending people on to college, graduate school, and jobs. Along with other means of measurement, the test results make possible the efficient channeling of the brightest people, wherever they may be, to the largest and most powerful institutions, where they are paid and challenged the most. In an age of hereditary privilege no one would have bothered to look very far for talent; in an age without computer technology, a nationwide talent search would have been impossible anyway; and all in all, people would have stayed put more.

As the logistical horizons of Americans’ lives have expanded, their own expectations have too, and that adds to mobility as well. People are getting less and less likely, for technological and financial reasons that have seeped deep into their psyches, to shrug their shoulders and accept life the way their parents lived it. There is more and more striving for personal fulfillment, for making whatever moves are necessary for achieving happiness. As Americans feel increasingly in control of their lives rather than in the hands of fate, as their expectations of life grow greater, they are increasingly likely to move in search of something better: more money, better weather, more stimulation, or, perhaps chiefly, to meet more people like themselves.

Besides all that, there’s another root of the mobility phenomenon, one having to do with the image of provincial America. There is a persistent, pleasant image of the American small town, but it’s a long-ago one, fixed at about 1900, the least mobile time in the last century. This fondly chronicled turn-of-the-century hometown was, sadly, not long for this world. When American Heritage published this year a book called Hometown U.S.A., about what it calls “the good old days,” it limited the content to “what life was like 75 years ago.” After that, we don’t remember things as being so good in small towns.

The image of the American hometown changed rather abruptly, in fact, when a generation of writers and intellectuals who themselves had forsaken the provinces for the North- eastern cities began painting a detailed, unflattering picture of small-town life. They wrote at a time when agricultural depression and urbanization were severely hurting the small town, but their work was born out of spiritual, rather than economic, causes. Malcolm Cowley, writing 30 years later about the way the attitudes of his generation were formed in the second and third decades of this century, said: “Looking backward, I feel that our whole training was involuntarily directed toward destroying whatever roots we had in the soil, toward eradicating our local and regional peculiarities, toward making us homeless citizens of the world.”

A Wholly Negative Impression

Which, indeed, is what they became. After leaving home for Greenwich Village, they rejected America as a whole and set sail for France, feeling, in Cowley’s words, that “life in this country is joyless and colorless, universally standardized, tawdry, uncreative, given over to the worship of wealth and machinery.” The legacy of that attitude is quite a considerable volume of writing that paints American hometown life as, well, typical of American life in general, with all the flaws Cowley listed. The tradition of American anti-provincial literature is today a strong one, and it has seeped deeply into the popular culture as well. Perhaps the most influential promulgator of provincial America’s bad image was Sinclair Lewis.

Carol Kennicott was the first of Lewis’ great protagonists, trapped in the dull and narrow-minded town Gopher Prairie of the 1920 novel Main Street. Her burden is by now a familiar one: having to withstand the crushing emptiness of the American small town, an emptiness that Lewis built a career by chronicling. In actual fact Lewis and Carol Kennicott were more ambivalent about Gopher Prairie than memory would indicate, but that doesn’t matter now—the impression that endures is a wholly negative one.

Toward the end of Main Street Carol Kennicott leaves Gopher Prairie for Washington, D.C., and finds “a Washington which did not cleave to Main Street.” Washington is presented, in fact, as the absolute polar opposite of Gopher Prairie, as having all that the Midwestern town lacks. For Carol, like most people coming to the capital for a short time from somewhere else, it is heaven: “Here she found home, her own place and her own people…. Washington was associated with people, scores of them, sitting about the flat, talking, talking, not always wisely but always excitedly.”

That kind of attitude runs, in one form or another, from Sherwood Anderson to Thomas Wolfe to Norman Mailer, and today it’s in wide acceptance. Washington, and the rest of the Northeast, is full of Carol Kennicotts, people whose brains and ambition carried them away from their dull if beloved hometowns to an exciting life at the center of things. Like Carol, they may have to return home eventually; but like her, they’d rather not. The choice between home and New York, or Washington, or wherever, is an easy, lopsided one.

Perhaps the best statement of the modern mobility ethic—what runs through the mind of a young person moving to the Northeast—is Willie Morris’s aptly titled autobiography, North Toward Home. Because he is almost obsessively Southern, acutely aware of and perhaps a little guilty about his estrangement from his hometown in Mississippi, Morris sees the process with a clarity that someone who went through it more painlessly would not. He explains, perhaps a little too charitably, the move to New York by people like him like this:

“Why did we come? Not because the materials for our work did not exist in those places we knew best. Not merely for fame and money and success, for these also some of us could have had, and perhaps in more civilized ways, in places far removed from New York. Not even because we wanted to try ourselves in the big time, and out of curiosity to see how good the competition was. We had always come, the most ambitious of us, because we had to, because the ineluctable pull of the cultural capital when the wanderlust was high was too compelling to resist.”

For Washington, there’s no similar chronicle, but the process exists, perhaps even accentuated. It’s possible to follow its trace through the constant stream of my-life-in-the-government memoirs, which invariably start with a few chapters about a happy youth in the outlands. A particularly convenient example, because of its title, is William 0. Douglas’ memoirs: Go East, Young Man. Like Morris, Douglas had severely mixed feelings about coming to his eventual home (in fact, claims throughout the book that Washington is not his home). But when in his mid-twenties he hops a freight from Washington state to New York, arriving with six cents in his pockets, the move seems inevitable, and it is, in fact, the most powerful image in the book.

Boosterism and Intolerance

Out of the mass of materials on the mobility ethic emerge many quite understandable reasons for coming to the Northeast. Small towns in America, as Lewis and others have abundantly pointed out, have their drawbacks. Perhaps chief among them to Lewis was the spirit of boosterism, which was a thin mask for plain intolerance—one couldn’t criticize the status quo, or live life except by a narrow set of social, political, and intellectual standards. Life was restricted and dull and devoid of variety. One was practically born into an unchangeable role, unable to rise or to strike out on one’s own. To all this the big city provided a refreshing, immediate alternative.

As far as work specifically went, there were also compelling reasons not to be in small towns: a tendency, as America got more centralized, to be taking orders from people in big cities, and a difficulty in being able to do exactly what one wanted. Most people move to the Northeast for professional reasons; in fields like government, or drama, or advertising, one practically has to go there, and in most other professions the best people and institutions are concentrated in the Northeast. One goes to test oneself against the competition and to meet the like-minded people that competition attracts. Even one’s free time seems more glamorously spent in the big city, at better restaurants, newer movies, more stimulating parties, and so on.

All those are good and powerful reasons, and together they have entrenched the mobility ethic as one of the great unchallenged assumptions among people at the top of the meritocratic heap. It’s gotten to the point, in fact, where it’s not only the Gopher Prairies that people are in a hurry to leave, but the Baltimores, Clevelands, and Detroits as well. The possibility of staying home when the temptation to leave is there is as strong as the possibility of a small-town poor boy who gets rich continuing to live in his native slum. The trouble is, the mobility ethic overlooks a great deal. The choice is one with losses and gains on both sides. Because the mobility ethic is today such an article of faith, some bad things happen—to the people who move, to the places they left, and to society as a whole. In everyone who has helped create or has participated in the mobility ethic—in Sinclair Lewis, Willie Morris, William 0. Douglas—those bad things can, on close inspection, be seen.

Lewis, like a good many of his contemporaries, made his place in letters by describing a world he had left. His reasons for moving on from the Midwest to greener pastures in the Northeast and in Europe are understandable, but it’s worth noting two things about his career: wherever he went, he continued to draw first on the small-town America he knew as material for his writing; and he had terrible problems maintaining consistent literary quality. He got progressively drunker and more burned out.

Indeed, continued success throughout a lifetime has been quite an elusive thing for American novelists in this century. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that most of these novelists have written best about the places they were born, and left those places, and had considerable trouble with their writing as time went on. The theory is supported by its opposite side: writers who have stayed put have had much more continued success. William Faulkner, for instance, who stayed in and kept writing about the area where he was born, seems to have had an easier time staying productive than almost any of his more mobile contemporaries of comparable talent. And since World War II, the famous New York literary scene, to which good young writers have flocked, hasn’t been especially productive of good novels—far less, in fact, than the hinterlands.

Lost Richness

There are no doubt a number of reasons why this happens. For one thing, the New York literary scene is so full of interesting diversions, parties and so forth, that there are strong temptations to do things other than write. Those temptations must be strengthened by what is by all accounts the scene’s neurotic, egotistic, backbiting, insecure side; writers must know they’re liable to get torn apart on publication of a new work. They are subject to a sort of judgment and potential rejection by peers to which someone who stays home is not. Even the increasing need for money may lead to sacrifices in quality, and thus play a part in American writers’ declines.

There’s another thing, too. If you assume that the richness of fiction is chiefly a reflection of the richness of life, that the best fiction is from life, covering familiar ground, Manhattan literati ought to be able to write well from their own lives. That they usually don’t might say something about their lives—that some of the richness of the provinces is lacking in New York, though New York seems so much richer. There are many novels turned out every year, by very smart people, about life among the New York intellectuals and celebrities, but they tend to sink quickly into obscurity. Even those that get noticed, like Capote’s bitchy Answered Prayers, don’t seem destined for the English classes of the future. Somehow when Eudora Welty writes about families or Saul Bellow about his boyhood haunts in Chicago (“As a kid I went to the Russian Bath with my own father. This old establishment had been there forever, hotter than the tropics and rotting sweetly. Down in the cellar, men moaned on the steam-softened planks while they were massaged abrasively with oak-leaf besoms lathered in pickle buckets.”) it seems to have more, well, depth than can be found in the legions of romans a clef about writers.

This kind of speculation can lead into some literary byways that it is best to avoid, but there are a couple of intriguing points in it that may have wider applicability. Writers seem to suffer when they leave home—do people in other lines of work, too? Novels seem richer when set in the provinces—can the same be said of life?

The Less Obvious Advantages

This sense of richness seems dependent in large part on human relations, which, after all, is what makes a community, and there are strong differences in the nature of those relations from place to place. For all the obvious disadvantages of hometown life, there are less obvious advantages: under boosterism lies a healthy spirit of cooperation (witness the discovery recently of boosterism by the City of New York); under the restraints on behavior a desire for people to be able to get along over long periods of time; under the apparent sameness a surprisingly broad range of human contacts. Moving to the Northeast usually entails working longer hours and having specialized friendships according to profession—that is, giving up any broad range of contacts with people from different lines of work, in community-related (rather than work-related) settings. All those religious associations and snoopy neighbors that Lewis gave such a bad name can serve as a countervailing force to a one-dimensional (“workaholic,” in the phrase now popular) life. The suffocating interconnections between small-town people—everyone seeming to know everyone else—help maintain pleasant human relations. There are no screaming, malevolent taxi drivers on Main Street, because they have to carry the same in-laws, cousins, and lifelong acquaintances day after day.

Willie Morris noticed the fundamental difference in human relations in New York, and recognized that it was at best a mixed blessing:

“… one learned something about the nature of New York friendships. They were unlike any other friendships I had ever known. In Mississippi, or in Texas, ‘friends’ had been people whom one saw frequently and informally…. You shared certain things: a reverence for informality, an interest in what other friends were doing, a regard for geographic places, an awareness of a certain set of beloved landmarks in themselves unimportant to one’s everyday existence, a mutual but totally unexpressed sense of a community…. [In New York] the very absence of any homogeneity, the very diffusion of focus, gave one’s acquaintances… a fractured, fleeting quality. One could call a person a ‘friend’ if you saw him once every four or five months, talked for a while, and got along.”

The implication is that something is added to life by intimate contact with a group of varied people over a long period of time, and something lost by only occasional contact with a great many similar people. This huge difference in the quality of human contact is what makes North Toward Home a story of home and family and setting at its Mississippi beginning, and of ambition, which replaces everything else, at its New York end. The shift, and the loss, extend far past the book to the lives of Morris and other people like him. The desire for excitement, for people like oneself, can lead to contact exclusively with people like oneself, even to the exclusion of family, or people who happen to be in a different line of work. By the process of leaving home, life loses, almost unnoticeably, much of its texture.

Great Names and Great Events

The same sense of loss is present—though usually not explicitly—in all those political memoirs. Most of them share a major flaw: despite the obvious intelligence and perception of their authors, they have terrible trouble describing life at the top in a way that makes it sound meaningful. Since memoir writers usually started life in the provinces, their books develop a curious pattern: they begin with evocative, clearheaded descriptions of their authors’ early days out there in provincial America and gradually disintegrate into a series of great names and great events. All this greatness must have seemed important at the time, the stuff of front pages, but even a few years later there isn’t much to it in the retelling; the stories of growing up in insignificant American places are far more interesting.

This is a point having to do with the quality of life, but its implications are political as well. What people give up when they come to the Northeast, and what they take on, affects the way they run the country. Mobility makes the Northeast a certain kind of place, gives it an ambience; and that ambience ends up as the climate in which decisions are made. It shapes them, that is, and as such is of considerable importance.

In the case of William 0. Douglas, it’s easy to see the process at work; it begins almost the moment Douglas steps off that fateful freight train. His story becomes the story of his rise, his intimate contact with greatness. Although by and large he keeps his wits about him and sees quite clearly what he and others like him have lost, there are moments when his ambition is visibly gnawing away at his character, when in the presence of greatness he gives in to a mincing sycophancy that is unusual for him and that never would have happened to him out West. For those who think of Douglas as one of the great modern men of integrity, most of Go East, Young Man is an affirmation, but there are some awfully embarrassing lapses like this:

“FDR was a very complicated man. He had a wide range of interests, a lively mind, a great sense of the earth. He was a great story teller and loved risque stories. I became identi- fied in his mind with tales he should never hear.

” ‘Well, Mr. Justice,’ he’d say, ‘I suppose you’ve got another of your untellable stories tonight.’

“I would answer, ‘I don’t want to pollute your ears with it, Mr. President.’

” ‘Oh, come on, pollute me’ was the answer.

“I’d tell the story and FDR would almost break a rib laughing.”

Or this:

“I was company-in-waiting, ready to mix his favorite cocktail or to join him in idle chitchat…. The long hours at Shangri-la gave me time to perfect the dry martini—FDR’s favorite cocktail. I fathomed the secret and became his favorite bartender. The martini had to be cold but not watery.”

If statements like these seem incredible coming from a Supreme Court justice, it’s equally incredible, in a way, how accurately Douglas saw the same groveling before FDR when others did it. After describing how to mix the correct Roosevelt martini for a few more sentences, Douglas goes on to say:

“Men hungry for power, position, and publicity ate out their hearts to get a blessing, an approval, an assignment from FDR. Their happiness turned on his smile, his nod, his handshake. I came to realize how oppressive it must be to be dependent on another person’s smile or approval. I realized how immune my life had been to such influences….”

This phenomenon—perfectly sensible people taking leave of their senses and standards in the presence of the right powerful figure—is hardly uncommon. It is present in practically every memoir. Even if explicit sycophancy isn’t involved, it’s a shock to see the extent to which extremely bright and successful people, when looking back, find their richest memories in completely meaningless contacts with people a little more successful than themselves. Everyone has his price; for every person in power there seems to be another person with whom contact will bring a complete abandonment of perspective, will cause the most insignificant trifles to be clutched at as precious. Examples of this abound, but here is one of the latest to appear, from the memoirs of the television correspondent Nancy Dickerson (from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin), otherwise prescient and attuned to these flaws. The scene is President Kennedy’s inauguration:

“President Kennedy thanked me first, so that the next day the Times could record that the last person before and the first person after his inauguration that President Kennedy had talked to was CBS correspondent Nancy Hanschman.

“Though it’s trivial, this kind of thing is helpful to one’s standing at a network, and I wrote the President to thank him. By return mail he sent me a handwritten letter on the special light-green White House stationery:

” ‘Dear Nancy:

” ‘Thank you for your note. I am glad our exchange was useful. You may be sure that I shall be glad to give testimony for you coast to coast on any occasion when it might be helpful. You can do the same for me.

” ‘Best,

” ‘Jack’

“Others at the White House use engraved white stationery; only Presidents use the light-green stationery—a custom started by FDR. There are relatively few of these handwritten Kennedy notes; most of his letters were either dictated or written and signed by others.”

A Simplified Moral Universe

Now this kind of enrapture by fame is not the common fare of life, but it’s an extreme form of behavior that is emblematic of a series of things that seems to go along with geographical mobility. When you go where what you’re doing is done at its very best, you’re essentially submitting yourself to judgment by external standards. It is this condition that underlies the mobility ethic; success and failure in the great metropolises and huge institutions take on an overriding importance. How good you are is determined according to well-established rules, and in moving into the big cities and institutions you accept those rules and seek success as it is presently defined.

In other words, the tendency is to impose a single external standard on one’s life—one didn’t leave home, after all, for the sake of family or friends or familiar places and institutions, so those things recede in importance. Even friendship, if one’s friends are the people with whom one works, hinges on success; it’s not that your friends desert you if you switch jobs, it’s just that the bonds of interest that once held you together have dissolved. In such a simplified moral universe, it’s easy to see how contact with the most dizzying heights of success can bring on weak knees in even the most admirable people.

So it is that a great deal of the much-chronicled excitement of the Northeast is the sense of being near the most important events and best people of the day—that is, in the atmosphere of greatest possible success according to external standards. The unfortunate characteristics of this view of the world are manifold. It seems unsurprising, for instance, that although Washington is a fairly affluent metropolis, it lags behind others in things like United Way contributions per capita. When people are off to work practically at sunrise to beat the traffic in from the suburbs, when they have working breakfasts, working lunches, and working dinners, when they drag themselves home at night carrying full briefcases, the kind of extracurricular community activities and concerns they might have gotten involved in back home become, well, just out of the question.

The mobility ethic and its concomitant emphasis on success also create a less than ideal moral climate. With jobs and professional status so important, getting and keeping as many credentials as possible takes on an importance so great as to override things like the quality and consequence of one’s work. Idealism, which ought to be at the very center of things, is instead purely a luxury to be cast aside when opportunity beckons or disapproval is threatened. Ambition, allowed to become the preeminent human motive, dissolves the nobler qualities.

Countervailing Forces

This is not to say that all these sins aren’t present in other places besides the Northeast; no doubt they are, and no doubt ambitious people behave ambitiously no matter where they are. But where people grow up there are certain countervailing forces at work on them, on which they base their identity—work, yes, and status and approval, but family and friends and community as well. They have a complex series of loyalties, and a wide circle of acquaintances outside their particular line of work, and a direct stake in the fate of their city or town. All this does more than perhaps enrich their lives in a way that the exciting big city cannot; it also makes it more likely that they will have more perspective on what they are doing. If one’s sense of identity derives from family and long-time associations as well as work, it’s easier to deal with failure, old age, and the rest of the unpleasant aspects of life. They do not absolutely destroy one’s identity, as they might in a place away from all those old associations.

The web of countervailing loyalties in a small town also ties people together, so that they understand one another and their fates are intertwined. One of the worst consequences of bigness in general in America is that it fragments society to the point where people don’t have to live with the consequences of what they do, indeed don’t understand the effects of their actions. If the bureaucrats in Washington had to live in the cities and countries they govern from afar, they might do a better and more understanding job. If the Wall Street lawyers and corporate executives lived in the communities they dominate economically, they might feel more qualms about pollution or hazardous job conditions. In a country where the best people leave home, it’s practically a foregone conclusion that wherever they gather, they will develop a feeling that they are superior to the people in the outlands they left.

It’s a sign of how universal the various manifestations of geographical mobility are that just about everybody who ran for President this year is an example of one side or another of the phenomenon: it touched them all. The most interesting and instructive single case is probably that of Jimmy Carter, who came from the sticks and, when the time came, left without a moment’s hesitation. Reading his autobiography, it is clear that he just assumed that a smart young man does not stay in Plains, Georgia, and he pretty well committed himself to a life of going wherever the Navy would send him, as long as it was up.

‘The Significance of His Life’

So things would have continued for Carter if his father hadn’t died, for his illness and death seem to have brought on a flood of insight into the reverse side of mobility:

“Hundreds of people came by to speak to Daddy, or to bring him a choice morsel of food or some fresh flowers. It was obvious that he meant much to them, and it caused me to compare my prospective life with his. After his funeral, I went back to Schenectady.

“I began to think about the relative significance of his life and mine. He was an integral part of the community, and had a wide range of varied and interrelated interests and responsibilities. He was his own boss, and his life was stabilized by the slow and evolutionary changes in the local social structure.”

Those apercus in mind, Carter moved back to Plains himself, and although he would no doubt have had a happy life in the Navy, it’s clear now that going back home also had some good effects on him. He ran a small business, and got into politics, and served on the school board, all pretty much at the same time. Even aside from the directly community-related things that moving back let him do, he was not tied down to the frustrating life of a Sinclair Lewis character—if anything, moving back made possible higher soarings later on.

On the other hand, it seems clear that some of Carter’s difficulties during the campaign were due to a sort of culture shock. His attempts to sell a small-town personality to a big-city nation got only mixed results. He had an often self-destructive need to explain himself exhaustively and in great detail on everything, and he assumed that the nation would sit patiently and absorb it all, like a group of lifelong neighbors. A world of quick, volatile ups and downs in public regard was not, it appeared, something he could adjust to. In Plains, one doesn’t have to worry about falling 15 percentage points in a month; in New York—and that is one of the prices of mobility—one does.

Still, Carter clearly understands the mobility ethic, having been an enthusiastic participant in it himself. The oft-repeated Big Joke of his campaign was, ‘Isn’t it weird that a guy like me, with all these degrees, would go back home and raise peanuts?’ Indeed it is, and if Carter is a good illustration of the benefits of going home, he is also a sad testament to what it takes to make those benefits clear to a young man on the rise. The balance needs to be better struck, to be triggered by things more benign than personal tragedy. If it isn’t, everybody and every place loses. 

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.