The Grief of Staying Home


Andrew Sullivan reflects on place and rootedness in an age of globalization:

I’ve always been unusually attached to places. It’s one reason I still call myself a conservative. Travel doesn’t attract me. I’ve now lived in the same loft in D.C. since I bought it, in 1991 (apart from an ill-fated year and a half in New York City); I’ve spent 20 consecutive summers in the same little town at the end of Cape Cod, and have no desire to go anyplace else. Even when I go home to England, I tend to spend around half my time near where I grew up.

I wouldn’t go so far as Malcolm Muggeridge, who famously said: “Travel, of course, narrows the mind.” (Don’t you love that “of course”?) But I would say that the reverse can also be true. Staying put allows you to really get to know a place deeply at different times and in different seasons, to capture, often serendipitously, a small detail you’d never seen before, or arrive at a street corner and suddenly remember that this was where you first met an old friend.

But staying home brings grief with it as well. Everything changes, and when your beloved tree at the end of the street is cut down, or a new Safeway replaces the corner baker, or, more fatally, the factory that used to be the linchpin of the place lies empty and crumbling, it stings and wounds and demoralizes. When I’ve visited my own hometown in England, so much is the same. And yet, on closer inspection, many of the once-vibrant shops are selling secondhand clothes, or given over to real estate offices. My old church has a broken window where the rain comes in. The services have dwindled to near nothing. Maybe it’s being away for so long, but it seems familiar and yet a little empty, as if something in it has somehow died, a continuity somehow lost….

In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.

Read the entire piece here.

It is easy to disparage the working white people who think Donald Trump is their savior. We want to write them off for being overly nostalgic about the local world that globalization has taken from them. Murray captures this sense of loss better than any other writer. (Too bad Middlebury College students did not see it this way).  This sense of loss is real.  Too often we are oblivious to the pain that comes in the midst of social change.  Sometimes such pain manifests itself in anger.  Sometimes such pain manifests itself in sadness. And sometimes it manifests itself at the ballot box.

I tried to write about all of this in the context of the eighteenth century in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  For Fithian, modernity and its trappings–ambition, education, self-improvement–often existed in tension with a love of home, sense of place, and local “relations.”  This tension was not only a fixture of early American culture on the cusp of modernity, but it exists for many Americans in the 21st century as well.

2 thoughts on “The Grief of Staying Home

  1. Your sentence, “It is easy to disparage the working white people who think Donald Trump is their savior,” is itself a disparagement and a condescension. It is equal to “working whites who are dumb.” Honestly, as much as I hang out with these people, I see no such attitude or blind eye. They think he is an answer to some problems. Their enthusiasm and loyalty are not the same as thinking he is their savior. Don’t know any “white people” who think he is.


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