Out of Bounds

By Morris, James M. | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Out of Bounds


Morris, James M., The Wilson Quarterly


The first time I saw the countryside I was six, and nauseous from the half-day drive to get there. The woods, the trails, the sky to the horizon, the pheasant in flight, the snake in retreat, the horse in motion, the chipmunks in and out of piled New Hampshire walls - all were novel, but they worked no magic. Why sit on a porch when you can sit on a stoop? I missed Brooklyn, and the familiar landscape of the neighborhood. This was perverse, no doubt, and showed ingratitude to the good parents who had saved all year to provide two weeks of absence from the city, but it was conclusive. Without being old enough to make an argument, I had taken a side in the enduring city versus country debate, and there I have remained ever since, on concrete.

Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace gave the argument to mice, at the end of one of his Satires. A mouse from the city visits a mouse in the country and insists that life is too short to be spent in rustic deprivation. The city awaits, with its endless easy pleasures. The country mouse is persuaded and leaves home with his friend. The two crawl under the city wall-pass a decisive boundary between the old condition and the new - and enter a great house, where they nibble like kings on the remains of a fancy meal. It's all as promised, until barking dogs interrupt the dinner and scare the mice off their seats and out of their wits. "Who needs this?" cries the country mouse, in flight back to the fields.

The Horatian fable is a locus classicus for the debate, which was already old at the time. Country life is hard but simple and honest; the lush delights of the city are tasted at your risk. The city/country debate is not about geography, of course. It's about the values nurtured or denied by the geography and the patterns of association it entails. The physical separation between the two worlds is a ruse; neither can quite let go of the other. Horace's philosophical mice, for example, borrow the diction of epic poetry and speak with a colloquial grandiloquence that is quite new to Latin literature. Poets don't show off like that for farmers. Horace's heart may side with the country, but his wit is of the forum. The matter is woods and streams; the manner is couches and baths.

The city and the country suggest disputants who face in opposite directions even as they lean back to back, in antagonistic support. Remove one, and the other totters. A New Hampshire house borrowed for summers 50 years ago had its own take on the grudging alliance. The house was so true to its origins that no plumbing breached the walls or floors. The out-facility fell short of a Dogpatch ideal, for it was reachable by covered portico, but it was out, all right, however pretentiously tethered. Yet even in that piney chamber - et in Arcadia! - the city and its wickedness staked a claim. New Yorker covers and Esquire art lined the interior walls, floor to ceiling. Was their consignment to that fundamental place a rough rustic judgment on city ways and lingerie and tuxes? Or were those vibrant, colored rows of leering, mustachioed Arno gents and recumbent Vargas ladies a talisman against despair, windows on a better life elsewhere-dear God, anywhere?

The sentiment persists that the values acquired in the country and in small towns are superior to those acquired in a metropolis. Was that ever true? The values people fret about are not peculiar to geography. They do not reside in soil or stone. The bounds of a Brooklyn neighborhood at mid-century were drawn as narrowly and etched as clearly as those of a prairie village, and the values learned on a grid of streets needed no empty plain to endorse them. You lived in the neighborhood, not in New York City, which might as well have required a passport. …

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