Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Sense of Place

I’m from St. Louis and, although I’ve never lived in the near-suburb of Webster Groves, I  know Webster Groves.  I spent a great part of my life in Webster Groves.  My mom’s family lived in Webster Groves when she was in high school.  I have always had family who lived in Webster Groves. I went to a high school in Webster Groves. I attend the theater in Webster Groves.   I have lots of friends who have lived, and some who still live, in Webster Groves. My favorite independent book store is in Webster Groves.  I live close enough that I could walk to Webster Groves if I had to.  It would be a long walk (2-3 miles) but I could do it.  So, I feel qualified to say that I know Webster Groves. 

If I had to describe it I would say it blends a friendly small town atmosphere with the benefit of living in an inner suburb with an easy commute to downtown and other places where people work.  It’s a good place to raise a family.  If I was raising a family I’d probably be living in Webster Groves.  When I was younger and sometimes imagined myself grown up and married with children and dogs, I imagined myself living in a house in Webster Groves.  When I dreamed big I dreamed of one of the big old three story frame houses with a wrap-around porch. When one of my friends got married and bought a home in Webster Groves, I walked in the front door and said “You are living my dream!”

Apparently a lot of people who have never set foot in Webster Groves feel that they know it too because of a CBS documentary aired in the 1966 called 16 in Webster Groves.  I’ve never seen it, although I’ve seen snippets.  It didn’t seem to describe the Webster Groves that I know, it made it seem snobby.  But I’ve never thought too much about it.  It aired in 1966 and when I was a child that might as well have been 1866.  I was all of 6 years old at the time.  By the time I was hanging at the McDonalds in Webster Groves after work, or going to the Imo’s to pick up a pizza to bring back to school, or walking past Music Folk looking at the guitars in the window, it was ten years later.  I had no interest in ancient television programs. Neither did my friends.  Or their parents.

But I have had conversations with out-of-towners about it.  Which always confused me.  If people my age who live here haven’t watched it or cared about it, why do other people my age or younger from out of town give a rat’s ass about it?  And why on earth do they think that they can judge whether a depiction of a place in 1966 was accurate at the time?  I’m from her and I couldn’t.  Not when I was 6 years old at the time.  And why do they think it would be accurate today?   The whole thing just seemed weird to me.

So I was interested to read this blog post in the LA Times by Sam Tanenhaus entitled Franzen in Webster Groves.  Author Jonathan Franzen is from Webster Groves and he is just about my age.  It occurred to me that we were teenagers hanging out in Webster Groves at about the same time.  But as far as i know, we never met. 

According to this blog post, 16 in Webster Groves was used during the 70’s and 80’s in sociology curricula and that’s why so many people my age or younger have seen it.  Well, that explains it. 

The rest of the post was strangely annoying.  As I said, I don’t know Jonathan Franzen.  I’ve never read his books (or, at least, I’ve never finished one of his books. I started one once but put it aside to read at a later time.)  I don’t have any inherent sympathy for Franzen.  But I was annoyed on his behalf by this blog post.  Which was supposed to be about him but was, in fact, about a television show that aired when he was seven years old.

Franzen must get tired of being asked about it.  He gamely talks about it but it must get old for him.  But Tanenhaus doesn’t seem to catch on to that.  Tanenhaus’ attitude seems to be that since Franzen is from Webster Groves that television show MUST be discussed. He even goes so far to say that Franzen may be “the only major novelist whose idea of the East-Midwest divide was shaped profoundly by a single television program”. 

Wow.  I thought.  Franzen’s idea of the East-West divide was shaped by what was in this show?   I’m the same age as Franzen and the television program wasn’t even part of my consciousness growing up.  Not in any real way.  And we were both little kids when it aired.  Franzen and I must be really different.

But, if you read what Franzen is actually saying, you will find that Tanenhaus misses the point.  Franzen says that people who have seen the TV show always try to explain to him the type of community he comes from.  But, as he says, all of them collectively, have spent less than 20 minutes in Webster Groves. He says he tries to “explain that the Webster Groves depicted in [the television show] bears minimal resemblance to the friendly, unpretentious town I knew when I was growing up. But it’s useless to contradict TV; people look at me with suspicion, hostility or pity.”  (emphasis mine)

Hmmm maybe Franzen and I really do see things the same way.  The chasm between East and West?  How about the chasm between people who are shaped by television and people who are shaped by reality? 

And the mere fact that Tanenhaus insists on writing an entire blog post that ends by comparing people’s negative perception of Franzen to people’s negative perception of Webster Groves as it might or might not have existed in 1966 indicates to me that he falls in the first category.