Granville Hicks’ Small Town

Granville Hicks’ Small Town

The Capital District is an urban complex around Albany, New York. It includes Troy, a winter-beaten sort of city, with shops and factories, old enough to have a down-town section with much of the architectural charm of Louisburg Square in Boston. Twenty miles to the east, after Route 2 has risen through rolling hills to a height over 1,500 feet, there is Grafton.

Approaching the town, there is a Slow Down sign. And almost before you can obey the law, you are told to Resume Speed. In between there is, at best, a mile of houses. Around a little square on Route 2, there is the General Store, and on the catty-corner a one-room school house, and set back from the road a row of houses, among them the Baptist Church. At first glance, Grafton is one of the thousands of American towns where you Reduce Speed: a bend in the road, a clump of life, and not much more.

But Grafton is different. Or rather, perhaps, all the small towns are different from the image that develops in the urban imagination— whereas what really distinguishes Grafton is that it has its chronicler. Granville Hicks, one of America’s most active intellectuals, a leader in the Communist literary movement of the thirties and currently a frequent writer in the New Leader, has lived here since 1932. He has not been an alien sociologist from some great university looking for the stuff of statistics. For twenty-five years he has been an active, partisan citizen, one of the few intellectuals to make good the threat to find roots.

So Grafton is not merely a small town. It is Small Town, the subject of a full length book. And it fairly cries out to be a symbol, to be made to stand for a way of life that involves some millions of Americans. That, I can’t do. For I only passed through. But the unscientific impression also has its use, and even a few hours in Grafton goes deep. My story is of a small town that surely has something to do with the Small Town.

THE FIRST THOUGHT, after passing through the center of town while still looking for it, is that Grafton could not possibly he the subject of a full book, that one can’t stretch a clump of houses into a discussion of several hundred pages. That impression lasts just as long as you don’t talk to anyone. But talk—conversation here seems to flow in torrents—and the life which fascinated Hicks fairly leaps out and engulfs the listener. It is not simply that Grafton is some fifty-six square miles in area, that the town is physically more than the little square on Route 2 and the white Town Hall; it is rather that the community fairly seethes with relationships beneath its clapboard calm.

For Hicks that fact was the center of Small Town. His Grafton was not an idyllic place, a retreat for a modern Thoreau. He recorded the narrowness and the bigotry. But he also found a crucial value. Here, Hicks, argued, personal relations are of the very essence of existence. Unlike the mas...