Pondering St. Francisville, Gilead, and our Stories of Place


[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Jeremy Beer’s recent review of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming leads me to once again reflect upon Rod Dreher’s excellent book (about which I’ve already had a lot to say), in part because it creates an opportunity to bring in some of Dreher’s own reflections about what it has meant for him to tell this story about the relationship between himself, his hometown of St. Francisville, LA, and his saintly but judgmental sister Ruthie. Beer’s review of Dreher’s story comes to a wise–if necessarily only partial–conclusion: “the truth is that communities need their boundary-challengers as much as they need their boundary-protectors, their Rods as much as their Ruthies—even if the former can never occupy a central place in those communities.” This sobering thought, in turn, leads Dreher to think about fidelity:

What Little Way is, in part, is a meditation on what it means to live a life of fidelity. You can only judge that by examining the telos of one’s faithfulness, of course. But even that is insufficient, because it is possible that there is nothing at all wrong with the telos of one’s fidelity, but that one has failed to see that it is not one’s nature to be absolutely faithful to a relative good. To put it in less abstract terms, there is nothing wrong with being faithful to one’s family and to one’s place, but not at the expense of one’s nature and calling.

This is a crucially important–though complicating–thought. Can it really be the case that some people are, by nature, constituted to be faithful to something other than those specific things (like family, community, and place) which constituted them, and which therefore arguably enabled their faithfulness in the first place? That would seem to be the implication of Dreher’s supposition–namely, that the realization of one’s telos is not limited solely to a re-embrace of one’s particular inheritance–and there are many good philosophical arguments in support of such. (For example, Charles Taylor: “We are now in an age in which…[t]he only way we can explore the order in which we are set, with an aim to defining moral sources, is through…personal resonance”–Sources of the Self, p. 512.) But what does that do to the very idea of valuing such specific things–things like St. Francisville parish–on their own terms, as opposed to transposing whatever it is they are and offer to some individualistic or utilitarian metric? As I wrote once before, “isn’t the entire point of embracing stability and putting down roots and learning to live within limits exactly to deny that we our entirely a product of our own preference maximization?” To be sure, insisting on the value of being faithful to one’s own resonance doesn’t mean leaping (or falling) completely into individualism–but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be careful, all the same.

Such care should be taken by every person attracted to communitarian and localist thought, as well as by everyone who is critical of it. To put some philosophical meat on the bones of Dreher’s comment, the idea that one’s community or place or family has some virtue to it is often premised on the belief that such forms of attachment constitute in and through ourselves an end, a purpose, a narrative for our own lives–or as Dreher put it, a “calling.” (And I would insist that talking about callings in this way doesn’t at all minimize the religious content implied by Dreher’s choice of words; as a Christian believer myself, I’m fully on board with the notion that, absent rare incidents of outright revelation, God’s ends are ones that we realize in and through ourselves.) I’m leaning on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre here, but not just him: many have argued that the traditions which attachments incubate in us are the essential building blocks of judgment, cognition, and identity: that is, of being human in the fullest sense, being engaged in our lives purposively. But the complicating idea of Dreher’s story is that showing fidelity to, or giving respect to, those purposes and building blocks isn’t necessarily the same as being defined by them. One can (and, at least in the modern United States, many, maybe even most people do) embody their attachment to a tradition by working out a purpose informed by a rejection of that community or place or family which shaped them. A contrarian or dissident or unconventional nature and calling still is–or still may be, assuming it does not take a destructive or nihilistic turn–one which remembers within itself a shaping, a tradition, which began with certain attachments, even if the customary implications of those attachments are now rejected. (The distinction between “memory” as “custom,” in this context, is quite important, as Christopher Lasch argued in The True and Only Heaven; a community defined by acts of memory is characterized by “judgment,” while custom suggests that which is “habitual and unconscious”–p. 133.)

I recently finished reading (after having set the book aside after one attempted reading too long ago) Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a book about which I can’t say too much good–and one which, surprisingly, incorporates into it’s story a great deal which anticipates and testifies to the complications which Dreher’s position suggests for any defense of community, identity, and fidelity. There is, for example, the story of Edward, the older brother of the book’s narrator, John Ames, an old Congregationalist minister, the son and grandson of ministers, who through the book’s narrative looks back with great profundity on his remarkable–and yet remarkably plain–life in the little, abolitionist-founded Iowa town of Gilead:

Edward studied at Göttingen. He was a remarkable man. He was older than me by almost ten years, so I didn’t really know him very well while we were children….Edward left home at sixteen to go to college. He finished at nineteen with a degree in ancient languages and went straight off to Europe. None of us saw him again for years. There weren’t even many letters.

Then he came home with a walking stick and a huge mustache. Herr Doktor. He must have been twenty-seven or twenty-eight. He had published a slender book in German, a monograph of some kind of Feuerbach. He was as samrt as could be, and my father was a little in awe of him, too, as he had been since Edward was a small boy, I think….[T]he congregation took up collections to put him in college and then sent him to Germany….He took a position at the state college in Lawrence teaching German literature and philosophy, and stayed there till be died. He married a German girl from Indianapolis and they had six little towheaded children, all of them well into middle age by now. He was a few hundred miles away all those years and I hardly ever saw him. He did send back contributions to the church to repay them for helping him. A check dated January 1 came every year he lived. He was a good man.

He and my father had words when he came back, once at the dinner table that first evening when my father asked him to say grace. Edward cleared his throat and replied, “I am afraid I could not do that in good conscience, sir,” and the color drained out of my father’s face….[T]his was the dreaded confirmation of my parents fears. My father said, “You have lived under this roof. You know the customs of your family. You might show some respect for them.” And Edward replied, and this was very wrong of him, “When I was a child, I thought as a child. Now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.” My father left the table, my mother sat still in her chair with tears streaming down her face, and Edward passed me the potatoes. (Gilead, pp. 24-26)

What I find most thoughtful in that passage is that John Ames, as his life comes to a close and he writes the letter which forms the frame of the novel, is not saying that Edward was wrong for becoming a cosmopolitan (later Edward tells his younger brother, “John, you might as well know now what you’re sure to learn sometime. This is a backwater–you must be aware of that already. Leaving here is like waking from a trance.”), not even for becoming an atheist, but for speaking so condescendingly to their father. And yet, the narrative also makes it clear that it is not as though Edward had somehow lost all contact with or allegiance to the shaping which his religious upbringing had provided. One can’t look into the mind of another person, not even a fictional other person, but I suspect that Robinson was allowing us to see, through the eyes of John Ames, that there was a purpose to Edward, an integrity and identity to him, which tied him to the community which John had made his whole life as much as every other character in the book.

And there is another, even more challenging parallel between Robinsons’s and Dreher’s stories, a parallel which fleshes out the careful line regarding tradition and fidelity that forms the heart of this particular problem. Dreher’s estimation of his own story, as he has expressed it on his blog numerous times, is profoundly conditioned by the late revelation that his own parents–or at least his father–was somewhat dubious of the way he allowed his place, the community of St. Francisville, to define him for so long. When interviewing his father, the following exchange takes place:

“There’s something else I regret even more,” he carried on. “I can see now, at the end of my life, that it would have been better if after your Mama and I got married, we had packed up and left here.”

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what I said: we should have left this place.”

And then Paw told me how he had spent his entire life sacrificing for his mother, his father, his brother, his aunts, and his cousins–all of whom, in his recollection, worked him like a dog and never gave him a moment’s thanks. They could always count on Ray to fix anything, to do any job they asked of him, to give up his free time and spend his own money, to help them. They used him up.

“I was a sucker,” he said, the bitterness heavy in his voice. “Aunt Lois was the only one of the whole bunch who was ever straight with me. But there was only one of her….Your sister, she was right to stand up to me over marrying Mike….And so were you, when you went back to Washington to be a writer. I was too strong-willed and stubborn back then. I regret that very much.”

We sat in silence for a moment.

“Daddy, I have to tell you, I don’t know what to think about all this,” I said. “Here I am, a man who turned his life upside down to move back here for the family, and because of the land. And now here you are telling me that you made an idol of family and place, and that you wish you had left it all behind when you were young, just like I did. What am I supposed to make of that?”

His chin trembled, he wrung his hands together, he looked me straight in the eye, and then my father said: “That I’m a sorrier man than you.” (The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, pp. 258-261)

Anyone who reads Dreher’s book, and gets into his story of the divide which grew up between himself and Ruthie, the way she identified with the particularities of their hometown while he found himself struggling between his love for his family and his profound disconnect from the lives they lived (and, more importantly, the way they all thought–or didn’t think–about the lives they lived), can’t help be surprised by this late revelation. But once again, Robinson had showed us something much the same. Near the end of his long, rambling, beautiful narrative, John Ames abruptly shares something new:

I have mentioned that my father and my mother left here. Well, they certainly did. Edward bought a piece of land down on the Gulf Coast and built a cottage for his own family and for them. He did it mainly to get my mother away from this ferocious climate, and that was kind of him, because her rheumatism became severe as she got older. The idea was that they would spend a year down there getting settled in, and then they would come back again to Gilead and only go south for the worst of the winter until my father retired. So I took his pulpit for that first year. And then they never did come back, except twice to visit, the first time when I lost Louisa and the second time to talk me into leaving with them. That second time I asked my father to preach, and he shook his head, and said, “I just can’t do it anymore.”

He told me that it had not been his intention to leave me stranded here. In fact, it was his hope that I would seek out a larger life than this. He and Edward both felt strongly what excellent use I could make of a broader experience. He told me that looking back on Gilead from any distance made it seem a relic, an archaism. When I mentioned the history we had here, he laughed and said, “Old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago.” And that irritated me. He said, “Just look at this place. Every time a tree gets to a decent size, the wind comes along and breaks it.” He was expounding the wonders of the larger world, and I was resolving in my heart never to risk the experience of them. He said, “I have become aware that we have lived within the limits of notions that were very old and even very local. I want you to understand that you do not have to be loyal to them”….

I don’t recall that I actually said anything, taken aback as I was. Well, all he accomplished was to make me homesick for a place I never left. (Gilead, pp. 234-235)

“Homesick for a place I never left”: what a powerful line that is. What I’m suggesting here, by way of Dreher’s story and Robinson’s novel, is that a proper notion of fidelity–whether to a place or to the purpose that a place may constitute in and through us–would align all of us, localists and cosmopolitans alike, with that phrase. We all are, or at least can be and arguably should be, homesick: or, to express the psychological state I have in mind more positively, always attendant to and seeking for the kind of purposive fulfillment which occurs when our circumstances match our identity, our calling. Reading Gilead makes me conscious of why so many people desire to live in big cities (with their complex economies and invasive regulations and diverse populations): because to experience the anonymity and fecundity and creativity which the busy-ness of humankind makes possible can serve as a salve for the frustration that seeking so often involves. Edward–who left home and benefited from the opportunities which a broader world made possible–had the wherewithal to take his and John’s parents out of their place; they obviously took to such a displacement as a respite from the difficulty of their circumstances, but accepting that removal from place also changed them, introducing a break between them and their non-prodigal son. John does not judge his parents, he simply notes that change, their turning away from a constant homesickness and the consequent intensifying it had upon him, as one example of the mystery of place.

From Iowa to Florida is perhaps not so different from St. Francisville to Paris. Dreher has also, in thinking about how much his own Parisian experiences liberated and transformed him, and how those experiences were perhaps the crucial divide between his own life and his sister’s, noted that making moves like that can only appear to others (and perhaps often to ourselves) as involving an outright rejection of tradition, an act of–here Dreher borrows the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates– “burning down the house”:

I esteem devotion to prescriptive Tradition. But my sister lived by that ethic, and so did (does) my father–and it made me miserable. I ran away from here in part because the weight and the strictures of our family’s Tradition was too much to take. If it–if they–had been more flexible, allowing for some modification of the Tradition, I might have chosen a different path. But they could not see any other way. They were not conscious of Tradition as Tradition, which was the very thing that allowed them to be so devoted to it…but was also the same thing that prevented them from accepting any deviation from it…..The thing I have to concede is that I want the benefits of Tradition without the painful strictures. If I “burn down the Big House,” so to speak, where do I shelter? Where do my children shelter? The thing is, it’s not possible to live in the modern world and remain in the Big House. Human flourishing requires building a different house, one more suited to the way we live today. If we want things to stay the same, things have to change.

Figuring out exactly how we make this work–how we defend tradition as so important to providing our world with virtuous sources to which we should show fidelity for the sake of our collective enrichment and identification, while at the same time not locking down what actually grounds those traditions, for the sake of allowing us all as individuals to move from standing in one place to standing in another–is probably a constant, irresolvable mystery, one which will always carry a fair amount of pain along with it. As Dreher himself admits, “looking back on [my story] a year after I finished the manuscript, I can see that I was trying to talk myself into something that probably isn’t true, or at least is more mysterious and ambiguous than I was able to accept last year…that I am outside that blessed circle, and can’t ever cross that boundary, no matter how far I’ve traveled.” Dreher, because he returned to St. Francisville after having left it, can be a part of that community, but he cannot seamless connect with it–he cannot stand where his sister stood, and enjoy his community’s moral sources the way she did, because he changed, and she didn’t. (And, of course, that means she can’t show any fidelity to the moral sources and traditions which Dreher has discovered, and the places where he discovered them, because she was never there, and couldn’t ever see them for what they are in any case.)

All this is perhaps partly why Dreher has increasingly become less interested in addressing who connects and who doesn’t and why and what to do about it, and more interested in the stories of connection and disconnection themselves. I was originally a little put out by Dreher’s refusal to acknowledge the argument in his story, but after reading Gilead, I think I can appreciate better that, for example, if I tried to turn Robinson’s novel into an argument about life in small towns, or the importance of religion, or the pain of growing older, I’d be doing the whole thing a disservice, and that’s the sort of disservice Dreher clearly doesn’t want to perform on his memory of Ruthie. Fair enough. But let’s not forget what Lasch and Taylor and others have pointed out–that any act of memory, properly speaking, is going to be an action characterized by our own “personal resonance.” We’re all interpreting, in other words, all the time. And when we find–through experience, or argument, or both–our interpretations to be wrong, we change perspective, and try them again. We argue, we try out new theoretical construals of our own lives, we keep trying to figure out what we are (or should be) showing fidelity to, whether we realize it or not.

The arguments about tradition are lengthy and contentious; perhaps there is no possibility they could be otherwise in our modern world. In fact, I would suspect that, should Dreher choose this task, he could find in time that those same arguments and changes were present in Ruthie’s world as well. I wonder if there might even be a way for him to someday write his story from Ruthie’s point of view: a story of her relationship with a strange, intellectual, perhaps arrogant, yet worldly wise and accomplished older brother, and both the love and dissatisfaction she felt for him, and how those feelings, in their own unaccountable ways, changed and fit themselves into her place. A place where her students grew up and stayed, or grew up and left, and pastors came and stayed or left, and people were married and given in marriage, and the world and its traditions and all its occasions for fidelity just continued to turn.


  1. Thanks for this, Mr. Fox. I found it a wonderful read that outlines the contradictions, conflicts and tensions inherent in… well, life.

  2. ~~As I wrote once before, “isn’t the entire point of embracing stability and putting down roots and learning to live within limits exactly to deny that we are entirely a product of our own preference maximization?” To be sure, insisting on the value of being faithful to one’s own resonance doesn’t mean leaping (or falling) completely into individualism–but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be careful, all the same.~~

    Exactly. In order to be valid localism, rootedness, or whatever you want to call it ha should have an ascetic cast to it, in the sense that it involves limiting one’s choices for some greater good. If it is viewed, however, as simply another preference or “lifestyle choice” it loses its ascetic aspect and thus much of that intended good. It should be viewed not as one “healthy choice” on a gigantic buffet of preferences, but instead as a decision not to patronize that buffet at all.

  3. A certain creative ebb and flow is a good thing. Some who grow up in a small place hanker to leave it, and perhaps they should. Some are called to keep it what it is by remaining there. Some who were born to big concentrated places hanker for wide open spaces and still quiet voices. I am reminded a bit of the scene near the beginning of the movie version of Dr. Zhivago, where the young doctor praises his older Bolshevik half-brother’s work as “magnificent,” and older brother asks, if you feel that way, why don’t you join the Party? The doctor answers, because “some of us have to keep the patient alive on the table while you are operating, by living.” I am also reminded that, while I have no fidelity to any detailed body of Christian doctrine, those who do have kept a number of disparate and sometimes conflicting institutions alive that have something beautiful to offer the world, if they don’t get too full of themselves.

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