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Letters from the Country, one of Bly's best-known and best-loved books, is a collection of essays as fresh today as when they were originally published in Minnesota Monthly. This contemporary classic welcomes readers to the small town of Madison, Minnesota (population 2,242), a rural community struggling to place itself in the new American landscape.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780816633227
  • Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1ST UNIVER
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 204
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Letters from the Country

By Carol Bly

University of Minnesota Press

Copyright © 1981 Carol Bly
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8166-3322-3

Chapter One

From the Lost Swede Towns

Scott Fitzgerald remarked, somewhere toward the end of Gatsby, that his Middle West was the land of prep school boys' coming home at Christmas, their shouted inquiries in Chicago's Union Station, "Are you going to the Ordways'?" Fitzgerald said, very firmly, his Middle West was "'not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns."

Lost Swede Towns Minnesota is where I live, and what these letters will be about. Our town of about 2,000-Madison-is 160 miles west of Minneapolis, well out of the range of Fitzgerald's readers or the Ordways' parties; out here, Groton and Exeter sound like seedcorn hybrids. This is the prairie country of the Louisiana Purchase, the endless, fainting fields, with the dusty rivers hooded by cottonwoods. As your eye sweeps this landscape you can see five or six farmers' "groves" (windbreaks around the farmhouses). At dawn and dusk the groves look like the silent, major ships of someone else's navy, standing well spaced, well out to sea.

It isn't really a country of "lost Swede towns"; the people are Norwegian and German in the main, but Fitzgerald struck true-there is a tremendous amount of loss in it.

When I came out here I thought it was just sexual loss. On my first visit, we drove in the evening. The bare bulbs were lighted in the passing farmyards. The barn lights were on for chores. I remember saying, How marvelous to think of night on this gigantic prairie-all the men and women making love in their safe houses guarded by the gloomy groves! Who wants to think of anyone making love in Los Angeles-but how great to think of it in these cozy farmhouses! The reply was: That's what you think!

Scandinavian-American sexual chili is a firm cliché, but what isn't so well known is that there is a restraint against feeling in general. There is restraint against enthusiasm ("real nice" is the adjective-not "marvelous"); there is restraint in grief ("real sober" instead of "heartbroken"); and always, always, restraint in showing your feelings, lest someone be drawn closer to you. This restraint was there with the first pioneers; the strong-minded Swiss-American writer Mari Sandoz, in describing her family's settling in Nebraska, called the newer, Scandinavian influx "mealy-mouthed." Mealy-mouthed means that when someone has stolen all four wheels off your car you say, "Oh, when I saw that car, with the wheels stripped off like that, I just thought ohhhhhhhh." "And that Vietnam War... well, it's just... well, it's just hard to know what to think!" Or "Watergate now. Well... it's just, well, that Watergate sure is something." If the topic is controversial, you seldom get a clear predicate to any sentence. In conversation, no predicate means the speaker has unconsciously decided not to give you that information after all.

Americans are always mourning that "the kids everywhere" have no feeling: that's another kind of phenomenon, but what you have to be clear about in Minnesota is that the Scandinavian-American doesn't feel because he doesn't believe in feeling. He is against it. It isn't only that he has watched too much television; his timidity and frigidity were there long before he was seduced by "The Edge of Night."

This summer Charlotte's Web made it to the Grand Theatre in Madison. We all flung ourselves into the movies because we'd had a drought, everyone had been anxious, and then it rained, and we celebrated. It rained well-not a rapid runoff rain that just grabs our topsoil and carries a lot of it to the Gulf of Mexico in five days, but a proper gardeners' rain, settling all night and all day, slowly crumbling the chunks near the corn stems, slowly slipping down past the thin things that are always lying around farms, spring tooth cultivators and loops of electric-fence wire flung around posts. After the movie the main street was full of Studebaker half-ton pickups collecting the farm kids, other cars gunning their engines in neutral, men in short sleeves dodging around in the light rain in the headlights. In the spooky light their arms looked black and the flesh didn't look as if it would be live and firm indefinitely. Some children who had seen the movie were crying, being hustled along by their mothers. We were all moved by the friendship of Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig; our ears were full of E. B. White's final comment: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." Then, suddenly, I heard two separate mothers tell their children: "Oh, for the love of goodness, it was just a movie!" and "Okay, okay, OKAY! You don't have to feel it that much."

This is the real death in our countryside, this not approving of feeling. It implies a disdain for literature, of course, since literature so baldly champions feeling. Around town for a week after Charlotte's Web there were complaints that we had been promised "a cute movie" but the kids had cried. Actually, the producers did quite a lot to make it "a cute movie": they added 1940s songs of the "musical" kind; they removed humor, plot, and pathos; but lots of E. B. White still shone through.

I am interested in this phenomenon: the cute movie. We can all name things that happen when a whole segment of society, say, the lost Swede town part of society, fails to feel. They range from obeying murder orders at My Lai on down to Farm Bureau audiences sitting absolutely without smiles throughout a comedy routine. Addiction to meaningless entertainment (cute movies) isn't a tenth of it obviously, but it interests me because craving cute movies brings with it a craving for indifferent murder.

Nonfeeling people do not crave real death. They don't want to go out and beat up people, but they do have a very odd fascination for murders that can't possibly affect them. Movie producers know this, and since the 1960s have hiked the violence forward in the movie's playing time. No longer do you get an hour or so to empathize with Alan Ladd before someone shoots him; no longer do you know the characters before the violence enters; now you get some actor's face obliterated by shots while the credits are still being shown. This is the epitome of indifferent murder. No love, no hate, and no pity have been solicited of us. But then we didn't want any feeling solicited!

One of the various intelligent theories about the Vietnam War is that it was an unconscious replay of our murdering the American Indians. I sense another possibility: the Vietnam War was the chance of a lifetime to commit indifferent murder. Americans felt like killing where it meant nothing personally; a Southeast Asian farmer four thousand feet below one's wingtip filled the bill perfectly. It is his face that is destroyed during the movie credits.

A lingering, but unrealistic notion is that American society split its classes because of the Vietnam War, but the split, in fact, between Middle America (for our purpose here, Lost Swede Town America) and educated or enlightened America took place a long time ago. The cute movie syndrome is a good measure of it.

I first saw the cute movie syndrome in Duluth, in 1943. My gang of teenage girl friends wandered into an RAF movie. Once in, we were drawn into the Wellington's shadowy cockpit. Our faces were streaked with searchlights, and soon the prosaic girl next to me, in the perennial blue jeans and man's shirt with sleeves rolled, was replaced by my second pilot and the bomb aimer. One scene in particular affected me. Photographed from the ground, at first light of day, the crippled aircraft was flying home, over the English coastline. In the weak light everything looked ghostly and precious; the shore looked like the fine stretches between Folkestone and Dover. Then the plane sank lower and lower, over steep-pitched roofs and corbelled chimney tops. I had never thought before how fragile a village or a countryside is, how desperately close to destruction it can be, until I saw those chimney tops under the airplane. When adults talk about such feelings for one's country, we rather wish they'd got beyond facile patriotism by now. For a thirteen-year-old, however, the feeling that a country wants defending is nearly a spiritual experience.

In any case, the movie over, we clattered out and into a hot, bright bus for home. A few of the girls were annoyed we hadn't taken in a cute movie, but one voice suddenly rose over all the others: "All I can say is, if you're going to talk about the war and all that, boys are just never going to like you!"

A nice kaleidoscoping of appalling values, and the marriage of lightweight emotions to the ambitions of a sex object. If much of America has abandoned these stifling convictions, however, our lost Swede towns haven't.

Yet nobody wants to help our "Swede" to wake up. The twentieth-century way to look at the nonverbal, nonpassionate Midwesterner is to sneer. When someone asked Hemingway decades ago why he didn't write about normal Americans instead of idealists like his Robert Jordan, he replied, "Why should I write about people with broken legs?" Charles Reich's greening of America wasn't a genuine psychic revolution of affection because it was in large part merely a slap at the hardnosed classes. Reich's longhairs were johnnies come very lately onto that set: long ago, Fitzgerald saw how the Dobbs Ferry girls lifted their noses at the Lutheran syndrome; Hemingway's heroic dropouts despised wall-to-wall carpeting and nonorganic bread and the equivalent of snowmobile clubs long before the first hippy grieved because his mother wanted a blender.

The nonfeeling syndrome seems to work like this: (1) You repress the spontaneous feelings in life; (2) but spontaneous feelings are the source of enjoyment; so (3) enjoyment must be artificially applied from without (cute movies). (4) You repress your innate right to evaluate events and people, but (5) energy comes from making your own evaluations and then acting on them, so (6) therefore your natural energy must be replaced by indifferent violence.

The churches in Minnesota have had their part in vitiating the natural energy of people. Most of rural Minnesota go to church regularly, yet nearly never get a sermon on Jesus' turning the tables on the moneychangers. They absolutely never get a sermon on Saul's having failed to obliterate the Amalekites so that Samuel has to cut Agag, the Amalekite king, to pieces in front of Saul, to give him an idea what the Lord had in mind; they absolutely never get a sermon on St. Stephen's being stoned while Saul, later to become St. Paul, approved. The pastors, themselves tottering around in an emotional sleepwalk, don't face the crises of their faith. They do not make themselves answer: was Hosea right in his incredible and violent hostility to women? Is Cardinal Spellman right in saying the 25th Infantry carried the cross of Christ in Vietnam? Since the pastors lack such energy-to think, and feel, and commit themselves-the people are left with no example of Christ's energy. No castle was ever well guarded by sleepwalkers, and certainly no Kingdom of the Spirit can rise up in the hearts of somnambulants.

What is crueler, however, is that it is now commercially practicable to keep our lost Swede asleep. One villain in this is the Shakespeare-in-the-Streets troupe of Minneapolis. A few years ago they took around to our towns, among them Madison, a Hamlet in which the characters were hashed (Hamlet appeared double: one white, one black), the plot changed into a spaced-out pas de mille choreography, and the soliloquies were done in a kind of black stomp. Having removed all the real energy of the play then, cute movie things had to be added. A dead chicken was thrown around, Polonius got kicked hard in the shins, and so on. The manager told me, "Oh we did it on purpose, because the common people [sic] wouldn't like it straight."

This past winter, the children's theatre group from the University of Minnesota brought to Madison a program of four Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. They were excellent-beautiful. Still, they turned the Ugly Duckling into a kind of black-face humor piece, even done with what were ominously close to fake-black accents. They made the Ugly Duckling, in effect, a cute show. This meant that our lost Swede Minnesotan, who hadn't read the original Andersen, didn't get to hear Andersen on the injustice of early selection, the sorrow of the eccentric child, or the heartbreaking discovery of one's true element late in life.

Educated Americans spent the summer of 1973 sneering at Middle America for turning off their televisions during the Watergate hearings. It is true, in the beauty shops, the TV was turned off because of "that Watergate." But who tried sincerely to show the lady in rollers that it is strengthening, not weakening, to feel what's happening in the United States? Too many of our intellectuals have left the Swede by the roadside.

The billboard just south of Madison on U.S. 75 now reads: "Don't just sit there-Be a Navy man." If all feeling is dead, those are the choices: feeling nothing, motivated by nothing-or join an organization which specializes in indifferent killing.

Our countryside has inherited not Grieg, not Ibsen, not Rölvaag-but just sitting there, cute movies, and when boredom gets bad enough, joining the Navy.

The problem of people's not feeling is very serious, and I haven't any answers. But I think we should get onto this issue now, and we should buck each other's ideas back and forth. Selma Lägerlöf, who was emphatically a very live Swede, was right in warning that the soul cannot live on fun alone... it will kill. We know that now.

September 1973

Chapter Two

Getting Tired

The men have left a gigantic 6600 combine a few yards from our grove, at the edge of the stubble. For days it was working around the farm; we heard it on the east, later on the west, and finally we could see it grinding back and forth over the windrows on the south. But now it has been simply squatting at the field's edge, huge, tremendously still, very professional, slightly dangerous.

We all have the correct feelings about this new combine: this isn't the good old farming where man and soil are dusted together all day; this isn't farming a poor man can afford, either, and therefore it further threatens his hold on the American "family farm" operation. We have been sneering at this machine for days, as its transistor radio, amplified well over the engine roar, has been grinding up our silence, spreading a kind of shrill ghetto evening all over the farm.

But now it is parked, and after a while I walk over to it and climb up its neat little John-Deere-green ladder on the left.


Excerpted from Letters from the Country by Carol Bly Copyright © 1981 by Carol Bly. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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