De Bergerac, Reynolds Price and small towns

by DG Martin

I saw Reynolds Price from a distance the other night.

The famed North Carolina author, though permanently bound up in a wheel chair, had made his way to the front row at the opening night of Cyrano De Bergerac, the newest Playmakers production in Chapel Hill. Seeing Price in person reminded me how important he is to the North Carolina literary tradition as an author, thinker, teacher and inspirer of others.

Like Reynolds Price, whose hometown is Macon the real Cyrano de Begerac grew up in a small town. Both of them later moved to large cities where they lived and wrote enthusiastically. Cyrano’s exploits as a swordsman, soldier, poet and selfless lover were fictionalized by French playwright Edmond Rostand ‘— and, by the way, brought to life vividly by the Playmakers’ magnificent production.

Comparing the small town origins of de Begerac and Price reminded me of something Price had said almost 20 years ago to a group at a Southern Writers Conference in Chapel Hill. He was talking about the importance of memories and connections to good writing when he said, ‘“That couldn’t happen if you moved every three years.’”

Prompted by his talk I wrote the following:

Our memories are our treasures. They are who we are. Looking backwards some of us see our parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins, longtime friends, teachers, preachers and the places we knew the ‘— home, church, school, stores and fields. Those people and places of growing up define us. They are our anchors. They are our foundations. They are our roots. At least they are, if we have those memories ‘— if we remember where we grew up.

But fewer and fewer of us know where we are from. The average American moves every three years. You can’t let your roots grow too deep if you move that often.

If you move every three years and live in a new neighborhood where everybody else is new, Price says, you are not going to have the same kind of memories as those who grew up in one place.

Does it make a difference? I think it does. I can’t prove it, but look around at the people who are making a difference in North Carolina ‘— the best business leaders, our best political leaders, our best teachers and writers.

Don’t a disproportionate number of them come from small towns and farms?

What explains their success in the development of leaders for the rest of us?

Some big city snobs would say that these leaders have had to overcome their culturally deprived backgrounds. Look at the small towns, they say, and see nothing happening, backward schools, no theaters, no big libraries, no bigtime sports.

Nothing there? Nothing but the stable nurturing that creates the selfdefining memories that Reynolds Price talks about.

North Carolina’s small towns and rural communities are the state’s ‘“people estuaries.’”

Estuaries are those protected brackish waters along our coast, which, with the marshes, swamps, and backwaters, are the most efficient producers of food in the state. They are a critical link in our food chain. We often think of those areas as underdeveloped backwaters. But they are irreplaceable treasures where the richness and stability of life makes for one of the earth’s most productive ecosystems.

Reynolds Price is right: Those nurturing memories that the small towns make possible are important in giving people a sense of who they are. People who have a sense of who they are become our best leaders, which may explain why small towns are so successful in producing North Carolina’s leaders.

They are our ‘“people estuaries.’”