Tuesday, March 1, 2011
The Dark Underbelly of Mayberry
A dear friend, no longer with us, was telling me once about growing up in small towns during the Great Depression. “It really was true,” he said, “that people were more trusting and nobody locked their doors when they left the house. And do you know why?”
He paused for dramatic effect. “It was because nobody had anything worth stealing.”
I thought of that recently when AARP, the magazine, ran a story on the cult-like popularity, among audiences of a certain age, of the old Andy Griffith Show, which appeared on CBS for most of the 1960s. In case you’re too young to remember, Griffith played widower Sheriff Andy Taylor, who lived in the small town of Mayberry with his young son Opie and his Aunt Bee. Don Knotts was the incapable assistant, Deputy Barney Fife.
It was a well-done comedy, certainly by the standards of the time, but that accounts for only part of its enduring popularity. Many of the people quoted in the article and those who posted comments gushed about how Mayberry captured the essence of small-town life. “There was no crime,” said one. “It really was like that,” wrote another.
Mayberry was make-believe, every bit as much as Bruce Willis dispatching 20 bad guys in 37 seconds or the cavalry riding to the rescue of the stagecoach. Those things are enjoyable hokum, and when they’re done with flair and imagination, I enjoy them as much as anyone. But we are in bad shape as individuals and as a society when we confuse make-believe with reality. All you need to know about the “reality” of Mayberry is that the town was allegedly located in the American South, yet seemed to have fewer African Americans than Stockholm.
By the time Mayberry was invented, real Americans had been fleeing small towns in droves for more than a generation, for good reason. Whatever its virtues, small-town America could be boring, subject to a stifling, narrow-minded conformity, and short on economic opportunity. Following social upheaval, it’s not unusual for people to feel a sense of regret over something valuable lost in the name of progress. As people led lives that were more prosperous, yet sometimes less grounded and connected, small-town nostalgia was inevitable. The Andy Griffith Show played to that, as did The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction.
The illusion that small towns are more virtuous than big cities has an illustrious tradition in American political history, from Thomas Jefferson to Sarah Palin. The reality is that people are people, and their overall level of moral accomplishment doesn’t vary much by where they live or when they lived. The good old days weren’t all that good, either.
Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple used to say that no form of depravity or misbehavior could astonish her because she was an old lady who had spent her entire life in a small English village. In the novel A Pocketful of Rye, she was asked if it was a nice village.
“Well, I don’t quite know what you would call a nice village, my dear,” Miss Marple replied. “It’s quite a pretty village. There are some nice people living in it and some extremely unpleasant people as well. Very curious things go on there just as in any other village. Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?”
Even in Mayberry.