Plain Folk

There’s a little library at the gym. Americans are the kind of people who stick a little library everywhere. The park, the playground, a street corner, a coffee shop – it’s a disaster if a person feels like reading but no book is available. Love Americans.

Back to the point, though, I found a great little book at the gym’s little library today. It’s called Plain Folk and it’s a 1982 re-printing of letters supposedly written back in 1903-6 to a popular magazine by working class “plain folks.”

Most of the letters are clearly apocryphal. It truly beggars belief that a female factory worker who arrived from rural Lithuania a few years ago would be able to write an eloquent, beautifully organized narrative in perfect English.

But some letters ring true. The most interesting ones are written by wives of college professors in the rural Midwest.

Friends, it’s fascinating stuff. Much of what these women talk about sounds like it could have been written today. The first wife and her professor have 4 kids and they decided to homeschool. This means she can’t take a job and they struggle to make ends meet on one salary. But on the positive side, the kids spend tons of time playing outside instead of withering away in a classroom with the children of uneducated classes.

The professors suffer because they have to teach the same lower-level courses every year. Young professors all hope to leave the Midwest and go to the East Coast, where they believe the real life of the mind is. Most faculty members in the Midwest do no research and aren’t that bright because they have no time to read and no money to travel. What’s different from today is that people say this openly.

The letter-writer’s husband works two shifts. I’m not sure what that means and what the teaching load was in those times. But he’s still a great Dad, playing with kids, taking them for walks, and doing bedtime.

What made women’s lives shit in that era are two things: no running water and no ready-made clothes. The professor’s wife spends hours a day sewing when she’d much rather read. I felt great compassion for her at that point.

Such a great little book.

12 thoughts on “Plain Folk”

  1. That’s a great find. All the books I see in little libraries are boring, current books like, Harry Potter or Twilight. Ugh. I would fall all over myself for this type of book. Think I’ll look over on Amazon!

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  2. I have to know what that letter by the female Lithuanian factory worker said, now.

    My own instincts tell me that the letter is a little bit anomalous rather than apocryphal – around the 1900s was when the nascent nation pushed education really hard, the modern sense of an urban-rural distinction didn’t really exist, and around 20% of the total population emigrated, enough for it to cut across all levels of education.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah! Ok, thanks for letting me know. I will read it now because I skipped it in annoyance.

      Will report back in detail!

      There’s also a story about an Italian shoe shine guy. Any Italians here who are interested?

      I also think there are some Jews.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “the modern rural-urban distinction that didn’t really exist?”

        I don’t know the specifics of Lithuania but urbanization in a lot of Eastern Europe was not a gradual development over generations as happened more in the west, but more of a sudden displacement – so you had cities full of peasants from the countryside, as in born in a village and moved to the city but still with one foot in the barn as it were.
        I think you get the same thing in a lot of Latin America except that people who migrate to cities there urbanize a lot faster and more thoroughly (maybe less true of indigenous peoples).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Cliff has it broadly right.

          Here, I just meant to say that someone being “rural” didn’t map very well to educational attainment – being rural could mean you were a relatively educated landholder, a newly well-off peasant sending their first generation to university or seminary, or just someone taking part in the broadly anti-russian literacy movement (book smuggling was a very real profession).

          Whereas being “urban” doesn’t even really mean anything for a lithuanian at that time – there just weren’t enough to say anything about.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. When I was a baby in the Pacific Northwest, or I guess just before I was born, my father was a new professor. Seattle wasn’t fancy the way it is now (as in, only three flavors of ice cream, no Italian restaurant, etc.). There was some meeting, about the night classes, that was in conflict with another meeting Dad had and he asked whether he really needed to go to this, should he reschedule his other meeting or could he just skip this one. They said well, you don’t have to come to talk about the night classes if you don’t want any — but your wife isn’t working and you’re having a baby, so probably you do want them. That was the second shift.

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  4. ” a female factory worker w… would be able to write an eloquent, beautifully organized narrative in perfect English”

    Letters to the editor are also edited. Sometimes heavily. If the editors thought a letter had interesting content they might polish up the form…. oh, quite a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It brings to mind a couple I once met. They were Viet, who had immigrated to the US and lived about an hour away from my hometown. Oddly, I met them in Viet Nam, while we were all visiting friends/family. In Viet Nam, she had been a schoolteacher, and he had been an engineer. In the US, they both worked in a factory. On their factory wages, they had bought a house in the US, and had put all three of their (grown) kids through college in Viet Nam. It is a crazy world! One wonders if the Lithuanian woman was always a factory worker, or if she had been a schoolteacher or the like, previously.

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