We are living in a world where loneliness abounds. Whether this social condition of isolation is good for our heart and soul or not, it often seems to be a condition that is not of our choosing. We live in a world where reality is being constructed by other people and we appear to be immune to any corrections on this imposed reality. We are left alone and ignorant in a world that is saturated with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, turbulence and contradiction.
Has this always been the case—at least in America? Alexis De Tocqueville (2000/1835), a French observer of early 19th Century society would say this was not the case–at least in rural and small-town America. According to De Tocqueville the residents of American towns and surrounding rural areas had developed and maintained “habits of the heart” that called for gathering together and sharing information. We might ask what these “habits” looked like in 19th Century American life and ask what happened to these habits? In seeking to find an answer to these questions, I reflect back on American life as it existed (at least mythically) until the early years of the 20th Century and then look at present day American life.
The America that De Tocqueville visited during the early years of the 19th Century was composed primarily of small farms and small communities spread out over vast open land. It is actually not until the mid-20th Century that a majority of Americans lived in cities or the newly established suburban communities of America. Given these dispersed geographical conditions (and the lack of major transportation systems or the automobile), the challenge of bringing people together was often of considerable magnitude. At the very least, these gatherings were often sporadic or confined to a regularly scheduled event.
Traditional dispersed American society
Gatherings came in several different forms among Americans who did not live close to one another—making their living as farmers or ranchers. While those who extracted natural resources (lumber, fish, mining) did tend to cluster together in their work, their culture also tended to call for minimal regular interaction other than their collaborative labor. Their culture of labor might be said to be intensely Introverted (and very male dominated).
Members of those American families who were engaged in farming or ranching might come together so that they could be engaged in separate but equivalent tasks—such as when women joined sewing circles. Alternatively, these women gathered together so that they might be engaged in a single, collective task. They might meet with one another to assemble a quilt. There was “productivity” in sitting beside one another in the creation of dresses or together stitching together a beautifully patterned bedspread.