This review by Heartlands editor Alex Joyner originally appeared in the Eastertide 2019 print edition of the Englewood Review of Books (now available) and is republished with permission.
It’s quaint to live in a place like Parksley. Though the name refers to the original owner from whom the land for the town was bought, one Benjamin Parks, it suited the Delaware developer who laid it out in 1884 as the railroad was coming down the Delmarva peninsula from Philadelphia. Henry Bennet saw this spot on Virginia’s Eastern Shore as an ideal location for a planned community in the Victorian style. The trains represented the age of industry belching its way to dominance and Parksley was to be a taste of what America didn’t want to lose in the transition.
The town remains a bit of curated country. Even though there’s a big empty plot where the high school (a victim of consolidation) was, you can still see the designer’s intent. Here there was a place for everything: The abandoned shirt factory occupies one of the industrial areas. A compact town square surrounding the place where the old train station used to stand. On the other side of a marshy stream the area designated for black residents in the days of segregation. A grid of streets with what would have been reassuring Anglo names from Bennett’s family and associates—Gertrude, Mary, Maxwell, and Jones. Victorian turrets oversee walkable streets.
We’re two steps removed from the romance now. The economic heart of Parksley started leaving after World War II and by the time the textile works closed in the 80s the Industrial Age was over and Parksley was getting a label dreaded by small towns throughout rural America—it was now “a nostalgic reminder of days gone by.” But what could it be in this new age?
I love this old town. When I moved to the Eastern Shore almost 15 years ago I liked to tell my friends on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay that it’s one of the last unique places left in America. If I had had the insight of Suzannah Lessard at the time I might have had some other language for what was happening. In moving here I was trying to escape atopia.
Atopia, as Lessard describes it in her transcendent new book, The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape, is the all-encompassing environment in which we find ourselves in this new, undefined era. Just as I can in Parksley, we can walk around in the remains of the past. The structures and forms are still there. But the new global enclosure of the digital world has swallowed up the physical world.
“Even the most grounded-seeming landscapes were actually in the grips of an invisible ungroundedness, which separated them from their history, untied them from old layers of significance, stole their comforts,” Lessard says looking around at how the land has changed.(237) Whereas before our bodies and the features of a place defined what it would become, “there is no such link between the physical world and the kind of work that reigns today…The hand of work…has been withdrawn from the design of landscape.”(265) We are left to our own devices to build connections between the work we do in “the worldwide collapsed space” of the web and the world through which our bodies move.
At first Lessard’s book appears to be a collection of discrete essays, each appealing in their own right. Lessard is a charming writer with a poet’s eye for detail and she certainly has the chops of a magazine journalist, having spent time at The New Yorker and as a founding editor of The Washington Monthly. She visits places like Gettysburg, Natchez, and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and you enjoy the vignettes and her keen observations about the sites.
But Lessard is at work on a larger argument that unfolds over time and soon you realize that each chapter is carefully connected to the others. Before you know it, she has brought you right into her compelling thesis and you find yourself thinking that maybe the most important question we can ask, even when we’re in possession of the most accurate GPS devices in history, may be: “Where are we?”
Lessard begins in a place like Parksley—the small upstate New York village where she currently lives. She catalogs the gristmill, the pastures, the stream, and the church with its prominent steeple and dwindling congregation. It is the American ideal of what country life should be—the pastoral vision that Americans in the Industrial Era looked back on with fondness, though Lessard points out that life in the Agrarian Age was a dirty, smelly, quotidian mess to those who lived through it.
In a similar way, we denizens of the digital now look back on that Industrial Age with a wistfulness, despite the dislocations and unpleasantness that people who lived through it experienced. I feel the draw when I walk past the derelict Pullman car at the railway museum in the town square. It might be reborn as an ice cream shop, they say. Or perhaps an Air BnB!
We are casting about for what these relics, still standing, mean. “Having no common interpretation of our surroundings, we are, to a degree, lacking in any common interior life with which to orient to one another. In a way we are lost.”(8) Lessard makes this point early on and it only becomes more clear as she works her way from the fields and villages of the countryside to the city and then to the sprawl.
Each stop along the way is fascinating. A visit to Youngstown, Ohio is devastating in its depiction of how Midwestern cities that were engines of industry can be hollowed out in a generation or less.
The physical reality of an abandoned twentieth-century American city is difficult to take in. You think war. But it’s not war. It’s squandering. There is a problem with actually seeing it. You look and look. You photograph and photograph. (133)
And in the end Lessard just lets the descriptions of the place fall upon the reader. You realize she has spent her effort in just trying to take it in—not forgetting what it was, exposing the vulnerability of the city without pedantic recriminations for all the ways it has been done wrong.
In a Youngstown church, listening to a dynamic African-American pastor unpack the biblical narrative of Job, she experiences connection. “This was, by a long shot, the best sermon I have ever heard,” she says. “The fear of another’s vulnerability and the pain of unaccepted forgiveness was such an unusual, complicated, human, daringly painful theme: I know I, for a while, felt no difference between myself and the Youngstowners.”(141)
Connection is a major theme for Lessard. No place she observes is detached from any other place. Pristine countrysides are pristine because of forces that go far beyond the local actors. Suburbs sprawl because of complex issues of race and Cold War civil defense measures. Cities like New York City will survive the transition to the new era because it is large enough to be a command center for the new economy with enough access to and attractiveness for talented, educated workers. Other places, as we saw in the Amazon headquarters 2.0 sweepstakes, will not be so lucky.
Lessard is not offering prescriptions or prophecy here. And her final chapter offering a tentative faith in our human potential for imagination seems a bit forced. What else is there, she seems to say, absent the hand of religion’s God and the hand of work, both of which have receded into the past?
What she is most effective at doing is chronicling the enormity of the shift we are going through. It is a shift of spiritual consequence that should upend our old pieties and notions of the human and divine. And in the move, even the ground beneath our feet can never be the same.