Who or what are Middle Americans?
In “Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans,” Bill Tammeus explores and celebrates the Middle America, which, historically, is roughly the area between the Appalachians and the Sierras. Middle Americans have life choices, values, and styles which are different from inhabitants of the coastal areas where 60% of the population lives. In the end, though, Middle America is more people who share certain interests and values than an actual place.
Tammeus, born in 1945, grew up in Woodstock, Ill., a town on U.S. 14, 60 miles northwest of the Chicago Loop. It was a typical small Middle American town, with a 1950 population of 7,000; Manhattan then had 19,000. It had a few manufacturers, but was mostly agriculturally-based. The town’s neatness, layout, and orderliness were quintessential Middle American.
Although “Woodstock” tells the story of his experiences growing up, he does not exalt himself as much as he analyzes himself and his fellow townsmen in order to understand the nature of Middle America.
His grandparents farmed, but his parents did not. Still, farm value were a major element in his development. As he went through school, he developed a liking for, a creativity with, and an ability to work with, words, images, ideas, and things, which stood him in good stead during his more than 36 years of newspaper work and in writing his three books.
Many Middle American values derived from a farming background. They had, at the core of their values, a supreme respect for decency in dealing with people, and everything followed from that. Tammeus’ generation of Middle Americans grew up valuing certain approaches to life, outlooks, commitments, experiences, relationships, and, most importantly, the ability to adapt to change. They were pragmatic, practical, optimistic, problem-solving, knew that they could rely on others to keep their commitments, and were able to imagine new ways of doing things if needed. They were joiners who valued their membership in the many different community organizations. Celebrities did not impress them: Middle Americans were not interested as in a person’s fame as his achievements, attitudes, and contributions:.
In 1963, Woodstock won the coveted All American City Award. Its eight points were safer city, more jobs, better health, better education, more fun, expanded culture, better living, and better people-typical Middle American values.
Tammeus discusses several other topics as well— the meaning of home, and the importance of personal achievement, childhood hideouts, romance, love, marriage, family, illness, death, change, music, and sports.
How did these things work out in practice in Woodstock?
Participation in sports and other activities was a personal choice, and not valued for winning or loosing, but for learning about oneself, what one could or could not do well. Winning and loosing were the individual’s means to that end.
Tammeus grew up in a town that was white-it had one black family— and was mostly mainline Protestant-it had one Jewish family. He and others just assumed that their way of life was the way things were and were intended to be. Only later, when he went out in the world did he learn otherwise.
In “Woodstock,” Tammeus thinks deeply about issues and, concerning them, then frames questions in plain language. Most of his book presents a view of the small town middle-class existence of his childhood. He admits that life was different for women, non-whites, and poor people, and writes chapters dealing with them— racial issues, bad government and institutional failure, the horrible mistake of the Vietnam war, and the sources of evil are some of his adult concerns which give a more realistic, adult’s view of Middle America.
Most of the three page 34 chapters open with color photos that Tammeus took of scenes in Woodstock, though he does not include a map of the town to help the reader to locate the places that he mentions. His footnotes cite a few books that were important to him and might be of interest to the reader.
Bill Tammeus is a retired Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and columnist for “The Kansas City Star.” For many years, he wrote “Starbeams,” a playful little commentary column on its editorial page. In retirement he writes columns for “The Presbyterian Outlook” and “The National Catholic Reporter,” and has a daily blog, “Faith Matters”.
He has a fluid, enjoyable, even playful, writing style. This 112 page book is a quick and easy read, but saying this is not to take away from the importance of his thoughts on Middle America, for each chapter could be the basis of much more thought and discussion.
Bill Tammeus’ excellent exposition of Middle American values and issues in “Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans” make this a book worth reading if only to help the reader to re-affirm and pass on to new generations the values that he grew up with, but are constantly under challenge by various persons and institutions.
Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident and emeritus senior specialist in music at KSU.