An aerial view of a lit street through a small town
#67: Virginia Stem Owens 1994
A Local Habitation and a Name, April 11, 2023
In Episode #67 of Rewrite Radio, Virginia Stem Owens muses on the difficulties, disappointments, and goodness of real communities. She encourages her audience to seek genuine “local habitations” over abstract “airy nothings.” Theme music is Modern Attempt by TrackTribe and June 11 by Andrew Starr.
Major works discussed:
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Short stories by Flannery O’Connor
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Ben Plantinga: In Episode 67 of Rewrite Radio, Virginia Stem Owens muses on the difficulties, disappointments, and goodness of real communities. She encourages her audience to seek genuine “local habitations” over abstract “airy nothings.”
My name is Ben Plantinga. I’m a Hudson-Townsend student fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, and a Writing major at Calvin University.
Virginia Stem Owens is the author of over 15 books, including Caring for Mother: A Daughter’s Long Goodbye, Wind River Winter, and three suspense novels: A Multitude of Sins, Congregation, and At Point Blank. Her 1990 work If You Do Love Old Men received the Carr P. Collins Award for best non-fiction book of the year from the Texas Institute of Letters.
Owens spent several years directing the Milton Center for Christian Writers at Kansas Newman College, before moving home to Huntsville, Texas, to work in prison ministry. In 1994, she spoke at the Festival of Faith & Writing, then called Contemporary Christian Writers in Community.
Now, from the 1994 Festival of Faith and Writing, Virginia Stem Owens.
Virginia Stem Owens: I'll start with a quotation from A Midsummer Night's Dream, since I pilfered my title from there—at least, part of my title: “As imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name." And I've titled this “Huntsville, Texas: A Local Habitation and a Name.”
When I was first invited to this conference, I have to admit to a certain amount of skepticism about the title. After all, I can recognize the peculiar drone of a buzzword as well as the next pessimist. So I was immediately on my guard. I started ruminating right away on just what the Dutch Calvinist Mafia of Grand Rapids might be up to with this title.
For one thing, I already knew from perusing current catalogs from publishing houses that any number of new titles included the word community. Ever since Robert Bellah et communitas made such a splash with Habits of the Heart in 1985, authors—scholarly and otherwise—have been chastising us for our rampant individualism.
[5:01] Though to tell the truth, I find a lot more evidence in our culture for solipsism than individuality—a distinction that's not always made clear. Nevertheless, recapturing a sense of community has become the spiritual and moral mandate for the decade, community being perhaps the one word religious and secular folk alike cherish.
The word has in fact provided us the small beginnings of a shared vocabulary of piety. Our problems may not completely disappear once we regain our sense of community, but we will be better equipped, or rather, better empowered to deal with them.
The term “sense of community,” however, like its predecessor, “self-image,” has about as much substance to it as a damp Kleenex. Both terms reveal our desperation to reassure ourselves, exposing our fatal penchant for denial. They are akin to that other coinage of the final quarter of this century: "Are you comfortable with that?"
We are forever soliciting from others their level of comfort, or discomfort, or asserting our own—as though that emotional fact had some retroactive effect on reality. But is comfort all we're allowed to ask out of life? Whatever happened to hungering and thirsting after? Or even lusting after? Do we secretly fear that if we ask for too much, we won't get anything at all? Do we hope that by asking for no more than comfort, we'll at least be guaranteed a life that's bearable?
The term “self-image” and even “sense of community” appear engendered by the same lowered expectations. As long as the image looks good, we can overlook the reality. And give us that "airy nothing," a mere sense of community, rather than the "bodied forth" real thing, which might prove too much for us.
Well, such were my initial peevish thoughts on the subject. Then I began to get really paranoid.
We are meeting in an academic venue, and though my own concerns as a writer are not academic, I had the kind of education I imagined most of the conference designers did: the kind that keeps you looking over your shoulder, checking to make sure you're not in the line of fire from the current scholarly gunfight going on around you.
Maybe, for instance, the inventors of this title were equating community with audience, as in audience analysis—or the Stanley Fish version, "interpretive community." This made me even more uneasy, uh, not to mention uncomfortable. Interpretive communities are the turf of critics, not writers. And even though writers are constantly concerned about their audience, it's most often in terms of sales—a matter much too crass for an academic setting, certainly at Calvin College.
To talk about community in such a calculating way would merely embarrass us all. Then I would have to descend into the marketing department's term for community: “focus groups.”
But neither focus groups nor the more respectable term, “audience,” have much to do with communities. As I've indicated, those categories are too calculated, and there's absolutely nothing calculated about actual communities, which always have a local habitation and a name.
So after forcing my way through the thorny hedge of theological rhetoric, sociological piety, and market speak, I felt I had finally tracked the word community to its natural habitat, where it means something everyone understands without thinking much about it because it's simply where we live. At least as I experience them, communities—like culture—are happenstance affairs, cobbled together from circumstance rather than intention.
[9:57] In the 1950s, Flannery O'Connor responded to an editorial in Life Magazine calling on contemporary writers to give us something that really represents this country. Of course, in 1950, they didn't have the term community yet, so they just said country. O'Connor had ruminated on just what writers of her time might take as this hypothetical country.
She wrote, "The country that the writer is concerned with in the most objective way is the region that most immediately surrounds him, or simply the country with its body of manners that he knows well enough to employ."
And this, I think, is what real communities are. Not theological abstractions or figments of our moral pretensions, but local habitations with names. The region that immediately surrounds us—or, in a word, places.
If you type the word “community” on your computer and hit the alternate F1 key for the WordPerfect thesaurus, it lists locale, vicinity, district, and neighborhood as preferred synonyms. Geography, one of those homely subjects not taught in school anymore, is one of the necessary ingredients of a community. Have you ever noticed how when you meet someone on strange turf—at a conference, for example—one of the first things you ask is “Where are you from?” Even before the ever-popular “What do you do?” most people like to peg others by.
In this age of mobility—not only upward and downward, but sideways and back and forth—geography still defines us. People are most frequently—and often most lastingly—identified by their place of origin. For instance, I have one son-in-law from New York. He has his character constantly analyzed by our family in light of that unfortunate circumstance. My other son-in-law is from Wisconsin, and though he has only been home to that state twice in the last 12 years, every time I see this boy, he is wearing a Green Bay sweatshirt.
When my daughters confide their husbands' failings to me, I counsel them to be patient. These boys can't help where they were born and raised. Their manners, their characters are a function of their geography. Everyone knows New Yorkers are hyperactive and Wisconsinites are emotionally challenged.
When Greg Wolfe and I meet new people in our travels, we always start off by apologizing for the fact that we live in Wichita. It's a common failing amongst Kansans to always apologize for being from Kansas. But actually I quickly qualify that remark by adding that I spend four months of the year at home in Texas. Otherwise, I would feel that my identity would be compromised with these strangers. I've tried thinking of Wichita—the place where I spend two-thirds of my time now—as my community, but it simply doesn't work.
I do have a certain affection for the place and many of the natives there, but it's not my community. Again, partly by circumstance, partly from my own recalcitrance, I remain an outsider there after almost four years. I don't feel particularly bad about this, because I do have another community, another place where I do feel at home.
I know that place is waiting for me and will still be there when I return, whether temporarily or for good. I left it once for what I thought was good, thinking I would never return. But when I showed up again after 16 years, there it sat, unperturbed either by my fickle desertion or my abashed reappearance.
[14:51] Whenever a writer leaves home and stays gone, O'Connor counseled, he does so at great peril to that balance between principle and fact, between judgment and observation, which is so necessary to maintain if fiction is to be true. Wanting my own fiction to be true—not to mention nonfiction, which is an even harder task—I've taken her advice and written about my community, or as the people in Walker County pronounce the word, leaving out the third syllable, commun'ty.
My community has a name: Huntsville, Texas. And that's what I intend to tell you about now since, unlike moral abstractions, I find it endlessly fascinating.
Huntsville is a town of about 25,000 that sits beside the interstate running between Houston and Dallas. It has several claims to what it believes is fame, the first being that it's headquarters for the state prison system, harboring more criminals per square foot than probably any other town in the country.
Although over 35 prison units are scattered around the state of Texas, most of them in our county, originally there was only one stone edifice for incarcerating our misfits. Built in 1849, three blocks from the center of town, it looked more like an ornate castle than a prison. During the Civil War, convicts smelted cannon balls there for the Confederacy. Later, the last Comanche chief, Satanta, threw himself from an upper story rather than face continued confinement.
After World War II, the castle was torn down and replaced with a red brick block house, which Huntsville Natives still call the walls. It remains the most famous of the prison units, since it is where the state of Texas executes its criminals. Originally, this chore was accomplished with a rope. Later, the state switched to electrocution in Old Sparky, a name coined by inmates for the electric chair.
After the 20-year ban on the death penalty, executions are now accomplished by lethal injections of pancuronium chloride. But Old Sparky is still with us, enshrined across the street from the courthouse in what was once Goolsby Drugstore and is now a thriving enterprise called the Texas Prison Museum.
The prison looms over the community of Huntsville and colors both its past and its present. Farmers in Walker County used to be able to rent convicts by the day. I have, or had, a great uncle who was killed by an escaped convict who had worked for him once in that capacity. All the trees and shrubs around the state museum in Huntsville are planted by the hands of thieves and murderers.
During the period when my grandfather worked briefly as a guard at the walls, the natives of Huntsville still referred to that edifice as the penitentiary. Or as they say it, they're at the pen'tentiary. But ever since penitence became an alien concept in our culture, this local habitation has gone through a series of name changes reflecting public discomfort with its grisly business. With every change, the name gets longer, as if to dilute the dread and revulsion associated with crime and retribution.
Nevertheless, the prison remains the county's chief employer, convicts being our only cash crop. If the general populace of Texas were suddenly to decide to go straight, my community of Huntsville would dry up and blow away.
The next largest employer is Sam Houston State University. It, too, has gone through a number of name changes. When a great uncle of mine enrolled there after World War I, it was still called the Huntsville Normal School. It is currently named after Texas’ national hero and first president: a six-foot alcoholic politician who married a five-foot Baptist lady of delicate disposition, who saw to it that he dried out and got baptized in the nearest creek.
[20:03] When he retired to Huntsville, deposed as governor because he vetoed the secession bill in 1861, he was not exactly welcome in the community. The Civil War was long over, and Sam Houston even longer in his grave, before a monument commemorating him was finally erected in the city cemetery. Now the cemetery where both the hero of Texas and my own grandfather are buried is bordered by the town's public housing project.
I myself live outside the city limits, across the street—or across the dirt road, actually—from an establishment that calls itself Outlaw Gap Golf Course and Barbershop. I'm not making this up. Old man Outlaw cuts my father's hair every two weeks while they exchange the latest gossip about the neighborhood.
Our latest neighbor is retired from Dow Chemical. He moved his family from Houston, so his 16-year-old son could escape the crime and violence of city schools. He even bought his son a couple of horses, the better to experience the benefits of country air and the discipline of animal husbandry. The last time I saw the boy, however, he was walking up the dirt road toward the highway, carrying a saddle he was planning on pawning in town.
Well, I could regale you for hours with historical, economic, and criminal facts about Huntsville, but the details of my community's literary climate are soon told. Unfortunately, the president of the local book club is 93 years old. And no one has offered to take on the responsibility for slaking Huntsville's thirst for literature once she's gone. Video stores far outnumber bookstores in our town. In fact, the college bookstore and an establishment called Rainbow Bibles and Gifts prove more than adequate to supply Huntsville's current reading needs.
My community, as you can see, is no seething cauldron of literati. But that doesn't bother me, because neither were Salem, Massachusetts; Hannibal, Missouri; or Milledgeville, Georgia; when Hawthorne, Twain and O'Connor lived in those towns. Why should writers live in such cultural backwaters? Well, because when you come right down to it, the last thing a writer needs living next door is another writer.
While it's true Hawthorne served a stint in Concord, that hotbed of transcendental scribblers, he went back to where he came from to write The Scarlet Letter. And Mark Twain left Hannibal for bright lights in big cities, it's true, but he spent most of his years on the road or at sea after that, trying to find that place again.
Flannery O'Connor probably would've ended up in New York herself if she hadn't been struck down with lupus, providentially, some of us think. As the years passed, she came to see her need for Andalusia and Milledgeville. She wrote, "It is a great blessing, perhaps the greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others have to go elsewhere to seek."
What a writer needs from a community is exactly what my community provides me with in abundance. Like Salem, Hannibal, and Milledgeville, Huntsville is a town you can get your teeth into. All these communities were places where ordinary people just happened to live, some of whom just turned out to be writers. They were full of characters: preachers who seduce lonely women, parents who abuse their children, children who run away, greedy land owners, crafty field hands, convicts who murder hapless grandmothers.
[24:56] And they were full of interesting stuff, too. Houses with an excess of gables, immense rivers running by them. Peacocks roosting in trees around the shanties of the hired help. Prisons. The work of Hawthorne, Twain and O'Connor is marked—and in fact, is dependent upon—the communities that bred them.
Without the dark history of Salem, we would've had no scarlet letter. Without Hannibal, Huck Finn would not have floated down the Mississippi into our national consciousness. Without Milledgeville, we would be denied Ruby Turpin and the Misfit. It took real places to produce these people—not some abstract literary marketplace that is no place at all.
Sanitized, disembodied concepts of community are, in fact, antithetical to writing. The isolated imagination is easily corrupted by theory, O'Connor warned, but the writer inside his community seldom has such a problem. Local habitations act as a sort of air purifier for a writer, electrostatically disabling pernicious particles of ideology with reality's superior polar voltage.
A writer's community, then, is really no different from anyone else's community. It's a place—a place where one happens to get born, or live, or work. Communities are neither intentional nor abstract. Like life, they happen. And like places, communities are limited by time and space, conditions which we mortals are always trying to escape because they make us distinctly uncomfortable.
They remind us of our limitations; that no matter how much control we gain over nature, no matter how technological reproduction becomes, we are not the ones who choose where, or to whom, we are born. Someone else—often unwittingly and in the heat of passion—chooses that for us. And even test tubes will not change that.
The very fact that we work so hard inventing mental abstractions we call communities shows how desperate we are to escape the limitations of place. There's a kind of spiritual claustrophobia that assaults the mind and heart, tempting us to believe in some metaphysically greener pasture, a mental construct with no precisely local habitation and with names like Utopia or Aragorn.
At times, we are so impatient or despairing of our local habitation that we're willing to sacrifice their murky reality for clean abstraction. Given a choice, in our worst moments, we would throw over not only Salem, Hannibal, and Milledgeville, but Bethlehem and Nazareth as well, for some incorporeal existence invulnerable to accidents of time and space.
Nevertheless, all these places remain distressingly real communities, the latter two—Bethlehem and Nazareth—having resisted conceptualizing for several millennia now. In fact, you can still see them in living and often bloody color on the evening news.
It is indeed imagination's job to underscore these very limitations, to deplatonize the universe, to body forth the airy nothings of our private conceptualizings, to turn them to shapes and give them a local habitation and a name. Unless we maintain as firm a grip as possible on these local habitations, we tend to float off into the void.
Not being native to such ethereal regions, we enter them unequipped with natural protection and thus are prey to all sorts of disembodied spirits who are themselves seeking incarnation, as the Gerasene demoniac and the pigs learned.
[29:52] Strange, isn't it, that we should desire the freedom of disembodiment while the spirit world lusts after a body? But without local habitations, without names like Nazareth and Bethlehem or even Huntsville, religion becomes philosophy, earth becomes environment, and you become an actuarial function.
So I beseech you, therefore, brethren, as Jesus did the Gerasene demoniac, go back to your own hometown. You'll no doubt find that the people there are still obsessing about those pigs or about the potholes or the politicians, but like the convalescent madman, that's where we're to tell our story. Because it's the setting for the story God is still telling.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.