When I was a child in the Knoxville City Schools, I was required to read Christy by Catherine Marshall. While not the only reason it was required (I can only imagine that the explicit Christian context didn’t hurt), a central reason was that the book described Appalachian community life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Catherine Marshall’s mother was a teacher in a small community in Virginia, and the town in the novel was based on a town in Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.
I will be honest that I don’t remember much about the book. However, one chapter has stayed with me over the years. One of the central characters is the preacher, David. Like Christy, David is an outsider in the community, but thoroughly committed to his people. In one chapter a member of the community needs to clear a field to be plowed. This becomes a work of the whole community. The men gather, and each takes a portion of the field to clear with scythes and axes. David steps up to do so, too. This comes as a surprise to the community. He’s not a farmer, used to the tools, or even to the hard physical work it entailed. And, then, too, he’s the preacher! He insists; and even though it takes him much longer to finish, he gets his part done.
What has long stayed with me about this is David’s determination to give of himself, at, really, great expense, for the good of one family, and to model serving the whole community.
But, then, the whole chapter was an example of a community coming together to serve one another. Once upon a time, that was a common example of American values. Perhaps from recent movies we attribute it especially to Amish communities; but it was once a more general idea. One of the major scenes in the musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, takes place at a barn raising. Communities gathered to help because there were things to accomplish that no one person could do.
There is, in American public life, that countervailing theme of the individual - commonly called in arts and letters “the rugged individual.” It’s been pitched at us especially since the Reagan Administration as the model of American freedom. But, American freedom, and American history, has also involved individuals sharing common purpose, working as communities to accomplish things no individual alone could do - like building a barn; or flattening the Coronavirus curve.