Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Andy Griffith's legacy and the rural-urban culture wars

It is perhaps not surprising that obituaries and features about Andy Griffith, who died yesterday, feature frequent mentions of rurality and its proxies, e.g., "rustic," "mountain yokel," and "small-town."  (To be fair, these refer not necessarily/always to Griffith, but also to his roles).  In fact, today's front-page New York Times feature by Neil Genzlinger is headlined (in the print edition) "Sheriff Who Gave Stature to Small-Town Smarts."  The lede to that story focuses on the role of the rural-urban divide in today's culture wars, a topic I've written about here.  Genzlinger writes:
You could argue that the defining issue in the culture and political wars that dominate American life isn't health care or big government or religion.  It is whether small-town is smarter than urban, or vice versa.  And that makes Andy Griffith, who died Tuesday at 86, a pivotal figure in those wars.  Not for the man he was, but for the character who made him a fixture in American living rooms:  Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry.
Sheriff Taylor, among the most popular and enduring characters television has produced, came along at a time, 1960, when things weren't looking so good for the rural-is-smarter argument, especially as it pertained to the South.
I have argued that the rural-urban divide and its role in the culture wars are related to class (read more here), a topic that crops up in the Times obituary:
[Griffith's] father was a foreman at a furniture factory.  Mr. Griffith described his childhood as happy, but he said he never forgot the pain he felt when someone called him "white trash."  
The obituary does not specify if someone in Mount Airy, North Carolina, Griffith's home town, called him that name, or if it was a barb slung by a city slicker.  I would expect the former to know the difference between "white trash" and working class, and it sounds like Griffith's family was the latter.  More cosmopolitan folks are less likely to understand that distinction.  Read more here.  

This excerpt from Genzlinger's story situates The Andy Griffith Show in the pop culture of the time.
The show imagined a reassign world of fishin' holes, ice cream socials and rock-hard family values during a decade that grew progressively tumultuous.  Its vision of rural simplicity (captured in its memorable theme song, whistled over opening credits) was part of a TV trend the began with "The Real McCoys" on ABC in 1957 and later included "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Petticoat Junction," "Green Acres" and "Hee Haw."
Of course, in the 1980s and 1990s, Griffith went on to play a defense lawyer in a series called "Matlock." 

I love the folksiness of this Griffith quote, which closes the Times obituary of him and suggests that he --and not only Sheriff Andy Taylor--was indeed a bit of a rustic.  In it, Griffith refers to the fact he was definitely acting when playing Sheriff Andy Taylor--that he was not simply being himself.  He took it as a compliment that people thought the contrary.  
You're supposed to believe in the character.  You're not supposed to think, "Gee, Andy's acting up a storm."

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