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Nostalgic, scholarly look at America's small-town tradition and values; Small Town America: A Narrative History 1620-The Present, by Richard Lingeman. New York: G. p. Putnam's Sons. $15.95.

A book about towns could hardly be timed better than in an election year when the politics of nostalgia is on the rise. The ideal American town is almost synonymous with all those calls from the hustings for traditional values and against big government. How such attitudes have flourished, faltered, and survived over the centuries is central to the story which Richard Lingeman tells with the zeal of a researcher and the sympathy of a man who, like so many of us, left his hometown for the city.

"Every town a world within itself, with order, peace, and harmony. . . ."

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These words from a 1794 poem by Timothy Dwight are among the few on the subject that Mr. Lingeman does not refer to. But he shows how, even before they were written, the American town was ceasing to be a world within itself.

Ironically enough, it was the War of Independence that foreshadowed a reduction in the extraordinary autonomy achieved by the early towns. The revolution began the march toward strong state and national governments.

Town builders moved to the free open spaces farther and farther west, as Mr. Lingeman describes in absorbing detail -- including bits on the cowboy as a credit risk (very good) and the reason covered wagons traveled abreast rather than in the often pictured single file (to avoid each other's dust). Some people tried to duplicate the tight-knit, church-centered, beholden-to-no-one towns of the past. Traditions did linger in the midst of change. But towns would never again quite match Dwight's dream of self-sufficient "order, peace, and harmony," except perhaps in the eye of memory or on the lips of the campaigner.

As the United States prepares for new infusions of Hispanic influence, it is interesting to be reminded that the idea of town-ness was not unique to the New England settlers. In California under Mexico there were not only the virtually sovereign missions, with their feudal organization, but the free towns known as pueblos. Set up for the farmers who grew food for the military, the pueblos resembled some aspects of the New England towns. Lands were divided for common and individual use. Once established, a pueblo could elect its own officials.

For a book of such serious ambitions "Small Town America" is surprising ini its editorial lapses ("lead" for "led," "procede" for "proceed," Page 449 indexed as Page 499). The generally suitable and often pithy prose sometimes gets heavy, overwrought, or just possibly nonobjective. But such prices are small for the value received.

Ranging over the pungent literary criticisms as well as heartfelt praises of the small town in later years, Mr. Lingeman finds their source in the lasting tension between the individual and the community going back to frontier days. There is a yearning to belong -- and not to belong.

In an early passage about that change for the towns brought by the American Revolution, Mr. Lingeman sums up a complex of attitudes that underlie a 1980 election in which, apart from the issues of war and peace and economy, a prime question is how values can be maintained without being imposed:

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"No longer could townspeople be preoccupied with purely local issues; however remote and parochial they remained in many ways, they became a part of a larger national scene. . . . Homogeneity would give way to pluralism.

"But only to a degree. Many traditions of small-town life would persist through the ensuing years -- the conformity, the suspicion of strangers and new ideas, the informal, personal politics, the avoidance of divisive issues, the reliance on accommodation, the 'neighborliness' accompanied by a proclivity to pry into the private lives of those neighbors, and the sporadic outbursts of populist opposition to centralized authority, whether governmental or economic. . . . The idea that in forming themselves into a town men and women were fundamentally re-creating some ideal human society of law and orderliness, with obedience to authority standing as the alternative to chaos and darkness, undured as the pioneers pushed farther into the wilderness, even though it took newer forms."

And, in a late passage, Mr. Lingeman sets down a possible answer for towns from a French observer of the 1970s, anthopologist Herve Varenne, studying the Americans 150 years after Tocqueville. What did Varenne find in an Illinois town? Love. "Love?" writes Mr. Lingeman. Yes, love as the mediator between individualism and the community, love existing in the midst of diversity, love as "the merging of separatenesses."

Well, there was a campaign song once -- if only in a Broadway show -- that said, "Love is sweeping the country!" Such a message from America's towns might be better than the divisiveness threatened by some of the current rhetoric.

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