Synopses & Reviews
For more than a century, the term "Main Street" has conjured up nostalgic images of American small-town life. Representations exist all around us, from fiction and film to the architecture of shopping malls and Disneyland. All the while, the nation has become increasingly diverse, exposing tensions within this ideal. In Main Street
, Miles Orvell wrestles with the mythic allure of the small town in all its forms, illustrating how Americans continue to reinscribe these images on real places in order to forge consensus about inclusion and civic identity, especially in times of crisis.
Orvell underscores the fact that Main Street was never what it seemed; it has always been much more complex than it appears, as he shows in his discussions of figures like Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Frank Capra, Thornton Wilder, Margaret Bourke-White, and Walker Evans. He argues that translating the overly tidy cultural metaphor into real spaces--as has been done in recent decades, especially in the new urbanist planned communities of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany--actually diminishes the communitarian ideals at the center of this nostalgic construct. Orvell investigates the way these tensions play out in a variety of cultural realms and explores the rise of literary and artistic traditions that deliberately challenge the tropes and assumptions of small-town ideology and life.
"In this thought-provoking study, Temple University English and American studies professor Orvell (American Photography) examines cultural myths, simplifications, and media images of Smalltown, U.S.A. According to Orvell, the small town is 'both place and an idea,' with advocates and detractors imbuing it with their own value judgments and imposing a simplistic one-size-fits-all dogma on the diversity and complexity of genuine smalltown life. Though Sinclair Lewis's Main Street 'shatter the complacency of small-town America' in 1920, Main Street came to occupy 'a mythic plane' in the 1930s and 1940s. Orvell reviews economic and technological innovations, ranging from mail-order catalogues and rail shipping to the social impact of the automobile. More recently, the New Urbanism movement sees the 'warm and fuzzy memories of the past' as a legitimate model for new communities. As Orvell notes, these memories often deliberately ignore lynchings and exclusionary practices. He astutely observes that the smalltown myth 'nurture a sense of community in a society that is otherwise a scene of fragmentation and social disintegration.' Illus." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Bold and provocative. Orvell shows how Main Street as an ideology has been suffused with the values of consumerism, thus undercutting the personal bonds originally associated with the term."--Howard Gillette Jr., Rutgers University-Camden
"In this clear-eyed and lively history of one of the most enduring icons of American life, Miles Orvell shows how Main Street as a concept has simultaneously attracted and repelled Americans, offering them both an imaginary homeland and a spiritual wasteland. While some have yearned to "get back" to the supposed innocence and small-town virtues of Main Street,others have decried its suffocating conformity. Orvell brilliantly reconsiders such figures as Walt Whitman, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Sinclair Lewis, Frank Capra, Norman Rockwell, Robert and Helen Lynd, and Jane Jacobs, whose famous disquisition on the American metropolis Orvell alludes to in his title. This book shows why exiles on Main Street, along with more contented inhabitants, can never let it go."
-David M. Lubin, Wake Forest University
"Miles Orvell examines the American Main Street as both history and ideology, as both a visual convention and a controversial symbol, as the lost space of the past and a source of inspiration for new urban experiments. Throughout, this book is a tour de force of interdisciplinary research and an exemplary work in American Studies."
-Professor David E. Nye, author of American Technological Sublime
"Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above."
"An eye-opening exploration of the mythology and culturally laden concepts behind small towns and Main Street."
-The Annals of Iowa
"An invigorating kaleidoscopic tour as different elements pop into prominence in different chapters. . . . A fascinating exploration of the transformation of the small town in the national imagination from slough of black-slapping mediocrity to embodiment of democratic virtue."
-Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
"This book is rich with literary and visual examples."
-Journal of American History
"A creative, cohesive approach. . . . Orvell's analysis is astute and readable. . . . A compelling and useful text."
-North Carolina Historical Review
"An admirable job of mapping the symbolic meanings of small-town America. . . . Lucid and engaging."
-Journal of Historical Geography
About the Author
Miles Orvell is professor of English and American studies at Temple University. He is author of several books, including American Photography and The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940.