Book Review

“‘Main Street,’ Intellectual History, and the Idea of America”

The Death and Life of Main Street

a review by Robert Greene II

The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community
by Miles Orvell
288 pages. The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Miles Orvell’s work, The Death and Life of Main Street, does what every good intellectual history sets out to do. Orvell situates the idea of “main street” in American history, showing both how this idea has affected American society, and in turn, how American society and technology have affected ideas about main street and the “small town”. He does this by tracing the idea of main street to the beginnings of the United States, and coming all the way to present debates about New Urbanism and city development. Throughout the book, Orvell makes it clear that the idea of main street is one that Americans have always had to grapple with, no matter the era or the political climate. What is different, Orvell argues, is how external factors to the small town, cultural, political, and economic, have affected how Americans interpret and, ultimately, yearn for the myth of the small town.

Orvell, a professor of English and American Studies at Temple University, is no stranger to the study of American intellectual and cultural history. One of his previous books, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (1990), tackled big ideas about American culture and society. He uses the idea of main street to conduct a study looking at American culture. Orvell argues that “although I am not assuming any unitary ethos or unified mentality among the many agents who comprise the society of the United States, I am assuming the existence of a popular culture, created out of American traditions and the mass media, in which a common knowledge of signs and symbols is shared.” (8) The idea of “Main Street”, which Orvell argues is often used in place of “small town” or “community” (although he makes clear those terms don’t mean exactly the same thing) is a central cultural point for being American. In other words, while Orvell argues that a transnational study could be done, and can understand the skepticism of doing large narratives of American history, the idea of the American small town is something worthy of a monograph.

His studies proves that there is much to discuss when it comes to the small town in American history and culture. “It is the argument of this book,” Orvell states, “that Main Street and America are conjoined historically and in the imagination.” (241) He proves this by starting with the very idea of Main Street as a  symbol. “Again and again we find the small town offered as a microcosm of America, yet an American in which conflicts are resolved, differences elided, a world that stands symbolically for order.” (14) Orvell traces this view of the small town through a variety of literary and intellectual works, spanning writers from Walt Whitman to Randolph Bourne in his first chapter, “Main Street Mythologies.” This chapter also includes sections on Disneyland and Normal Rockwell, yet what Orvell is driving at is clear in the next chapter: despite Americans’ veneration for the small town, it has been in serious physical danger since the creation of the Republic.

A combination of factors, whether they be geographic, political, or economic, has caused the gradual disappearance of small towns over time. Yet, despite it being under siege from the forces of modernization, Orvell persuasively argues for the importance of the small town throughout American history. He also shows that the division between the city and the small town, seen time and again in American political discourse and most recently embodied with the red state/blue state split, has gone through intriguing incarnations. For example, his chapter on Sinclair Lewis’ book Main Street shows how in the 1920s the small town was seen as backwards, juxtaposed with a Bohemian big city outlook embraced by Lewis and other writers of the 1920s era. However, despite the battering the idea of the small town took from Lewis, H.L. Mencken, and others, the Great Depression would see the idea of Main Street make a comeback—one that has never really stopped.

The Depression led to many Americans longing for a simpler time and place—somewhere that was isolated from the global economic forces causing considerable hardship for millions of Americans. Main Street became that place. This idealization of the small town was helped considerably by the Farm Security Administrations’ photographic records compiled from 1935 until 1943. These photographs, numbering in the thousands (and including 1,600 color photos) gave Americans a renewed appreciation for the small town, even if the FSA’s initial objectives were, in part, to show the extent of rural poverty in the 1930s. The small town myth would continue on through the Second World War, with Main Street coming to symbolize what Americans were fighting for. This is best shown, argues Orvell, through the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, where small town life and values are contrasted with the infringing modern world and its array of vices. In both these cases, Orvell’s expertise with visual arts and culture really shines, as he brings to life the ways in which Americans in the mid-twentieth century came to cherish the small town life, while rapidly adjusting to an urban and, increasingly, suburban life.

However, does Main Street include everyone? No, argues Orvell, who examines both the myth of Main Street and the reality of such communities as Levittown. He notes works by Arthur Miller (The Crucible) and Philip Roth (“Eli the Fanatic”) among others to show how literature reflected Americans’ anxieties about the small town and the fear of an end to homogeneity within those towns (if it ever existed in reality). The existence of “sun down” towns for example, which discouraged African Americans and others from staying in the town past sun down, shows that the malicious side to small towns could be very explicit and deadly. Despite these realities (and the ways in which they were reflected in popular culture) Americans continue to pursue the myth of the small town. The idea of the small town, a desire for community as some would put it, continued into the rest of the twentieth century, impacting the development of Levittown and the New Urbanism of the last forty years. This New Urbanism, trying to solve the problems urban crime and decay, looked to older ideas of the small town and a vibrant Main Street culture to enhance the living experience of the modern city.

The myth of the small town is still with us today, argues Orvell. He notes the irony that, while the modern city and suburban environments have replaced many small towns, the idea of the small town influences their development, from affecting the look and feel of malls to, as mentioned above, pushing New Urbanism in a small town-flavored direction. With his use of a variety of sources such as visual arts, literature, and the correspondence and public declarations of urban planners, Orvell demonstrates that the idea of the small town will always be with Americans.

Robert Greene II is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of South Carolina in the Department of History.  His interests include 20th Century American History, Political History, and the American South since 1965.  Currently he is researching the rise of “color-blindness” in American political and intellectual thought, and the response of the American Left and Right to that concept.  

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post Robert. Does Orvell comment on how the internet might or has changed the small town? For instance, will the idea of a small town be adopted in some virtual sense? It seems that when you’re talking about Disneyland or movies you’re in some sense already there.

  2. I don’t recall him talking about the Internet, except in the ways in which the web is a factor in today’s life that hasn’t had much influence on how we think about the small town. While things such as have had an impact on the ways in which people shop, it hasn’t had an appreciable affect on the yearning for “Main Street”.

  3. Robert: Thanks for reviewing this book! Questions:

    (1) Does Orvell discuss the relationship between religion and main street/small towns (considering that churches, usually multiple denominations, are a staple of American “main streets”)?
    (2) Does Orvell discuss how neighborhoods (in cities, large and medium-sized) mimic small towns/main streets? – TL

  4. 1) Not really, now that I think about it. Religion doesn’t have much of a presence in the book, although now that you mention it, something like that would have been useful.

    2) Yes. The mimicking of main street by those neighborhoods, as well as the attempt to revitalize real “main streets” performed in the late 1990s as part of New Urbanism is heavily discussed.

    3. Small-town anti-intellectualism: it’s really more talked about as part of Sinclair Lewis’ literary works in the 1920s. The battle between Main Street and the Bohemian East Coast (or at least the stereotyped version of this early culture war) is given an entire chapter. And Orvell does mention, at the beginning, the lingering conflict between urban intellectualism and small town anti-intellectualism. What the book’s really saying about that debate, at least in how I perceive the argument, is that while most intellectuals may be perceived to be disdainful of the small town, nonetheless the idea of a Main Street has such a hold on American society from the 1930s until the present that it can’t be let go.

    • In fact, the more I think about this book, the greater theme of “nostalgia” constantly comes up for me. There’s no other way to explain it. Now, a section perhaps on how intellectuals in recent American history have bemoaned the so-called “flyover” country and its values may have been useful, but that sounds like a book in its own right.

      I’m going to start “Inventing the Egghead” next as part of my personal reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the themes in that book tie in to “Death and Life of Main Street” in regards to how cultural elites view the small town, and how Americans view intellectuals.

  5. This talk of “Small Town” reminds me of the idea of “Pastoralism/Pastoral Life” in the United States–and more precisely its relation with the “myth and symbol” school of thought during the nascent American studies movement. I wonder if Orvell makes any mention of this, or the works of Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx.

  6. Robert, enjoyed your thoughts here. I wonder if you might contact me off-blog because we’re working on some similar stuff on civil rights and also “colorblindness.” I’d like to share some recent work with you. I don’t know if it’s kosher to post an email address here, so look me up through Belmont University where I teach. Oddly enough, I’m also reviewing “Inventing the Egghead” for a different venue as we speak. This means I won’t read your review until after I’m done with mine, but I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    • “Colorblindness” of course remains the ideal. But as one fellow said the other day,

      “I am so old that I can remember when most of the people promoting race hate were white.

      Apparently other Americans also recognize that the sources of racism are different today from what they were in the past. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 31% of blacks think that most blacks are racists, while 24% of blacks think that most whites are racist.

      The difference between these percentages is not great, but it is remarkable nevertheless. After all, generations of blacks fought the white racism from which they suffered for so long. If many blacks themselves now think that most other blacks are racist, that is startling.

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