316 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 color plates., 90 halftones, notes, index
Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community
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 The Death and Life of 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.
"Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above."
"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
"Orvell brilliantly reveals the complex national governing myth (and the realities) of Main Street America. This book offers a fresh look at Main Street, highlighting its racial, class- and gender-based faultlines and featuring the voices that have vied to sustain or subvert it--literary, historical, urbanist, corporate. A splendid achievement."
--Cecelia Tichi, Vanderbilt 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
"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
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