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.