We welcome a guest post today from Miles Orvell, author of The Death and Life of Main Street: 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, 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. In the following post, he discusses some familiar “main streets” in popular culture, from TV to radio, fiction to film.—ellen
The recent death of Andy Griffith has sparked a good deal of comment on what The Andy Griffith Show represented in moral and political terms—how it showed America the sanity and value of the small town at a time when towns, and especially Southern towns, were being left behind by the continuing power of cities and the new power of suburbia. Griffith’s character, Sheriff Taylor, was a calm, shrewd, fair-minded presence, and his quiet manner and practical wisdom consistently proved the virtue of the small town against the hapless outsider from the big city who might wander into, and temporarily disrupt, the placidity of small town life. The Sheriff’s persona appealed not only to a South that welcomed the respect and esteem that Mayberry engendered; it also appealed to city and suburban viewers who could laugh at their country cousins (especially Don Knotts’s Barney Fife) but could at the same time find in Mayberry an innocence and security that was a touchstone for American values.
In fact, the small town has often functioned for artists, playwrights, filmmakers, and novelists as the perfect microcosm to explore American values and politics. Because it is a contained universe, it can seemingly give us a cross-section of human life in miniature. Consider just a few examples.
Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon®, created in the early 1970s, has occupied a place as dearly beloved as Mayberry, though for the smaller, more elite audience of public radio. Keillor’s cast of regular characters, each an idiosyncratic creation, along with his evocation of the town itself (e.g., the Chatterbox Café™), has made Lake Wobegon as concrete a place as any in American popular culture. Keillor’s radio stories typically take place within the closed universe of the town, from whose perspective the world outside seems alien, troubled, and to the chauvinism of Lake Wobegon (where everyone is “above average”), underachieving. (The “Lake Wobegon Effect” describes the tendency to over-value one’s own world and achievements.)
Whatever foibles the town exhibits are relatively mild and self-contained—rivalry, jealousy, ambition—and the town’s rituals are usually front and center, from funerals to marriages and birthdays. Lake Wobegon is a place we want to return to, far from the madding crowd that is contemporary American society and politics. Even if Keillor’s town harbors its own eccentricity and lunacy, for many in its audience it represents a simpler and better world than the complex and violent one that is outside.
Mayberry and Lake Wobegon, as different as they are, have become icons of what’s best, or most lovable, in the American small town and by extension in some idealized version of America itself. We like to think this is what the United States is, or was, or might be.
Yet an entirely different version of America can be found in some other representations of the small town, beginning with Mark Twain’s “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899). Twain had typically set his fictions in small towns, from Tom Sawyer to Pudd’nhead Wilson, but Hadleyburg, a late fiction, was something else entirely. Hadleyburg is Twain’s opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the small town and the hypocrisy of America, for the town prides itself on being a paragon of morality only to discover to its intense embarrassment that it is a place of extreme turpitude, especially visible in the so-called leading citizens of the town. In Twain’s plot a stranger, seeking revenge on the town for an offense committed long ago, comes into Hadleyburg and offers a huge reward to the citizen who can rightfully claim it. In the end it is the universal dishonesty of the town’s elite, competing for the prize, that is revealed, and Hadleyburg’s vaunted reputation for incorruptibility evaporates in sulphurous fumes. Twain’s satire was taking a dark turn in his later work, with Hadleyburg serving as a stand-in for the whole of American culture at a time when the greed of robber barons and the new corporations was remaking the country into a travesty of its putative values.
Twain’s pessimism would be echoed a hundred years later, in a more extreme and violent way, by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, whose Dogville (2003) likewise constructs a fable using the small town as a microcosm of society. (Dogville is the first part of an as yet uncompleted trilogy, called USA—Land of Opportunities.) In Dogville a woman named Grace, in flight from gangsters, appears out of nowhere and seeks refuge in a town that prides itself on its goodness; and the town does give her shelter and hiding. But gradually the worst, the very worst, is brought out in the inhabitants of the town, and especially in the men, who enslave and rape their hapless guest. Only at the end do the dreaded gangsters return, giving Grace the opportunity to turn the tables on the town (for she is, it turns out, the daughter of the chief gangster). She has the town burned and the inhabitants murdered.
Mayberry, Lake Wobegon, Hadleyburg, Dogville—these are extreme representations of the small town and they are in direct conflict with one another. Taken together, they reveal the contradictions of the American twentieth and twenty-first centuries, contradictions between wealth and poverty, city and town, corporation and individual, order and disorder, civility and criminality, tranquility and violence. The small town has no single fixed meaning in American culture: in the face of the contradictions in our society, it is the perfect mirror in which to see reflected the many contrary forces that drive us.
Miles Orvell is professor of English and American studies at Temple University. He is author of several books, including The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community; American Photography; and The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940.