McCrary on Orvell, 'The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space and Community'

Miles Orvell
Charles McCrary

Miles Orvell. The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space and Community. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. xiii + 286 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3568-5.

Reviewed by Charles McCrary (FSU) Published on H-Memory (April, 2014) Commissioned by Linda Levitt

The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space and Community

“Main Street” remains a powerful trope in American society, serving as a stand-in for small towns, community, family values, and small businesses: a simpler, purer, more “authentic” alternative to suburbia, big box retailers, corporate America, and the big city. Main Street exists in rhetoric, but also in reality. Though Main Streets seems to be on the decline as Americans leave small towns and companies like Wal-Mart destroy “mom-and-pop” stores, the idea of Main Street persists and spurs on new trends in urban planning that attempt to recreate this bygone form of American life. Miles Orvell’s The Death and Life of Main Street addresses all these angles and more. It is a laudable and difficult task, involving more plates than most scholars can keep spinning, and Orvell accomplishes it compellingly.

Orvell examines “Main Street” from two different but related angles: first, the idea of Main Street as a trope or signifier; second, the history of that which Main Street signifies. This delicate balancing act makes Orvell’s work so stimulating and productive, and the tension—are we talking about the idea or the actual thing?—persists throughout the book. “In short,” Orvell states at the outset, “I am interested in Main Street as an icon and as an ideology that contains contradictions and tensions visible at each critical stage of its evolution through the twentieth century” (p. 3). To satisfy this interest, Orvell utilizes an impressively wide range of data, following tropes across disciplinary boundaries to wherever seems relevant. For this reason, the topic itself is messy, but Orvell is a largely reliable guide.

American memories of Main Street, Orvell argues, are mythologized. However, as he demonstrates in the first chapter, this mythologizing is not an entirely post-facto process. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, artists were using Main Street to represent and idealize individual towns. By the turn of the twentieth century, the trope of Main Street as a way to depict nostalgically the better aspect of a town, region, or way of life was already well established. Orvell writes, “To the extent that Main Street has embedded itself indelibly as an archetype in the contemporary American mind, it is largely a function of created memory—not, we might say, firsthand memory, but a kind of secondhand, ersatz memory, a collective memory, given form in the many materializations of the small town—from Williamsburg to Disneyland—that have marked twentieth-century culture and continue powerfully into our own time” (p. 23). Thus, revitalizations of “Main Street” are not so much recoveries of some real thing as they are revivifications and reconstructions of constructions. This is the point that likely will most pique the interest of memory studies scholars.

Once he has explained the mythic origins of Main Street, Orvell moves on to efforts after World War II to reinvigorate a supposedly dying way of life. “The small town has been dying for almost as long as it has been in existence,” he writes (p. 47), but in the postwar years its death took on new meanings. As the United States was embroiled in a cold war, reassertions of the “American way of life” were especially prescient. Celebrations of an invented American tradition happened across the country, and many of these celebrations championed the “Main Street” ideal, sometimes taking place on Main Streets themselves. Orvell uses Germantown Avenue, the main street of Chestnut Hill, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, as a case study. In the 1950s new suburbs diverted businesses and people away from the avenue. In the next decade there were concerted efforts to revitalize the street, recreating a “‘horizontal department store’ along the town’s main street, one that could compete with the suburban shopping centers” (p. 64). The most successful efforts were in the aesthetics, with many businesses adopting a colonial brick-front style. Orvell follows the story of Germantown Avenue through the present, which sees it mostly the site for large corporate operations that have driven out locally owned businesses. Interestingly, though, many of them have agreed to cooperate with the old “Main Street” aesthetic. For instance, a large CVS pharmacy “even displayed large photographs of historic Chestnut Hill (from the Historical Society), thus connecting the place symbolically with its history; these disappeared after a year or two, though, leaving the windows blank and featureless” (p. 69).

Moving from the history of Main Streets themselves, Orvell also discusses representations of small-town America in literature, focusing much of his third chapter on Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920), itself a sort of memorialization, through the fictional Gopher Prairie, of Lewis’s own hometown, Sauk Centre, Minnesota. The novel is a scathing critique of the small town as backwards, marked by secrecy, fearful conservatism, and an inability to adapt. This critique occasioned critique, of course, and especially in the postwar years the novel fell out of favor among many; Lewis himself backed off his critique a bit and began praising Sauk Centre, however qualifiedly. Orvell continues on to discuss other literary remembrances of small towns, including novels, plays, and films. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) serves to mark a transition, as it is “a film that enshrines the small town in the hearts of the American viewer is at the same time showing us a model of suburban development that seems to contradict it” (p. 123).

This contradiction—a simultaneous celebration of small-town America and an abandonment of those very spaces for the suburbs, often by the same actors—fuels the final three chapters of The Death and Life of Main Street. In this section Orvell engages in some authenticity politics, and at times the critique shifts in tone from a critical analysis to a quiet lament. “Beneath the myth of harmony and democracy in the typical American small town,” Orvell writes, “is a counternarrative of exclusion and discrimination” (p. 130). His fifth chapter explores the famous “Middletown” study, demonstrating with critical reading and some statistics that division along racial and other lines was more the norm than exception for small towns in the middle twentieth century.

The final chapters deal with urban planning, especially recent movements to recapture a “small-town feel” in planned shopping centers, new neighborhoods, and low-income housing projects. These explorations are less close to the normal purview of “memory studies,” so I will not discuss them at length, but scholars likely will find these insightful despite (or perhaps because of) the unfamiliarity of the material. Once again Orvell returns to the turn of the twentieth century, describing the planning of town squares, common areas, and commercial districts as they sought to reflect the community’s values as well as pragmatic needs. The book’s final chapter closes with an extended discussion of New Urbanism, which, “along with [its] evil twin, the gated community,” “[has] constituted the dominant paradigm for the late twentieth century and early twenty-first” (p. 207). These movements attempt to recreate the feel of a small town by utilizing traditional styles like colonial or Georgian, but they are “artificial,” strategically designed according to planning manuals. Orvell turns prescriptive toward the end, pondering the moral effects of so blatantly manufacturing a certain aesthetic and the people who inevitably are left out—in reality and in image—in the process.

In sum, The Death and Life of Main Street is most notable for its author’s ambition. Orvell disregards unnecessary disciplinary distinctions as he traces tropes.For this reason, this book stands as a striking example of how to do cultural history that understands that memorialization and signification always have a referent, which they construct and reconstruct, but that these acts also produce effects. It also does what good American studies ought to do, bringing to light the complex histories behind those ideas and images (and the book does include dozens of images) that are so familiar we do not often take note of them. There are so familiar as to appear almost natural, but, of course, they are anything but.  

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Citation: Charles McCrary. Review of Orvell, Miles, The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space and Community. H-Memory, H-Net Reviews. April, 2014. URL:

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