The Legend of Small Town U.S.A.

smal ltown usa

“Main Street” is one of those apple pie invoking, corn-cob pipe toking, patriotism stoking, nostalgia choking symbolic themes in American culture that lacks a clear definition but with which most Americans are intimately familiar. I’m not talking about the actual street called “Main” that runs through your particular town or city. Rather, I mean the idea of Main Street U.S.A., also known as Small Town U.S.A., or, in recent political terms, Real America. You know what I’m talking about: its the America defined by a lily-white demographic, at a least a partially agricultural economy, Mom and Pop stores (no Targets allowed!), old guys sitting on porches, lots of churches, and a penchant for traditional values, whatever those might be.

Certainly, such towns have existed, and continue to exist, in the U.S. These towns invoke the image of “Main Street” that has been a major part of American identity since the country’s founding. Over at the S-USIH blog, Robert Greene II has a great review of Miles Orvell’s new book, The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community that charts the history of the idea of Small Town U.S.A. Greene writes that:

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”.

Main Street, Greene notes via Orvell, has been waging a two-centuries long battle against modernization in its many forms.

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.

You should read Greene’s whole review and then read Orvell’s book, but one point is especially worth observing here:  the idea of Main Street, or Small Town U.S.A., has perpetually existed in a never-ending cold war against the forces of economic and cultural modernity. The Great Depression that hit in 1929 stemmed from the high-rise towers of New York City, about as far away as you could get from Small Town U.S.A., but the stock market crash hit American small towns in a very real way. So it makes sense that Depression-era Americans embraced the idea of Main Street as the very antithesis, geographically, culturally, and especially economically, of New York City, the heart of the American financial center that had failed them. This pattern still exists in 2013.

Following the great economic crash of 2008, another crash that originated in New York City, Americans have once again embraced the notion of Small Town U.S.A. as the America that matters, especially in contrast to such havens of cultural debauchery like New York. Today, Main Street has no particular, single location, but you can bet that its somewhere in “Flyover Country,” that vast, expanse of mid-western, Small Town Folkistan that, in the minds of many, exists as America’s great inoculator against the cultural diseases festering in coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. Whereas Small Town U.S.A. supposedly promotes down home American values, the urban coastal enclaves allegedly thrive on a Satan’s brew of diversity, moral relativism, urbanity, and…iced lattes.

Why are such ridiculous distinctions important? Because American political parties have always co-opted the supposed moral superiority of Small Town U.S.A. to suit their own agendas, and today rural and small town political culture is mostly the property of America’s conservative Republican Party. Conservative media hucksters like Glenn Beck have made millions pimping the good ole’ fashioned Murica’-ness of small towns, but no recent political figure demonstrated this penchant better than 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, then Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin. In a now infamous 2008 speech in North Carolina, Palin labeled small town residents as the “Real America:”

“We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit and these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.”

Palin’s words caused plenty of outrage, spurring her to issue an apology. Much of the anger over her comments stemmed from rather pointless semantic arguments over the meaning of “Real America.” Although such a term is generally meaningless and totally subjective, it speaks to the larger tradition that Orvell addresses in The Death and Life of Main Street in which Americans have historically embraced a vague ideal of Small Town U.S.A. without ever having to really define what it is. Palin’s audience knew that “Real America” meant them. They didn’t need a definition because they stood in direct contrast to the “fake America” of liberal urban centers like New York. In the context of a Republican Party rally, “Real America” meant conservative Small Town U.S.A. But this is a definition that will never be fixed. In the late 19th century, for example, Small Town U.S.A. invoked the left wing economic populism of William Jennings Bryan.

According to Glenn Beck, Real Americans stand in cornfields.

According to Glenn Beck, Real Americans stand in cornfields.

This is why Main Street has historically been located everywhere and nowhere at once: its location is wherever Americans want it to be when they feel threatened by the dynamism and dislocation of the capitalist economy and its associated modern cultural changes. Small Town U.S.A. then, is not so much a political idea, though it’s always been used by politicians of all ideological backgrounds. No, Small Town U.S.A., or Main Street, if you prefer, is really a long-running manifestation of Americans’ complicated relationship with modernity. As the world’s pre-eminent, dynamic capitalist country, the U.S. has both embraced, and fought against, modernity by welcoming its technological and economic innovations while simultaneously fighting against the challenges it poses to long-standing cultural traditions.

None of this is to say Small Town U.S.A. is an inherently bad thing. Heck, some of the best day drives and weekend trips you’ll ever take are to the small towns of the American Midwest. But take Main Street as one aspect of America, not as its only aspect. Like the broader United States, Small Town U.S.A. harbors  its own dark secrets, and is prone to the mix of good and bad just like everywhere else. Except for Canada. That place is freakin’ perfect.

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