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The American Small Town in the Age of U.S. Empire

Bedford Falls. Dixon. Greenfield Village. Hannibal. Hope. Lake Wobegon. Main Street, U.S.A. Mayberry. Middletown. Peyton Place. Smallville. South Park. Twin Peaks. Wasilla.

The small town has become a national icon, a national tradition, and a national myth. At the end of the twentieth century, political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain provocatively claimed, “As Americans we have been shaped by small-town life whether that is or is not the life we have lived.” Elshtain’s claim to take the small town seriously contrasts with a modern U.S. master narrative. In many contemporary discourses, the small town is frequently portrayed as a dying community. In 2003, for example, three scholars from the diverse disciplines of history, English, and rural and regional studies declared that the small town “can be pronounced stone dead” (A Place Called Home); in 1999, the historian Amy S. Greenberg wrote, “The small town once occupied a central place in American culture, society, and politics, but is largely a thing of the past”; and in 1998, the historian Richard Davies published Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America. In 1994, the photographer David Plowden released Small Town America, a collection of black-and-white photographs that features deteriorating and decaying small towns across the United States. Plowden’s anachronistic aesthetics foregrounds the small town’s pastness and echoes filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich’s similar decision to use black and white in his 1971 cinematic adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel about a dying small town, The Last Picture Show. Going further back, in 1964 Wallace Stegner penned the introduction to the anthology A Vanishing America: The Life and Times of The Small Town, and in the previous decade, Max Lerner, a prolific American historian, also pronounced the small town a dying space. Embedded within Lerner’s massive and influential history America as a Civilization: Life and Thought in the United States Today (1957) is the section “The Decline of the Small Town.”

These declarations of the small town’s death are similar to the ostensible demise of the rural that Raymond Williams rehearses and critiques at the outset of The Country and the City. Williams demonstrates that the disappearing rural has become a formula throughout modern English history. In modernity, he argues, every generation sees the countryside as a golden age that has been killed by recent history. This same formula can be applied to the small town: throughout modernity, the small town has been an ideal, an ideal killed by history. In fact, in the American context, one of the principal means of defining modernity has been the decline of the small town. The small town is always dying, and yet it never does die. This is because the small town has ceased to be "real" and has become become an ideology.

The small town remains ideologically central to U.S. identity and imagination. Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, the image of the small town multiplied, proliferated, and disseminated. For example, the best-selling novel of the first quarter of the twentieth century was Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920); one of the best-selling novels of all time, which launched a popular movie and one of the most popular television shows in history, was Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1956); one of the most produced plays of the twentieth century was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938); one of the most widely read and discussed stories ever published in the New Yorker was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948), which is set in a small town; one of the highest grossing films of the 1980s was Back to the Future (1985), centered on the development of the small town Hill Valley; in the 1990s, one of the highest grossing and highly honored films of the decade was Forrest Gump (1994), a narrative framed by a small town; Stephen King, one of the best-selling authors of the twentieth century, sets many of his horror-gothic works in small towns, such as Castle Rock; since the 1980s, the United States’ unofficial Christmas movie is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), set in the small town of Bedford Falls; and Disneyland (1955) and Disney World (1971), the most popular tourist destinations in the world, each open with Main Street, U.S.A.

The small town dominates political discourse as well. It's been central to modern presidential candidates’ campaigns from Warren Harding’s Marion, Ohio to Ronald Reagan’s Dixon, Illinois. In his 1965 autobiography, published to coincide with his campaign for governor of California, Reagan positioned himself as a small-town boy. Dixon, he wrote, “shaped my body and mind for all the years to come after.” Similarly, in his 1990 autobiography, Reagan describes Dixon as a “heaven ... where I learned standards and values that would guide me for the rest of my life.” Reagan continues, “As I look back on those days in Dixon, I think my life was as sweet and idyllic as it could be, as close as I could imagine for a young boy to the world created by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” For Dixon to become legible as a small town, Reagan braided it with fictional small towns such as Hannibal, the home of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Perhaps the most conspicuous political use of the small town comes courtesy of Sarah Palin in 2008. Palin incessantly aligned herself with small-town America, the place where the “real” America can be discovered. “Man, I love small-town U.S.A.,” she proclaimed, “and I don’t care what anyone else says about small-town U.S.A. You guys, you just get it.” Palin elaborated elsewhere, “We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. We believe ... that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in 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.” In Palin's rhetoric, the small town is not a specific place; rather it is abstract national imaginary.

The small town, however, is not the exclusive property of the Republican Party. During the first debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, Obama allied himself with “Main Street” in contrast to the greed and corruption rampant on “Wall Street.” It is also worth remembering, however, that when Obama said, in off-the-cuff remarks, that the problem with small-town Americans is that they “cling to guns or religion,” the right lambasted him as “elitist” for not understanding the “real America,” a phrase that became interchangeable with “small-town America.” Once in the White House, Obama wanted to prove that he did understand “real” Americans, and he embarked upon a “White House to Main Street Tour.”

Even in economics, the small town also plays a central, structuring role. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize–winning economist and author of Globalization and Its Discontents, identifies the economic recession that began in 2008 as a “near-death experience” of the global economy. By now Stiglitz’s assessment is a familiar one. What may be less familiar is the figuration he uses to stage the recession: it is a “battle between Main Street and Wall Street.” In this binary “Wall Street” signifies a disavowed space of capitalist corruption, whereas “Main Street” signifies the everyday America, the innocent America, and the “real” America.

Stiglitz, of course, is not alone in using Main Street and Wall Street as tropes to help make sense of and narrate the economic crisis. Since 2008, the mainstream U.S. media has consistently employed this Main Street–Wall Street binary. To mention just a few examples of this cultural logic: when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner explained the 2009 “rescue” plan that could funnel up to two trillion dollars into the banking system, the Associated Press wanted to know how this plan would aid “Main Street,” and in 2009, CNN’s website launched an “i-report” section entitled “Main Street(s), USA” in which people can share their stories of economic struggle: “Main Street, USA. It’s a term we use to mean regular America, the part of the country that represents the towns and families and small businesses that make up the heart of the nation.” Main Street signifies the nation’s “heart,” which is to say that it signifies the nation’s ideological center. As these examples illustrate, Main Street is not so much a material place and practice as an ideological stage upon which the nation’s everyday and authentic narratives, epistemologies, and values unfold; moreover it is a stage where the nation’s authentic subjects can be located.

In his ethnographic study of Disney’s small town Celebration, American studies scholar Andrew Ross expresses shock at the United States’ obsession with the small town in late capitalism. Ross writes that the small town is a national icon that “focuse[s] more exclusively on the shape of the past than on the profile of the future.” He continues, “In a nation in imperial decline, like Britain, there were obvious reasons for this retrospective mood. But for a country like the United States, so long identified with progress and fast-forward motion -- a country that had always been viewed as the home of the future -- the backward looking turn was as genuine and unlikely a heresy as this century [the twentieth] has produced.” The United States’ libidinal attachment to the small town is not a recent trend, but part of a long ideological history. Whereas Britain nostalgically fixated on a village imaginary while its empire was declining, the United States began to identify with a small-town imaginary while its empire was expanding.

The small town has remained central to American identity and imagination, and as an image, it's central to the development of the United States as a global empire. Although it circulates as a familiar national signifier, the small town mandates serious reflection and research from scholars and students throughout the humanities.