Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
No Cover Image

Main Street and Empire: The Fictional Small Town in the Age of Globalization

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 238
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Main Street and Empire
    Book Description:

    The small town has become a national icon that circulates widely in literature, culture, and politics as an authentic American space and community. Yet there are surprisingly few critical studies that analyze the small town's centrality to the United States' identity and imagination.InMain Street and Empire, Ryan Poll addresses this need, arguing that the small town, as evoked by the image of "Main Street," is not a relic of the past but rather a metaphorical screen upon which America's "everyday" stories and subjects are projected on both a national and global scale.

    Bringing together a broad selection of texts-from Thornton Wilder'sOur Town, Grace Metalious'sPeyton Place, and Peter Weir'sThe Truman Showto the speeches of William McKinley, Ronald Reagan, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama-Poll examines how the small town is used to imagine and reproduce the nation throughout the twentieth- and into the twenty-first century. He contends that the dominant small town, despite its innocent, nostalgic appearance, is central to the development of the U.S. empire and global capitalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5294-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. IX-X)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XI-XIV)
  4. Introduction: The Small Town as a Modern Nation Form
    (pp. 1-20)

    From 2006 to 2008 the Smithsonian National Museum of American History closed its doors to the public in order to undergo a two-year renovation. The museum’s director, Dr. Brent D. Glass, identified this renovation as a “major transformation” (“Opening Remarks”). A significant portion of the world’s third busiest museum removed itself from the public eye in order to rethink its state-sanctioned symbols and narratives within the recognized context of globalization (Trescott). During the years in which the Smithsonian temporarily closed, globalization signified, among other things, an aggressively expanding, uneven, and unequal world market and the United States conducting an open-ended...

  5. 1 Sacred Islands in Modernity: The Prehistory of the Dominant Small Town
    (pp. 21-36)

    In this chapter I focus upon and analyze the small town’s ideological form. This formal analysis follows the methodology of Marx and Freud, each of whom privileges form over content in analyzing the commodity form and dream form, respectively. For both Marx and Freud, “the point is to avoid the properly fetishistic fascination of content supposedly hidden behind the form: the ‘secret’ to be unveiled through analysis is not the content hidden by the form (the form of the commodities, the form of the dreams), but, on the contrary,the ‘secret’ of the form itself” (Žižek,The Sublime11, emphasis...

  6. 2 An Unfinished Revolution: “The Revolt from the Village” Reconsidered
    (pp. 37-52)

    Two decades after situating the village as the nation’s foundational form, Woodrow Wilson became president, the United States entered the first recognized global war, and Sinclair Lewis publishedMain Street(1920). Lewis’s satirical novel makes visible and critiques the reified cultural logic that positions the small town as an authentic American space. The novel begins, “This is America—a town of a few thousand…. The town is, in our tale, called ‘Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.’ But its Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere” (2). Although Gopher Prairie is located in Minnesota, Lewis makes explicit thatMain Streetis...

  7. 3 Mapping the Modern Small Town: A Circular Imaginary
    (pp. 53-69)

    In a capitalist modernity, there are no more island communities. Instead spaces become radically relational and inextricably entangled within capitalism’s globalizing system. As Marx theorized, capitalism functions because of an increasingly complex and transnational division of labor in which production, distribution, exchange, and consumption occur in geographically different and distant spaces. Marx urged the need to recognize and understand how these seemingly separate, disparate spaces are constitutively enmeshed (Grundrisse236). As analyzed in the previous chapters, beginning in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century the dominant American small town was imagined as an autonomous, contained island community. However,...

  8. 4 A New Machine in the Small-Town Garden: Periodizing an Automodernity
    (pp. 70-86)

    In the early twentieth century a new machine appeared in the small-town garden: the automobile. In response, a popular U.S. narrative emerged that this new machine was destroying the nation’s home. The film scholar and critic Emanuel Levy observes that the trope of the automobile catalyzing the demise of the small town is pervasive in Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s. Commenting on the 1940 cinematic adaptation of Thornton Wilder’sOur Town, Levy writes, “[Like] other small-town films,Our Townis strategically situated in 1901, at the end of an era, just before the introduction of a most significant...

  9. 5 The Formation of a U.S. Fascist Aesthetics; or, Welcome to Main Street
    (pp. 87-100)

    InMain Street, Sinclair Lewis satirically writes that the small town is “our comfortable tradition and sure faith” (2). Reflecting on this passage in 2009, the information and linguistics scholar Geoffrey Nunberg observes that this position remains unchanged: “80 years after it was coined, ‘Wall Street vs. Main Street’ is still a potent political slogan. We still feel the need to write our moral differences on our geography.” Whereas Wall Street signifies a disavowed space of capitalist corruption, dishonesty, and greed, Main Street signifies an avowed space of benevolence, authenticity, and community. In this chapter I counter this popular coding...

  10. 6 Staging and Archiving the Nation: Pedagogical Theater, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and U.S. Imperialism
    (pp. 101-114)

    The United States is in the midst of a neoliberal regime committed to privatization, and in the process gutting all public spheres and shared commons. One of the effects of this regime is the evisceration of public schools (Giroux and Pollock,University in Chains; Segall). Due to a lack of funding, Manuel Dominguez High School in Compton, California, has not had a theater program in decades. In 2001, for the first time in twenty years, students performed a play at the school. Catherine Borek, an energetic English teacher, helped reintroduce live theater to the predominately African American and Latina/o student...

  11. 7 “One Happy World”: The Postmodern Small Town and the Small-Town Postmodern
    (pp. 115-130)

    For the past few decades postcolonial scholars have stressed that the categorization of places as “anachronistic” is underwritten by the intertwined projects of Western imperialism and Western modernity. InTime and the Other(1983), Johannes Fabian argues that anthropology discursively produces anachronistic places and people by projecting its objects of investigation into a temporal order outside of Western modernity (31). Similarly, inImperial Leather(1995), Ann McClintock writes that imperialism constructs “anachronistic” places that delimit “prehistoric, atavistic and irrational … [bodies that are] inherently out of place in the historical time of modernity” (40). And inProvincializing Europe(2000), Dipesh...

  12. 8 Global Belonging: The Small Town as the World’s Home
    (pp. 131-158)

    At the beginning of Sinclair Lewis’sMain Street, the protagonist Carol Milford fantasizes about living in a small town while attending the fictional Blodgett College (7–8). Several years after graduating, she marries a suitor whose chief appeal is that he comes from a small town. Rather than inquire about and reflect upon the specificity of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, Carol imagines her future life in the small town “with a purely literary thought of … [small-town] charm” (38). For Carol, the American small town is an idealized community that has been shaped by myriad literary small towns she has consumed...

  13. Afterword: The Global Village
    (pp. 159-166)

    The dominant small town in late capitalism has become a global image, a global form, and a global ideology. To appreciate the ideological force of the dominant small town, it is useful to move from Main Street, U.S.A. to another section of Disneyland: the ride “It’s a Small World.”¹ This movement, I want to suggest, is from the small town imagined as the nation’s home to the small town imagined as the world’s home. As the United States developed into a global empire, the dominant small town became refigured as a global form that naturalized and exported U.S. narratives, values,...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 167-190)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-216)
  16. Index
    (pp. 217-223)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 224-224)