Overview. In the United States and beyond, the words “Main Street” conjure an image of the generic American small town: the grocer’s, the soda fountain, the doctor’s office, the bank, the insurance agency, the public park, and a choice of churches, flanked by blocks of clapboard or brick homes with tidy front lawns. Today this image is far from the reality of most Americans, who live in cities or suburbs, but Main Street remains a captivating symbol of the American dream.
Main Street emerged as a subject in American literature and (later) film during the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries when small-town life was giving way to the expansion of cities, suburbs, and consumer culture. Writers and filmmakers who put Main Street on the cultural map were themselves often exiles from small towns, working in big cities. For them, the village became an object of both rebellion and nostalgia—a trap to escape, a paradise to regain. Together their works portray a procession of Main Streets strung across the American continent—some of them real, physical places, others imagined communities in characters’ minds. The citizens of Main Street are often eccentric, but their stories typify the historical pressures (political, economic, racial) and ultimate questions (of identity, death, belief) that disturb and galvanize American towns. The formal challenge of telling these stories has sparked innovation in fiction and film during the modern and postmodern periods. To tour these imagined Main Streets is therefore to enter a region that is both familiar and unsettling.
Questions explored in this course include:
1) What is a town?
2) How has the idea of the American town persisted, or evolved, since the late nineteenth century?
3) How is a town unified, or divided, by particular characters? How do particular characters imagine the town?
4) Why are there so many eccentric characters in fictional small towns?
5) How is a town unified, or divided, by its architecture and physical design? How does the physical design influence how characters imagine the town?
6) How are towns different, or similar, in various geographical regions of the United States?
7) What is the relationship between a town and its geographical context, including the surrounding ecosystem and distant cities?
8) What is the relationship between the structure of a community and the structure of the fiction or film that represents it?
9) What kinds of narratives typically take place in American towns? Why? What kinds of events unify towns, and what kinds of events divide them?
10)What do the stories of Main Street tell us about larger themes, dreams, and anxieties in American literature and culture?
Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)
Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (1945)
Toni Morrison, Sula (1973)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
High Noon (1952)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
American Graffiti (1973)
The Truman Show (1998)