The Death and Life of Main Street

Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community

By Miles Orvell

316 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 color plates., 90 halftones, notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1755-8
    Published: August 2014
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-3756-6
    Published: October 2012
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4383-8
    Published: October 2012

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Awards & distinctions

Finalist, Zócalo Public Square Book Prize

For more than a century, the term "Main Street" has conjured up nostalgic images of American small-town life. Representations exist all around us, from fiction and film to the architecture of shopping malls and Disneyland. All the while, the nation has become increasingly diverse, exposing tensions within this ideal. In The Death and Life of Main Street, Miles Orvell wrestles with the mythic allure of the small town in all its forms, illustrating how Americans continue to reinscribe these images on real places in order to forge consensus about inclusion and civic identity, especially in times of crisis.

Orvell underscores the fact that Main Street was never what it seemed; it has always been much more complex than it appears, as he shows in his discussions of figures like Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Frank Capra, Thornton Wilder, Margaret Bourke-White, and Walker Evans. He argues that translating the overly tidy cultural metaphor into real spaces--as has been done in recent decades, especially in the new urbanist planned communities of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany--actually diminishes the communitarian ideals at the center of this nostalgic construct. Orvell investigates the way these tensions play out in a variety of cultural realms and explores the rise of literary and artistic traditions that deliberately challenge the tropes and assumptions of small-town ideology and life.

About the Author

Miles Orvell is professor of English and American studies at Temple University. He is author of several books, including American Photography and The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940.
For more information about Miles Orvell, visit the Author Page.


“Thought-provoking.”--Publishers Weekly

"Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above."--Choice

“An eye-opening exploration of the mythology and culturally laden concepts behind small towns and Main Street.”--The Annals of Iowa

“An invigorating kaleidoscopic tour as different elements pop into prominence in different chapters. . . . A fascinating exploration of the transformation of the small town in the national imagination from slough of black-slapping mediocrity to embodiment of democratic virtue.”--Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“This book is rich with literary and visual examples.”--Journal of American History

"A creative, cohesive approach. . . . Orvell's analysis is astute and readable. . . . A compelling and useful text."--North Carolina Historical Review