Beyond nostalgia: a walking guide to American small-town literature, 1940-1960
Typically, the small town in fiction is critiqued—or, at worst, ignored—as a form of nostalgia. Readers seem to go to small-town fiction as a means of seeking safety and escape from the pressures of Modernity. For some critics, such as Ryan Poll, this safety is dangerous, the small town an ideological construct which masks the workings of American imperialism. I argue that, to the contrary, the small town serves as a model in which authors examine the tensions inherent in American life. To say that a thing is a model is not to say that it is an ideal. Rather, as with scientific models, authors create arenas in which they can test American ideas and ideals. This dissertation focuses on the years during and following World War II, a time in which America found itself thrust decisively onto the world stage. At precisely the time when America was firmly established as a world power, authors writing about the small town used this national-imaginary model as a way of critiquing the strengths and weaknesses of the American experiment. My analysis is arranged spatially. Each location in the small town—Main Street, the church, the courthouse, the outskirts and the graveyard—are places of tension, places in which the ambiguities and anxieties of America at mid-century are played out. By examining the small town as such a model, the ways in which the small town functions as something beyond nostalgia become clear—nostalgia, in a redemptive sense, becomes a creative and interrogative force in American literature.