Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thousands of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town (The Rice University Campbell Lectures) by Robert Pinsky


University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226669441, May 2009

This is a collection of lectures Robert Pinsky delivered at Rice University in 2009, discussing the ways in which American small towns, symbolized by their main streets named Main Street or Broadway, have been represented in literature and the movies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Mark Twain, Willa Cather, William Faulkner,  and movie directors Preston Sturges and Alfred Hitchcock are discussed.

Pinsky gives us a clear and thoughtful exposition of the ways in which the authors' perspectives on and attitude to the small towns where most of them grew up differs, as well as the perhaps surprising complexities of those small towns and life within them. It's often a surprisingly dark view that's found in their stories, showcasing the ability of American small towns to be stiflingly repressive of anything even mildly outside the mainstream, insular, conformist, banal, upholding the status quo simply because it is the status quo. Yet alongside those tendencies resides a sense of fair play, and protectiveness towards "their own." Willa Cather's Thea Kronberg can't fulfill her musical ambitions in her hometown of Moonstone, but it's in Moonstone that, child and young woman, she gets the education and training that enables her to take her first steps along that path.

It's an interesting and multi-layered look at the American small town in American literature, both the good and the bad.

Recommended.

I received this book free as part of the University of Chicago's "one free ebook a month" program.