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The Street Where They Live

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary

Oct. 9, 2008

In 1928, the Women's National Democratic Club offered a prize for the best slogan for the Democrats in that year's elections. The winner was Mrs. Wilbur M. Hubbard of Chestertown, Maryland, who received an etching of Woodrow Wilson's tomb for her entry: "Eight Years of Wall Street; Now Give Main Street a Chance."

The slogan was a bit premature; Democrats would have an easier time rousing populist anger at Wall Street and the Republicans after the crash of 1929. But in fairness to Mrs. Hubbard, the slogan wasn't as hackneyed back then as it sounds today. "Wall Street" had long been used to refer to the financial world, but that broad use of "Main Street" only went back to 1920. That was when Sinclair Lewis created a national furor with the publication of his bestselling novel Main Street, a satiric picture of the narrow-mindedness and shallowness of life in a small midwestern town. The book was set in the fictional town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, but Lewis made it clear in the introduction that he meant the title generically: "[Gopher Prairie's] Main Street is the continuation of Main Streets everywhere." From then on, "Main Street" would be a shorthand term for small-town America, as the country chose up sides in the first 20th-century culture war.

Among urban sophisticates, the phrase "Main Street" was what one critic called "a synonym for spiritual stagnation." The book ushered in an age of self-confident urbanity that regarded provincial life with ridicule and condescension. As Harold Ross famously announced in 1924 in his prospectus for The New Yorker, the magazine would not be edited for "the old lady from Dubuque."

Others rushed to rural America's defense. In an essay called "Let Main Street Alone!" the Indiana novelist Meredith Nicholson praised the neighborliness and community spirit that was always on display in the daily drama on small-town Main Streets. "Main Street knows what America is about," Nicholson said, and its people "don't need the uplifting help of outsiders who despise them."

Before long "Main Street" was suffused with warm approval. When Lewis's novel first appeared, it outraged the residents of his home town of Sauk Centre Minnesota, the model for the Gopher Prairie of the novel. Just five years later, the town's high school athletic teams had proudly renamed themselves the Main Streeters. And by the time Mrs. Hubbard submitted her prize-winning slogan to the Democrats in 1928, "Main Street" stood in not just for small-town America, but for all the ordinary Americans who shared the small-town values of hard work and community. 

Of course, "Main Street" also implied that the real America was far from its big cities, which were teeming with people who were too rich or too poor, with the wrong sorts of foreigners, and with reds, bohemians and writers who turned their backs on America and looked across the Atlantic for their cultural inspiration. (How much richer American literature would have been, Meredith Nicholson said, "if Hawthorne had never seen Italy but had clung to Salem, and... Mrs.Wharton's splendid gifts had been consecrated to the service of Pittsburgh rather than New York and Paris.")

That picture of small towns as the real America was nostalgic and outdated even back then. As it happens, Main Street was published in the same year in which the census showed for the first time that rural Americans had become a minority of the population. In the coming decades, that proportion would continue to dwindle, as rural areas lost population to the cities or were themselves absorbed into the expanding sprawl of some nearby metropolis.

But nostalgic or no, the term "Main Street" somehow survived the urbanization of America and the ensuing suburbanization, which together have left five out of six Americans living in metropolitan areas, most of them in low-density suburbs. It even survived the eclipse of Main Street itself, as serious commerce relocated to the malls and big box stores. Most of the towns and subdivisions developed in the last thirty years never had a Main Street in the first place. And in the ones that still do, it's either dustblown and desolate or has been brought back as a pedestrian-friendly outdoors mall, with its restored facades housing ice-cream parlors and gift shops like its platonic counterpart at Disneyland. There are still places where Main Street is thriving --  in upscale suburbs and city neighborhoods, not to mention Southampton and Aspen. But for most Americans, urban or rural, the real business of life goes on at the WalMart supercenter off I-94.

Of course you could say that these days "Main Street" is just a name for ordinary Americans and doesn't have a specific geographical meaning, no more than "Wall Street" does. But the images remain: when somebody mentions Wall Street, the first thing that comes to mind isn't a hedge fund manager sitting on his deck in Newport Beach. And when I hear "Main Street" I flash a line of low buildings with Gower's Pharmacy at one corner and the Bailey Building and Loan at the other. The name still glows with a Capraesque wholesomeness that not even the combined efforts of David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, and Wes Craven have been able to dispel.

When Sarah Palin calls herself a main streeter, she isn't saying just that she's ordinary or middle-class. She's suggesting that her small-town background has given her a special insight into our core values -- she can see America from her window. In response, Joe Biden pumps up his own Main Street cred by mentioning his frequent trips to Home Depot and his youth in Scranton and a Delaware steel town.

In the introduction to his novel, Sinclair Lewis wrote that Main Street is "our comfortable tradition and sure faith." That hasn't changed; 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, so we can put some literal distance between ourselves and the bad guys. Somebody should build a little plug-in that plots greed and honesty on Google Maps.             


1. The phrase is often misquoted as "the little old lady from Dubuque." In fact the phrase "the old lady from Dubuque" was probably in general use at the time; a 1925 New York Times advertisement for the play "Love on Love" quoted a review by John Anderson in the New York Post: "If you take the OLD LADY from DUBUQUE with you get her an ice bag for her blushes."

2. Another example: the columnist Joseph Kraft coined "middle Americans" in 1968 as a term for lower-middle-class whites who had recently climbed the economic ladder to earn between 9 and 15 thousand dollars a year and who might be susceptible to racist appeals from the Republicans. For Kraft, "Middle Americans" was a class-based term that was opposed to the "Upper Americans": "those who made it earlier and better." "Upper America," Kraft wrote, "is always sticking its finger in the eye of Middle America." By 1970, when Time magazine made Middle Americans its Man and Woman of the Year, "Upper Americans" had been dropped from the picture, and "Middle America" had been enlarged to include the entire white middle class, comprising half the U. S. population, and had been given an implicitly geographical definition, the socio-political antecedent of the Red States. (Middle Americans, Time wrote "tend to be grouped in the nation's heartland more than on its coasts.")

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.