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On Main Street: Thornton Wilder and the Mythology of Small Town America

An American Tune: Understanding Our Town

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It is quintessentially American to mythologize the small town. This begins in the days of Washington Irving, the 18th and 19th Century novelist who was the first in America to be supported by the proceeds of his writing, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, through to the days of Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, the paintings of Norman Rockwell, and beyond, to the modern television and film era with Little House on the Prairie, Pleasantville, and the novels of Richard Russo (particularly Empire Falls). The American small town, regardless of whether it is set in rural New England, the Desert Southwest, along the banks of the Mississippi, or the wheat fields of the Midwest, is a cultural archetype equal in strength to the “man in the white hat” (and their nemesis, “the man in the black hat”), the self-made entrepreneur (defined by the “Wizard of Menlo Park” and the garage tinkerers of Silicon Valley), or the cynical, world-weary detective.

Thurston Wilder’s Our Town both epitomizes and subverts this archetype of the small town. Set at the turn of the 20th Century in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, this 1938 play is comparable to Luigi Pirandello’s modernist play Six Characters in Search of an Author, as both plays regularly breach the fourth wall, with characters inside a narrative interacting with the audience or characters representing the audience. Additionally, both strip away their narratives of unessential details by presenting them on threadbare stages. Our Town utilizes a bare stage, a group of folding chairs, and a ladder and some boards as symbols of the scenes that take place in the bucolic New England town of Grover’s Corner. Six Characters in Search of an Author uses the stage as both the literal setting of the action and the scene itself, with characters from a supposedly unfinished work intrude on actors rehearsing a piece of work — by the same author, no less — in order to dramatize their familial tragedy filled with prostitution, incest, suicide, and accidental death. Between the two, therefore, there is no doubt which seems more likely to deliver the sweet and heartwarming narrative of small-town life.

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Our Town sets at the heart of its narrative the ordinary and seemingly trite tale of the romance between Emily Webb, the daughter of the editor of the small town’s newspaper, and George Gibb, son of the town’s country doctor (who is introduced, of course, after making house calls). This tale is narrated by the Stage Manager, a character who explains the play from the outside, while also taking part as multiple other folksy characters from within the drama.

On its face, the whole of Our Town is summarized by the Stage Manager when he says in the first act, “This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Nostalgia and the Realities of Small Towns

However trite it seems at first, the archetypical small town story of Thornton Wilder’s play reveals in small ways the dark mirror of the idealized small town of American mythology. Grover’s Corner exists in this play in large part through the narration provided by the Stage Manager. He explains the geography of the town in the first act by saying, “Way back there is the railway station; tracks go that way. Polish Town’s across the tracks, and some Canuck families.”

Grover’s Corner is bisected by railroad tracks. To the north of the tracks are the poor neighborhoods of “Polish Town” and “some Canucks.” In the center of town, to the south of the railroad tracks, as explained by the meta-character of the Stage Manager, are its few shops and Protestant churches.

Without saying as much, in other words, Wilder’s Stage Manager is describing a segregated town.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Eastern European immigrants were considered undesirable and inferior to the largely Protestant Western European immigrants who preceded them. Scientist Carl Brigham, a psychologist who developed both an entrance exam for the US Army and the SAT, reported in his 1923 book A Study of American Intelligence that Poles, African-Americans, and Italians were “morons” (in the then-scientific sense, not in the modern pejorative sense) incapable of being educated and therefore should not be allowed into the United States.

Frequently, this sort of pseudo-scientific racism led to the development of Polish ghettos in US communities, particularly in Chicago, New York, Detroit (referred to as “Poletown”), and northern New Jersey.

Wilder was not merely summarizing the geography of Grover’s Corner when he points out that Polish Town is past the railroad tracks. He was stating that they lived in the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. Similarly, he hints at the racial and religious politics of Grover’s Corner when he notes that creationist and segregationist William Jennings Bryan gave a speech from the steps of the Town Hall.

Is There Anybody Out There: Community and Neglect

“…We do all we can to help those that can’t help themselves and those that can we leave alone.”
Mr. Webb
“We all know about Mr. Stimson, and we all know about the troubles he’s been through… the only thing the rest of us can do is just not to notice it.”
Mrs. Gibbs
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In the first act, two minor characters are introduced, Mrs. Soames and Mr. Stimson. Stimson, the choirmaster of the local church, is described as a chronic and severe alcoholic, who in one scene stumbles up to the local police chief, so drunk he cannot speak. Soames, a judgmental busybody, perhaps more a trope than a character, is a member of the church choir who notices Stimson’s habitual drunkenness and complains to Mrs. Gibbs. To resolve the matter — specifically, to do so in a fashion that does nothing to intervene for Stimson’s benefit — Gibbs advocates that the townspeople pretend not to notice Stimson’s addiction.

In this instance, Wilder is pointing out a fact about community, where people can recognize someone in need, identify their despair, and yet resolve to say nothing and do nothing but exchange knowing looks with others and pass silent judgment. More trite dramas would allow the town drunk to be a form of comic relief, such as Otis Campbell in Mayberry RFD, Barney Gumble in The Simpsons, and Walter Brennan’s “Stumpy” in Rio Bravo (along with nearly every other role portrayed by Brennan). Instead, Stimson is a purely tragic figure. Driven to alcoholism by what others in Grover’s Corner refer to as “a peck of troubles,” Stimson later hangs himself. In this tragedy, and in his response to it from the afterlife, Stimson rises above the trope of the town drunk. He is a haunted man, trying desperately to avoid his demons by anesthetizing himself and, when that fails, by killing himself. All around him are other people, aware of his pain and trouble, yet Stimson is alone until death.

Red Clay Halo: Our Town and Fundamental Questions about Life and Death

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Our Town ends when the life of Emily Webb is tragically cut short during childbirth. This was a common theme in the early 20th Century, with the mortality rate for mothers at roughly 600 per every 100,000 births. (Interestingly, the US still has an unusually high mortality rate for developed nations even today.) The tragedy of Webb’s death is reflected in the structure of the play, which basically cuts from the marriage to the funeral of its central protagonist. As Webb is being laid to rest, her spirit appears in white from a crowd of mute townspeople covered in black and shrouded in umbrellas. To the side, she joins a group of the dead, symbolically seated in rows that correspond to their headstones.

It’s not until death that we get to ask about the meaning of life. That may be one of the central ideas of Our Town, as Webb hungers to go back to the world of the living while the rest of the dead remain unconcerned with them.

Well, almost all of the dead.

Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choirmaster who hanged himself, also looks back on the world of the living. While Webb hungers for the beauty and joy of life, Stimson aches with shame and regret for the darker side of life.

“Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners … Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
Emily Webb
“That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those … of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know — that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.”
Simon Stimson

Wilder sets up, with their two perspectives, the contrast between the cynical and ideal viewpoints on the nature of human existence. Wilder presents them equally, without judgment or resolution, perhaps because that is the truth of the human condition. While we cannot speak to what happens after death, if anything, we can speak to those moments when we look back on our past with a sentimental longing for times that we may not have fully appreciated in their moments. In this worldview, Gibbs isn’t all that different from Marcel Proust, whose sensory experience when he bites into a french cookie in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu (“In Search of Lost Time,” although frequently mistranslated as “Remembrances of Things Past”) sets in motion his groundbreaking piece of literature. Gibbs’ agonizing nostalgia for the beauty of life and its sensory experiences is contrasted by the cynical — and self-critical — examinations of Stimson. Wilder doesn’t refute either Gibbs or Stimson. In fact, both of their statements can be considered true because they are personal truths that also happen to be universal. At the end of life, we will look back on those moments that are just too wonderful, and we will feel that hunger for the experience to return, and we will also look back at our moments of weakness and foolishness with shame and regret.

And There’s a Backwards Old Town That’s Often Remembered: Learning from the Mythos of the Small Town and its Subversion

For the culture of the late 1930s and early 1940s that saw the introduction of Our Town, there must have been those who had a sense that this was just nostalgia for a better time, before the days of the Great Depression and the Dustbowl. However, that mindset only captures the surface layer of what Wilder was getting at when he stripped away all of the facades of Grover’s Corner. The play was about life and community, universally.

Wilder’s subversion of the mythos of small-town America meant that the play was about us each day until our deaths, our willingness to look the other way when faced with the suffering of others, our understanding of the joys and pains of the human experience, and the way we use tradition to camouflage social injustices (such as segregated housing). For those that looked at the small town of Grover’s Corner with nostalgia, Wilder suggested both that they should consider whether they were losing their own communities, as many are today in America, and whether their communities were not glossing over their common flaws.

While other works like the film Stand By Me or the painfully saccharine Lake Wobegon books and radio plays of Garrison Keillor used the mythos of the small town to create a form of escapism, Wilder was using the small town of Grover’s Corner as a crucible, cooking off the unnecessary to leave us with a refined point of view on the beauty and shame of life, as well as the successes and failures of community.

Nice town, y’know what I mean?

Songs Referenced: Main Street, Bob Seger, from the 1981 Album Nine Tonight; American Tune, Paul Simon, from the 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon; Red Clay Halo, Gillian Welch, from the 2001 album Time (The Revelator); Paradise, John Prine, from the 1971 album John Prine. Playlist on Spotify.