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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

March 6, 2013: Popular Fiction: Small-Town Soaps

[In this week’s series, I’ll be considering some authors, texts, and contexts related to a much-maligned (in certain circles at least) but vital part of American literature: popular fiction. Your responses, favorites, critiques, and other takes will be welcome for what’s sure to be a popular crowd-sourced weekend post.]
On two distinct authors and works that together embody a dominant popular trend.
Sinclair Lewis was the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in the course of a forty-year publishing career engaged with some of 20th century America’s most complex and serious themes. Grace Metalious wrote four controversial pot-boilers in the span of seven years, before dying at the tragically young age of 39 from cirrhosis of the liver. Similarly, while Main Street (1920) and Peyton Place (1956) can both be described as the novels that launched these two writers’ respective careers, they occupy profoundly distinct places in those arcs: Lewis followed Main Street with more than 15 other novels, including the more consistently acclaimed Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), and Elmer Gantry (1927); while Metalious followed Peyton Place with a sequel, Return to Peyton Place (1959), attempting unsuccessfully to recapture that first book’s meteoric success.
So they’re different, these two authors overall and these two novels in particular. But as their titles might suggest, the novels are also pretty similar on a couple key levels: they both focus on a realistic yet also symbolic setting, a defining small-town locale (Lewis’ in the Midwest, Metalious’ in New England) that represents such environments across the nation; and they both seek to complicate and undermine the ideals associated with that setting, revealing some of the more secretive and divisive forces operating underneath the pastoral surface. Like the mega-hit TV show Desperate Housewives in our own era, that is (or like the ever-increasing reality TV spin-offs about “Real Housewives,” although those tend to be set in bigger cities), both of these novels, whatever their differences, can perhaps best be described as part of a century-long American obsession with small-town soap operas.
So how would an AmericanStudier account for that genre’s consistent popularity? I’d have to start by thinking about two distinct but ultimately interconnected ways in which it appeals to American (and probably human, but I am an AmericanStudier) audiences. For one thing, there’s our collective nostalgia, which as I’ve argued before in this space connects to idyllic past spaces even if, for many of us, we’ve never actually had them in our communities and lives. Small town main street is one such shared, nostalgic place to be sure (just ask Bob Seger). But on the other hand, I think we like nothing better than to imagine the tawdry realities beneath such perfect exteriors, perhaps to make ourselves feel better about all the darker (or just more human) sides to our own communities and identities. These aren’t, again, uniquely American impulses, as Flaubert and his famous Madame nicely illustrate. But in a nation so defined by the image of “Main Street,” they’re particularly prominent and popular ones I’d say.
Next popular fiction post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these texts and themes? Suggestions, favorites, or other responses?

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