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Thousands of Broadways : Dreams and Nightmares of the American Small Town
Broadway, the main street that runs through Robert Pinsky's home town of Long Branch, New Jersey, was once like thousands of other main streets in small towns across the country. But for Pinsky, one of America's most admired poets and its former Poet Laureate, this Broadway is the point of departure for a lively journey through the small towns of the American imagination. Thousands of Broadways explores the dreams and nightmares of such small towns--their welcoming yet suffocating, warm yet prejudicial character during their heyday, from the early nineteenth century through World War II.
The citizens of quintessential small towns know one another extensively and even intimately, but fail to recognize the geniuses and criminal minds in their midst. Bringing the works of such figures as Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Alfred Hitchcock, Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather, and Preston Sturges to bear on this paradox, as well as reflections on his own time growing up in a small town, Pinsky explores how such imperfect knowledge shields communities from the anonymity and alienation of modern life. Along the way, he also considers how small towns can be small minded--in some cases viciously judgmental and oppressively provincial. Ultimately, Pinsky examines the uneasy regard that creative talents like him often have toward the small towns that either nurtured or thwarted their artistic impulses.
Of living in a small town, Sherwood Anderson once wrote that "the sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people." Passionate, lyrical, and intensely moving, Thousands of Broadways is a rich exploration of this crucial theme in American literature by one of its most distinguished figures.
Admitting that he was 11 or 12 before realizing Give My Regards to Broadway was not about the Broadway of his hometown, Long Branch, N.J., former U.S. poet laureate Pinsky (The Figured Wheel) also makes it clear that his interest in smalltown America is not all nostalgic: There is a horror to the small-town gaze, its readiness to judge and categorize, its narrowness. Kicking off with a consideration of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, a singular allegory of racial consciousness, Pinsky concludes with a 1924 KKK rally in his hometown. Pinsky builds his portrait of the American small town through an accretion of recurring works, artists and themes, covered in passing and usually in unexpected ways. Besides other literary depictions--of Faulkner, Wilder, Cather and others--several films are Pinsky's focus: Hitchcock's study of a serial killer in a small town, Shadow of a Doubt, as well as Sturges's outsider-inspired The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. There is an element of strain in later portions to maintain an earlier momentum. But overall, this book is characterized by a poet's eye, balanced sentiment and learning worn lightly. 17 illus. (Apr.)
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University of Chicago Press
May 14, 2009
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