“The Best Town by a Dam-Site:” Celebrating Memory in a Midwestern Small Town
Small towns have long occupied an important symbolic position in American culture. They have been frequently (and one might argue accurately) represented as tight-knit, even stifling communities from which the best and brightest do their best to escape. Since the mid-twentieth century at least, confronted with a social and economic decline that continues strongly into the present day, they have also been regarded nostalgically, as fading centers of an American heartland, the seat of the values of community and of a unique ‘Americanness’ being lost in the tide of change. As these communities have diminished, a veritable cottage industry of commemorative albums has appeared in small towns across the United States, often increasing in volume and scope as the town’s livelihood dwindles. While these volumes can be seen simply as antiquarian curiosities, attempts to set into aspic the ephemera of a vanishing way of life, they can also be regarded as valuable expressions of memory of what are remembered as better times in declining communities once seen as the backbone of American society, the home of that powerful American cultural metaphor, Main Street. The purpose of this paper is to examine three such albums produced between 1960 and 2010 in one small town, Marseilles, Illinois, a community in the American Midwest region, (the so-called “heartland” of the United States), with a view to examining the way a rather unremarkable small Midwestern town has celebrated its memory in a reconstruction an idealized image of its own past as reassurance in a troubling present.
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