Title Reviewed:
American Towns: An Interpretive History

Author Reviewed:
David J. Russo

Richard Francaviglia


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 98, Issue 1, pp 58-59

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

American Towns: An Interpretive History. By David J. Russo. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. Pp. [xv], 350. Figures, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $28.95.)

Throughout much of the twentieth century, scholars attempted to capture the essence of American towns. Their challenge was as much ideological as academic. Since most Americans live in cities and suburbs but say they would rather live in small towns, these communities certainly occupy an important and enduring place in the national ethos. In documenting the character of small-town life, David J. Russo joins that long line of academicians who have sought to explain the character, quality, and appeal of these distinctively American places. From the outset, Russo defines interpretive history as "the patterns of life among those who have lived in American towns—what connects them rather than separates them" (p. ix). This book is reminiscent of historian Richard R. Lingeman's Small Town America: A Narrative History, 1620-Present (1980) and geographer John A. Jakle's The American Small Town: Twentieth Century PlaceImages (1982). In the twenty years since those books were published, many more books and articles about American towns have emerged, and many of them are listed in Russo's bibliography. He has made good use of them in his well-documented, sometimes encyclopedic text.

Russo's book is predicated on the supposition that the site and the design of towns are important factors in setting the tone of small town life. Accordingly, he begins by analyzing places in considerable detail. This technique has been embraced by many historians since at least the 1950s and 1960s, when Lewis Atherton wrote Main Street on the Middle Border (1954) and Page Smith completed his classic As a City Upon a Hill: The Town in American History (1968). Like Smith, Russo begins with New England. Although Russo implicitly uses New England as both the source and yardstick for all subsequent town development, he does acknowledge the importance of the Middle West in the pattern of American town life. He also acknowledges (albeit in fleeting references) earlier Native American and Spanish antecedents to American community life in some areas.

Organized chronologically, American Towns treats a number of basic themes, notably politics, economics, society, and culture. To achieve his goal in integrating American culture, Russo cites case studies of particular places throughout the country, including several Indiana communities. He makes very effective use of both primary and secondary sources. Actually, even though the word "interpretation" appears in the title and is the stated goal of this book, it is description at which Russo excels. This is not an underhanded compliment: although description is often denigrated by academicians, it is indeed an art—and clearly an art that Russo has mastered.

American Towns ends with a brief (seven pages) synopsis of the town in myth and reality. Russo concludes that "[tlhe impulse for Americans to live in or locate their activities in small local communities was still a vital one" in the late twentieth century—even though "most people, most activities, and most institutions were situated in fast-spreading urban settings" (p. 296). This is not startling news for those who know the American psyche: for more than a century, Americans have praised small towns while moving away from them—much as many praise hardship as a builder of character while avoiding it at all costs. Although Russo does not fully explain why such a longing for small towns persists, he does help us better understand how towns develop(ed) and function(ed) as part of our collective past. Overall, American Towns is a solid synthesis of a remarkably rich literature, told in a refreshingly straightforward manner.

RICHARD FRANCAVIGLIA is professor of history and geography at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he also directs the Center for Greater Southwestern Studies and the History of Cartography. He has published six books, including Main Street Revisited: Time, Space, and Image-Building in Small Town America (1996).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.