- Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America by John E. Miller
Small-Town Dreams examines twentieth-century figures who have made significant contributions to notions of nation and American identity. By exploring the boyhoods of figures such as Frederick Jackson Turner, Walt Disney, and Ronald Reagan in the context of the small towns where they grew up, Small-Town Dreams asserts that both place and boyhood experiences shape economics, entertainment, and politics.
In his introduction, Miller takes up the topic of the elusiveness of midwestern regional identity, acknowledging that sometimes the lack of regional markers has become representative of the Midwest itself. Miller notes that there is less scholarship on the Midwest than about the South and Northeast. He similarly argues that there has been little in-depth scholarship on small towns. The four sections are arranged chronologically to focus on small towns between the 1890s and 1920s, between 1920 and 1945, 1945 to 1965, and 1965 to the present. Each section focuses on larger national issues, such as the Great Depression, and developments in entertainment and business.
One of the strongest chapters is on George Washington Carver and Oscar Micheaux, which has the subtitle “African American Dreamers and Doers.” Miller examines African American populations in Midwest towns, and notes that many towns barred persons of color from taking up residence within their borders. This chapter examines how both men challenge obstacles of race and region to become successes in their respective fields. Miller examines how Micheaux uses the landscapes and experiences of his boyhood in his films.
The book features three figures from Great Plains towns: Alvin Hansen from Viborg, South Dakota, Lawrence Welk from Strasburg, North Dakota, and Johnny Carson from Norfolk, Nebraska. Hansen was descended from Danish immigrants, and he was the only one from his town to attend college. Miller argues that the pragmatism, optimism, and appreciation for the common person that Hansen learned in Viborg informed Hansen’s introduction of Keynesian economic policies in the United States.
Miller groups Welk and Carson, focusing on similarities between the two men, especially in the boundaries they drew regarding social standards. Miller notes that while Welk embraced small-town values, Carson used humor to poke fun at inconsistencies and to challenge norms. One of Miller’s recurring themes is the figurative and literal distance the figures move from their beginnings. He argues that Carson maintains nostalgia for Nebraska while becoming removed from small-town sociability and ties to community.
Even though Miller’s text focuses only on twenty-two midwestern boyhoods, it offers insight into how midwestern small towns have shaped American national identity. His study also opens up areas for further research, including into specific small towns and further inquiry into experiences of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. This book would make an excellent addition to collections that focus on region and boyhood, as well as to collections with an emphasis on twentieth-century American culture. [End Page 149]
University of Memphis