Our Town, the MacDowell Colony, and the Art of Civic Mediation

Kathryn S. Roberts*

*Corresponding author for this work

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    Abstract

    Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938) has found unusual currency of late. In 2011, the play lent its name to a major funding program launched by the National Endowment for the Arts; in 2017, it appeared in the center of a popular podcast and was revived by a British theater company in the wake of a terrorist attack. These productions recognize what terms like “middlebrow” obscure: Our Town is a civic mediator, a performance that installs art at the center of community life and community at the center of art. Taking inspiration from Antoine Hennion’s sociology of music, this essay ventures into the archive to trace an unfamiliar origin story for Our Town, involving a turn-of-the-century writers’ colony, a Progressive-Era historical pageant, and Wilder’s self-understanding as both confirmed bachelor and “community man.” Through the trajectory of a single play, civic mediation emerges as a pervasive strategy and ethos of American cultural practice, connecting diverse media through time and space.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)395–418
    Number of pages24
    JournalAmerican Literary History
    Volume31
    Issue number3
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 23-Aug-2019

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