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TERRY GROSS, host:

As the financial crisis has deepened, everybody is talking about helping Main Street, and not just Wall Street. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been wondering, where exactly is Main Street, and who lives there?

GEOFF NUNBERG: In 1928, the Women's National Democratic Club offered a price for the best slogan for the Democrats in that year's elections. The winner was Mrs. Wilbur W. Hubbard of Chestertown, Maryland, who received an etching of Woodrow Wilson's tomb for her entry "Eight Years of Wall Street, Now Give Main Street A Chance."

The slogan was a bit premature. Populist anger at Wall Street and the Republicans would be a lot easier to rouse after the crash of 1929. But in fairness to Mrs. Hubbard, the slogan wasn't as hackneyed back then as it sounds today. Wall Street had long been used to refer to the financial world, but that broad use of "Main Street" only went back to 1920.

That was when Sinclair Lewis published his novel "Main Street," a satiric picture of the narrow-mindedness and shallowness of life in a small midwestern town. The book was a publishing sensation. It set the whole country to choosing up sides, and its title rapidly became a generic name. The book ushered in an age of self-confident urbanity, which regarded provincial life with ridicule and condescension.

As Harold Ross famously announced in 1925 in his prospectus for the New Yorker, the magazine would not be edited for the old lady from Debuke. But others rush to rural America's defense. In an essay called "Let Main Street Alone," the Indiana novelist Meredith Nicholson praised the neighborliness and community spirit that was always on display in the daily drama on small-town Main Streets. "Main Street" knows what America is about, Nicholson said.

And its people don't need the uplifting help of outsiders who despise them. Before long, Main Street was an approving term. When Lewis's novel first appeared, it outraged the residents of his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the model for the fictional gofer prairie of the novel. Just five years later, the town's high school athletic teams had proudly renamed themselves "The Main Streeters."

And by the time Mrs. Hubbard submitted her prize-winning slogan to the Democrats in 1928, "Main Street" stood in not just for small-town America, but for all the ordinary Americans who shared the small-town values of hard work and community. Of course, "Main Street" also implied that the real America was far from its big cities.

They were full of people who were too rich or too poor, the wrong sorts of foreigners, and reds, bohemians, and writers who turned their backs on America, and looked across the Atlantic for their cultural inspiration.

The picture of small towns as the real America, was nostalgic and outdated even back then. As it happens, "Main Street" was published in the same year in which the census showed for the first time that rural Americans had become a minority of the population. In the coming decades, that proportion would continue to dwindle, as rural areas lost population to the cities, over themselves absorb into the expanding sprawl of some nearby metropolis.

But nostalgic or no, the term "Main Street" somehow survive the urbanization of America, and it's ensuing suburbanization, which have ultimately left five out of six Americans living in metropolitan areas, most of them low-density suburbs.

It even survive the eclipse of Main Street itself, as serious commerce relocated to the malls and big-box stores. Most of the towns and subdivisions developed in the last 30 years, never had a main street in the first place.

And in the ones that still do, it's either dust blown and desolate, or has been brought back as a pedestrian friendly outdoors mall, with its restored facades, housing ice-cream parlors and gift shops, like its platonic counterpart at Disneyland. There are still places where Main Street is thriving, mostly in upscale suburbs and city neighborhoods, not to mention South Hampton and Aspen.

But for most Americans, urban or rural, the real business of life goes on at the Wal-Mart Super Center off I-94. Of course, you could say that these days, Main Street is just a name for ordinary Americans, and doesn't have a specific geographical meaning, no more than Wall Street does.

But when I hear Main Street, I still flash on a line of low buildings with Gower's Pharmacy at one corner, and the Bailey Building and Loan at the other. The name still glows with the capraesque wholesomeness that not even the combined efforts of David Lynch, the Cohen Brothers, and Wes Craven have been able to dispel.

When Sarah Palin calls herself a "Main Streeter," she isn't saying just that she's ordinary or middle class. She's suggesting that her small-town background has given her a special insight into our core values, that she can see America from her window.

And in response, Joe Biden pumps up his own Main Street cred, by mentioning his frequent trips to Home Depot and his youth in Scranton and a Delaware steel town. Back in 1920, Sinclair Lewis wrote sarcastically that Main Street is our comfortable tradition and sure faith.

That hasn't changed. Eighty years after it was first coined, Wall Street versus Main Street is still a potent political slogan. We still feel the need to write our moral differences on our geography, so we can put some actual distance between ourselves and the bad guys. Somebody should build a little plug-in that will automatically plot greed and honesty on Google maps.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

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