by Len Lear
Miles Orvell, a resident of Chestnut Hill for the past 23 years, is a brilliant professor and scholar. He earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University (1964) and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in English and American Literature in 1970, and he came to Temple University for his first job out of graduate school in 1969 when he was 25. Although he has authored highly acclaimed books since then and could have easily moved on to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, Orvell is still at Temple 43 years later.
Orvell’s wife, Gabriella Ibieta, was born on the fourth of July in Havana, Cuba. She teaches comparative literature and humanities at Drexel. Their daughter, Ariana, just graduated from Columbia University and is now doing “Teach for America” at a school in Manhattan. She was an Urban Studies major at Columbia, and Orvell used her senior thesis in his just-published (last month) book, “The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space and Community” (University of North Carolina Press). The Orvells’ son, Dylan, is at Drexel University but is on leave now and is an emerging EDM (Electronic Dance Music) producer in Philadelphia.
Last week the Local posed a series of questions to Orvell, and the questions and his answers follow:
•Local: Since you could have certainly gone elsewhere over the years, what made you stay so long at Temple?
•Orvell: Is it so long? Seems like yesterday when I arrived at a lively, friendly department filled with interesting people. I found I liked it at Temple, liked the students, the place, the freedom to develop within the new American Studies Program that was founded shortly after I arrived. Then when I married 25 years ago, our lives seemed glued to Philadelphia, where we both worked. Temple students are serious and hard-working, and I love them. Temple’s a dynamic institution committed to the region, and I love that too.
•Local: You have written about the extreme contradictions in the U.S. between wealth and poverty, city and small town, etc. What do these contradictions say about our history, our politics and the American people?
•Orvell: I like to avoid generalizing about America, because it is such a diverse country politically, regionally and so forth. My ‘Main Street’ book was written, nevertheless, with a sense that there are some things that hold us together, the deep and binding myths that we share, among them the myth of community that we see embodied in Main Street and the small town. In my book, I try to examine this myth critically in terms of the actual history of small town America and in terms of the ideology of Main Street that is still so powerful … the small town is a mirror of the class divisions and social divisions in American society. People like to think they get along on Main Street, but they also are very fussy about where they live in town and who lives next to them. In a way that fussiness (what a mild term!) characterizes the polarities of American society on the grander scale. People get nervous when “class” is discussed in the U.S., because we pretend there’s an American Dream (our official religion) that allows us all to be wealthy. That’s a convenient mythology that keeps people going, but we all know it’s not true. A few people get wealthy; most don’t. It’s been interesting to see in this presidential election how frank the candidates have dared to be (sometimes in private) about the divisions and class antagonisms that are foundational to American society.
•Local: How will reading “Main Street” change how we big city folk think about small towns?
•Orvell: I think people who live in big cities, as I have all my life, will see that Main Street is an idea that has had a profound impact on everyone’s life, wherever they live. In material terms it’s also something that has pervaded urban space for the last 30 years or so. I spend a good part of the book talking about how the ideal of the small town has been imported (via New Urbanism) into the city — in the inner city redevelopment of Philadelphia and other cities and in the creation of consumer spaces that mimic the ideal of the festive small town and Main Street. Cities have always been based on neighborhoods, and the neighborhood itself can often function like a small town. So the division between small town and city, while real and meaningful, is also not as ironclad as one might at first think.
•Local: What is it about Flannery O’Connor that prompted you to write and research so much about her? Would you place her in the pantheon of great American novelists?
•Orvell: I was fascinated by O’Connor’s short stories when I encountered them in graduate school because I couldn’t understand them. I found that no one else seemed to understand them either. She’s a Catholic writer, but she writes like a fundamentalist, and her religious dimensions, while all-pervasive, are oblique and disguised in a comic mode that is enormously engaging and sometimes terrifying in its reach into average moral problems. I wrote my book (based on my dissertation) in order to “explain” O’Connor, once and for all. While I was writing, the first full-length study came out, so mine was the second book. I was obviously deluded in thinking that there wasn’t that much to say about O’Connor and that I had basically said it all, since there are now probably 40 books on her.
•Local: What are some of your other scholarly interests?
•Orvell: Another long-standing interest is photography, and I’ve taught the history of photography at Temple for many years. I could never find a book I liked for that course, so I wrote one myself, called “American Photography” (in the Oxford History of Art series). And I’ve written many other essays on photography over the years … The other big thing I’ve done, which occupied the years from 1996 to 2011, was editing the Encyclopedia of American Studies. This was a project I got involved in through the American Studies Association, and I became Senior Editor of the book project. Then when we went online I became Editor in Chief for about eight years.
•Local: Of all your books, do you have a favorite?
•Orvell: Books are like children. Impossible to have favorites, you love them all, and in my case, they’re all different. I generally don’t like to look back once I’ve finished a book, but sometimes if I’m forced to dip into it for some reason and read a few pages, I wonder who in the world could have written this? How did the words come onto the page? Writing is a kind of mystery in that sense, that you don’t premeditate exactly, you let it flow … Of course the computer has changed so much in writing that now I feel that I write almost as part of a larger community, almost a universe, of writers, data, information, all instantly available. There’s a sense of connection with the infinity of texts that is new in writing.
•Local: How have your students changed over the past 43 years? Do you see yourself retiring anytime in the relatively near future?
•Orvell: My students at Temple have changed demographically over the years, but I’ve always encountered superb students … And I love working with graduate students in English, directing dissertations and helping them discover the shape and substance of what they want to say. I don’t have any retirement plans, not yet. I still love teaching, partly because of the dialogue and partly because it’s a captive audience that is not exactly an incarcerated one.
•Local: Why did you choose to live in Chestnut Hill 23 years ago, and why have you stayed here?
•Orvell: We liked Germantown Avenue, we liked being able to walk from our home to the center of Chestnut Hill … I’ve taken to using a bike as much as possible to get around except when I walk the dog. And of course, being near the Wissahickon Valley is an incredible privilege for people who live here, and I’ve been getting down there regularly. And, frankly, we love our street and our house because we like living in history; we like living in a place that has endured and the architectural character of the place; well, everyone knows this. What I discovered in researching “Main Street” and getting a bit into the history of Chestnut Hill is how it all evolved in the 1950s, and that’s something I had fun writing about in “The Death and Life of Main Street.” In fact, I use Chestnut Hill as a paradigm of how a town can reinvent itself.