(All paintings by Childe Hassam, 1859-1935)
The small town was long considered to be the backbone of America, but now small towns struggle to survive as our agricultural life is increasingly curtailed and young people move to the cities and their mega-environs seeking higher-paying jobs and greater opportunities. In my meandering journey to "read America" (having seen only its eastern seaboard), I have been reading novels that take place in small towns and in which the town plays a role, in part to understand what a small town is, as opposed to the suburbs that have so defined American life since the 1950s. Here are four of my favorite novels and one play about small town life from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.
Outskirts of East Gloucester, 1918
The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, 1896
"After a first brief visit made two or three summers before..., a lover of Dunnet Landing returned to find the unchanged shores of the pointed firs, the same quaintness of the village with its elaborate conventionalities; all the mixture of remoteness and the childish certainty of being the centre of civilization of which her affectionate dreams had told. One evening in June, a single passenger landed upon the steamboat wharf. The tide was high, there was a crowd of spectators, and the youngest portion of the company followed her with subdued excitement up the narrow street of the salt-aired, white-clapboarded little town."
Main Street East Hampton, 1920
Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, 1948
"To arrive at some idea of the culture of a certain street in a Middle Western small town shortly before the First World War, is a much more delicate undertaking [than an archaeological dig]. For one thing, there are no ruins to guide you. Though the houses are not kept up as well as they once were, they are still standing.... In every yard a dozen landmarks (here a lilac bush, there a sweet syringa) are missing. There is no telling what became of the hanging fern baskets with American flags in them or of all those red geraniums. The people who live on Elm Street now belong to a different civilization."
Maxwell's book is a heart-breaking story of a marriage in the first decade of the 20th century in which the town itself wields a strong influence as the novel takes us across the tracks and to the town center. Maxwell paints all of his characters and their actions with a brush that is dipped in compassion but still pointed enough to go straight to the heart of the matter.
East Gloucester, End of the Trolley, 1895
Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner, 1948
"If you got something outside the common run that's got to be done and cant wait, dont waste your time on the menfolks; they works on what your uncle calls the rules and the cases. Put the womens and the children at it; they works on the circumstances."
A young man, Chick Mallison, nephew of the town lawyer, and Miss Eunice Habersham go to work to clear an African-American, who has been hauled to jail and is in danger of being lynched, of charges of murdering a white man. Miss Habersham was a "kinless spinster of 70 living in the columned colonial house on the edge of town which had not been painted since her father died and had neither water nor electricity in it, with two Negro servants [a married couple].... Miss Habersham and the man [servant] raised chickens and vegetables and peddled them about town from the pickup truck."
November in Cos Cob, 1902
The next two should be read back to back, since the second awakens our affection and near-envy of the simplicity and community that give our ideas of small-town life a radiant ambiance, while the first takes a look at thwarted longings and nightmares.
Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, 1919
"The old man had listed hundreds of truths in his book.... There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and poverty, of thrift and profligacy, of carelessness and abandon.... And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them. It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth became a falsehood."
Church in a New England Village, 1901
Our Town by Thornton Wilder, 1938
"Stage Manager: The name of the town is Grover's Corners, New Hampshire--just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes, longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes. The First Act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The time is just before dawn. The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount'in. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, doesn't it?"