Village Dwellers

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Since the early days of settlement, the village has served as both a microcosm of the larger American society and as a unique place, separate and distinct. When John Winthrop (1588–1649), governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared that New England would be "as a city upon a hill" (p. 83), he suggested that the colonial American experiment was valuable as a purification of old England and, as a consequence, would serve as a model city. Writers from Winthrop on used the village and its inhabitants as a way to reflect on the social anxieties inherent to a changing world. The early Puritan conception of a city on a hill specifically formulates the village as the ideal in contrast to the outside world.

From the very beginning, then, the village in American literature is a response to modernity, a return to what is perceived to be both a simpler and a holier life. The nature of the response, of course, varies from writer to writer. From the beginning, the village has functioned in literature as both a utopia and as a dystopia wherein all the depravity of the human soul is revealed and all of the consequent conflicts in human society are probed. Those who live in the village are depicted, according to the temper of the author, as either wise for rejecting modernity or backwards for the same reason.

Thus, villagers frequently serve as a means for writers to analyze and critique larger society, or human nature more generally, and become icons for a particular way of life, representing distinct ideologies inherent in a culture governed by a small but growing bourgeoisie who thrive against the backdrop of an agrarian society. Those who dwell in the village are usually of a certain type appropriate to such a society, and in many literary presentations the village is inhabited not by the simple but by the simpleminded and not by the satisfied but by the self-satisfied.


With the end of the Civil War came a renewed interest in village life due to the increased literary importance of dialect writing. Arguably, the best American writing in the postwar era is regional writing. Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) Oldtown Folks (1869) and the sequel Oldtown Fireside Stories (1872) feature the rich dialect of the New England village. The tales hearken back to Washington Irving's Tarrytown tales, for Stowe purposely sets her stories in the pre–Civil War and even pre-railroad past. It is interesting that the writer who penned the incendiary antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852) largely abjured political issues in her writings published after the Civil War. Her New England villagers are imperfect, but there are no figures similar to Simon Legree (the villain of Uncle Tom's Cabin); indeed, in these post–Civil War works any character flaws serve to make the inhabitants of the village quaint rather than reprehensible. The work ethic so common to New England types in literature is notably absent in Sam Lawson, for example, the narrator of Oldtown Fireside Stories, but this simply gives him more time for what he does best—storytelling. The fictional village of Oldtown is in Massachusetts, and for her later collection Poganuc People: Their Loves and Lives (1878), Stowe returns to this setting to create Poganuc Centre, a village inhabited by New England types, particularly representatives of religious denominations. The book explores denominational conflict but with historical distance, perspective, and a sense of humor.

If Stowe's later work seems to withdraw from the most pressing social and political issues, other writers of the post–Civil War era acknowledge and engage the changes unleashed by the war: industrialization, commercialization, and a decline in the viability of social structures. Relying on the techniques of realism to convey the dialect of the village types, many writers also adopted realist attitudes toward their subject matter, paying closer attention to the deficiencies of small-town life. While Rose Terry Cooke (1827–1892) writes in much the same vein as Stowe and does portray quaint villages, the inhabitants of those villages are, upon occasion, less than quaint. Cooke's work frequently delves beneath the appealing surface of the village to unearth its hidden secrets and hypocrisy. In the story "Mrs. Flint's Married Experience" (1880), Cooke relates a horrifying story of a husband attempting to starve his wife to death for her property, all set against the staid backdrop of a New England village. Cooke suggests that the inhabitants of the village have much invested in preserving the appearance of serene tradition; those like Mrs. Flint, who disturb that serene image, are rejected. Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930), too, writes of a fictional Massachusetts town in A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891). Freeman employs perhaps more humor than Cooke, but with a similar satiric sense of how the conservative traits that create the popular image of the village subordinate strong women to the preservation of that image. Her story "The Revolt of 'Mother'" is one of the best of these.

The stories of Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909), many of them set in the fictional communities of Deephaven and Dunnett's Landing, are often nostalgic and wistful in their presentation of those living in the village, but one sees as well the effect the world at large has on the community. In Jewett's "The Gray Mills of Farley" (1898), the writer shows the effects of the economic depressions of the 1890s on the various inhabitants of the mill village, including Father Daley, families like the Kilpatricks, and even the owners of the mill. The problems are primarily wrought from outside the village, however, and are overcome by a strong community.

The work of Edward Eggleston (1837–1902) owes much to the New England models discussed above, though he found in frontier village life a rough antidote to what he perceived as a detached intellectualism in the New England literary establishment. Eggleston constructed The Hoosier School-Master (1871), his most successful novel, out of the folkways and dialects he experienced in southern Indiana.


In 1921 the literary critic Carl Van Doren coined the term "The Revolt from the Village" (p. 407) to describe the group of writers, mainly midwesterners, who wrote novels depicting the dystopic elements of small-town life. While Van Doren places Sinclair Lewis in the front of this revolt, he rightly notes that the revolt had started in the 1880s. As urban areas extended their influence, and the small towns grew smaller, literary depictions of them often contrasted greatly, some writers longing for their seemingly simpler way of life, others portraying them as increasingly narrow, parochial, intolerant, and even dangerous. While religion was growing more liberal and democratic in larger urban centers, religious life in some small towns seemed to have changed little from the eighteenth-century era of Jonathan Edwards and early Calvinism. E. W. Howe (1853–1937), for instance, uses his book The Story of a Country Town (1883) to depict the community of Fairview, where people lead bleak, narrow lives governed by religious practice that has become more a matter of repetition than belief; the Sunday sermons bring the villagers no joy, providing rather a theological vocabulary with which to describe their misery.

Mark Twain (1835–1910) was the foremost practitioner of village fiction in the late nineteenth century. He once wrote that "human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage—a village is the place. There you can know your man inside & out—in a city you but know his crust; & his crust is usually a lie" (Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals 2:503). Taking his own advice, Twain's best writing concerns villages: St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade) (1885); Dawson's Landing in Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894); and even the village of Eseldorf, which is depicted in Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (originally written 1897–1908, published 1969).

Inhabitants of the many villages in Mark Twain's novels and stories adhere to the joyless religion of obligation and hypocrisy. As idyllic as the village scenes often are, Twain lays bare the depravity in human nature. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain depicts the slaveholding theology of Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas as part and parcel of a slaveholding economy. The scenes concerning the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons further critique a surface religiosity that has no real depth. The Grangerfords and Shepherdsons attend the same church and nod approvingly during a sermon on "brotherly love" but then leave the church and shoot their white brethren even as they enslave their black brethren. Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899) is a devastating critique of small-town hypocrites and morality and shows that village dwellers were not immune to the greed of the "Gilded Age." (The term, which came to be applied to the latter decades of the 1800s, was coined by Twain and his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner in their jointly written novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, published in 1873.) Twain's writings also show small-town residents as hostile to outsiders, whom they tend to label and reject. In Pudd'nhead Wilson, David Wilson is called a "Pudd'nhead" for having told a joke that the town residents did not find funny. This same attribute of the village character was later depicted by writers Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson.

Harold Frederic (1856–1898) took up similar issues in The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896). It charts the parochial aspects of small-town religious life and the difficulties faced by an outsider coming into the narrow world of the village, in this instance Octavius, New York. Like some of Twain's work, Frederic's novel reflects a new era of liberalized religion and even post-Darwinian disbelief, against which the villagers' tenacious retention of ancient dogma seems even more prehistoric. Indeed, the earlier religious faith that had been embodied in Puritan conceptions of the city upon a hill is frequently depicted as moribund, but nothing has replaced it. The predominant mood in the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935) is that of despair. Highly individualized, the inhabitants of his fictional Maine village, Tilbury Town, are yet one in their despair. Robinson's poem "Richard Cory" (1897) reveals the discouragement beneath the contented surface and the class envy that is increasingly visible in a village economy that is no longer agrarian but yet not thoroughly industrialized. The inhabitants of the village, the collective "we" of the town, view Cory as a "gentleman" and "thought that he was everything / To make us wish that we were in his place." In what are undoubtedly Robinson's most famous lines of poetry, the villagers learn otherwise: "And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head" (p. 144). A similar sense of class envy and hidden despair haunts Robinson's work generally, but other villagers are derelicts, remnants of the past village life that have unaccountably survived while coevals have disappeared. Old Eben Flood of "Mr. Flood's Party" (1920) is the best of these. His "party" is a solitary, drunken evening when he, alone with his memories, laments the lost village life.

One sees the appropriateness of Van Doren's phrase the "Revolt from the Village" in other works of this period, too. From Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1915) to Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920), those who live in small towns are depicted as thwarted in their lives and loves and full of a desperate longing to escape. In the works of Zona Gale (1874–1938), one sees the historical shift continuing—first there's a nostalgic backward glance to the village, then the village is depicted as backwards. Gale's earlier works Friendship Village (1908) and Friendship Village Love Stories (1909) celebrate the American village as an ideal. In contrast, her later works Birth (1918) and Miss Lulu Bett (1920) depict young women suffocated by small-town life and the limited opportunities for fulfillment available to them. As the "New Woman" was already at large in the city, these later works show women in the village beginning to seek the same possibilities for self-expression and growth.

Indeed, it is not too much to say that for some writers the American village was dead. Edgar Lee Masters (1868–1950), for example, imitated the epitaphic style of the Greek Anthology to create Spoon River Anthology, his American version of the work. It superbly adapts the concept of individual epitaphs as poems but links the poems together through the interlocking stories of the dead to depict the inhabitants of the cemetery as part of village life. The speakers are all deceased, so the mood is generally one of loss. Masters takes in quite a bit of history as seen through the eyes of villagers. These short, sharp character sketches capture the pain and pathos of the individual lives while also capturing particular historical events, such as the Civil War and the construction of the railways through the countryside.

Masters lays bare the thwarted lives hidden underneath the seemingly idyllic town. He often pairs the epitaphic poems to reveal multiple sides of stories. Thus, the poems of Ollie McGee and Fletcher McGee adjoin one another, just as the stones of husband and wife sit next to each other in a graveyard. The dialogue of the dead between husband and wife reveals the way the two manipulated, even tortured, each other during life. Other poems chronicle murder, rape, molestation, alcoholism, prostitution, explosions, and sudden, inexplicable death. The web of interrelating stories paints a picture of the village in all its exterior moralism and interior decay. Those who see the village for what it is are even less happy than those who do not. Writer characters such as John Horace Burleson and Margaret Fuller Slack experience the confines of village life and mores that thwart their art. One of the few truly happy individuals in the village is Lois Spears, blind from birth because her father contracted syphilis from a prostitute. Readers learn from his poem that, on the verge of publicly confessing his sin, he sees his blind daughter sitting in the first row. Unburdening himself would necessarily burden her, so he suffers his own spiritual torment to preserve his daughter's innocence. Fulfilled as a wife and mother, Lois Spears is happily blind to the corruption about her in the village of Spoon River; fittingly, her epitaphic poem ends with heartfelt praise to God.

Masters's collection of poems makes an interesting comparison to Sherwood Anderson's collection of short stories, Winesburg, Ohio (1919), subtitled A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life. Directly influenced by Masters's work, Anderson took the concept of small-town types to new heights in his work, using particular characters in the village to represent larger themes about life. In this method, both writers hearken back to Philip Freneau's collection of poems, The American Village (1772), which takes each type in order—schoolteacher, judge, and so forth. Anderson, however, employs this structure for an even deeper psychological analysis than Masters, focusing on the "grotesques" that inhabit the small town of Winesburg. In his dedication of the book to his mother, Anderson credits her for awakening in him the desire to see "beneath the surface of lives," and this becomes the dominant feature of his collection. Anderson includes chapters such as "Hands," about Wing Biddlebaum, a man suspected of being a child molester; "The Teacher," about Kate Swift, a teacher infatuated with a former student; and "Departure," about George Willard, a character appearing in many of the stories, who leaves Winesburg for the big city. Anderson is one of the greatest of those writers using village characters, for he extends Twain's conception of seeing beneath the crust to apprehending psychological truths about individual characters, a practice at which he has rarely been equaled.

Indiana features in numerous works of this period, as many writers either from the state or from elsewhere use it as shorthand for "small town." Although Ring Lardner (1885–1933) was born in Niles, Michigan, his most famous work, You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters (1916), features the town of Bedford, Indiana. The novel is really a loosely organized collection of vernacular letters from a baseball player, Jack Keefe, writing home to his friend, Al. The work features interesting sidelight discussions of the inhabitants of Bedford and, most significantly, revelations about Jack's own growth from a small-town boy to a big-city ballplayer. Ironically, his growth involves learning how to smoke, drink, and swear. A wistful, though slightly ironic, tone predominates in the novel.

Booth Tarkington (1869–1946) is perhaps best known for his "Penrod" novels. This trilogy, consisting of Penrod (1914), Penrod and Sam (1916), and Penrod Jashber (1929), chronicles the misadventures of the eponymous protagonist. The series is really a paean to the lost world of the midwestern village. Penrod causes trouble, but never too much trouble; like Tom Sawyer, he is "the good bad boy" living in a village where nothing really bad ever happens and where the mildest of disruptions cause only temporary dismay. In contrast, Tarkington's novels The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and Alice Adams (1921) depict the small town in the throes of economic and social upheaval. The new economy ushered in by the Civil War destroys the old values by which the Ambersons had maintained their position in society. The once "magnificent" name Amberson means nothing as the village grows to town and then to city. Even the name "Amberson Boulevard" is changed to "Tenth Street," all but effacing the charm of the previous era. By focusing on three generations of Ambersons, Tarkington is able to chart the development of the village over time. Tarkington received Pulitzer Prizes for both The Magnificent Ambersons and for Alice Adams; significantly, both end with the failure of past class association and position in the face of economic change.

Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) might be best known for the bleak cityscapes of his novels populated by bleak people, but nearly all the important characters in his many novels are, in fact, villagers who move to the city. Carrie Meeber in his first and perhaps greatest novel, Sister Carrie (1900), is one example. Moving to Chicago and later New York City, Carrie hails from Columbia City, Wisconsin, though it is likely Dreiser named the town after Columbia City, Indiana, not far from Warsaw, Indiana, where he spent some of his formative years. Carrie sighs in the novel's opening paragraph as "the familiar green environs of the village passed in review" (p. 7). The character Eugene Witla of The "Genius" (1915) is a small town boy in Illinois who hears the siren song of the city, leaving his hometown of Alexandria, Illinois. In each case, Dreiser uses the small town to represent the drab and mundane aspects of life, while the city represents possibility and adventure. Still, even though Dreiser's characters remain in the big city, they are essentially naive individuals who, wiser in the end, still long for that village life they left; the village is for many of Dreiser's characters both something to escape and an unachievable ideal and object of longing.

Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951), however, has captured more than any other writer the contrary aspects of small-town life in mid-America. In Main Street, perhaps his greatest work, Lewis set out to write a novel that would capture the essence of America, and he chose for his setting the fictional town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, noting in his foreword that the novel could be set in Main Street in any American small town. While Van Doren classed Lewis as part of the "Revolt from the Village," it is interesting to note that the heroine of Main Street leaves the close, parochial confines of Gopher Prairie only to return in the end, disillusioned with the modern life she found in the big city.


Fiction about the small town includes certain predictable thematic elements. Fiction featuring village dwellers either praises the social cohesion of the village or depicts it as overbearing. A simple faith might be laudable in one novel but be considered parochial and narrow in another. Some villagers escape modernity while others are ignorant and backward. Formally, fiction featuring village dwellers often involves types, even stereotypes. Quaint, compelling, and often horrifying, these residents speak to the dreams of creating a utopian community and to the harsh realities of human nature that prevent true community. More than any other social landscape, the village highlights, particularly in contrast to the nation's great cities, those eternal verities of character that seem lost in the anonymity of the metropolis.

See alsoThe Country of the Pointed Firs; The Damnation of Theron Ware; Farmers and Ranchers; Main Street; Migration; A New England Nun and Other Stories; Regionalism and Local Color Fiction; Winesburg, Ohio


Primary Works

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Viking, 1958.

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. 1900. New York: New American Library, 1961.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. Novels and Stories. New York: Library of America, 1994.

Lewis, Sinclair. Main Street. 1920. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1920.

Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology. 1915. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington. "Richard Cory." In Modern American Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer, p. 144. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1936.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Three Novels. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Tarkington, Booth. The Gentleman from Indianapolis. New York: Doubleday, 1957.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. Edited by Victor Fischer, Lin Salamo, and Walter Blair. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals. Vol. 2, 1877–1883. Edited by Frederick Anderson, Lin Salamo, and Bernard Stein. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975.

Winthrop, John. "A Model of Christian Charity." In The American Puritans, edited by Perry Miller, pp. 79–84. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Secondary Works

Cook, David M., and Craig G. Swauger, eds. The Small Town in American Literature. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

DeMuth, James. Small Town Chicago: The Comic Perspective of Finley Peter Dunne, George Ade, Ring Lardner. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1980.

Herron, Ima Honaker. The Small Town in American Literature. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1939.

Hilfer, Anthony Channell. The Revolt from the Village: 1915–1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

Van Doren, Carl. "Contemporary American Novelists: X. The Revolt from the Village: 1920." Nation 113 (12 October 1921): 407–412.

Joe B. Fulton

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Village Dwellers

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