American Small Town Literature Part 1

Hi guys!

Sorry about posting my research blogs so late. During the six-weeks’ research, I’ve finished nine books on small towns, six of them were English and the other three were Chinese. Though I’ve been taking notes while reading, I haven’t got enough time to organize them into essays due to my tight time schedule that I have to prepare for my GRE test simultaneously. This Thursday I had my GRE test, and finally got some time to reread these books and reorganize my reading notes. So, this first blog is about the three books I read during the first two weeks of my research, which are Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, William Faulkner’s Collected Stories of William Faulkner, and John Cheever’s The Stories of John Cheever.

One interesting commonality that the three books share is that they are all collections of short stories. However, while Cheever’s stories mainly reflected the affluent, white suburban life in the 1950s, the Anderson and Faulkner’s stories took place in the early 20th century, when industrialization hadn’t disturbed the quietude of their small towns and before the two world wars that brought the dramatic socio-economic changes in America.

Winesburg was published in 1919, and all the 22 tales took place in the small town Winesburg, a fictional town in Ohio. As Anderson’s characters revealed, who are made as “grotesques” and are inhibited by convention, but nevertheless are longing for love and freedom and interpersonal communications, that behind the typical small town’s façade of gentility, there are loneliness, frustration, and hypocrisy. For instance, in the story Adventure, the heroin Alice Hindman fell in love with a man when she was sixteen. The man had given her many sweet promises, but soon, he decided to leave Winesburg to pursue a new job in the city. Before leaving, the man promised Alice that as soon as he got a good job, he would come back, but just as we could imagine, he was soon caught up by the life of the city and forgot Alice, and of course, he never came back. However, deeply infatuated by her first lover, Alice is determined to wait for him whether he comes back or not. As time goes by, she realizes that she is becoming “old and queer,” and she feels that she wants to be loved, “to have something answer the call that was growing louder and louder within her.” On a rainy night, a crazy idea suddenly occurred to her that she wants to run naked through the streets, and so she did. She saw a man on the sidewalk and decided to go to him. But that passerby is an old man and somewhat deaf, and unable to hear her clearly in the rain, he shouted to her, “What? What say?” Alice was so frightened that she crawled on hands and knees back to her house. The story ends with her heartbroken sob in the bed, and the miserable recognition that “many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.” The small town Wineburg’s conventional value of women’s subordination to men, that a woman has to be faithful to a man while not vice, is the leading cause of Alice’s tragedy. As Anderson comments in the story, “for all of her willingness to support herself could not have understood the growing modern idea of a woman’s owning herself and giving and taking for her own ends in life.”

The Yoknapatawpha county in Jefferson, Mississippi is where most of Faulkner’s stories take place. For the four short stories I mainly focused on, Barn Burning, A Rose for Emily, Dry September, and That Evening Sun, they are concerned with race, marriage, parents-children relationships, and also southern aristocracy. We can see that in a more conservative southern small town setting, people’s views can be extremely narrowed and prejudiced, and gossips play an important role in townspeople’s daily life.

In contrast to the two southern pre-war small towns, Shady Hill in John Cheever’s stories is a northeastern banlieue (suburb) that is not far from New York, which inhabits exclusively white, middle-class families in the 1950s. There are some very interesting characteristics of the Shady Hill which I summarized from the ten stories that explicitly made this suburb as their setting place. For instance, most wives do not have jobs, and most husbands take train to go to work. There is also a great number of husbands who are away on business from one to three weeks out of every month, and thus leaving their unemployed wives desperately seeking all sorts of activities to alleviate the loneliness and boredom: “They solicited funds for cancer, heart trouble, lameness, deafness, and mental health. They cultivated tropical plants in capricious climate, wove cloth, made pottery, cared tenderly for their children, and did everything imaginable to make up for the irremediable absence of their men. They remained lonely women with a natural proneness to gossip.” As a result, marriage problems are commonplace in Shady Hill, notwithstanding Francis’s observance in The Country Husband, “There was no turpitude; there had not been a divorce since he lived there; there had not been a breath of scandal. Things seemed arranged with more propriety even than in the Kingdom of Heaven.” As we read through, we would find that under the pretense of happy marriages and harmonious families, there are undercurrent of discontent flowing among husbands, wives, and even children. Wives cheat husbands, husbands have affairs, children distrust their parents and run away from home, and older husband question the loyalty of his younger wife… These stories are fascinating, and beyond that, we can have a glimpse of what the general American society was like in that changing era.


  1. merenshaw says:

    Wow your research on these stories is so interesting! I wanted to read blogs that differed from my research entirely (really something non science related). I’ve heard of Faulkner before, but haven’t read any of his stories. I’m excited to read your other blogs and maybe even read a little Faulkner in my free time.

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