American Small Town Literature Part 2

Hey guys!

Different from my last post about my first two weeks’ summer research progress on three short story collections, this one is all about long novels! In the following three books: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, I will explore how in various ways can small towns distinct from big cities.

The three stories all take place in the second half of twentieth century, with Peyton Place and Bastard Out of Carolina in the 1950s, and The Corrections in the late twentieth.

Whether it’s in small towns or in big cities, people talk, and people talk wherever they go or live. But what differentiate smalls towns with big cities is that these “talks” do matter. In Peyton Place, a new England small town, there are three sources of public scandal that could excite the public attention: suicide, murder, and the impregnation of an unmarried girl. These things are no big news in big cities because people are less concerned with others’ fairs, and also because the occurrences of them are more often due to the much large population of city dwellers. In the book, Metalious elaborately compares the effects of public scandals in small towns and cities:

Scandalous occurrences, of a public nature that is, do not often take place in small towns… While it is true, no doubt, that the closets of city dwellers are in as sad disorder as those of small-town residents, the difference is that the city dwellers is not as apt to be on as intimate terms with the contents of his neighbor’s closet as the in habitant of a smaller community. The difference between a closet skeleton and a scandal, in a small town, is that the former is examined behind barns by small groups who converse over it in whispers, while the latter is looked upon by everyone, on the main street, and discussed in shouts from rooftops.

Because of the intensity of malice that a public scandal could bring, when Selena was pregnant owing to her brutal step father’s rape, she was desperate and had to no choice but to seek Doctor Matthew Swain for help. However, in such a small town, confined by the conventional value that abortion is evil, the venerable doctor was caught in a dilemma. But also because of this happened in a small town, where Dr. Swain was the only doctor and the only hospital was owned by him, the kind and compassionate doctor was able to do the surgery secretly at the risk of his own reputation and professional career.

Interestingly enough, the abusive stepfather is also a major plot in Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. The book is set in Greenville county, South Carolina. The heroine Ruth Anne (nickname: Bone)’s mother was pregnant with her without being married to her father, and then she married twice, and the second man was Bone’s step father who physically and sexually abused her. The man was jealous that Bone’s mother Mama loved her so much that she might ignore him, and being enraged by Bone’s hateful remarks and hospitality, he raped the 11-year-old out of anger. Though in Peyton Place, Selina’s stepfather raped her driven by lust, and in Bone’s case it was anger and envy, the coincidence that both Bastard and Peyton Place dealt with this topic might serve as an indication that the abusive stepfather maybe a big social and family issue in the American 1950s.

St. Jude in Franzen’s The Corrections is a Midwestern small town, where lived the Lamberts, a traditional Midwestern family whose three children all have fled to the East Coast to start new lives and escape the influence of their parents. The father Alfred was a stubborn patriarch who suffered from Parkinson’s disease when he retired from being a railroad engineer. His views on race was very prejudiced and conservative, proclaiming that “‘the blacks’ would be the ruination of this country, ‘the blacks’ were incapable of coexisting with whites, they expected the government to take care of them, they didn’t know the meaning of hard work, what they lacked above all was discipline, it was going to end with slaughter in the streets…” A big difference between Midwestern St. Jude and eastern big cities is a sense of “optimistic egalitarianism” that St. Judeans felt. They were less aware of the class and economic differences, whereas big city dwellers were acutely conscious of the “enormous and decisive economic differences,” which the upper-class particular enjoyed. A rich man once commented that he hated the phony democracy in St. Jude, because “people in St. Jude pretend they’re all alike. It’s all very nice. Nice, nice, nice. But the people are not all alike. Not at all.” On the other hand, Denise, the only daughter and third child in Lamberts, and a successful cook in New York City, felt that the egalitarian ideal in Midwestern towns could also mean “hopeful or enthusiastic or community-spirited.”


  1. aswhitlock says:

    How did you go about choosing these novels and what made you choose them? I had never heard of any of these novels before, but your descriptions of them make me what to read them! Growing up in a small, rural town, most of the small town literature we read in school were on the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, so it is refreshing to hear of analysis of other works! I thoroughly enjoy your posts!

  2. merenshaw says:

    This was very interesting to read as I come from a suburban town that is neither a small town nor a big city. I really enjoyed reading your first post and enjoyed this one just as much. Now I have new novels to add to my reading list.

  3. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed them! I focused on stories/novels that are set in 20th century small towns, as there were many big political and sociological changes in the last century and the urbanization was going on quickly. One trick is to search “20th century small town literature” in Google, and you’ll find some “best small town literature” book lists! 🙂

  4. Thank you so much! I hope you will enjoy these books as I did!

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