Walking Distance: Navigation, Epiphany, and Memory in American Small-Town Fiction

Perhaps the most striking commonality between regional, small-town texts of the early-to-mid twentieth century is how frequently characters find themselves walking, often alone though occasionally with company, through their provincial communities. ‘The geographical size [of small towns] means that all of the neighbours and shops are usually within walking distance,’ the writer David M. Cook notes in his literary survey The Small Town in American Literature.[1] In Sherwood Anderson’s seminal small-town cycle Winesburg, Ohio (1919), the young protagonist, George Willard, often finds himself wandering the lonely streets at dusk, the anxieties of his life percolating in his head. Edith Wharton’s tragic protagonist Ethan Frome finds both solace and suffering as he negotiates a wintery New England by foot. In Carson McCullers’ fiction, characters often wander aimlessly through her anonymous, post-industrial Southern towns to defer their rural ennui. Willa Cather and Mary Austin, two celebrated writers of the Plains and American Frontier, similarly use walking as a means of psychological introspection and rural self-reflexivity. Within these texts, the navigation of the physical small-town space triggers memories, emotions, and other physiological responses that help narrate and give shape to localised communities. The act of walking can be epiphanic and cathartic, it can geographise and shape the vast topography of American regions, and, in the texts concerned with small-town America, it becomes a vital signifier not simply of life, but of living.

Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s melancholic study of ‘psychological realism’, as the scholar David R. Pichaske terms it, is a short story cycle that both denounces and laments the social mores of small-town American community.[2] Within his series of vignettes, at times indistinguishable from social jeremiads, Anderson uses the quasi-protagonist of George Willard to narrate a story of small-town exodus. George, a youthful and optimistic journalist to whom Winesburg connotes a certain stultification and conservatism, is perhaps the most lucid of Anderson’s characters and is emblematic of Winesburg, Ohio’s ‘psychological approach’ to characterisation, described so by John T. Flanagan.[3] George achieves this ostensible knowledge of his own mortality through the act of walking, which Anderson makes significant use of throughout his cycle.

Without thinking where he was going to what he wanted to do, George went out of Main Street and began walking in dimly lighted streets filled with frame houses. Out of doors under the black sky filled with stars he forgot his companions of the pool room. Because it was dark and he was alone he began to talk aloud.[4]

Anderson maps here the idiomatic territory of the American small town: Main Street, its frame houses, and the pool room are all typical referents of a rural American community. George’s navigation of these spaces, demarcating the very perimeters of his existence since birth, is invariably followed by an epiphany through which George alights upon some apparent philosophical truth. This epiphanic mode recurs toward the end of his collection:

The boy is walking through the street of his town […] Ghosts of old things creep into his consciousness; the voices outside of himself whisper a message concerning the limitations of life.[5]

These ‘ghosts of old things’ seem to perennially haunt literature of the American small-town, and it would seem that walking the twilight streets of these backwater burgs acts as a potent summoning ritual. Edith Wharton’s elegy to rural New England life, Ethan Frome (1911), a masterpiece of provincial tragedy, makes similarly poignant uses of transience and mobility.

They walked on in silence through the blackness of the hemlock-shaded lane, where Ethan’s saw mill gloomed through the night […] Here and there a farm-house stood far back among the fields, mute and cold as a grave-stone.[6]

Ethan’s experience of Starkfield, the bleak backdrop of Wharton’s novel, is punctuated with moments of quiet reflection induced through walking, often tinged with elements of pastoralism and the sublime. Further melancholy is evoked near the end when Ethan and Mattie, to whom he is tragically bound by forbidden love, take a walk to a wooded grove where they remember seeing each other for the first time. Ethan’s remark that this particular excursion will be the ‘last time we’ll ever walk together’ serves not simply as an emotional climax to the novel’s central love story but also as a telling portent to the novel’s tragic conclusion – the attempted and failed suicide of Ethan and Mattie renders the latter infirm and thus denied the coded act of walking indefinitely.

This gesturing toward the philosophy of transit, an on-foot ontology of sorts, is equally pervasive in the early-to-mid century literature of the South where rural communities are often rendered as little more than post-industrial waystations. Carson McCullers in her novel The Heart was a Lonely Hunter (1940), as well as the novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951), make frequent allusion to the corollary between walking and small-town ennui. ‘If you walk along main street on an August afternoon there is nothing whatsoever to do,’ her narrator notes in The Ballad of the Sad Café, a novella that posits the Southern small-town as a stagnant space in which movement becomes stunted and defined by a lack of affect.[7] She continues as such later in the novella: ‘There is absolutely nothing to do in the town. Walk around the millpond, stand kicking at a rotten stump […] The soul rots with boredom.’[8] Similarly, the protagonist of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the deaf-mute Singer, finds walking a solitary act to which he is resigned by way of his inability to communicate and transact with the town around him: ‘He began spending his evenings walking around town.’[9] Unlike in Anderson’s writing, McCullers’ stifled Southern denizens are denied the privilege of peace or temporary escape that walking can enable; instead they wander the dusty byways of their ‘lonesome’ (1) town from porch to porch, reminded of their entrapment with every footfall.

In American small-town narratives, the act of walking abounds. It can be a freeing act, a reminder of the world beyond Main Street as with George Willard in Winesburg, Ohio, and it can also be a pathetic act tainted with melancholy as with Wharton and McCullers. In small-towns and rural communities, one’s existence is defined by sociability and the proximal sites of such sociability – porch spaces, town halls, general stores – which are, as David M. Cook says, within ‘walking distance’. Whilst such places  may be easily mapped, the psychological space traversed simultaneously, a terrain replete with anxieties over life, love, and mortality, is far less unchartered. Through study of such texts as have been named here, however, a literary map begins to emerge and the paths trodden by countless characters begin to connect, their fates intersecting like walking trails in a wood.


[1] David M. Cook, The Small Town in American Literature, (New York: Dodd, Mean and Company, 1974)

[2] David R. Pichaske, ‘Dave Etter: Fishing for our lost American souls’, Journal of Modern Literature, 23 (Summer, 2000), 393-427, (p. 403).

[3] Flanagan, John T., ‘Literary Protest in the Midwest’, Southwest Review, 34 (Spring, 1949), 148-157, (p. 154).

[4] Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio,(Digireads: January, 2005), eBook, p. 64.

[5] Ibid., p. 85.

[6] Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome and Selected Stories, (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), eBook, p. 61.

[7] Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café, (Bantam, 1983), eBook, p. 1.

[8] Ibid., p. 66.

[9] Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 20.

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