Places: Oldtown Folks

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1869

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional

Time of work: Late eighteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedOldtown

Oldtown. Oldtown FolksNew England town modeled on Natick, Massachusetts, the hometown of Stowe’s husband. More of the action takes place in the homes of the Oldtowners than in church, but a keen religious consciousness characterizes most Oldtowners. In the early Federalist years in which the novel is set, villagers ponder religious changes more often than civic ones. The daughter and sister of clergymen and wife of a biblical scholar, Stowe makes her characters think hard and often, not only on the nature of religious observance and duty but on difficult theological issues such as those distinguishing the strict Calvinism that dominated early New England from the more liberal versions of Protestantism that were making headway in the late eighteenth century.

Oldtown is not merely a refashioned Natick but Stowe’s typical New England small town, a place in which people must choose among competing orthodoxies, as well as the rationalism provoked by the new nation’s Founders. Stowe’s characters reflect her conviction that the descendants of the Puritans at their best led reflective, but not gloomy, lives. An often anthologized chapter shows them celebrating Thanksgiving in a lighthearted evening of eating, singing, and dancing. Sam Lawson, the “do-nothing” of the community, is not scorned as idle but redeemed by his cheerful disposition and folksy wisdom.

Given their preoccupation with maintaining an authentic religious life, Oldtown villagers only vaguely recognize the dangers of the growing secularism. One of the three young principals of the novel, Tina Percival, is allowed to meet Ellery Davenport, a skeptical scoffer patterned upon Aaron Burr, in Stowe’s mind a man who disgraced the heritage of his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, the great eighteenth century divine. Thus Oldtown is a community teetering between the security of the old pieties and the perils of the new independence.

Because Stowe was an acute observer, not merely of the mores, but of the linguistic habits of New England village life, her portrayals of Oldtown’s denizens, particularly Sam Lawson, also qualify her as a literary pioneer in the realistic rendering of the speech and mannerisms of ordinary people and confirm her importance as an early exponent of local color fiction.

Meetinghouse

Meetinghouse. Oldtown church used for community meetings that Stowe modeled on the Natick meetinghouse established by Reverend John Eliot to minister to Native Americans of the area. In the novel the central seating area of the church contains not the pews for white parishioners that one might expect, but benches for the remnants of the local Indian tribe a century after the establishment of this “praying town.” In another link with history, Oldtown’s magistrate for Indians, Judge Waban, bears the name of a real Native American who became a civic leader in early Natick. Also prominent in the congregation, though segregated like Waban’s people had been, are African Americans. Stowe’s narrator, Horace Holyoke, frequently a spokesman for the author, holds that the weekly assembling of worshipers of all its races and classes is a civilizing influence.

*Boston

*Boston. Massachusetts town that is not yet a true city is nevertheless a place of “grandeur” when Mrs. Lothrop, the wife of Oldtown’s village minister, takes children there for a visit. They worship in the famous Old North Church, visit shops, and learn of the possibility of education beyond the scope of village schools. Boston is, in short, a place where their horizons are widened; however, it is also a place where they are more often exposed to libertines like Ellery Davenport. Later in the novel, much to the chagrin of family and friends, Tina Percival marries Davenport there.

Cloudland

Cloudland. Town patterned on Litchfield, Connecticut, where Stowe was born and spent her earliest years. There Tina, her brother Harry, and their friend Horace attend the local academy. Cloudland reflects its minister, the Reverend Mr. Avery, whose “reasonable” version of Calvinism permitting undoubted freedom of the will and personal responsibility, contrasts sharply with that of his Oldtown counterpart. Under the influence of Mr. Avery’s less stringent theology, the relatively relaxed moral atmosphere of the town makes it easier for Ellery Davenport to charm Tina into what is destined to be an unhappy marriage.

BibliographyAdams, John R. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Analyzes Stowe’s novels according to conventional literary criteria, and argues that Oldtown Folks, although flawed by a contrived plot, is the most realistic and imaginative of Stowe’s works.Ammons, Elizabeth, ed. Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Includes early reviews and later critical assessments of Stowe’s fiction. Excerpts a reading of Oldtown Folks by Charles H. Foster in which he analyzes how Stowe critiques Jonathan Edwards’ influence on Puritan New England.Crozier, Alice C. The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Dated but still useful discussion of Stowe’s novels that considers Oldtown Folks in the context of her other historical fiction, and argues that Stowe is at times bitingly ironic toward her religious characters.Donovan, Josephine. New England Local Color Literature: A Women’s Tradition. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. Discusses Stowe’s role as a pioneer of the women’s tradition of local color realism, asserting that Oldtown Folks is the best of Stowe’s regional novels.Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Tells the story of the inception and writing of Oldtown Folks. Discusses how Stowe’s awareness of her audience and the changing critical climate might have influenced her writing.
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