Tarkington’s city serves as an icon of nostalgia, a kind of literary museum of the way things once were, culturally and morally, in small cities and villages across America. Readers of the twenty-first century will perhaps be surprised to note some of the physical features of the city: one can easily walk from its center to its residential neighborhoods. Automobiles are mentioned but seldom seen, and are not at all something that every family has. The story’s characters move from one place to another on foot or on the trolley. One scene, near the middle of the novel, is staged on a “streetcar.” Travel outside the city is by train (one of the last scenes in the novel takes place in the city’s railway station).
The novel’s first scene is set in an old-fashioned drugstore. Such family-owned businesses served as popular meeting places for young people. The adolescents in Seventeen are remarkably conscious of decorum and proper dress. Even a stroll down the streets of the residential areas calls for suits and hats for the teenage boys, and dresses, elegant shoes, and hats for the girls.
The novel’s “midland city” is racially divided. It is plain that African American characters are only a generation or two removed from slavery; their speech patterns and customs seem southern rather than midwestern. Moreover, their relationship to such families as the Baxters is ambiguous. The African American Genesis, for example, is regularly employed by the Baxters and other neighborhood families as a handyman and waiter. He is always on call, and Tarkington depicts him as grateful to earn what he can to support a very modest lifestyle.
Avynoo. African American neighborhood in the unnamed city–where all the “colored” people live, as one of the novel’s African American characters puts it. Again, this fictional section of Seventeen’s nameless city has its origin in fact. The “avynoo” is a transparent allusion to Indianapolis’s Indiana Avenue, which has been known for many years as “the avenue,” the heart of the city’s African American culture.
While the neighborhood where the Baxter family and their friends live is white middle-class America, the avynoo refers to urban American ghettos. The tranquil milieu of Seventeen, however, does not belie any racial tension; neither the novel’s whites nor its African Americans seem to regret that the races are sharply segregated in their neighborhoods and opportunities.