The Town (1950 novel)
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|Published in English||24 April 1950|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
- For the novel of the same name by William Faulkner, see The Town (Faulkner).
- For the film of the same name see The Town (2010 film).
The Town is a novel written by Conrad Richter in 1950. It is the third installment of his trilogy The Awakening Land. The Trees (1940) and The Fields (1946) were the earlier installments in the series. The Town was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1951.
In September 1966, Alfred A. Knopf reissued the trilogy as a single hardcover volume. According to the edition notice of this all-in-one version—which lists the original publication dates of the three books -- The Town was first published on 24 April 1950.
The Town, the third novel in Conrad Richter’s Awakening Land trilogy, continues the story of frontier woman Sayward Luckett Wheeler and her family. The focus of this final book is on dealing with change, as Sayward sees the Ohio Valley settlement that her family originally established become a thriving town, mostly through Sayward selling off parcels of her own land to newcomers.
The town changes its name from Moonshine Church to Americus in a successful quest to be named the county seat, and constructs civic improvements such as a new bridge and canal. Sayward’s husband Portius convinces her to give up their old log cabin and move into a fine new brick mansion house he builds in the downtown section of Americus, since it is more appropriate to his status as the town’s lawyer. Although Sayward eventually gets used to the luxury of her new home, at the same time she also feels a sense of loss for the old frontier way of life.
Sayward is also reunited with two long-lost members of her family who were introduced in the earlier books of the trilogy. Her father Worth Luckett, who abandoned the family to live a hunter’s life after his favorite child Sulie was lost in the forest, returns to Americus and tries to re-establish a relationship with his remaining children. On his deathbed, Worth confides that Sulie is still alive. Sayward and her remaining sister Genny travel to the Indiana town where Sulie now resides and find her living in squalor with a Delaware Indian man. They attempt to re-connect with their youngest sibling, but Sulie claims not to know them. Sayward and Genny are forced to conclude that Sulie will always be lost to them.
Sayward also finds herself dealing with the problems of one or another of her nine surviving children. She must fetch home her oldest daughter, Huldah, when she runs off to live with a lover. Her third daughter, Sooth, is courted by a much older man. Her second son, Guerdon, secretly marries but ends up having to flee the area after killing his unfaithful wife’s lover. The child who causes Sayward the most worry, however, is her youngest son Chancey, a quiet, sensitive, sickly youngster who has constant health problems and often retreats into daydreams of belonging to another family who will understand him better.
As Chancy grows older, he feels an increasing sense of separateness from his family, and often clashes with his mother over their differing views on work and progress. He becomes close friends with Rosa Tench, a girl from the poor side of town in whom he senses a kindred spirit. Their families confess that Rosa is the result of Chancey’s father’s extramarital affair with the local school mistress, meaning that Rosa and Chancey are actually half-brother and sister. They are forbidden to see each other and are even threatened with the law, but they continue to meet in secret.
Finally, Chancey tells Rosa he can’t see her anymore. At the town fair, Rosa tries to force a confrontation with Chancey by cutting loose the balloon that she and Chancey are riding in, but Chancey deflates the balloon to bring them back. When Rosa realizes that Chancey will never defy his family for her and take her away from Americus with him, she commits suicide with the same knife she used to cut the balloon free.
After Rosa’s death, Chancey becomes embittered toward his family and moves out, first to a boarding house in town and then to Cincinnati. There, he becomes the editor of a newspaper that writes articles denouncing the prestigious people of the state, especially members of his family. He only sees his family sporadically, such as for his brother Resolve’s inauguration as governor and his father’s funeral.
Chancey returns again on the eve of the American Civil War in 1861 (although the year is not given, the book mentions that Union troops are answering the call of their “backwoods president,” meaning Abraham Lincoln) to attend the deathbed of his mother. After being supported for years by anonymous contributions, his newspaper has failed and been sold off at auction after the contributions stopped. He hopes that he may inherit some money from Sayward’s estate that will enable him to start over again.
At home, Chancey learns from his brother that Sayward had been the anonymous contributor who kept his newspaper going all of those years, even though she didn’t believe in its views and he often used it to attack her. He also discovers that she has saved clippings of all of the poems, articles, and editorials he has written. Chancey is forced to conclude that if he was wrong about Sayward in this, he may have been wrong about her in other things, also. He realizes that from now on, he will have to “ponder his own questions and travel his way alone.” 
In writing The Town and the other two books of the Awakening Land trilogy, Richter did his best to replicate the mode of speech used by the early 19th-century pioneers of the Ohio Valley, many of whom originally emigrated from the Northeastern United States. (For example, “trees” are referred to as “butts”.) In order to capture the dialect that made the trilogy sound credible and authentic, Richter made use of rare collections of old manuscripts, letters, and records documenting the speech of early 18th- and 19th-century citizens; reference books such as Historical Collections of Ohio by Henry Howe and Pioneer Pennsylvania, a compilation of archaic Pennsylvanian slang by Henry W. Shoemaker; and interviews with scholars and old neighbors of pioneer heritage that he once knew in his home state of Pennsylvania and later in the Ohio Valley.
Richter wrote that this early form of spoken language no longer survives in the Ohio Valley but was dispersed into the South and Southwestern areas of the country where, although it is often mistaken for a native form of speech, it should be considered “a living reminder of the great mother tongue of early America.” 
There is less usage of the “pioneer” form of speech in The Town compared to the earlier books of the trilogy. This reflects the fact that Sayward’s husband Portius, many of the newcomers to the town, and even Sayward’s own children are better educated and have lost the old forms of expression. Toward the end of the book, Sayward is one of the few surviving members of the founding generation of the town, and the “pioneer” dialect is found only in her thoughts and speech.
Change and Nostalgia
The central character, Sayward Luckett Wheeler, witnesses the transformation of the wilderness settlement originally established by her father into a full-fledged town with houses, businesses, and municipal improvements such as roads, bridges, canals, a church, a school, a railroad, and a county courthouse – all within her relatively short lifespan of some eighty-odd years. Although Sayward at first welcomes all of the development because it promises prosperity and an improved lifestyle for herself and her family, by the end of the book she is beginning to question whether the rapid change and the better living conditions have only fostered undesirable characteristics in the townspeople such as greed and laziness.
Sayward’s feelings about change are probably best exemplified in The Town by her attitude toward the trees of the virgin forest that the original settlers had to cut down in order to develop the town of Americus. At first, Sayward has an almost personal animosity toward the trees, because of the difficulties they pose to settlement and the backbreaking labor they require toward clearing the land for farms and homes. Toward the end of the book, Sayward is mourning the loss of the trees. To remind herself of the personal inner journey the trees have come to represent to her, Sayward finds several young trees on the outskirts of the land she used to own that have not yet been cut down, and transplants them into her front and side yard. On her deathbed, before she loses the power of speech, she asks for her bed to be moved into a position where the trees will be the last thing she sees.
Pioneer vs. Modern Generation
Sayward believes that the hard work and adversity the original settlers experienced in clearing the forest and developing farms and homes has made them better people by strengthening their characters. She feels that newcomers to the town who have not gone through the same experiences are merely reaping the benefits of the improved lifestyle that the settlers’ hard work ensured, without making equivalent contributions.
“What gave folks ‘narve strings’ today and made them soft so they couldn’t stand what folks could when she was young? . . . It had taken a wild and rough land to breed the big butts (trees) she saw when first she came here, and she reckoned it took a rough and hard life to breed the kind of folks she knew as a young woman. If you made it easy for folks, it seemed like their hardihood had to pay for it.” 
By comparison, her youngest son Chancey, who follows the Socialist beliefs of social reformer Robert Owen, feels that the current generation no longer has any need to work that hard and the goal of life should be to decrease all hardship as much as possible.
“Robert Owen said . . . if you make a man happy, you make him virtuous. (He) said that one of the main occupations of working people should be play. . . Everybody can choose his own work and do as little of it as he wants to. . . Of course there’ll have to be a little repulsive labor at first. But progress will do away with all toil and labor in time. . . Everybody will share alike. There’ll be no rich people and no poor people, just brothers and sisters. And everybody will have security and happiness.” 
The Ohio University Press released reprint paperback editions of The Awakening Land trilogy on May 1, 1991. The plot lines in these revised editions differ significantly in several major aspects from the original editions published by Alfred A. Knopf.
- The Awakening Land: The 1978 miniseries based on the trilogy.
- Richter, Conrad. The Awakening Land (1966), Chapter 34 of The Town, p. 630.
- Esperson, Emma, "Biography of Conrad Richter", Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Pennsylvania State University, Fall 2011
- Richter, Conrad, The Awakening Land (1966), p. VII (Foreword)
- Richter, Conrad, The Awakening Land (1966), Chapter 33 of The Town, p. 613
- Richter, Conrad, The Awakening Land (1966), Chapter 26 of The Town, p. 544
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