Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Oldtown. New 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...

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Oldtown Folks Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Adams, 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.