Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1708
First published: 1871
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Regional romance
Time of work: About 1850
Ralph Hartsook, a young schoolmaster
Bud Means, Ralph's pupil and friend
Hannah Thomson, The Meanses' bound-girl
Dr. Small, Ralph's enemy
Pete Jones, Dr. Small's partner in crime
Walter Johnson, Ralph's cousin and one of the robbers
Martha Hawkins, Bud Means's sweetheart
Shocky, Hannah's brother
Ralph Hartsook had not thought schoolteachers were judged by their muscular ability when he applied for the job as schoolmaster of Flat Creek, Indiana. Before long, however, he learned his competence would be judged by his power to keep his pupils from driving him out of the schoolhouse. His first step was to make friends with Bud and Bill Means, sons of the school trustee, in whose house he was to board for a time. He was tired from the ten miles he had trudged to apply for the job, but he walked almost the same distance that evening when he went coon hunting with the boys.
Ralph Hartsook held his own against the pranks and challenges of his pupils until the night of the big spelling bee. Then, before most of the people in Flat Creek, he was defeated by the Meanses' bound-girl, Hannah Thomson.
Finding himself strongly attracted to the girl, he escorted her home after the spelling bee.
Kept awake by curiosity about Hannah's past, Ralph had trouble sleeping that night. At two in the morning he got up, restless, and strolled down the road toward the schoolhouse. Three horsemen passed him in the darkness, one riding a horse with white markings. A few minutes later, Dr. Small rode by, returning, Ralph supposed, from a night call. He went back to Pete Jones's house, where he was staying at the time. The next morning, he discovered that the horse with the white markings stood in Pete's stable, and he learned from Shocky Thomson, Hannah's young brother, that there had been a robbery the night before.
He decided not to tell what he knew. He had no proof that Pete Jones was connected with the housebreaking, and it would have been awkward to explain his own ramblings at an early hour. To add to his misery that day, Mirandy Means, who had been casting sheep's eyes at him, informed him that her brother Bud was fond of Hannah.
Squire Hawkins invited Ralph to spend the weekend with him. Walking toward the Squire's house with Shocky, who took the same direction home from school, he learned from the boy that his father was dead and his blind mother in the poorhouse. When Hannah went to live with the Meanses, he had been taken in by Mr. Pearson, a basket maker.
That evening, Ralph was surprised to see Dr. Small's horse tied in front of Granny Sander's cabin. She had a reputation as a witch among the people of Flat Creek, and she was a malicious gossip. Ralph did not know that the doctor was busy planting the seeds of rumors in Granny Sander's mind, rumors that Ralph had been a philanderer at home, and that he was somehow implicated in the robbery. Small disliked Ralph, though Ralph had never been able to find any reason for it. Rumor had done its ugly work by Sunday morning. At church, Ralph's neighbors had little to say to him.
On Christmas day, which came the following week, the boys did not follow the custom of asking the teacher for a holiday. Instead, Bud and others of the older pupils barricaded themselves in the schoolhouse to keep Ralph from entering and had to be forced out by sulphur thrown down the chimney. Later, Bud threatened to thrash Ralph because the schoolmaster had taken the Squire's niece, Martha, to church the Sunday before. Bud was jealous. Ralph immediately declared that he was really inclined toward Hannah but had avoided seeing her because of Mirandy's statement. He and Ralph quickly became fast friends. Now, the schoolmaster felt, he had a clear field for courting.
Before Bud and Ralph finished their talk, Shocky burst into the schoolhouse with the news that Mr. Pearson was about to be tarred and feathered by the people of Flat Creek, who had been led by Pete Jones to believe the basket maker was guilty of the robbery. Pearson, too, had seen three men riding by on the night of the robbery, and Jones had decided the best way to divert suspicion from himself would be to accuse Shocky's benefactor.
Hoping to protect the old man, Bud Means started toward the Pearson home. On the way, he met Jones to whom he gave a sound drubbing.
That night, Bud helped Pearson to escape to his brother's home in the next county. To thwart Pete Jones's efforts to have Shocky Thomson bound out by declaring the Pearsons paupers, Ralph took the boy to stay with his friend, Miss Nancy Sawyer, in his hometown of Lewisburg. His aunt, Mrs. Matilda White, refused to have Shocky's mother in her house because she was a pauper, and so, at Miss Sawyer's own suggestion, Mrs. Thomson was brought to the Sawyer home to spend the weekend with her son. Through Miss Sawyer's efforts, a collection was taken up at church that Sunday afternoon, and with that donation and the money she earned knitting socks, Mrs. Thomson was able to make a home of her own for Shocky.
That same Sunday, Bud, intending to ask Martha to marry him, visited Squire Hawkins' house. Suddenly bashful, he told her only of the spelling bee to take place at the schoolhouse on Tuesday night. Shortly afterward, the Squire received an anonymous letter, threatening him with the burning of his barn if Martha associated with Bud, the implication being that Bud was incriminated in the robbery. The Squire persuaded Martha to ignore Bud. Chagrined by her refusal to let him escort her home from the spelling bee, Bud began to cultivate the friendship of Pete Jones and his friends, among them Dr. Small and Walter Johnson, Ralph's cousin.
Bud soon proved that he was still Ralph's friend. One day, Hannah brought Ralph a letter that Bud had sent warning him that he was suspected of the robbery and that there was a plan afoot to tar and feather him that night. Ralph saved himself from the mob by going to a nearby town and giving himself up to the authorities there. His trial was held the next day.
All of Flat Creek was present to see the schoolmaster convicted. Mrs. Means and Pete Jones, particularly, were willing to offer damaging testimony, the former because Ralph had spurned Mirandy's attentions. It was Dr. Small who vindicated Ralph, however, by overshooting the mark in his anxiety to clear himself of Ralph's testimony that the doctor had been out on the night of the robbery.
Small had Walter Johnson called to the stand to testify that they had spent the evening together in the physician's office. While at a prayer meeting he had attended with Bud, Johnson had been deeply impressed by the minister's warning of eternal damnation for sinners. Summoned before the court, he gave way to his guilty conscience and declared that he, Small, Pete Jones, and Pete's brother had committed the robbery, and that Ralph and Mr. Pearson were innocent.
Walter Johnson went free because of his testimony, but Dr. Small, who had been the ringleader of the band, was hanged. Jones and his brother were given prison sentences.
Ralph Hartsook returned to Lewisburg to teach in a new academy there. Shortly afterward, he married Hannah. At Ralph's wedding, Bud found his courage at last and proposed to Martha.
As one of America's early literary Realists, Edward Eggleston was part of a movement to counter the excesses of bucolic Romanticism with "truth-telling" about the bleakness of agrarian life, the bitter—and often petty—rivalries of small-town life, and the very real hatreds and resentments found in class conflicts. Influenced by the French critic Hippolyte Adolphe Taine, Eggleston—like such contemporaries as Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells—followed the dictum "he writes best who writes about what he knows best." Thus, in THE HOOSIER SCHOOLMASTER, Eggleston based his novel upon the experiences—with which he was intimately familiar—of his brother George, a teacher in his early years and later a noted journalist, biographer, historian, and novelist in his own right. Eggleston also made a special effort, in all of his work, to capture accurately and reflect the peculiar speech and behavior patterns of the people he depicted.
A direct offshoot of this particular version of Realism was Eggleston's regionalism, for in writing of what he knew best, he wrote of his native Indiana whose residents were called Hoosiers. The Hoosiers who people the novel are dour, small-town folk preoccupied with the facade of respectability. Accordingly, since pauperism is construed as a major social transgression, Pete Jones's attempt to have the Pearsons declared indigent so that Shocky Thomson could be indentured is a deliberate expression of the region's value system, as is Matilda White's refusal of shelter to Shocky's "pauperized" mother, who is subsequently aided by Nancy Sawyer and other members of Miss Sawyer's church.
Eggleston, however, softened the rigid mores of the region with his own uncompromising morality. Tempered by his ministerial experience and his Christian commitment, Eggleston gave high priority to the didactic value of his work. Swift and sure justice was thus meted out to malefactors according to the severity of their offenses. The repentant Walter Johnson was therefore spared punishment; the guilty Jones brothers were sentenced to prison, and the nonparticipating mastermind of the robbery scheme, Dr. Small, was hanged. The implacable vengeance of a wrathful Christian God was accomplished.
One need not accept or reject the demanding moral code of Eggleston or of the characters he so vividly portrayed. It is sufficient to recognize the existential mode of life which Eggleston filtered through his own sensibility in THE HOOSIER SCHOOLMASTER, for that life-style was a distinct reality as the author related it. As such, the novel contributes both to the reader's knowledge and to the author's goal of contributing to the history of civilization in America.