Mudcat Landing. Missouri town in which Hugh McVey was born, Mudcat Landing is a place where life without drinking is unbearable, where slavery has left poor whites with a deep aversion to physical labor. However, it is in Mudcat Landing that Hugh is exposed to New England pragmatic industrialism when he lives with the railroad stationmaster and his wife, the latter an energetic woman who cures him of his slothfulness and gives him a good education. She also instills in him a sense of a “glorious future.” Hugh departs for parts North and East, eventually bringing his pragmatic, inventive energy to Bidwell, Ohio.
Bidwell. Fictitious Ohio town in which the novel is centered. Surrounded by small farms devoted to fruit, berry, cabbage, corn, and wheat raising, Bidwell initially represents pre-industrial America. It is a place in which everyone knows everyone else, and life is slow and predictable. However, Hugh’s agricultural inventions are seized upon by greedy businessmen, factories begin to rise up, and the impersonality and the frantic lifestyle of industrial mass production begin to erode the old values.
However, as greedy capitalists exploit the new labor force, labor unrest begins, mirroring actual American history, and the new system begins to break down. Eventually, Hugh disavows his dedication to inventing in favor of his family. At the novel’s end, he symbolically returns to the earlier way of life and values by turning his back on Bidwell’s factories by going up the steps and to the farmhouse door of his rural home.
*Sandusky. Ohio city where Hugh’s epiphany about the flaws of American urban, industrial life begins. There, Hugh walks along the shore of Lake Erie and reflects on the disturbances in Bidwell. As he plays with colored stones in his hands, he notices how their colors blend and separate and realizes that one “could look at the stones and get relief from thoughts.” Then, he thinks of industrial towns and “grimy streets of workers’ houses clustered closely about huge mills,” and realizes that the “gods have thrown the towns like stones over the flat country, but the stones have no color. They do not burn and change in the light.” As symbols of beauty and pleasure, Sandusky and Lake Erie move Hugh to reflect on the lack of beauty and pleasure in American industrial and technological life.