It has become ever more apparent that even despite dramatic demographic shifts in the United States in the past hundred years the allure of non-urban social settings still remains potent in the arts.
I propose that the towns which form so much of modern literature’s settings, espcially literature of the mid-century, service two functions: one, towns are a place where stark juxtapositions underline inherent social problems; two, they are where life cycles and changes can be more evidently explored.
In the town, we as a nation store our greatest desires and expectations. They become indicative of boarder national values and beliefs. Individualism, freedom, community are all present in the American town. That they are unmarred by the ills of urban centers or the poverty of extremely isolated and rural parts of the country is what we wish for our towns — yet this is where literature steps in: the contrast between perception and reality highlights those ills more clearly and makes their presence there more distressing. The towns then become a boundary around which social problems are framed, and these societal “blemishes” are for the most part excised by novel’s, story’s or poem’s end. An author's hope, therefore, is that by metaphorically exorcising social problems on the small-scale one will be provided a model with which to bring about change in society at-large.
The second point, the salience of life changes, is equally intriguing to authors. Rural towns, are often unchanging, and cities change so often that it seems one has no permanent locus. It is only in small towns where changes are slowly constant, where one can build up the expectation of unchangingness only to have that permanency go to pieces. It is only there that life can be played out in the harshest detail.
Towns are a microcosm, yet not like the kind of cities, which tend to be self-contained with its own, unique litany of problems. They are indicative of larger social forces, just on an easier-to-witness scale. I think perhaps this is why the town endures in fiction, even if its existence in reality is open to revision.