Practically any place in New England could become a novel, given the region’s strong literary tradition and distinctive landscape.
Good writers tell the truth about their time and place, whether their fiction is set in colonial Rhode Island or postwar suburban Connecticut.
We’ve therefore chosen six works of fiction set in New England that illuminate a reality about their time and their place. If you know of any other novels or plays with a fictional setting in New England, please share them in the comments section.
A 50s Novel Set in Westport, Conn.
In 1955, Sloan Wilson wrote the book of the year about a World War II veteran living with his family in Westport, Conn. Largely autobiographical, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit tells the story of Tom Rath. He struggles with flashbacks of war, the pressures to conform and the financial demands of supporting a stay-at-home mom, their three children and an illegitimate son from a wartime romance in Italy.
New Englanders who lived in postwar suburbia would easily recognize the fictional setting within the very real suburb.
The Raths lived in a little house on Greentree Ave. (not a real street), almost precisely like the houses on all sides of it. They bought it in 1946, and they hated it seven years later. Like the other families on the street, they had small children and planned to move to a larger house as soon as they could afford it.
Tom paces the station platform while waiting for the commuter train to New York, drives the Merritt Parkway and buys a sick child a stuffed animal at the drug store on the way home from work.
Prosperity came to Tom Rath as it did to Westport. He gets a better job and moves into a bigger house. Westport ranks as the 22nd wealthiest place in the United States, home to such celebrities as Martha Stewart, Harvey Weinstein and the late Paul Newman.
Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones starred in the 1956 movie of the same name, also shot in Westport, Conn., and New York City.
Skowhegan and Waterville, Maine Mill Towns
Richard Russo placed his novel Empire Falls in the fictional setting of a dying Maine mill town called Empire Falls. Sadly, Empire Falls describes many Maine (and New England) towns that lost their mills and factories along with their prosperity.
The novel, which won the Pulitzer Price in 2002, tells the story of Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill diner.
Miles struggles with the rich family that owns the town, and to a large extent, his life. Empire Falls has memorable characters like his rascally father, his mother-in-law with a big heart and the nasty fitness center owner who lives with his wife.
In 2005, HBO produced a mini-series based on the novel. Russo suggested filming Skowhegan and Waterville as represent Empire Falls. A pizza parlor changed into a diner during filming of the mini-series and called itself the Empire Grill. It closed after six years. A Thai restaurant later opened in the space.
The Classic New Bedford, Mass., Novel
The fortunes of Moby Dick rose over the years as those of New Bedford, Mass., fell. The classic novel about whaling and obsession took place when New Bedford enjoyed enormous prosperity – but it ruined Herman Melville’s literary career.
Though Moby Dick sold only 3,200 copies in Melville’s lifetime, critics revived it in the 20th century as a masterpiece. New Bedford, on the other hand, declined along with the whaling industry. But large swathes of the city still look as they did when Melville signed on to the whaling vessel Acushnet in 1840.
Melville didn’t create a fictional setting for New Bedford when he wrote Moby Dick in 1851. Instead, he described the very real city, with luxurious homes and gardens: He wrote, ‘nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.’
You can still see the Quaker ship owners’ mansions, the Seamen’s Bethel and the neighborhood of the African-American church that Ishmael saw in New Bedford. The New Bedford Whaling Museum devotes ample resources to Melville in the city, including scholar-led walking tours and a 25-hour Moby Dick marathon.
‘Our’ Peterborough, N.H.
There’s no question that the Grover’s Corners of the three-act play Our Town was based on Peterborough, N.H. The town proclaims itself ‘Our Town’ on its entry sign. In 2013, Peterborough officially dedicated the intersection of Grove and Main Streets as “Grover’s Corners, N.H. ” The ceremony commemorated the 75th anniversary of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play and the 275th anniversary of the town itself.
Wilder wrote much of the play while staying nearby at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. The three-act play, written in 1938, tells the story of the lives and deaths of ordinary people in small-town America from 1901 to 1913.
The play requires no scenery and few props. The actors mime actions and create Grover’s Corners’ settings with chairs, tables and ladders. In the final act, a key character explains: “We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.”
Wilder, who called Our Town his favorite play, said it should be performed ‘simply, dryly and sincerely.’
Peterborough, tucked in New Hampshire’s quiet southwest corner, retains the small-town feel that inspired Wilder 80 years ago.
The Horror of 140 Prospect St., Providence
In 1925, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft received a letter from his aunt telling him a story about the haunted mansion at 140 Prospect Street in Providence. A Col. Thomas Lloyd Halsey built the house in 1801, and Lovecraft called it ‘a magnificent old mansion.’
Lovecraft researched Providence in colonial times and came up with the story of Charles Dexter Ward. He was a prominent Rhode Islander who disappeared from an insane asylum. His doctor learns Ward was looking for the grave of his ancestor, a shipping magnate and serial killer. Documents in the Ward/Halsey house take the doctor to Ward’s murderer — the ancestor who returned from the dead.
Lovecraft himself didn’t think much of the short novel he called The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. A New York Times reviewer liked it, howevert. He called it ‘a good story in the New England witchcraft tradition’ that included alchemy and vampirism.
Lovecraft loved his hometown of Providence, and the city returns the favor today. You can take a walking tour of Lovecraft’s College Hill, and you can follow a guide here to Lovecraftian sites in Providence.
Like Lesser Gods, written by Mari Tomasi in 1949, describes the difficulty Italian immigrant families had in assimilating to life in the Vermont city of Barre.
Tomasi called Barre ‘Granitetown’ after the quarries that employed the immigrant men. The novel, set in 1924 and 1941, describes how families watch as the granite dust kills their men.
Tomasi, whose family emigrated from Italy, grew up listening to the chatter of stonecutters behind her parents’ grocery store counter. She began working on Like Lesser Gods in the early 1940s. She was then interviewing granite workers and their families for the Federal Writers’ Project in Vermont.
In her story, the character Maria wants her husband to stop working in the dangerous closed sheds of Barre and start a grocery store. He refuses, so she takes a midnight trip to a closed shed. There, she ruins a cross he is carving in the hopes it will force him to quit.
Barre still calls itself the Granite Center of the World. Shortly after the War of 1812, huge granite deposits were discovered. Then the railroad arrived and the city boomed, attracting large numbers of immigrants from Italy, Scotland, Spain and elsewhere.
Images: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (book) By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48911599; Empire Falls (book) By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8843432; Our Town (book) By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19869655’ Like Lesser Gods (book) By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55513607; New Bedford By English Wikipedia user Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4364093; Westport By WestportWiki – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20318963; Waterville By Billy Hathorn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34160755.
This story last updated in 2022.