I grew up in St. Louis and the surrounding area, never too far from the Mississippi River. The character of the city, the small towns, the farms and, most of all, the people, of the mid-section of the country, have been shaped, for both good and ill, by that mighty river.
On the good side, St. Louis owes its life and much of its prosperity to the fact that it is located on a major artery of transport. As for ill, The Old Man at floodtide can, in a single day, wipe out a small town’s entire business section or rob a farm family of a year’s livelihood. Yet, for all its destructive force, I don’t know anyone who has grown up within the reach of the Mississippi who doesn’t love it–an affection that baffles many visitors, especially those who grew up near other rivers. They think water should be clear−sparkling and transparent. The Mississippi is nothing like that. There’s good reason it’s called The Big Muddy. Looking into its dark, impenetrable depths, you see a living entity, pulsing with power and energy. To live near the Mississippi is to know that Nature is in charge.
What does this have to do with writing? Everything. As people are influenced by their surroundings, so stories and the characters who inhabit them, are shaped by their settings. In every book I can think of that I truly love, setting is as much a character as any of the people. In a sense, setting is the mother, the influence that molds the other characters. Imagine Tom Sawyer without the presence of the great river. If ever there was a character in tune with his setting, it’s Tom. On the other hand, some characters are trapped by their setting. Think of Anna Karenina, locked in a life she feels is a sham. How did these wonderful characters come to be? To what extent were they shaped by the surroundings in which their creators lived? A great deal, I believe. Their creators (Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoi) lived at approximately the same time (1835-1910 and 1828-1910 respectively), but in vastly different settings.
What if Samuel Clemens had been born in Russia in 1828? He couldn’t have created Tom Sawyer. Would have he have written wonderful books? Probably. He may even have adopted a colorful pseudonym, but it certainly wouldn’t have been Mark Twain. What if Leo Tolstoi had been born in Missouri in 1835? He, too, would probably have written memorable books, but we wouldn’t have Anna Karenina. What a loss! It’s impossible to know what would have happened if any of our distinguished writers had been born into a different environment. I think it’s safe to assume they would still be writers, but, having been influenced by different stimuli, they would be different writers. Surely Scott Fitzgerald’s fascination with wealth and his underlying distrust of it were influenced by his mid-western roots.
It seems to me that a writer’s first challenge is to capture the details of life in a particular time and place, and to show how they shape the lives of its people. The second, more important, challenge is to delve below the surface of those lives to show the how alike we all are, despite our apparent differences. That, I believe, is the hallmark of those books we call classics, the ones we are moved to read again and again.