Collecting Delaware Books

Delaware in Fiction

Some of the same books discussed here are viewed in a different light in the article Fiction: The Parallel Record on this Web site.

A book can be a Delaware book for many reasons. It may be a factual account of the history or geography of the state. It may be the biography of a Delawarean or be written by a Delawarean. I am fascinated by novels that are set in Delaware.

Using a real locale as the background for a fictional work is a common literary technique. For Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Grace Metalious, settings were an integral and essential part of story telling. Shakespeare's scenes were dictated by the stories he chose this is true for modern writers of historical novels. In parody or satire, commenting on the locality and its people is the purpose of the work.

Many times, however, the actual locale is unimportant to the story. But a novel does not happen in a vacuum: it needs some background noise. A setting can be invented, but it is often easier and more realistic to make use of the author's hometown or a place the author has visited. Sometimes the scene is identified more often, it is disguised in the same way characters based on real people are disguised.

When the scene is not identified, local readers may identify it by internal clues. In many cases, we have only the author's statement in an interview or diary.

There are many dozens of novels set in Delaware. In the February 1992 issue of Collecting Delaware Books, two novels of John Biggs, Jr. were discussed. Both had local settings. The detective stories of Katharine Virden, set in Wilmington, New Castle, and Sussex County, were described in the Apri1 1992 issue. Here are a few more.

Mural for a Later Day

Kathleen Pawle's 1938 historical novel, Mural for a Later Day, recreates life in the Delaware River colonies from 1625 to 1644 as seen through the eyes of young Englishman Christopher Spurle. Chris sets out in traditional fashion to seek his fortune. After adventures all over Europe, he sails for the New World. He has gathered about him an international group of other fictional characters of both sexes who pop in and out of the story. There is much fighting, eating, drinking, and sleeping around. Eventually Chris finds his place in life and the woman he loves.

The historical narrative is constantly in the foreground. Peter Minuit, Klas Fleming, Johan Printz, Willem Usselinx, and David de Vries appear throughout. De Vries is painted as a humanist, Printz as a religious and racial bigot. The action for the real and fictional characters occurs in such places as the ruins of Zwaanendael, Fort Nassau, and Fort Christina.

The Wandering Heir

illustration from wandering heir
Illustration from the Wandering Heir

Charles Reade (1814-1884) was a major English dramatist and novelist. He was a serious about his writing and once said, "I studied the great art of fiction closely for fifteen years before I presumed to write a word of it." Most of his novels had a social message. Reade's masterpiece was The Cloister and the Hearth, 1861, which dealt with the conflict between ascetic religion and human passion in Europe during the early Renaissance. It is still being reprinted and studied today.

Reade wrote a short novel in 1873, The Wandering Heir, part of which is set in Delaware. The story begins in 1726. James Annesly, the son of an Irish nobleman, is sent to a rough country school. He is kidnaped and shanghaied to America in a plot to steal his title. After seven brutal years as an indentured servant in Philadelphia, he tries to escape and is sentence to further service. Jedediah Surefoot of Wilmington buys him. He is treated well in the new household, but still considers himself a slave. After many more trials, James returns to Ireland to reclaim his title and lands.

There are few recognizable scenes in the book, though "Willingtown, now called Wilmington" is clearly identified. Wealthy Brandywine River mill owner William Shipley and his prominent Quaker wife Elizabeth appear in the story. In one fanciful passage, the Shipleys stand on top of a hill and get their first view of the Brandywine as their promised land.

The text of The Wandering Heir can be read by clicking here.

Early Delaware Writers

John Lofland (1798-1849), the Milford Bard, wrote poetry, essays, and stories. Many of the stories were based on local legend. Lofland's writing does not hold up as well today as that of his contemporary and drinking buddy Edgar Allen Poe. However, such stories as "The Lonely Heart, or Virtue Triumphant in Death" and "The Quaker Merchant of Wilmington" paint the local scene.

Delaware's famous playwright, Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854), seldom used the local scene. It is said that Robin Day, 1838, describes his early education in New Castle Academy.

The Perennial Bachelor

Ann Parrish wrote a number of novels using Delaware as background. One of the best known is her 1925 The Perennial Bachelor. The scene is Claymont from 1840 to 1925. Though Wilmington is mentioned in the last sentence of chapter 23, there is little to alert the reader to the locale. We have, however, the author's own dust jacket statement: "The Perennial Bachelor is laid in Delaware, and to a large extent in my old home, where my mother still lives, and which has been in the family for many years."

New Orleans Woman

In 1947, Harnett T. Kane, a Louisiana author and expert, wrote a somewhat fictionalized biography of Myra Clark Gaines called New Orleans Woman. Surprisingly, it has many Delaware connections.

The book starts out in Wilmington early in the last century:

The narrow-faced D. W. Coxe, a long man in a black coat, rose to propose a toast, From the next room Myra and her companion caught echoes of an off-told tale: Samuel Davis's early life as a poor Delaware boy, his service as a sailor, his rise to the command of a French frigate, privateering against the English. Then, during the uprising of the slaves in Santo Domingo, the doughty young American had rescued the aristocratic Marianne Rose Baron Boisfontaine and her family not long afterward he had won her favor.

"He's finally finished," Myra whispered to the youth beside her. But Mr. Coxe went on to tell how the colonel had lived with his Marianne in far-off, peculiar Louisiana, as a merchant, sugar planter, and captain of the port of New Orleans. Yet all this, the orator pounded out, had been only a preparation for the colonel's supreme moment, when he returned to Delaware and marshaled his people against the British at Lewes. He need not, said Mr. Coxe, tell them how the colonel defied the redcoats, sending their own ammunition back against them when they tried to make a landing and he immediately went on to tell them. And now, eighteen years later the colonel remained among them with his charming though regrettably frail wife and his lovely, vivacious daughter Myra.

But Myra Gaines was actually Davis's adopted daughter, Gaines discovered the identity of her biological father after his death. He had been one of New Orleans' wealthiest men. She spent the rest of her life trying to claim his fortune and only succeeded shortly before her death.

The book is a well-told recreation of the historical facts. Samuel B. Davis's role in the War of 1812 is documented in Reed's Delaware A History of the First State and Scharfs History of Delaware. The author acknowledges help from Gertrude Brinkle of the Historical Society of Delaware, among many others, for the facts on Myra,

One Little Man

Christopher Ward was a Delaware corporate lawyer who wrote both fiction and history, One Little Man, 1926, is a novel about a Wilmington grocer's son who grows up to be a bookkeeper for another grocer, though the setting is not obvious. It explores rooming house life, the library, social and literary clubs, politics, and the daily work routine at the turn of the century.

The book includes 35 pages about the Spanish American War and its effect on local people. The army volunteers end up in camp at "Centerbury," only 20 miles south of town. Ward was careful about historical details, and the incidents are probably based on fact.

Ward briefly describes the Delaware River and New Castle and mentions Frenchtown in his 1933 A Yankee Rover.

Mulberry Square

Lida Larrimore's Mulberry Square, 1930, is a love story. The plain but nice younger daughter wins the young man despite the beautiful but selfish older daughter. The girls' father is a doctor who worries more about his patients than money. Therefore, the family lives a shabby middle-class life. Tradition has it that the setting is Wilmington, though some argue that it is New Castle or Dover. Wilmington is more likely. The dialog points out that the mother "hates the belt-line trolley." Another time it is said that "the mills have made everything grimy."

Other Titles

Grapes of Canaan, written by Elma Levinger in 1930, is said to tell of the Wilmington Jewish community.

Among juvenile books, Packet Alley, 1951, by Elizabeth Meg (pseud.) is set in New Castle. Ann Z. Sparklin's Big Thursday, 1966, and Lilly Jo, 1971, take place in Kent and Sussex Counties.

Dr. Caleb Harlan's The Fate of Marcel, 1883, is set in the woods of Mill Creek Hundred. Algernon Sydney Logan used Kent County as the setting in his 1900 Amy Warren, A Tale of the Bay-Shore. Virginia Gregory used the same setting in A Flower of the Marshlands in 1935. Most of the action in Blowing Weather, 1923, by John L Mclntyre takes place on the Federal-period Philadelphia waterfront, but there are several excursions into Delaware by stage coach and sleigh.

Other authors who have painted Delaware in fiction include Dillwyn Parrish and Charles Wertenbaker . Wertenbaker's For My Father, 1936, is a bitter denunciation of both Wilmington and Delaware. Henry Seidel Canby's books are far more complimentary, though only his Our House, 1919, is fiction.

There are a number of novels that are said to have Delaware settings that I have not been able to confirm. Charlotte Edwards' Right Place to Love, 1953, is supposed to happen in Smyrna. (See update below.) Elizabeth Bacon Walling's Phebe, 1895, may have a connection with Rehoboth Beach. And Ellen Kirk's A Midsummer Madness, 1885, is said to be set in Delaware.

Most of the 20th century books mentioned can be found by diligent search at book shops and flea markets. The 19th century books are hard to find. However, few are considered rare and costly. The exception is Robin Day by Robert Montgomery Bird. It sells for several hundred dollars.

I would enjoy hearing from readers who are familiar with these books or who know of others not previously known.


In 2006, I received the following by e-mail regarding Charlotte Edwards' The Right Place for Love. Mr. Carrow points out that his comments are hearsay based on his family's statements.

Re your comments about Charlotte Edwards' novel, The Right Place for Love and the ability to "confirm" that it took place in Smyrna (AKA Marshville in the book).

As someone who grew up in Smryna with relatives who were there when Ms. Edwards took up temporary residence in the old Colonial Hotel on Commerce Street and who were also able to identify the persons upon whom Ms. Edwards based her story, I can assure (if that is actually the correct term to use in a case like this) you that the story definitely DID take place in Smyrna.

I vividly remember reading the book which I had borrowed from my late uncle, Dr. B. Stimson Carrow, and using the "cheat sheet" he had prepared with the names of the characters in the book and their corresponding real life counterparts.

The book caused an absolute sensation in the town when it was published and at least one individual discovered that his wife had been having an affair when he read the book. I remember hearing the oft-told story that it was selling like hot cakes in Wilmington but nobody up there could figure out why! A good friend of my uncle's called him from Philadelphia and said, "Don't walk … run to the nearest bookstore and buy it."

The "Marshville Herald" in the book was the "Smyrna Times" and of course, people got pretty savvy when they read the opening lines about how [and I paraphrase from meory] " … in every other state they call it by different names … but here, they just call it "the dual highway."

Stimson was always amused at how they all denied everything. The whole thing could have been much worse, in my opinion. I mean, the thing isn�t exactly on the level of Peyton Place, but I imagine for the folks actually affected that would have been irrelevant. — Harold J. Carrow, III

By the way, the late Dr. B. Stimson Carrow mentioned was author of 14 South Main Street, Smyrna. He taught in later years at Temple University.

Further Update

A free downloadable copy of the Charlotte Edwards book is available in several formats at Thanks to Jack Poore of Smyrna for pointing this out in 2012.

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