The 4 most influential fictional states in literature

Authors have license to do a lot, and it’s common to see invented neighborhoods, cities, societies, and countries. But for some reason, the imaginary state is more rare. There’s nothing unusual about Maycomb, Alabama in To Kill A Mockingbird, but if it were Maycomb, Alousiana, the entire book would change.

Despite the difficulty of inventing your own state, a few authors have still taken the leap. These are the most influential states that only existed in the author’s mind (and the minds of millions of readers).

1. Winnemac, Sinclair Lewis’s midwestern haven

Sinclair Lewis's Map of Winnemac

Sinclair Lewis’s Map of Winnemac

The state: We came across Winnemac in our list of literary maps, and there’s a reason it’s first on this list. The state was home to many of Lewis’s novels, including ArrowsmithBabbit, and Elmer Gantry, among other works. Its largest city, depicted in Babbit, was Zenith, a city of about 361,000 people. Thanks to Lewis’s descriptions in Arrowsmith, we know a lot about the state:

The state of Winnemac is bounded by Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, and like them it is half Eastern, half Midwestern. There is a feeling of New England in its brick and sycamore villages, its stable industries, and a tradition which goes back to the Revolutionary War. Zenith, the largest city in the state, was founded in 1792. But Winnemac is Midwestern in its fields of corn and wheat, its red barns and silos, and, despite the immense antiquity of Zenith, many counties were not settled till 1860. The University of Winnemac is at Mohalis, fifteen miles from Zenith.

We can glean a few other facts about Winnemac from other books, including that its capital is Galop de Vache and important cities include Eureka, Monarch, and Catawba.

That’s not the end of Lewis’s invented states. He also invented an unnamed state for his fascist allegory It Can’t Happen Here.

Why it’s influential: More than most authors, Sinclair Lewis’s reputation has changed over the past hundred years. Now, he’s not particularly widely read, and his books lack the influence of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. But at the time he was a titan.

He won the 1930 Nobel Prize, and that was just one of his many awards. From Babbit on, his novels sparked national debates about society, religion, and government. He was widely read by both elites and everyday people (though, admittedly, he never gained universal critical acclaim).

As importantly, his Winnemac gave him some refuge from personal criticism. After the publication of Main Street, Lewis’s hit novel set in his hometown of  Sauk City, Minnesota, he was pilloried by locals. The invention of Winnemac made it a safe place for his unique satire, and as a result it became the setting for some of the 20th century’s most influential novels.

2. Utana, Idoming, and New Appalachia in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire

The state: Pale Fire revels in restless invention, so it makes sense that invented states would be part of the mix. The unusual novel features not one, but three invented states—the Western Utana, the nearby Idoming, and the North Carolina-like New Appalachia. Charles Kinbote and John Shade live across the street from each other in New Wye, Appalachia, and Kinbote writes his commentary on Shade’s poem in Cedarn, Utana. If you want to throw an imaginary country into the mix, you can also go to Zembla.

Why it’s influential: Anything that happens in Pale Fire is going to be influential—it sits high on the Modern Library’s list of the best novels of all time, and it’s a continued favorite among academics. In addition, it can be argued that Nabokov’s playful invention of Western states opened up new possibilities for other writers to invent crazy things (like the Great Ohio Desert in David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System).

3. Catawba in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel

The state: Catawba wasn’t the most inventive imaginary state—it almost exactly mirrors North Carolina. Look Homeward, Angel is a small town story largely set in Catawba (Wolfe’s Catawba appeared after Sinclair Lewis’s). The Catawba Mountains surround the central town of Altamont, which is a clear analogue for Asheville, Thomas Wolfe’s hometown. That said, it was a nice place to visit. A short ad in the book describes it as a picturesque place:

SPEND YOUR SUMMERS AT
DIXIELAND
In Beautiful Altamont,
America’s Switzerland.
Rates Reasonable–Both Transient and Tourist.
Apply Eliza E. Gant, Prop.

Why it’s influential: Wolfe’s book has a somewhat shaky critical reputation today, but at the time it was a hit. The book received a strong reception and the state adaptation won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958.

As importantly, it affected the real town of Asheville. Even though the book’s city was called Altamont, its release set Asheville into a frenzy looking for familiar people and locations. The reception influenced Wolfe in his posthumously published novel You Can’t Go Home Again, which depicted the negative response of locals to the author’s work. The reception shows both the risks and limits of making up a town and state.

4. The unnamed state in Primary Colors

The State: Many novels don’t name exactly where they take place, but Primary Colors makes it clear that it doesn’t happen in Arkansas. Mammoth Falls is the state capital, and Governor Stanton hails from Grace Junction. Mammoth Falls’s newspaper is the News-Tribune. Of course, it was all meant to line up with Arkansas and Bill Clinton.

Klein did the same trick in his follow-up, The Running Mate, which had a capital city called Des Pointe.

Why it’s influential: In 2014, it’s easy to forget the frenzy over the identity of Primary Colors‘s anonymous author (who turned out to be reporter Joe Klein). Due to its release in early 1996, Primary Colors affected the Presidential election thanks to its portrayal of a sexually promiscuous and valueless Clinton character. The fictional state with a Mammoth Falls capital drove the conversation in a real Presidential election, even if it didn’t change the outcome.

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