Small-City People by John Updike

American author and poet John Updike, spent time in the city of Lawrence. Lawrence inspired the poem Small-City People, published in 1982. His poem July celebrating the 4th of July; Updike wrote while sitting in a park in Lawrence.

Small-City People

They look shabby and crazy but not

in the campy big-city way of those

who really would kill you or really do

have a million dollars in the safe at home—

dudes of the absolute, swells of the dark.

Small-city people hardly expect to get

looked at, in their parkas

and their hunting caps and babushkas

and Dacron suits and outmoded

bouffants. No tourists come

to town or to stare, no Japanese

or roving photographers.

The great empty mills, the wide main drag

with its boarded-up display windows,

the clouded skies that never quite rain

form a rock there is no out from under.

The girls look tough, the men look tired,

the old people dress up for a circus called off

because of soot, and snarl

with halfhearted fury, their hats

on backwards. The genetic pool

confluxes to cast up a rare beauty,

or a boy full of brains:

These can languish as in a desert

or eventually flourish, for not being

exploited too soon.

Small cities are kind, for

failure is everywhere, ungrudging;

not to mention free parking

and bowls of little pretzels in the ethnic bars.

Small-city people know what they know,

and what they know is what you learn

only living in a place

no one would choose but that chose you,


-John Updike

by Lindsey L. Gazlay

Two Lawrences

By guest author Jay Dowd, Board of Trustees, Lawrence Public Library, and Ashley Barrington, Archives Intern, Lawrence Public Library

Lawrence, Massachusetts and Lawrence, Kansas.  So tell us exactly, what is there in a name?  Anything?  In the case of these two cities there is much, indeed.  Of their relative merits, both are significant in American history.  Lawrence, MA is the  “Immigrant City,” home to waves of newcomers seeking a better life, and site of labor’s biggest battle, the Strike of 1912.   Lawrence, KS is our American “Home on the Range,”  sacked and burned in the penultimate fight to save slavery.    Both call themselves a river city: for us, “Queen City of the Merrimack”, and for them, “The River City” at a majestic bend on the Kansas. Our Lawrence is surrounded by mountains of mills and relics of the Industrial Revolution; theirs by prairie lands and remnants of steam locomotives headed west.  Despite some obvious differences in appearance and geography, Lawrence, MA and Lawrence, KS share the same founding family.  Abbott Lawrence, whose Essex Company built the Great Stone Dam, got his name on the welcome sign of his model city in 1853.  His nephew, Amos Adams Lawrence, whose New England Emigrant Aid Company sent free-soil advocates west, got his name attached to their foremost encampment in 1854. 

Amos Adams Lawrence
Source: Kansas Historical Society,

Some high school history is in order to understand how the elder Lawrence and the younger Lawrence viewed the world:

In the 1850’s, the country was experiencing rapid growth. The industrialists of the North and the planters of the South had quite a different view of the future. Could there be a peaceful resolution to the burning question of slavery as America doubled in size? The Missouri Compromise of 1820 stipulated Missouri enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as free with lines drawn at 36’30” stopping slavery’s expansion in the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. The South, whose burgeoning economy was based on size and scale, needed land and slave labor to sustain its growth. But, from the North,  Harriet Beecher Stowe called slavery “a national sin.” Another famous detractor, Henry David Thoreau, went to jail for a night for refusing to pay his poll tax because those dollars would support the Mexican War and likely lead to the creation of new slave states. He wrote “On Civil Disobedience” in 1848, the year Irish immigrants dug our canals. The South’s solution to the growing controversy over John Calhoun’s “peculiar institution” was secession.  Could the Union hold?

Amos Adams Lawrence, though, was about to face a moment of truth.  It came in the passage of the Douglas Bill in 1854.  This decision repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820’s limitation on the spread of slavery above the 36’30” parallel and applied the “popular sovereignty” of the Mexican Cession to all future applications for statehood.  Both reopened the possibility of  expanding slavery westward.  The bill, more commonly known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, empowered settlers to vote slave or free as a territory moved for inclusion.  With the Lawrence family holding firm to its belief in the preservation of the Union, their efforts remained on appeasing the southern planters. Amos A. Lawrence, however, “woke up a stark mad Abolitionist.” His reaction was clearly visceral when a former slave, Anthony Burns, was arrested in Boston in the spring of 1854 and returned to his “rightful” owner. A humanitarian Lawrence emerged.

In response to “popular sovereignty” a prominent politician and entrepreneur from Worcester, Eli Thayer, saw profit in keeping Kansas free. His New England Emigrant Aid Company began to move “free soil” settlers to the Kansas territory. He needed money and managed to capture Amos A. Lawrence’s righteous indignation and his wealth.  Lawrence became treasurer and brought a “pursuit of freedom” to the forefront of Company policy.  In 1854, the Company helped hundreds of pioneering settlers travel to the Kansas Territory.  They planted the free state flag at a place they called Lawrence for the financier who made their westward trip possible.  

The pro-slavery forces in neighboring Missouri did not make life in Lawrence comfortable or the free state cause easy to advance.  Violence erupted in 1856 that resulted in the “Sack Of Lawrence.”  Lives this time were spared; however, the city burned.  Not so in the 1863 event known as “the Lawrence Massacre” when nearly 160 died in what is known there as “Quantrill’s Raid”.  That period, called “Bleeding Kansas,”  is viewed today as a clear prelude to our Civil War. 

So, was there anything in that family named Lawrence?  Most definitely!  Two cities now, whether by accident or design, claim a place in American history as home to immigrants and pioneers, strikers and battlers, seekers of a better life. 

Did you know that:

  • Amos Adams Lawrence’s $10k contribution helped to locate the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence, KS?
  • Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts suffered a caning on the Senate floor at the hands of South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks for his “Crime Against Kansas” speech in 1856?
  • …and that Amos Lawrence cared for the wounded Sumner on his return from Washington?
  • Senator Sumner’s portrait and that of South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun framed the picture taken of the Confederate-flag-carrying man on the day the Capitol was breached on January 6, 2021?
  • The Jayhawks were passionate antislavery guerrilla warriors?
  • KU athletic teams today are known as Jayhawks?
  • Missouri pro-slavery Lawrence, KS antagonists were known as Border Ruffians?
  • Susan B. Anthony’s brother, Daniel, was among “the first pioneer party”?
  • Henry Ward Beecher, Harriett’s brother, and his Brooklyn congregation raised funds to send rifles to Lawrence, KS?
  • Today’s main street in downtown Lawrence is named Massachusetts Street (Mass Street for short)?

Further Reading 



Archival Collections and Exhibits


Inauguration Day Poems

The nation is abuzz regarding the performance of poet Amanda Gorman at the Inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20, 2021. Her poem, “The Hill We Climb”, added  texture, depth, and richness to the somewhat more sober and mandatory proceedings of the day. Yet this performance was only the sixth time a poet has offered a poem as part of the Inauguration Day program. The first poet to perform a piece at an inauguration was Lawrence’s own Robert Frost, and it did not go quite as planned.

Frost, who read his poem, “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, actually intended to present another. Like Gorman, he crafted a poem, “Dedication”, specifically for the occasion of inauguration (despite originally declining Kennedy’s request to craft a new piece for the event). However, the glare from the day’s sun prevented him from seeing the words to “Dedication” as he stood at the lectern to speak, and he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory instead.

You can read the full text of “Dedication” as published on the Boston Globe’s blog in 2011 by Alan Wirzbicki. The post notes that Frost wrote the poem specifically about Kennedy and even alluded to inauguration day itself in the final lines: “A golden age of poetry and power / Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.”

Featured image from the Library of Congress at