National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Spring 2002


Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 3:1, Spring/Summer 2002. Copyright © 2002 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


One of the most enduring story books of my childhood, along with Little Toot and The Little Train Who Thought He Could, was the tale of The Little House in the city. It is no surprise that all these are stories of little guys, surrounded by big things, but coming out OK by virtue of pluck and innate value.

Some of you perhaps remember this yarn, written in 1943 by Virginia Lee Burton (also the author of Mike Mulligan, by the way), which I propose as a kind of allegory to kick off our discussion today. The book (for those of you whippersnappers too young to recall it) begins with a tidy, happy, even perky little house, chimney puffing away happy little clouds of clean smoke, yard well manicured, handsomely sited in an attractive bucolic country lot. Soon, the isolation of the little house is restricted as other homes, of comparable size and character, develop around it. The suburban phase. Things begin to get really serious, though, as the neighborhood is increasingly given over to taller and larger buildings, closer and closer to the little house. At the crisis of the narrative, the house cowers in the midst of the industrial and residential skyscraper development of what is clearly a major metropolitan area. Its sun is gone, its yard reduced to a junk lot, its happy existence now overshadowed by looming gigantic, even monster, buildings that leave the little house grotesquely disproportionate to its surroundings, lost in the big city, a tiny relic of a disappeared past. This story ends happily through the somewhat deus-ex-machina plot mechanism of moving the little house out of the big city, and back into the country, where it once again fits into the landscape and is proportionate to its surroundings.