I have delayed answering your letter hoping to see my way clear to accepting the invitation which you were kind enough to send me, and which I assure you is very highly appreciated. Though I have been away so many years, I still feel that Eatonton is my home and the people there my best friends. I love them all, so much so that I have never written anything to be published in book form that I did not ask myself if there could be anything in it which my friends there would not approve. Thus, in a way, they have been my most helpful critics. I thank you heartily for the invitation and regret that a pressure of work will prevent me from accepting.
Harris was then working on what would become Gabriel Tolliver, a book which he dedicated to his friend James Whitcomb Riley. He also admitted to Riley that he had allowed the interest of his characters to overshadow the story. Even so, the book was set in Shady Dale, a fictionalized version of Eatonton, which served as an equally important character in Harris's writings.
The book begins not unlike the invitation he received in 1901: "Cephas! here is a letter for you, and it is from Shady Dale! I know you will be happy now." The narrative voice then admits that he far too often spoke of the town of his youth, that his recollections of Shady Dale were "coloured" and that he saw the people only through his "boyhood-eyes." The other character in that opening, Sophia, warns Cephas that if he were to go back, he'd learn they weren't so different from everyone else after all. "This was absurd, of course—or, rather, it would have been absurd for any one else to make the suggestion; for at that particular time, Sophia was a trifle jealous of Shady Dale and its people."
From Gabriel Tolliver's chapter "A Town with a History":
Before, during, and after the war, Shady Dale presented always the same aspect of serene repose. It was, as you may say, a town with a history. Then, as now, there were towns all about that had no such fortunate appendage behind them to explain their origin... Shady Dale is no city, and it may be that its public spirited citizens stretch the meaning of the term when they call it a town. Nevertheless, the community has a well-defined history...
But to set forth its origin is not to describe its beauty, which is of a character that refuses to submit to description... You are inevitably impressed with a sense of the attractiveness of the place; you fall under the spell of the old town... And yet if you were called upon to define the nature of the spell, what could you say? What name could you give to the tremulous beauty that hovers about and around the place, when the fresh green leaves of the great trees are fluttering in the cool wind, and everything is touched and illumined by the tender colours of spring? Under what heading in the catalogue of things would you place the vivid richness which animates the town and the landscape all around when the summer is at its height? And how could you describe the harmony that time has brought about between the fine, old houses and the setting in which they are grouped?
All these things are elusive; they make themselves keenly felt, but they do not lend themselves to analysis.