I THINK I made my decision to take a literary pilgrimage across America one gray New Haven day when I heard Eudora Welty quote a remark of Willa Cather's: "Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet." Years later, a third of the way through my 45-day, 15,000-mile journey over our national fiction's map, I stood in the red windy high grass of Red Cloud, Neb.'s Willa Cather Memorial Prairie and thought of another of that midwestern novelist's remarks: "The years from eight to fifteen are the formative period in a writer's life." There is a great tradition of American writers who passed those formative years in small towns like Red Cloud, who left them behind for what Thomas Wolfe called the "shining cities and tides of life," but never left them behind in their imaginations, and so bequeathed to us, preserved in fiction, those (both loved and hated) villages of their youth.

There are, of course, such "fiction towns" all over the country: Wolfe's Altamont (Ashville, N.C.) was so outraged by his "Look Homeward, Angel" that he called his third novel, "You Can't Go Home Again." There are whole fictional counties, like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha in Mississippi and Steinbeck's Salinas in California. But it is particularly out of the Midwest that our literary expatriates have come, bringing with them into exile, as Malcolm Cowley put it, "the country of their child hood . . . like a sort of rock to which their early books were attached like mussels." It was here, in works like Hamlin Garland's "Main-Travelled Roads" and Edgar Lee Master's "Spoon River Anthology" that the revolt against the stifling hypocrisy and provincialism of small-town life, the conflict between old rural values and new industrialism, between Main Street and the sensitive youth, surged into a major theme of our literature.

Three of the most famous of these small towns are Cather's Red Cloud, Sherwood Anderson's Clyde, Ohio, and Sinclair Lewis' Sauk Centre, Minn. The most famous of all (and the most idealized) is Mark Twain's Hannibal, Mo. It helps us to remember how young a country we are when we realize that not only Twain but our three "modern" midwestern writers were born in villages newly settled by pioneers moving westward, villages surrounded by virgin forest and wild prairie.

The towns are still small. Their claims to renown are based on the fact that they are fiction: that they were immortalized by novelists who had left them behind as teen-agers. For the literary tourist, visiting such places is very different from seeing writers' meccas like Concord, Mass., or the estates of public figures, like Washington Irving's Sunnyside Manor. Here we are looking instead at the landscape that created the writer, and at the world the writer created out of that land. Mark Twain & Hannibal, Mo., Alias St. Petersburg

Mark Twain was the most beloved and the most peripetetic of American writers; there's scarcely a state where he didn't work or live or talk or rough it. (Not surprisingly, most of his books are actually travel books--"Life on the Mississippi," "Innocents Abroad"--and even "Huckleberry Finn" is a voyage. But home, and the heart of his fiction, was in the little Mississippi riverboat town 100 miles north of St. Louis, where in 1839 Sam Clemens arrived at the age of four; he left at eighteen, but always in his memory the old golden days "trooped by in their old glory."

Probably the most magical and Twainish way to approach Hannibal would be by river on the sternwheeler Delta Queen. We came up from Faulkner's South by the beautiful Great River Road, past the old French fur-trading town of Ste. Genevieve. Of all the places we traveled, Hannibal was, naturally enough, our young daughter Maggie's favorite, for the whole town is a living celebration of those best-loved American children, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn. The town's motto is "We invite you to be a kid again," and during the week before July 4, the National Tom Sawyer Days, that invitation extends to fence-painting contest, raft races and frog-jumping competition. In autumn, there is a folk festival. Always, and everywhere, there is Mark Twain: The Mark Twain Hotel, the Tom 'N Huck Motel, the Mark Twain Motor Inn on Mark Twain Avenue, the Mark Twain Bridge over the Mississippi, Huck Finn Shopping Center and Huckleberry Park, Tom Sawyer Dioramas and Injun Joe Campground. Even the First Presbyterian Church advertises itself with the slogan, "Mark Twain Slept Here." In Hannibal you can buy everything from a plaster figurine of Tom Sawyer for your lawn to a poster in the Becky Thatcher to a quilt in Aunt Polly's Handcrafts.

You can tour the town on a Twainland Express Tram or float past it on the 150-passenger paddlewheel riverboat Mark Twain. You can visit a Haunted House, filled with wax figures of his characters, or the elegant mansions of his friends. North of town in Riverview Park, we saw young boys playing ball near the huge statue of the grown-up Twain gazing out over his Mississippi, and his youth. South, we shivered in the chilly 52-degree depths of the vaulted labyrinth of Mark Twain Cave, where our guide momentarily turned off the lights to show us how Tom and Becky would have felt when that last candle had spluttered out. Thirty miles to the southwest in Mark Twain State Park is a modernistic structure with a hyperbolic paraboloid roof; englassed within is the two-room log cabin where Sam Clemens was born.

In the center of Hannibal is the restored Hill Street district, and its center is Twain's tiny white-framed boyhood home that looked to him in later years "the size of a birdhouse." On one side is a museum, on the other the immortal whitewashed fence. Here, a block from the 19th century brick storefronts of Main Street and the docks of the river, 14,000 tourists a year pass through to see Aunt Polly's room, Twain's desk, Norman Rockwell's original Twain illustrations, and even the measuring stick used to check the heights of the 50,000 children who auditioned for the film "Tom Sawyer." I saw a mother in a "Laura Ingalls Wilder: Little House on the Prairie" sweatshirt reading to her child the plaque that Jimmy Carter read when he came here: "Mark Twain's life teaches that anybody however humble his birth and surroundings may by honesty and industry accomplish great things."

Across the cobbled street is the home of Sam's first sweetheart, Laura Hawkins (who by 85 was still referring to herself as Becky Thatcher), and Grant's Drug Store (above which the Clemenses lived when they ran out of money), and the office where Sam's stern father served as justice of the peace. Full-scale replicas of these Hill Street buildings appear nightly at Clemens Amphitheatre in the charming outdoor drama "Reflections of Mark Twain," performed by 38 townspeople and complete with waterfront and riverboat. Walking through the still, idyllic woods up Cardiff Hill (with its statue of barefoot Tom and Huck at the bottom, and the lighthouse built in Twain's honor at the top); standing there, looking out over the Victorian rooftops, and the river, and the long, narrow, wooded Jackson's Island where the boys hid and swam and fished; smelling the grass and honeysuckle, it's very easy to share Twain's nostalgia, to dream of a childhood in a Hannibal Eden, of living by the river as "tranquilly and continuously happy" as Huck and Tom at play. I know at least I never enjoyed a swim more than the one Maggie and I took in the Mississippi, right where Sam Clemens played hooky, and got caught because he sewed his shirt back up with black thread. Willa Cather & Red Cloud, Neb., Alias Black Hawk, Alias Hanover, Alias Moonstone, Alias Frankfort, Haverford and Sweet Water

Leaving Hannibal, we headed west, like young Sam Clemens, to Saint Joseph, and then along the Pony Express trail straight west into the Great Plains, past the big sign announcing this was the "Center of the Country," past the bright red tractors and green reapers glinting from miles away in the endless rolling grain. Here on the Nebraska-Kansas border, towns like Red Cloud rise out of the middle of nowhere. Graineries suddenly appear, and small graveyards with rusted iron fences, then a few cherished cottonwoods clustered around a solitary house sitting in a vast flat field. Here to the Divide, like Jim Burden in "My Antonia," Willa Cather was brought from Virginia at the age of nine. "This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely . . . So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I've never been able to shake."

The spacious land she came to love is still unfenced under "the bright and shadowless sky." In winter she called it the iron country because everywhere--field, sky, road--was gray. But in summer we could see the beauty evoked in her novels: the yellow corn and tawny prairie grass, the sunflowers by the road, the dun bluffs of the windy Republican River, the sweep of the enamel blue sky. After a year on the farm (where, by pony, Cather delivered mail to the sodhouses of those immigrant farmers, Czechs, Russians, Swedes, whose pioneer heroism she was to celebrate), the family bought a house in the small town that had just grown up around the Burlington railroad line. All the Cathers crowded into a long white-frame house with a second floor loft; there Willa had a snug room under the eaves of the north wing. Her reading lantern still sits on a flowered hat box by the bed.

One block away, the wide red-brick Main Street of Red Cloud, flanked by sturdy native-brick Victorian buildings, looks (except for the horse on the balcony of J.C. Penney's) much as it did in the 1890s, when Willa Cather walked past Mr. Garber's bank to see some visiting theatrical company at the opera house, or to work in Dr. Cook's Drug Store, where her interest in embalming dead cats brought down on her the town's suspicious anger. After delivering the high school address (on Science vs. Superstition), Cather left Red Cloud to attend the University of Nebraska; she left feeling some contempt (shared by many of her protagonists in her novels) for the bleak smug conventional "furtive and repressed" lives of her "bitter dead little western town." In retrospect, of course, she was to remember more kindly, even elegiacally, the land of her youth. What she despised was the greed and crudity of the new businessmen of the Midwest, but for the pioneers, for the settlers, for the endurance and vitality of an Anna Pavelka (My Antonia), the culture and strength of a Mrs. Garber (A Lost Lady), her admiration was profound. It formed the vision of her art throughout her long, traveled life. "The ideas for all my novels have come from things that happened around Red Cloud when I was a child."

And in Red Cloud, Garber's Bank is now the hospitable and informative Willa Cather Historical Center and Museum; from there tours begin for pilgrims through the houses, churches, buildings, streets and farms of "Cather Country." And that shaggy grass country that first gripped the young homesick girl is now the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. Sinclair Lewis & Sauk Centre, Minn., Alias Gopher Prairie

If any place had caused to be distressed by a native son's treatment, a case could doubtless be made for Sinclair Lewis's Sauk Centre, still a small farm town among the lake-dotted Minnesota wheat fields. He was, after all, as they announce there at the Sinclair Lewis Visitors Center, "the man who gained international fame by satirizing his hometown." And it is true that when "Main Street" sold 180,000 copies in its first six months by presenting Gopher Prairie as the archetypal midwestern small town, an ugly raw provincial stillwater populated by babbitty boobs and gossipy philistines, there was a local outcry that a lynching wouldn't be amiss. But within two years, all was forgiven, and highway signs invited motorists to detour to see "the Original Main Street."

Sixty years later when I drove into town on a burning summer day, I passed under a banner announcing that Sauk Center was celebrating its annual "Sinclair Lewis Days," a festival that included a parade, a bake sale, a Miss Sauk Centre Pageant, a Fully Costumed Water Ski Show, a Businessman's Softball Tournament at Sinclair Lewis Park, and "Button Bargains"--special deals from local merchants to all customers wearing buttons with a picture of Sinclair Lewis on them.

The Palmer House Hotel and Restaurant (where the boy Lewis worked as a bellhop until he was fired for oversleeping, and which he called Minniemashie House in "Main Street") was hosting during the festival a Roaring Twenties party to follow a "re-premiere" of "Elmer Gantry" at the Main Street Cinema. This hotel has been handsomely restored to its 1902 styling by the current owners (who also serve nine-course gourmet meals and sponsor a dinner theater). I was put up in an attractive room with Victorian furniture for less than $15 a night, and from there could look across Sinclair Lewis Avenue at Main Street Drug Store, above which Lewis had rented rooms while working on the novel that was to make him and his oppressed heroine Carol Kennicott famous.

Sinclair Lewis Avenue was called Third Street when the author was born there in 1885, only 20 years after the time when Indians were still raiding stage coaches across the flat prairie land. But by Lewis' youth, as with Willa Cather, the town had already acquired a train station, an academy, a library, churches, banks, hotels and lodges. Main Street was still unpaved and the sidewalks wooden, but there were traveling theaters at the opera house, there were circuses, fairs and dances. Later, the novelist was nostalgically if inaccurately to describe his boyhood as a Tom Sawyerish saga of "skating, sliding, skiing, swimming" fun and parties. Actually, he was a lonely, gangly, pimply, unpopular boy. As the State Historical Marker in town rather unflatteringly puts it, "A gawky sensitive child who achieved little success in school and was the brunt of every crude piece of horseplay, 'Red' Lewis spent most of his youth tagging after his adored older brother." He slept in a small bed beside that older brother's in the neat dowdy framed house that was ruled by the puritanical father who never forgave him for writing "Main Street." The house looks today as if the family were waiting for Doc Lewis's punctual arrival from his office . . . on Main Street.

Eager to shake off "the virus of the village," "the prohibition of happiness . . . dullness made God," Lewis left to attend first Oberlin, then Yale. "Now begins the journey! . . . My trunk is packed!" But he kept coming back, having in himself, as he said, those "Sauk-centricities" that made this place, and no other, home. And for all the barbs of his satire, he too believed that in the life of the small town was kept alive the best of America (as well as some of the worst)--the kindness and decency and "hope that is boundless." By his request, his ashes were brought back from Rome for burial in Sauk Centre Cemetery. Sherwood Anderson & Clyde, Ohio, Alias Winesburg

Just south of Lake Erie in the rich farm country of north-central Ohio, Sherwood Anderson's hometown was founded by pioneers at the juncture of an Wyandot Indian trail and a stage coach line. Less bustling now than in the expansive days of railroad travel, it describes itself as "a big small town, quietly enjoying America's generous blessings." The flat, brick-facaded stretch of Main Street, crossed at the north by railroad tracks and at the south by Buckeye Street, remains close to the way it appears in "Winesburg, Ohio." The lamplighter is gone, and the train depot, the waterworks, and the race track, but the big maples lining streets of white-frame houses are still there; the pond remains, and the beech groves beyond the cornfields. Lunching on bean soup and cornbread at Main Street's Friendly Inn (where a stag's head stared out at me from between two paintings of Montmarte), and watching a lady across the street shoo two bored teen-agers out of her store, I could easily imagine myself on a summer day in Biff Carter's Lunchroom, listening with George Willard to those "common everyday lives" that make up Anderson's "Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life."

There was a Winesburg, Ohio, but Anderson claimed in his "Memoirs" that he'd never heard of it; he added that the people there hadn't taken kindly to his book. The citizens of Clyde, the true setting, weren't overjoyed either. In fact, the book was banned at the library as smutty and defeatist. Years later, when they asked Anderson to donate a set of his works, he wryly suggested that they have someone buy them. Now in the small stone library's basement is a museum housing a bulletin board of the author's memorabilia, and the official Welcome to Clyde brochure proclaims that Anderson's fiction "has made Clyde Ohio's most famous small town." But there is no Sherwood Anderson Avenue or Motor Inn; indeed, when I asked a passerby where Sherwood Anderson's house was, I was advised to "look him up in the phone book." Their real hero remains Civil War Gen. James B. McPherson, whose charge-leading statue towers over the town cemetery.

Anderson was one of seven children of a chronically broke, hard-drinking, cornet-playing, harness-maker father, and a chronically ill, hard-working, laundress mother who died, worn-out, when the boy was 19. Forced by poverty to move often, they lived for a while at 129 Spring Avenue, not far from the library. I noticed that Spring Avenue runs into George Street, and that the next town over is Willard; from that may come the name of Anderson's protagonist, George Willard. Many of the place names in Winesburg are unchanged or only slightly altered from their originals: Buckeye Street, Pawsey's Shoe Store, Heffner Block area real Clyde places. Piety Hill became Gospel Hill; Raccoon Creek, Wine Creek; Hurd's Grocery on Main Street became Hern's grocery on Main Street. In "Winesburg," the bountiful Mr. Hern is based on Thaddeus Hurd, for whom "Jobby" Anderson (so called because he took so many jobs to help support his family) worked as a delivery boy.

Hurd's son remained Anderson's friend long after the future novelist left Clyde, and high school, to find work in a Chicago warehouse. I walked from the library over to Mr. Hurd's house, and found the door open, but no one at home. I'd been given the address by a kind librarian who'd responded with warm enthusiasm to my interest in Clyde's literary son. Among the lapful of material she brought out for me to look over was a folder of hand-written poems with accompanying sketches, each describing a character from "Winesburg, Ohio." As I was looking at these, a young girl hurried over, highly embarrassed, and protested that she hadn't intended anyone to read her poems; she'd written them "years ago" and they were "all awful." Since the age of 7 (the age Anderson came to Clyde), she'd lived across the street from the library. In the summers, she worked there. In the fall, she was going to begin classes at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She couldn't wait to go. I thought about Cather and Lewis, bags packed; about myself, longing to escape North Carolina for the "shining cities." "What do you think of Sherwood Anderson?" I asked her.

"He saved my life. I just kept thinking, he grew up in Clyde, and he did it. Maybe I can do it."

"Do you think you'll come back here after you graduate?"

"Oh no, I'm going to New York," she told me.

"Well, I hope you'll write about Clyde. Let me quote you something another midwestern girl said. 'Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.'"