This is Virginia Marshall, and you’re listening to REEL WRITING: Poems and Prose Off and On the Tape Reel.
Clyde, Ohio: population 6,325. The banners on Main Street proclaim that this is America’s “famous small town.”
I drove all the way out here from my home in New York, up and down the sinusoidal roads of Pennsylvania, racing past 18-wheeler trucks on four lane highways—their monstrous bodies barreling down hill and courageously crawling up the inclines. After the screech and wind whistle of the road and the highway, Clyde feels still. Occasionally a train passes through or the chatter and bat cracks waft down from two little league baseball games being played at the same time on adjacent fields.
But mostly, it’s quiet.
This town puzzles me. Its stillness is not my normal soundtrack.
Why did I drive all the way here, you are asking? The claim to small-town fame that brought me to Clyde is its connection to Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson grew up here and based his 1919 book on the people and locations in this town.
What makes the book so compelling is its unabashed stare into the ordinary person’s inner life. Winesburg, a fictional town mapped onto the streets of the non-fictional Clyde, is populated by people whose heads seem to be bursting with noise and disruption—a mother’s mood-swings drive her son out of the house, a nervous man is tormented by memories of child molestation, and a lonely woman becomes hysterical, running out in the rain one night, completely naked. Anderson simply does not blink where other authors at the turn of the century would have averted their gaze.
I came to Clyde to see if I could sniff out the origin of Anderson’s wild prose.
After returning to the bustle of the urban east coast, I came to Houghton Library at Harvard University. There, in the cavernous book stacks, I found a curious story Anderson had published in 1930, only 875 copies. It is called “The American County Fair,” about the yearly gathering of far-flung Ohio inhabitants. Anderson writes:
Hills are at their best when white farm houses cling to their sides. Nature untouched by man is too terrible. It is too difficult of approach. You become terrorized…
You are always wanting man in nature—woman in nature. You can get it at the fair.
If most of a person’s life is quiet, then the fairs are interludes of bustling humanity—they are brief displays of chaos, interrupted by months of coaxing acres of crops out of the land.
Anderson was not the last person to write about the draw of a country fair.
Sun now erumpent, mid 90s, puddles of mud trying to evaporate into air that’s already water-logged, every smell just hangs there. The general sensation is one of that of being in the middle of an arm-pit. I’m once again at the capacious McDonald’s tent at the edge…
That’s David Foster Wallace reading on UCTV in October of 1997. The essay he’s reading from is called “Ticket to the Fair,” published in Harper’s Magazine in 1994, about the Illinois State Fair. Wallace writes:
Rural Midwesterners live surrounded by unpopulated land, marooned in a space whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual. It is not just people you get lonely for. You’re alienated from the very space around you…
The state fair’s animating thesis involves some kind of structured, decorated interval of communion with both neighbor and space–the sheer fact of the land is to be celebrated here, its yields ogled and its stock groomed and paraded. A special vacation from alienation, a chance, for a moment, to love what real life out here can’t let you love.
Both Wallace and Anderson grew up in middle America. Wallace in Champaign, Illinois, and Anderson in Ohio. They both published fiction that is considered ahead of its time. David Foster Wallace—author of the agonizingly long novel Infinite Jest—penned sentences bursting with made-up words, corporate-nouns-turned verbs, and detailed descriptions of bodily functions and acid trips. Anderson’s brief sentences and the psychological analysis he focuses on his characters inspired a wealth of American writers to follow in his footsteps.
I found it curious that they both, too, wrote pieces about summer country fairs. Sixty-three years apart, these two native midwesterners seized on the same idea. The similarities between their two accounts are striking. Though considerably less disparaging, Anderson’s description of the county fair, like Wallace’s sarcastic exposé, draws attention to the spectacle of people in contrast to the vast emptiness of the land. A country person both desires and fears human company. In some ways, Anderson’s book Winesburg, Ohio is like a festival. It is the thing we are drawn to from the silence, like ants to a picnic.
But once we arrive—Anderson and Wallace might say—the spectacle is overstimulating, overcrowded.
We want back.
I think I get it now. I think I get the draw of still and constant Clyde.
I looked for recordings of Sherwood Anderson, but, sadly, no audio of his voice survives. This is a jazz piece by Darrell Katz called “Like a Wind” with lyrics lifted from Winesburg, Ohio.
This episode is brought to you from Houghton Library and the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University.