A woman, yearning for a lover who left years ago, sheds her clothes one night and walks in the rain. A man living alone, near the ravine at the edge of town, fears the expressive power of his own hands. A bearded minister smashes his fist through a stained glass window when he sees a naked woman in a nearby house weeping and praying on her bed. A young reporter, alone in the newspaper office late at night, wonders at the whirl of life around him. A wraith of a woman, the reporter’s mother, sits in her bedroom in the evening shadows, dreaming of a better life for her son.
All in the town of Winesburg, Ohio…..
Winesburg, Ohio–a town of the imagination, peopled by “grotesques” searching for some meaning in their lives, some consolation, some affirmation, some kind of love and acceptance. A town lit by gaslight, where the 1890s linger forever, where some streets end in farm country, where the land yields rich crops of berries, cabbages, and apples. A town where the trains come and go, their long whistles wailing across the countryside, carrying away those bound for a wider world and those who have come to live and die in Winesburg.
It is nearly a century since Sherwood Anderson’s seminal short story collection Winesburg, Ohio appeared in 1919. This book, variously described as a novel or short story cycle, influenced Hemingway, Faulkner, and other writers who profoundly shaped American literature during the last century. Winesburg, Ohio still holds its own. Faulkner called Anderson “the father of all my works” and the one who showed him and others of his generation “the way.”
Winesburg, Ohio when first published was denounced by some outraged readers and critics. Most readers now wouldn’t even blink at the stories in this book, but Anderson’s examination of stunted lives in a small community made it revolutionary in its day. It remains a powerful work in our own time. It is also a robust example of a relentless larger effort by American writers in the first third of the twentieth century to write more realistically about modern life, particularly the interior lives of people and the power of sexual desire.
The setting of Winesburg, a fictional town in northwestern Ohio, is based closely on Clyde, Ohio, the town to which Anderson’s family moved when he was seven years old and where he lived until his mother died in 1895. After his mother’s death, Anderson spent two years working in a Chicago warehouse before returning to Clyde to join his Ohio National Guard unit for service in the Spanish-American War, where he saw no action and was posted to the American south and later Cuba. After his return from Cuba he was in Clyde again briefly before leaving for Wittenberg Academy in Springfield, Ohio for what would be his last year of formal education. After this brief period of schooling he moved to Chicago in 1900, departing from Clyde for good although he later returned to visit. There is an actual Ohio town called Winesburg, but it is located in Holmes County, an area known for its Amish population, in the east central portion of the state. The town of Clyde traces its origin to a frontier settlement called Hamer’s Corners.
The town of Clyde has many features similar to Winesburg. Some of these elements are common to other Ohio small towns of the time. Some of the street names in Winesburg, Ohio are the same as in Clyde. For example, there once was an actual “Heffner Block” of business buildings, and there is one in Winesburg, Ohio. But while we might say that the town of Clyde has its fingerprints all over the fictional Winesburg, it is different in regard to the characters. Some may have been suggested by people he knew in Clyde, but Anderson said many were inspired by people he met in Chicago rooming houses and tenements. The character of Joe Welling in “A Man of Ideas” is based on a real man Anderson knew in Elyria, Ohio according to David D. Anderson, one of the foremost scholars of Midwestern literature. There are echoes of Anderson’s mother in the character of Elizabeth Willard. Fictional characters can arise from the subconscious, or be compounds of real people and fanciful ones. A writer might see a stranger on the street and begin weaving a tale about that person, so we can’t be for certain that most or all of the people in Winesburg had real life models.
I visited Clyde from May 6-8, 2016 to see the town that inspired the scenes of Winesburg, Ohio. After arriving I asked myself why it took me so long to get there, as I am deeply interested in Anderson’s work and have special affection for the powerful book that is Winesburg, Ohio. But I finally did, and look forward to returning. In this post I will describe the places in Clyde that inspired settings in Winesburg, Ohio and include information about Anderson’s time in town, drawn from both biographical work on Anderson and from Anderson’s three works of fanciful memoirs—A Story-Teller’s Story (1924) Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926), and Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs (1942, 1969)—in which the people and places of Clyde figure prominently. Anderson is the one canonical American writer from Ohio who wrote the most autobiographical material about his time in the state. William Dean Howells wrote some small volumes of autobiography as well, but not to the depth and degree that Anderson did.
A quick word about “fanciful memoirs.” Anderson, in an author’s note in his book Tar: A Midwest Childhood, wrote that he struggled to write straightforwardly about his own life, that his own fiction-writing inclination got in the way. Tar, in fact, could be classified as an autobiographical novel. The long and short of it is that Anderson often wrote of events that had happened to him and people and places that he knew, but his recollections are so colored by his subjective vision and imaginative recollection that they stray into the realm of fiction. Later in this post there is an example of Anderson doing so in relation to a story about his mother.
For those not familiar with Anderson and Winesburg, Ohio, here is some general information about the man and his famous short story collection. Sherwood Anderson was born on September 13, 1876 in Camden, Ohio, a rural southwestern Ohio town about an hour north of Cincinnati. He was the third of six children. His father, a Civil War veteran and harness maker from southeastern Ohio, was a diligent worker early in life who later became alcoholic and improvident, forcing Sherwood’s mother Emma to take in washing and become the main breadwinner. The family left Camden when Sherwood was about a year old, relocated to Caledonia, Ohio in the central section of the state and eventually Clyde.
Anderson had little formal schooling and worked so vigorously at different jobs as a child and youth to earn money that locals nicknamed him “Jobby.” The family’s fortunes, already precarious when they arrived in Clyde, continued to dwindle as Sherwood grew to young manhood. The family split up after Emma died in 1895, Anderson departed for Chicago and, as noted earlier, returned to Clyde to join his Guard unit, returned briefly again to Clyde after his service, attended Wittenberg Academy for a time, and left for Chicago once more. Anderson’s brief time at Wittenberg was important. He met other young people interested in ideas and education, and he also began exploring an interest in books and writing. However, Anderson still yearned to rise in the world. The poverty he knew had left its mark on him.
Anderson returned to Ohio after several years in Chicago. He married a woman named Cornelia Platt Lane in Toledo in 1904 and eventually became the father of three children: two sons and a daughter. By 1907 Anderson and his family were in Elyria, Ohio, where he became a successful businessman, eventually landing the position of president of the United Factories Company. The family later moved to Cleveland, where he established the Anderson Manufacturing Company, which sold a product called “Roof-Fix.” Anderson, who had known poverty so intimately while also imbibing the American gospel of success through hard work, had longed to be prosperous self-made man like those he knew firsthand and read about in the popular press of the time. The life he wanted was taking shape—-but another side of him was emerging.
Anderson was a deeply sensitive man and a close observer of life around him. He had long been a reader, despite his lack of formal education, devouring the books he could get his hands on. During his time in Elyria he became seriously interested in writing, spending long hours composing novels and stories after work. A crisis developed in Anderson’s life springing from the conflict between his desire to be an artist and the demands of the business career he had so carefully created. After a nervous collapse, Anderson divorced his first wife and left for Chicago to pursue a writing career. There he worked as an advertising copywriter to help support his ex-wife and three children while writing fiction. Anderson would marry a total of four times, finally enjoying a satisfying marriage with his last wife, a YWCA social worker named Eleanor Copenhaver, whom he married in 1932.
He published his first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son, in 1916, followed by a second novel, Marching Men, in 1917, and a book of Whitmanesque free verse poems, American Chants, in 1918. Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919, made his name. Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories examining the lives of people in a small town in the 1890s. A central character is a young reporter named George Willard who forges connections with many of the lonely people in town. George Willard appears in many of the stories. The book as a whole examines the inner lives of people who have been warped or emotionally malnourished and their struggles to find connections with others.
While Winesburg, Ohio brought notoriety to Anderson, it was also recognized by critics and fellow writers as an important book. He met many of the other noted writers of his time and traveled to Paris, where he especially impressed the writer Gertrude Stein and became friends with her. Winesburg, Ohio was seen as an important breakthrough in honest writing about American lives, another blow in the struggle to liberate American literature from the lingering timidity about realistic fiction left over from the Victorian era.
During the late 1920s Anderson began to write more journalism and non-fiction in addition to fictional work. This nonfiction trend in Anderson’s career began when he purchased two newspapers in Marion, Virginia, one Republican and one Democrat, and wrote columns for both, some of which are collected in the book Hello Towns! (1929). Eleanor also encouraged Anderson to travel around the United States and explore what was happening in the nation as a result of the Great Depression and write about what he experienced. Anderson’s books Puzzled America (1935) and Home Town (1940) are both interesting books resulting from Anderson’s journeys through Depression-era America. As noted earlier, Anderson also wrote several autobiographical works during the Twenties and Thirties, one of which, Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs (1942, revised 1969), was published posthumously.
Sherwood Anderson died at the age of sixty-four in March, 1941 in the Panama Canal Zone after accidentally swallowing part of a toothpick, which punctured his intestine and caused peritonitis. At the time of his death he had begun an unofficial goodwill tour of Latin America for the State Department and had a contract to write articles about the trip for Reader’s Digest. As this piece unfolds, I will include additional information about Anderson as I describe different parts of his hometown and their significance.
My trip to Clyde was a long time in the making. I first read Winesburg, Ohio in the spring of 1982 as a high school sophomore. I was deeply impressed by the book, and it had a poignancy that stayed with me when I thought of it afterwards. At some level I believe it necessarily complicated my view of history. There was a disllusioning aspect to it—I tended to idealize the past and my forebears, so it helped me to see that the past wasn’t perfect and that people have always struggled with life’s demands. I think it deepened me to read it at that age, and yet my own high-spirited adolescent self wasn’t able to truly grasp its depth, and wasn’t really ready to look at how bleak life can be for the battered and broken of this world—probably a fairly common experience for high school readers encountering important books.
I read it again years later with a wider and deeper appreciation, and reread it again in 2013, this time stunned by the power of the stories—and knew I was long overdue to head up to Clyde. This year I resolved to do so. I left Cincinnati on a warm spring Friday evening, was delayed in Dayton by rush hour, but enjoyed a smooth drive north once Dayton traffic thinned out. I drove up I-75, passing long stretches of farm fields alternating with interchanges crowded with fast food restaurants, industrial parks and businesses, and finally exited the highway past Findlay as the sun began to set, turning on to U.S. 6 and driving east about twenty miles in deepening twilight through the kind of farm country known so well to the young Sherwood Anderson.
At this point the journey began to feel not only like one through physical space, but back in time as well, and into psychic space occupied by the enduring power Winesburg, Ohio has held in my own life, and in American literature, and deep into the images, stories, and memories of small town America from my own family history. Through the decades I have listened carefully to the stories family members have told, and learned much about the places where they and those they spoke of lived, and studied the histories of these places. Clyde ended up reminding me quite a bit of my father’s hometown of Mount Vernon, Ohio. Winesburg, Ohio, despite being fictional territory, feels quite familiar to me.
As darkness settled I came into town on McPherson Highway, which runs right through the outer edge of Clyde. The most prominent industry in Clyde is a large Whirlpool plant that sits alongside this highway. I stayed at a Red Roof Inn in Clyde a short distance from the plant that weekend.
A short drive down the McPherson Highway past the Whirlpool plant on Saturday morning brought me to Main Street, the entry point to the heart of Clyde and old town section well known to Sherwood Anderson. After a short drive to familiarize myself with its streets, I made my first stop of the day—the Clyde Public Library, an elegant Carnegie library with a room devoted to Anderson and Clyde history. The room is called the Thaddeus B. Hurd Room, named after a local man, an architect by profession, who worked to preserve Clyde history, including the history of Anderson’s time in town. Hurd’s father, Herman Hurd, was one of Sherwood Anderson’s boyhood friends. Thad Hurd did incredibly valuable work preserving local history, and I benefited from this directly as one of the guides I used while in Clyde was a pamphlet he created in the late 1980s. This is a building Anderson wouldn’t have seen during his youth here, as it was built in the early 1900s, but would likely have noticed it on his return visit in 1916.
The Hurd Room includes copies of all of Anderson’s books, including foreign language editions from both Europe and Asia. Located on the top shelf was a Collected Works edition of Anderson published in Japan in the early 1980s. These volumes contain facsimiles of early editions of Anderson’s works in English. There were other foreign editions in Asian languages—I don’t know if these were all Japanese or included other Asian translations, but for some reason, a topic worth exploring in another post, Anderson’s work has been especially valued in Japan. Beth Liebengood, the head librarian, told me that Japanese literary scholars occasionally visit Clyde, tour the town, and examine the contents of the Hurd Room.
In addition to his books and critical and biographical works on Anderson, the room features a painting by a man named George White of the famous Alfred Steiglitz photo of Anderson, which is mounted on the wall over the microfiche reader. The room also holds a number of other files and binders relating to Clyde history.
The Clyde library itself deserves mention here. As noted earlier, it is an elegant Carnegie library built around 1905-06. A tastefully done modern addition was completed in 1996. Carnegie libraries are those built with funds donated by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in the early years of the twentieth century. The exterior of the original structure is emblazoned with the names of famous authors, philosophers, and scientists. Noteworthy also is the inclusion of Theodore Roosevelt’s name, whose term of office had recently ended before the library was built. The inclusion of the recent President’s name shows the high regard in which he was held by the Clyde public, and I’d venture to say they were probably fairly representative of the broader American public opinion of that time.
I enjoyed my time in the Hurd Room, and could easily have spent long hours there, but after a pleasant conversation with Beth Liebengood, I resumed exploring the town. I next located two areas of importance in Clyde in relation to Winesburg, Ohio: the old fairgrounds and the Waterworks Pond. The fairgrounds, which were also the site of the town’s racetrack, are now home to an elementary school. The fairgrounds figure in the Winesburg, Ohio stories “A Man of Ideas,” “The Thinker,” and the poignant story near the book’s end called “Sophistication,” in which George Willard and Helen White spend time together on an autumn evening, knowing their youth has ended and that both are now adults.
While the racetrack itself does not figure prominently in any Wineburg, Ohio story, any reader really familiar with Anderson knows the significance of horses and racetracks in his work, which I will briefly address later. These and other Clyde settings appear as well in Sherwood Anderson’s Tar: A Midwest Childhood and A Story-Teller’s Story, along with Anderson’s more straightforward (but still fanciful) Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs.
The Waterworks Pond, fortunately, is still there in Clyde’s Community Park. Raccoon Creek, also known as Coon Creek, well known to Anderson and his friends and family, still flows into the pond. In Winesburg, Ohio it is called “Wine Creek.” Wine Creek is mentioned in a number of the Winesburg stories. One is “A Man of Ideas,” in which Joe Welling comes into town speaking excitedly about the fact he knows it has rained in another county given the higher water level in Wine Creek. The creek also features in the four-part story called “Godliness.”
It is along Wine Creek in the bittersweet story “Adventure” that the dry goods clerk Alice Hindman and her beau Ned Currie make love. Ned Currie is a young newspaperman on the Winesburg Eagle in the years when George Willard is still in school:
“They got out of the buggy at a place where a long meadow ran down to the bank of Wine Creek and there in the dim light became lovers. When at midnight they returned to town they were both glad. It did not seem to them that anything that could happen in the future could blot out the wonder and beauty of the thing that had happened. ‘Now we will have to stick to each other, whatever happens we will have to do that,’ Ned Currie said as he left the young girl at her father’s door.”
Ned leaves Winesburg for Cleveland, hoping to get a job on a paper there and then marry Alice.
“The young newspaper man did not succeed in getting a place on a Cleveland paper and went west to Chicago. For a time he was lonely and wrote to Alice almost every day. Then he was caught up by the life of the city; he began to make friends and found new interests in life. In Chicago he boarded at a house where there were several women. One of them attracted his attention and he forgot Alice in Winesburg. At the end of a year he had stopped writing letters, and only once in a long time, when he was lonely or when he went into one of the city parks and saw the moon shining on the grass as it had shone that night on the meadow by Wine Creek, did he think of her at all.”
This story contains one of the most haunting lines of all in the collection, when Alice Hindman turns her face to her bedroom wall “trying to force herself to face the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”
The creek appears in Anderson’s other books. In Anderson’s semi-autobiographical Tar: A Midwest Childhood, Anderson writes often of the creek. He mentions that older boys would sometimes torment younger boys there, stealing their clothes and tying them in tight, wet knots, making them hard to unravel. On another occasion he writes of a pleasant March day when spring seemed to have arrived in town. The boys strip down and jump in, but jump out just as quickly after discovering the water is brutally cold.
The Waterworks Pond appears in the Winesburg story “A Man of Ideas” in conjunction with the aforementioned Joe Welling talking about the water levels in Wine Creek, and also in the story “The Teacher,” in which George Willard goes to the pond to ice skate but wanders off into the woods as the snow falls. He builds himself a fire and sits beside it ruminating on his lot in life and a recent encounter with the enigmatic teacher Kate Swift. The pond is also mentioned in the story “The Awakening” in which George Willard’s tryst with Belle Carpenter is interrupted by the rough local bartender, Ed Handby.
The Waterworks Pond is also the location of an experience Anderson mentions in Tar. A prosperous young man from the town had returned to Clyde to visit, and he decided to go ice skating. The man had an elegant coat and paid Anderson some money to hold his fancy new coat while he skated. Anderson was fascinated by the coat, its richness and thickness, and felt once more the sting of his poverty and the reach of his desire to become prosperous in the world.
Above the waterworks pond is Piety Hill, called “Gospel Hill” in Winesburg, Ohio. “Gospel Hill” figures in the story “Godliness,” where it is mentioned in connection with Reverend Hartman, who drives out to the top of Gospel Hill and puts his arm about his wife’s waist as he “began to be something like a lover in the presence of his wife.” We will take a closer look at the Reverend and his renewed ardor a little farther down in this post when we come to the famous story “The Strength of God” and its connection to the First Presbyterian Church.
Up on Piety Hill there were some little league games going on during my visit. It was Saturday morning across America, and a reminder that the life of Anderson in his time was part of a larger continuum that we share with him. Anderson played baseball—not very well, according to a friend. The town team was known as the Clyde Stars, and Anderson later served as a manager and also worked some as an umpire.
Seeing the families seated by the ball diamonds or walking the park grounds was a reminder that life goes on in Clyde, that old ways of community and family persist, that the private human dramas of our time are much like those of Anderson’s, and that were he alive today he would still find the longing, desperation and beauty he knew then.
After leaving the park I drove to the elementary school occupying the old fairgrounds and racetrack site. It was quiet there, and I spent some time looking at the place and casting my mind back to an earlier time, picturing those fairground days long ago, when people strolled about, taking joy from the simple pleasure of attending the fair. I could see the men with their derby hats and handlebar mustaches and the women in their long dresses. People came into town from miles around. While we still have our fairs, festivals, and carnivals today, which can be pretty important for some of us, it’s worth noting that these events were even more important in the lives of earlier generations of people in small communities. In those years before radio, film, and television, people made much of their own entertainment. When a circus or medicine show came to town, or a production came to the local opera house or theater, people turned out in droves, and they did the same with fairs. They cherished these social occasions.
The fairgrounds is mentioned in a number of Winesburg, Ohio stories, and as mentioned earlier is prominently featured in the deeply bittersweet story “Sophistication.” The main characters are George Willard and Helen White, the banker’s daughter. George has lost his mother Elizabeth back in the spring, and Helen has been away to college. The two are attracted to one another.
“Sophistication” is set in the autumn during the Winesburg County Fair. Anderson skillfully evokes the feeling of late fall. He describes the roadside dust stirred by wagons settling on the berry fields outside of town, and of crowds thronging the streets. A band plays and small boys run up and down the sidewalks. George Willard is frustrated. He is supposed to meet Helen White, who has returned from Cleveland for the day, but her time has been occupied with an instructor from her college who is a guest of her mother’s. The teacher is interested in Helen, but pompously tells her mother it is good for him to see the places where his students come from. He is from an Ohio town too, but Anderson writes that he “began to put on the airs of the city. He wanted to appear cosmopolitan.”
Helen is finally able to shake this dullard and find George. The two make their way to the fairgrounds by a path near the Waterworks Pond. It is night. They reach the “half decayed old grand-stand. It has never been painted and the boards are all warped out of shape.” We learn that “The feeling of loneliness and isolation that had come to the young man in the crowded streets of his town was both broken and intensified by the presence of Helen. What he felt was reflected in her.”
For me, “Sophistication” is one of the most poignant stories in Winesburg, Ohio. I suspect there are other readers out there who have similar affection for it. It captures the feeling of young love that will not last, of young people who know for certain their childhoods are over and are beginning to look backward with some sense of the ache of time and loss.
“There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.”
The racetrack, as noted earlier, was located by the fairgrounds. Although no stories are set at the racetrack in Winesburg, Ohio, the topic of horses and horse racing appears in the book. In some of his other collections of short fiction—one of which is called Horses and Men—horse track settings are featured. Two of Anderson’s most famous stories—“I Want To Know Why” and “The Man Who Became A Woman”—are set in the horseracing world. Anderson spent a lot of time as a boy and young man hanging around stables and racetracks.
My next stop was locating the two houses still standing in Clyde where Sherwood Anderson and his family lived. The first one is located at 129 Spring Avenue near the Waterworks Pond. This street slopes down from one rise to and then ascends in the direction of Piety Hill. Anderson’s old home is near the bottom of the dip in the street. The street has an old feel to it—a kind of rough and unfinished quality that I found accentuated its aged quality. I sensed that the street probably hadn’t changed all that much since the days Anderson lived there. I knocked on the door and asked permission to take pictures of the home, and the resident kindly assented. I was grateful for this generosity in regard to both of his old homes, and I found all the people I spoke with in Clyde to be helpful and friendly.
A local historian told me later in the day that the Spring Avenue house is located on one of the earliest settlement sites in Clyde. Next to the house is a large grove of trees where a spring was probably located, which is why one of the first settlers built his homestead there. I stood on the street for a while, thinking of Anderson and his family, his father, his suffering mother, their poverty, and Sherwood’s dreams and desires. The Andersons lived in this house from roughly 1888-1895. They lived in a number of houses before living briefly at the still extant house on Race Street, and then moving to this house on Spring Avenue for the bulk of their time in Clyde.
The Spring Avenue property was also the scene of a tragedy when Anderson’s family occupied the home. There was a barrel submerged in the earth to collect water from the spring, and a neighbor child fell into the barrel and drowned. Anderson’s mother ran out and pulled the child from the water, but was hysterical and ran off. Whether or not the child was already dead at that time is unclear to me from the biographies I have reviewed, but Anderson, who loved his mother and felt deep sympathy for her lot in life, and could be fairly accused of being too hard on his father in his portraits of him, describes her as behaving more stoically in this situation. I’d say this is also a good example of how Anderson would transform the stuff of his life into a more fanciful form in his memoirs.
I next located the house in which the family lived briefly around 1888. This is located at 214 Race Street, a larger two-lane road in Clyde. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I returned the following day and the owner was home. Once again I encountered a friendly person and was allowed to photograph the house. The residents of both homes have encountered visiting literary types like me before.
I then located what is most likely the model for the most famous bell tower in American literature, which is featured in the story “The Strength of God” in Winesburg, Ohio. This would be the bell tower of the First Presbyterian Church on West Forest Street in Clyde. In this story, a minister named Curtis Hartman peers through a missing section of a stained glass window in his study inside the Presbyterian Church’s bell tower to spy on the local schoolteacher Kate Swift in a house nearby. Reverend Hartman is diligent, scholarly, uninspiring—and uninspired. Kate Swift is an unconventional woman who has traveled in Europe and lived in New York. She lives with her aunt in Winesburg. She smokes in the privacy of her bedroom, something that fascinates the pastor—keep in mind that a woman who dared to smoke publicly at this time in many parts of the U.S. would be virtually a harlot in the eyes of many upright citizens. The minister is tormented by his behavior, recognizing the depth of his own sexual desire (“in me there is something Greek”) and struggling to make peace with it in light of his vocation. Finally, one night he sees a naked Kate Swift throw herself down on the bed and begin to pray, and his religious faith is revived.
The story is complex, and as with any work of literature, different interpretations abound. On the surface, the minister is a placid kind of man, but deeper passions lie beneath his bland exterior:
“He was not one to arouse keen enthusiasm among the worshippers in his church but on the other hand he made no enemies. In reality he was much in earnest and sometimes suffered prolonged periods of remorse because he could not go crying the word of God in the highways and byways of the town. He wondered if the flame of the spirit really burned in him and dreamed of a day when a strong sweet new current of power would come like a great wind into his voice and his soul and the people would tremble before the spirit of God made manifest in him. ‘I am a poor stick and that will never really happen to me,’ he mused dejectedly, and then a patient smile lit up his features. ‘Oh well, I suppose I’m doing well enough,’ he added philosophically.”
After seeing Kate Swift for the first time reading and smoking on her bed, the minister throws aside his planned sermon at the next Sunday service and speaks powerfully, confessing as well that he is a sinner. He becomes more amorous towards his wife. But his spirit is in turmoil. The minister is a man who really desires to serve God and humanity, but has always done what he was supposed to do. Aspects of his humanity are being revealed. He goes days without thinking of her, then she returns to mind and he walks the streets trying to understand his burden. He considers leaving the ministry, becoming a businessman and indulging his carnal passions. “At least I shall not be a hypocrite, preaching the word of God with my mind thinking of the shoulders and neck of a woman who does not belong to me,” he says to himself.
He repeatedly resists the urge to look at her, but one night he goes in determined to do it. “I will see this woman and think the thoughts I have not dared to think,” he says. He has been walking through the snowy streets and his feet are wet. The room is cold from the hole in the stained glass window, which is located in the heel of boy kneeling before Jesus. No fire burns in the grate. He sits in the cold room, running the risk of hypothermia. At several points he fades in and out of a kind of delirium. At last a light is turned on in the room and Kate Swift appears. She is naked. She throws herself on the bed and weeps, then rises and begins to pray. The minister rises from his desk, lunges towards his window and smashes it with his fist. He runs into the street and down to the Winesburg Eagle office, where he finds George Willard, waves his bloodstained fist in front of him and tells George that God appeared to him in the form of Kate Swift, and that she “was an instrument of God, bearing the message of truth.”
One interpretation I have seen of this story is that the heretofore conventional pastor will return to his normal ways. He has been awakened to the sensual longings inside himself, and the figure of Kate Swift is a dangerously alluring one. But when he sees her praying and weeping, she is now the broken sinner who conforms to his view of the fallen, and any threat she poses has been eliminated. Her independence and defiance have been replaced with suffering and anguish.
But there are other views of this story, one of them being that the minister has truly become a man of God after enduring this struggle and seeing Kate Swift so tormented and vulnerable. In the critical essay “Kate Swift: Anderson’s Creative Eros,” scholar Chris Browning sees Kate Swift as an example of what literary critic Lewis Lewisohn calls “creative Eros.” Lewisohn writes that art and religion alike are animated by Eros. According to Lewisohn, “At the root of all this ultimate knowledge and beauty is the creative Eros, the body of woman become a spiritual symbol and a biological source of strength.” The spiritual sterility of the pastor’s life has been overcome by the life-giving forces of Eros made manifest in the figure of Kate Swift. Reverend Hartman now sees Kate Swift as more than just an alluring woman—now she is a suffering fellow human being who has awakened deep levels of spiritual energy. He now truly understands his calling in the world. The power of the lover in him has awakened the man of God.
I greatly enjoyed seeing this landmark of Clyde and reflecting on its connection to Anderson’s story. This Ohio bell tower for me has become also a representation of the longstanding themes in American literature of sin, suffering, redemption, and the conflict between spirit and flesh. I can’t look at this tower now without thinking of a writer such as Nathaniel Hawthorne along with Sherwood Anderson.
Next on my itinerary was the old depot area of Clyde, located on Railroad Street opposite the current Clyde City Hall. The depot figures repeatedly in Winesburg, Ohio. It is part of the book’s conclusion, when George Willard departs for the big city, and it represents the role of the trains in the town—bringing passengers and freight to Winesburg, shipping out produce from the surrounding farms, as well as the place where people make their departure from Clyde—for if there is one theme that appears often in Midwestern literature of this time, it is that of exodus from the small community to make a life elsewhere. The railroad’s place in American culture—in story, song, film, and popular memory—is beyond the scope of this post, but the railroad was a powerful force in American life for many decades, and it certainly was important in Clyde.
The old depot in Clyde was located on the grassy expanse pictured above. It was shaped like an L, to accommodate traffic from both railroads that came through Clyde. It was at this depot, long vanished, that the Andersons arrived in Clyde from Caledonia, Sherwood still crying for the dog he tried to bring with him but who ran away when they left their old home. A tree has recently been planted near the old depot site in memory of Sherwood Anderson. As noted earlier, the depot is the setting for the concluding story of Winesburg, Ohio—“Departure”—in which George, his mother having died one year before, is seen off at the station by his father and a number of people in town. It also figures in the story “Respectability.” In this story, Wash Williams, the telegraph operator in Winesburg known for his lack of hygiene, ugliness, and permanent streak of misogyny, walks down the tracks with George until they come to a pile of railroad ties. There Wash tells George the story of his marriage and how he came to be the man he is. George discovers a man much different than he expected.
The Nichols House, where the Andersons first stayed when they arrived in Clyde, still stands, although much altered. One floor was later removed when the building became home to a Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge.
There is an Ohio Historical Society marker about Sherwood Anderson next to a fountain near the old depot site. Beyond this marker was where the Empire House Hotel stood, which is the New Willard House in Winesburg, Ohio. The Empire House Hotel stood nearly 100 years—from 1852 to 1940. George Willard’s parents, Tom and Elizabeth, own the hotel, which is unprofitable. Tom Willard is a brisk and talkative man long active in Democratic politics who still seeks some high political position. Elizabeth is a retiring, fading figure, a gaunt housekeeper whose face is scarred from smallpox and whose dreams have died but hopes for a better life for George. Her husband is irritated by her presence:
“The presence of the tall ghostly figure, moving slowly through the halls, he took as a reproach to himself. When he thought of her he grew angry and swore. The hotel was unprofitable and forever on the edge of failure and he wished himself out of it. He thought of the house and the woman who lived there with him as things defeated and done for. The hotel in which he had begun life so hopefully was now a mere ghost of what a hotel should be. As he went spruce and business-like through the streets of Winesburg, he sometimes stopped and turned quickly about as though fearing that the spirit of the hotel and of the woman would follow him even into the streets. ‘Damn such a life, damn it!’ he sputtered aimlessly.”
Several stories in Winesburg, Ohio are set inside the Willard House. One such story is “Mother,” which is devoted entirely to Elizabeth Willard, and the passage quoted above is from this story. The hotel is also featured in “The Thinker,” in which George Willard’s friend Seth Richmond visits George at his room in the hotel, and “Death,” which concerns the death of Elizabeth Willard. The New Willard House is also one of the settings for the strange and often overlooked story “Tandy,” which concerns a man determined to destroy other men’s faith in God, the man’s little daughter, and a young man struggling with alcoholism who undercuts the father’s mean-spiritedness and forges a connection with the little girl.
The depot area had quite an effect on me. I spent a fair amount of time walking around there, thinking about the lives of the town through many generations—the fictional lives of Winesburg’s residents, who have found their way into many readers’ hearts, as well as the actual people of Clyde. The stillness of the day, the absence of any other people in the vicinity, the occasional traffic passing down the street all underscored a feeling of absence. For many decades this area was a nerve center in town, a whirl of coming and going throughout the day and sometimes at night as well. The silence seemed to reverberate with the memory of that past vibrancy.
The streets themselves are part of the fabric of Winesburg, Ohio. The various business blocks are part of the setting, along with assorted stores. Merchants, clerks, “drummers” (salesmen), idlers, tradesmen, and farmers figure in the stories. It was in these business blocks where Dr. Reefy and Dr. Parcival had their offices, where George Willard talked with Shorty Crandall after George had sex with Louise Trunion, where Joe Welling calls on his clients as a faithful agent of the Standard Oil Company. The tales in Winesburg, Ohio are peppered with references to various tradesmen and stores.
After spending time at the depot, I simply wandered the streets of Clyde for a while, looking at the old storefronts. The area where the town’s current municipal building stands was once another business block, but there are still many old buildings along the streets. I wandered up and down Main Street, where Clyde’s Heritage Hall stands. This building would have been very familiar to Anderson. It was built in 1882, features an interesting cupola, and it’s a credit to the people of Clyde for taking care of it and keeping it standing.
These were the streets where Sherwood Anderson observed people and took notice of human behavior. The autobiographical impulse was strong in Anderson, and in all three works of memoir he writes of what he saw on the streets of town, some of the most interesting examples having to do with sex, the relationships between men and women, and the gap between public appearance and private behavior. One time Anderson witnessed evidence of an adulterous affair. The boy saw a carriage driven by a married man he knew—a farmer who lived outside of town–pull into an alley in Clyde. A woman, the wife of Clyde merchant, climbed quickly into the carriage where she was hidden behind curtains. A day later the man with the carriage came up to Anderson, bought a newspaper from him, and gave him five dollars—a large amount of money for the time, especially for a boy like Sherwood—and asked him to remain quiet about what he saw.
On another occasion, Anderson cut behind a house while delivering papers and stopped transfixed before a window. He watched a married couple frolicking inside as the husband chased his wife around the house, both of them naked and laughing, eventually disappearing into a room. An hour or so later Anderson saw the man behind the counter of his store, talking with a customer.
In his Memoirs, Anderson also tells the strange story of a job held by his brother Karl, who later became a noted illustrator. His brother could sometimes be seen pushing a baby carriage around the streets of Clyde. Inside the carriage was a man who was born with severe physical defects. Based on Anderson’s description of the man, it sounds like he had the kind of stuntedness that was long exploited by freak shows. Anderson writes the following:
“It was half man. It had the body of a baby and the head of a man. Its arms and legs were helpless rubbery things. It went about, was wheeled about the the town and to neighboring towns in a baby carriage, a boy wheeling the carriage. It was the job my brother got and for which he was paid twenty-five cents a day.”
The man sold pencils and other small items to support himself, and the local railways let him ride for free. According to Anderson, the man lived with two old women who took care of him and were probably relatives. The man would often weep and curse at townspeople, who would buy his items out of sympathy and maybe even fear. Occasionally Karl took him to one of the local brothels in Fremont where the man wanted the women to carry him about and let him fondle their necks and breasts. “My brother wheeled it about,” wrote Anderson. “He went with it to towns. He was a sensitive and delicate boy but he went. He went for money. He went to take some of the load for our mother. He must have often been sickened by it. He did it because he felt he must.”
As afternoon turned to evening, I drove a short distance down the McPherson Highway to the McPherson Cemetery. Sherwood Anderson’s mother Emma and his brother Earl are buried there, side by side. Irwin Anderson, the father, left Clyde after his wife died, eventually remarried and fathered another child before dying at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Dayton in 1919. The cemetery in Clyde is also the resting place of General James McPherson, the second-highest ranking officer killed during the Civil War; Burton Meek, a sailor believed to be the first U.S. fatality after declaration of the Spanish-American War; and Rodger Young, a U. S. Army infantryman who posthumously won the Medal of Honor and was killed on the island of New Georgia in 1943. Rodger Young was the subject of the post preceding this one on Buckeyemuse.
The cemetery has its own place in Anderson’s works. He mentions in Tar: A Midwest Childhood, a night when he and his sister wandered through town in the rain and cut through the cemetery. There Anderson saw a man who was a notorious skinflint weeping over the grave of his wife.
Emma Jane Anderson died at the age of forty-two. Anderson was only eighteen when his mother died. Anderson’s mother was a lovely woman when young, born in Butler County in southwest Ohio on October 1, 1852. Anderson knew very little about the backgrounds of his parents. He thought his mother had some Italian ancestry, but her maternal roots were in Germany. She did what she could to raise the family and help provide for them. Anderson had a special relationship with his brother Earl, who was the youngest of the Anderson children. Earl later told Sherwood that he felt like his mother had little to give him by the time he born. Earl served in the navy during World War I and had disappeared from Anderson’s life until Earl was found sick and homeless on a New York street and Sherwood was notified. Now Earl, who never felt closeness from his mother, rests beside her on the same stretch of Ohio earth.
The visit to the cemetery ended my wanderings in Clyde for the day and I made my way back to the hotel. The next day, a Sunday, I drove again looking once more at many of the same places. One regret is that I was not able to visit the Clyde Heritage League’s museum. This organization is the local historical and preservation society, and they were adding on to their museum space when I was there so the facility was closed. The museum has resumed operation and I look forward to visiting.
Another place I want to visit when I return is the McPherson House. I mentioned General McPherson earlier. He was the second highest-ranking Union officer to be killed in the war and the Heritage League offers tours of his home.
One Clyde building worth mentioning not connected with Anderson but interesting nonetheless is the old National Guard armory, built around 1912, after Anderson’s own time in the Guard. In those days it was not unusual for men in a small town to belong to the local National Guard units and train at the nearby armory. These older armory buildings are found across the United States in small towns. Some sit empty; others have been converted to other purposes. The one in Clyde is now a furniture and antique store.
After I left Clyde I drove to Fremont, Ohio and took a tour of the Rutherford B. Hayes Home. It’s an impressive place with lovely wooded grounds. The library and museum were closed as a renovation project was nearing its end. Several weeks after my visit the library and museum reopened. I’m going to write about that on this blog after I can get back up there and see both places. Although I enjoyed the tour, I kept thinking about Clyde.
When I got back onto U.S.6, starting the drive back home in the spring sunshine of a Sunday afternoon, I put a CD collection of Jimmie Rodgers on the car stereo. It was the right music to hear after leaving Clyde. Jimmie Rodgers is considered the “father of country music.” Most of his songs were recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Dubbed the “Singing Brakeman,” Rodgers is an indispensable figure in the American folk and country music tradition. He died from tuberculosis in the early 1930s. He sang songs of the railroad, of rounders and gamblers, or young doughboys going off to “this German war” and bidding their sweethearts farewell, of cowboys and chain gangs.
His music evokes the old agrarian America, the world of freight trains, sun-drenched country parlors, farm fields, saloons and prisons, hoboes and brakemen, Georgia peaches and great muddy rivers.
Images of Clyde and an imagined past unfolded before me. I could see the faded wood of old taverns; horses clopping along country roads, a young boy running alongside an incoming train, waiting to pick up his load of papers; a man and woman in Victorian-era clothes sneaking off into the fields. I could see the worn metal of old bar railings and piles of worn harness leather. I could picture the worn carpeting of hotel hallways, the drummers reading newspapers and smoking cigars while waiting for a train. I envisioned a young man and woman making their way past the fairgrounds fence on an autumn night.
A mother, her body worn from endless labor, washes the neighbors’ clothes while her husband orders a drink and tells another Civil War tale. A doctor writes his thoughts on a piece of paper, then crumples the paper into a tiny ball and puts it in his pocket. A minister with a bloody fist bursts into the newspaper office at night and says he has seen God in the body of a woman. A young man sits on a train of an April morning and thinks of the old lamplighter making his rounds, of a man pushing boards through the street, of a beautiful woman once seen in his parents’ hotel, of Helen White at the post office, placing a stamp on an envelope.
Thanks to Sherwood Anderson—the “Last of the Townsmen”—this world will live forever. I’m glad I went home to Winesburg.
Before noting any sources, I would like to thank Beth Liebengood of the Clyde Public Library, and extend a special thank you to local historian John Brewer. I ran into John near the First Presbyterian Church, and he greatly aided my visit to Clyde. He was especially helpful with understanding the layout of the old depot section of Clyde and the location of the Empire House Hotel. I am grateful for this help. John is involved with the The Sherwood Anderson Society of Clyde, Inc., which is working to help educate others about Sherwood Anderson and his family in Clyde and promote the author’s legacy. They have a Facebook page if you would like to see what they are doing.
Winesburg, Ohio. Penguin Books edition with introduction by Malcolm Cowley, Middlesex and New York, 1978. Originally published in 1919.
Tar: A Midwest Childhood–A Critical Text. Edited with an introduction by Ray Lewis White. The Press of Case Western University, Cleveland, Ohio, 1969. Originally published by Boni and Liveright in 1926.
Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs: A Critical Edition Newly Edited from the Original Manuscripts by Ray Lewis White. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1969. Although an edition of the Memoirs appeared in 1942-it was a posthumous work– it was severely cut and edited from the mass of material Anderson had written at the time. This is a far more accurate, complete, and scholarly edition of the Memoirs.
Sherwood Anderson: A Writer In America—Volume 1 by Walter Rideout. Introduction by Charles Modlin. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.
Sherwood Anderson: A Biography by Kim Townsend. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1987.
“Sherwood Anderson’s Ohio” by David D. Anderson in his book Ohio In Myth, Memory, and Imagination: Essays on the Ohio Experience. Published by The Midwestern Press–The Center for the Study of Midwestern Literature and Culture at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 2004.
“Growing Up in Ohio: The Boys’ Stories of William Dean Howell, Clarence Darrow and Sherwood Anderson;” “Sherwood Anderson and the Moral Geography of Ohio;” “Sherwood Anderson, Elyria, Ohio and ‘A Man of Ideas;’ “Sherwood Anderson and Hart Crane: A Temporary Friendship;” “Two Ohio Writers and the Search for a Living Past,” all by David D. Anderson in his book Ohio In Fact and Fiction: Further Essays on the Ohio Experience. The Midwestern Press–The Center for the Study of Midwestern Literature and Culture at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 2006.
Sherwood Anderson by Rex Burbank. Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1964.
The Last of the Provincials: The American Novel, 1915-1925 by Maxwell Geismar. Hill and Wang, New York, 1959.
Sherwood Anderson: Wanderer and Myth-Maker by Gerard M. Sweeney. The State Library of Ohio, Columbus, 1979.
The Merrill Studies in Winesburg, Ohio. Compiled by Ray Lewis White. Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, Columbus, Ohio, 1971. This book contains the essay “Kate Swift: Sherwood Anderson’s Creative Eros” by Chris Browning.
The Anderson Guide: A Tour Guide to Places in Clyde, Ohio, Relating to the Life and Writings of Sherwood Anderson. Produced by Thaddeus B. Hurd, published by the Clyde Heritage League, Inc., funded by Sandusky County Visitors & Convention Bureau, 1988.
I was also helped by using some archived web sources:
“Winesburg, Ohio….Clyde’s View”
“The Winesburg Photo Album”