“Summer” From Sherwood Anderson’s “Home Town”

Near Richland, Missouri. July, 2014 (author’s photo). Click any photo to enlarge.

Summertime. The good ol’ summertime.

Time for vacation, barbecues, long hours by the water. Corn on the cob and homegrown tomatoes, hot dogs and hamburgers, root beer and iced tea. The sounds of lawnmowers, kids splashing in the pool, a crowd at a baseball game.

From Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University.

In my part of the midwest–southwestern Ohio– it can start to feel more like summer even when it’s still spring by the calendar, when the weather becomes consistently warmer in late May and early June. As I sit here typing this post it’s a scorching August day outside–the dog days are here.

Fourth of July in Wyoming, Ohio, 2017 (author’s photo).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I recently finished reading Sherwood Anderson’s book Home Town (1940). Some of the chapters I’ve enjoyed most in Home Town are those describing the seasons, which occupy the first chapters of the book following a short introduction. Home Town, a reflective work on some of the general aspects of small town American life, was his last book published during his lifetime. It appeared in October 1940, four months before Anderson and his wife Eleanor Copenhaver departed for South America.

Sherwood Anderson with his fourth wife, Eleanor Copenhaver, on February 28, 1941. Photo from “Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs” edited by Ray Lewis White. One of the last photos of Sherwood Anderson. Original in Newberry Library.

Anderson was traveling to the continent as a kind of unofficial goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department as the U.S. was tilting towards entering World War II, and he had contracted to write a series of articles about his trip for Reader’s Digest. Anderson died in the Panama Canal Zone from complications from peritonitis on this trip on March 8, 1941.

Sherwood Anderson

Home Town combines reflections on and descriptions of small town life in America. Anderson describes characteristics of the four seasons and how they affect the lives of townspeople. There are also portraits of small town types and sketches of social life, daily work, churches, government, business and journalism. Anderson’s tone is easygoing, reflective, wise. Anderson knew this world from deep personal experience, but he also spent much time in cities and traveled widely, giving him a rounded perspective. Anderson grew up in small Ohio towns, spending the longest time of his childhood and youth in Clyde, Ohio, which inspired many of the settings in his famous fictional Winesburg. In the 1920s he moved to the small southwestern Virginia town of Marion, where he purchased and edited two newspapers, one Republican and one Democrat, writing the editorials for each, many of which were collected in his book Hello Towns! (1929).

Morning Sun Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun, Ohio. This church was built in the late 1800s. Anderson’s parents lived in Morning Sun for a while before Sherwood Anderson was born in Camden a short distance away (author’s photo).

Anderson was born in Camden, Ohio in the southwestern portion of the Buckeye state on September 13, 1876. His family was poor and Anderson began working odd jobs as a boy to help his family. His education was erratic. He worked in factories and warehouses and served as a soldier with the Ohio National Guard during the Spanish-American war before becoming a success as an advertising copywriter and manufacturer, but a calling to write caused him to throw aside a business career and make his way as an artist.

His first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son, was published in 1916. It was followed by another novel and a collection of poetry before Winesburg, Ohio, a groundbreaking interconnected series of short stories, appeared in 1919. Winesburg, Ohio proved to be influential in the careers of writers such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and remains a classic work of early twentieth century American literature. The interconnected short story cycle continues to be an appealing genre for American authors.

Historical marker for Sherwood Anderson in Camden, Ohio. Anderson was born there, but his family moved just a year after his birth (author’s photo).

Home Town is a work of photo-text—a combination of prose or poetry illustrated with photographs. This form is part of the literary culture of the mid 1930s to the early 1940s. The onset of the Depression inspired writers and photographers to document what was going on across the country, to really get out on the ground and see what was happening to Americans. A number of these are documentary kinds of works devoted to exploring American life. There if often a spirit of both celebration and criticism in these books. Some famous works of photo-text from the time include Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), Archibald MacLeish’s Land of the Free (1938) and Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941). Caldwell and Bourke-White’s book You Have Seen Their Faces has this commingled spirit of both celebration and criticism. The photos and text record the hard lot of rural southerners, but the photographic portraits convey the dignity and strength of those pictured. You can probably get a sense of that just from seeing the cover pictured here. MacLeish’s is a work of poetry joined to photographs, but the documentary impulse is there as well.

Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s “You Have Seen Their Faces.”

Home Town has more of a celebratory, good natured quality. Pictures by Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers illustrate the book. The FSA was a New Deal program addressing rural poverty stemming from both environmental and economic conditions. The FSA included a documentary photography unit, and the list of FSA photographers includes such renowned artists as Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange. FSA photographers traveled around the country documenting life during the difficult days of the Great Depression. They created a remarkable body of work that preserves the history of this time.

FSA photographer Marion Post Wolcott on the job. She is one of the FSA photographers who deserves to be better known, and I have chosen a number of her photos to illustrate this post.

Home Town was published by the Alliance Book Corporation of New York. The book was one of several in a series called “The Face of America.” Other volumes in the series dealt with San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The series’ editor was Edwin Rosskam. Both he and his wife Louise were talented photographers who had also worked as New Deal photographers. All of the FSA photos in this post are from the Library of Congress. Here is the chapter on summer:

Hot summer days have come, with summer rains in the far South, along the Gulf Coast and in the Ohio and Missouri river valleys.

Near Richland, Missouri on my grandparents’ former farm: July, 2014. (author’s photo).

The hot days and warm sticky nights come now to towns in the river valleys. In little Louisiana river towns and in towns along the Gulf Coast there is the loud sustained song of insect life.

FSA photo by Marion Post Wolcott of fishermen in Mississippi. A similar black and white photo of the same scene from a different angle appears in “Home Town.”

A man is lying asleep in his house in a Louisiana town. Frogs croak loudly in the nearby bayous. He gets out of bed, takes the sheets off his bed, soaks them in the bathtub or under the water tap in the kitchen and puts them back on the bed. He hopes to get to sleep while the water is evaporating, cooling the air in the room.

FSA photo by Ben Shahn of a threshing crew in Ohio.

In the cotton country, young Negro men and women are now out in the streets at night. In the Negro section of Southern towns you hear the soft voices and the laughter of Negroes. Old Negro men and women sit on the porches of the little unpainted houses in the long afternoons and in the summer nights. At night Negro children play under the corner street lights.

Photo by FSA photographer Marion Post Wolcott taken in Mississippi.

In the Southern cotton mill towns men and women are going in and out of the mill gate and along the hot streets of the nearby company-owned mill town. Although it may be on level ground the mill village is always spoken of as “The Hill.

Missouri girls photographed by FSA photographer John Vachon.

Our country is a land of violent changes in climate. Hot winds come up from the Southwest to blow over Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

Farms outside Richland, Missouri: July, 2014 (author’s photo).

The hot winds cross the great river into the states of the Middlewest. In the fields near the towns there is a curious rustling of the long blades of the growing corn.

Farm field near Washington Courthouse, Ohio. (Author’s photo).

Now you will hear corn talk in all the corn shipping towns of the Middlewest. The hot winds do not hurt the corn. Men call to each other on the streets of the towns.

“This is corn growing weather all right.”

Ben Shahn FSA photo of men in London, Ohio.

It is time now for the small town people to be out of doors. In most of the countries of an old European world the summer of life of the people in the towns is led in gardens back of the houses but here, in North America, we live during the hot months at the front of the house. We live on the front porch.

FSA photo by Marion Post Wolcott taken in West Virginia.

The people of the towns sit in groups on their front porches. In the warm darkness, on summer evenings, there is a movement from house to house, visits made back and forth, low-voiced talk going on. But a few years ago the stores on Main Street were open until ten or eleven at night but nowadays, with the exception of the drug store and the town restaurants, the stores are closed at six. Main Street becomes a place of strollers, of sitters in parked cars, of groups gathered for talk.

FSA photo by John Vachon of seed and feed store in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In the street older men stand about or sit on store window ledges. Story telling and political discussions go on. Occasionally an argument develops and a fight starts. The married man of the small town is seldom at home on summer evenings. When he doesn’t take the family to the movies, he gets up from the evening meal and reaches for his hat.

“I guess I’ll step down town for awhile.”

Or the mother of a family, when her children do not demand it, is out in the family car. She picks up a woman friend. They park the car on Main Street and sit and watch the life of the street. The youngsters who are not now sitting on darkened porches, hand holding, doing their courting, drift up and down the main street into the drug store and the town movie house.

Hard times: My mother spent part of her childhood living in this two room house on a farm in Richland, Missouri during the Great Depression (author’s photo).

In the breakup that came to America in ’29 many well-to-do men in American towns got caught. Like the city men they had gone stock-market wild. In towns all over America there were merchants, professional men, bankers, many of whom had saved carefully for years, who went into the market.

FSA photo of state fair in Rutland, Vermont by Jack Delano.

They suddenly became dreamers, dreaming of getting suddenly, miraculously rich. They went down in the crash and the sons and daughters they had planned to send to college were out looking for jobs. They helped to swell the army of the jobless.

After the big break in ’29 when the C.C.C. camps began to be scattered over the country, absorbing some of the young men out of work, there were many state parks built over the country.

Young men of the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in Prince George’s County, Maryland. FSA photo by Carl Mydans.

Nowadays, when almost every American family has managed to hang on to some kind of a car, what is a matter of fifty, sixty, or even a hundred miles if you can raise the price of gas? The car is the last thing the American family, gone broke, will part with. Some of them will sell their beds first and sleep on the floor. Car ownership means freedom to move about, it means standing in the town life. To the young men of the towns it means you get a girl to go out with you or you don’t.

Delaware gas station. Photo by the FSA’s John Vachon.

Always now, through the long summer days and through summer evenings, the rivers of cars flow through the towns. At night the headlights of the cars make a moving stream of light. If there is a big highway passing through the towns, the streets are lined with tourist houses and tourist camps have been built at the town’s edge. On summer nights as you lie in your bed in your house in the American town, you hear the heavy rumble of goods trucks.

Parky’s Farm in Winton Woods, Hamilton County, Ohio (author’s photo).

If there is a steep grade through your town the heavily loaded trucks, in low gear, shake the walls of your house. The man who once owned the town hardware store or who is a cashier in the town bank and went broke in ’29, still owns a big brick house. There is a sign in the street before his house. “Tourist Home” the sign says.

Marion Post Wolcott FSA photo of tourist camp in Cave City, Kentucky.

The girls who work in cotton mills and live in cotton mill towns and can’t afford their own cars, hire a truck, crowd into it and go off picnicking to the woods or swimming in some lake on Saturday afternoons. Summer is the time for the circus to come to town. Even American towns of less than five thousand have golf courses and tennis courts. There is a growing passion for flower gardens. On Sunday afternoon the small town man gets his car out. His wife and children pile in and they join the great parade—America on the move. The summer days won’t last too long.

FSA photo by Arthur Rothstein of two children in Robstown, Texas in 1942.

It is a time of mosquitoes, of summer rains, of hot still week-days on Main Street, no coal bills, greens from the garden, roasting ear time.

 

 

 

 

 

Who has the first sweet corn, whose tomatoes ripen first, what girls will get married this summer?

Cooling off in Washington, D.C. FSA photo by Marion Post Wolcott.

 

Marion Post Wolcott photo taken near Lake Providence, Louisiana.

Life in the town during the long summer days and weeks relaxes. In the Dakotas and down through Kansas, Nebraska, northern Texas, and in the far West it is wheat harvesting time. It is hay cutting, wheat harvesting time in the small farms about New England and Middlewestern towns.

FSA photo by Marion Post Wolcott of silos in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Hot dusty days, long days, summer rains—the summer days are the best of all the year’s days for the American small towner.

Patrick Kerin

Home Town by Sherwood Anderson. Photos by Farm Security Administration photographers. Alliance Book Corporation, New York, 1940.

Sherwood Anderson: A Writer In America, Vol II by Walter Rideout. Introduction by Charles Modlin. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, Wisconsin, 2007.

FSA photo by Arthur Rothstein of a Vermont storekeeper.

3 Comments

  1. Ann Kennedy on August 17, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    Patrick, you have joined Anderson in creating the perfect vision of summer! And as an American small towner myself, I’ve loved reading every honest word. The images, both your’s and those from other sources add power to the words without hindering the pictures in my own mind’s eye. On this hot and sticky Missouri day the sound of the cicadas and the calling of crows from a distance remind me that this season is about to come to an end. It’s the week of the State Fair and as if it were still 1940, there is talk of corn! Not only that, but owners of large brick homes here are becoming short-term tourist hosts by offering spare bedrooms at very high prices for out-of-towners who are coming to view to Eclipse. While there is no denying the romance of summer, I am ready for autumn. Thank you for such a great read on a hot afternoon. I loved Winesburg, Ohio and now I’m ready to finish Home Town.

    • buckeyemuse on August 18, 2017 at 12:23 am

      Thank you, Ann! I am glad you enjoyed this so much and appreciate all your thoughts on this—I’m glad you liked both sets of pictures. I like combining some of my own with the FSA people. By the way, I’ve really enjoyed learning about them this summer and plan to learn more. I had some knowledge of the program just from my interest in the 1930s in history and literature and also the New Deal. Two FSA photographers–Theodor Jung and John Vachon—documented the construction and early days of Greenhills, Ohio where I used to live and where I went to middle and high school (and where Dad coached and taught during the last twelve years of his career. I’ve also decided to read everything of Anderson’s that I can find–I want to become expert on him.

      I’m so glad this all jibed for you! Sounds like you have a sudden eruption of Airbnb houses in the neighborhood. What a riot!! People are always looking to make a killing—I think Anderson would shake his head and laugh at that and think some things haven’t changed much at all. I’m also with you on the season. I’m in no hurry–in fact I like that transition time between seasons—but I am ready for fall too. I hope it’s not too balmy. We had one that was a little too balmy for me last year—hope we have some nice crisp days.

      Thanks again, and I will be keepin’ in touch!

      Patrick

  2. Mike Martin on September 2, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    Patrick, I apologize for my tardiness. You always provide a feast of food for thought.
    Anderson’s descriptions of summer, particularly summer nights, are much the way I remember my childhood in Kentucky in the ’50s into the ’60s and somewhat into the ’70s.
    We lived in an apartment building in Park Hills, just south of Covington, until I was in 4th grade. There was a patio in front of the building where the grown-ups would sit at night in their nylon webbing lawn chairs and amuse the kids by launching their cigarette butts in a high arch to the grass. Cigarettes and fireflies and the occasional flare from the blast furnace at the steel works over in Newport.
    We lived with my grandparents down in Lincoln County south of Danville, KY for my seventh grade year and I remember many miserable nights that summer hoping for a breath of a breeze. I doubt that anyone in that small town had even a window air conditioner in the summer of ’60. Mother would sometimes take my sister and me to the drive in movie over near Stanford and we loved the breeze at 35 or 40 mph coming in the car’s open windows.
    Funny, the effect that air conditioning has had on society. My wife and I have never been fans of crowds – maybe that’s from all the cautions when we were kids about avoiding crowds because of the increased risk of polio and living out your days in an iron lung, thank you, no – so we’re happy to watch 4th of July fireworks from the air conditioned comfort of our den. Who needs the heat and humidity of the east coast in early July, anyway?
    Anderson’s mention of crops reminds me of the year w/ my grandparents. Grandpa was a country doctor in a small country town. From time to time, he’d bring home a sack of green beans or ears of corn brought by a patient to poor to pay him w/ money. It was a different time. He’d have preferred cash, of course, but he fully understood and forgave any debt if the patient tried his best to even the account.
    I’m always grateful to see images made by the Depression era photographers. I’d not heard of Marion Post Wolcott but she clearly knew her way around a camera. There’s a photo above of African American boys splashing in a fountain and I recognize the building behind them as Washington’s Union Station. If you must visit DC for any reason, I do recommend a tour of Union Station as an architectural masterpiece from a bygone age. My wife and I have ridden Amtrak to and from there several times and, while crowded, it’s always a treat.
    Thanks so much, Patrick, I do enjoy your posts even if it takes me half of forever to respond.

Leave a Comment