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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Our country is a land of violent changes in climate. Hot winds come up from the Southwest to blow over Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Hot dusty days, long days, summer rains—the summer days are the best of all the year’s days for the American small towner.
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.