Sherwood Anderson published a book called Home Town shortly before departing for Latin America in March of 1941 to write articles for Reader’s Digest about Latin American nations and people. He was also traveling as a kind of unofficial goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department as the threat of war intensified for the United States. It was his last publication before his untimely death from peritonitis in Panama. Home Town is a series of Andersonian reflections on small town life illustrated with Farm Security Administration photographs.
The photographs complement the prose passages, making Home Town (1940) a satisfying combination of text and images representative of the documentary impulse of the 1930s. The Farm Security Administration was a New Deal program that dealt with rural poverty stemming from both economic and environmental conditions. The FSA included a documentary unit. FSA photographers roamed America during the Depression years, making powerful images that recorded both American life during this time of uncertainty and New Deal initiatives to combat rural poverty. Home Town is chock full of remarkable images created by some of the FSA’s best known photographers, including notables such as Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon, Marion Post and Dorothea Lange. FSA photographers left behind a rich collection of images of people and places during the Depression years.
Home Town is a leisurely, rambling kind of work featuring sketches of everyday life evoking the rhythms and people of small towns. There is a chapter devoted to each of the seasons early in the book followed by portraits of small town people and events. Anderson’s best biographer Walter Rideout aptly describes Home Town as “a set of essays on the American small town” that is “a compound of nostalgia and wide-traveled observation put together by the townsman who in Winesburg showed the dark side of a community more than its light and now, as though balancing his masterpiece, genially shows the light side more than the dark.”
In these essays, Anderson’s narrative voice reminds me of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town—an easygoing man reflecting of the lives and circumstances of the people around him. He talks of crops, small town papers, churches, schools, rituals of courtship and marriage. It’s easy to picture Anderson as country editor in his fedora and rumpled suit sitting in a small town diner or on a bench on a courthouse square and speaking about the people and places in his book. Home Town evokes an oral tradition, as befits a man like Anderson whose work had an oral quality and who was the son of a gifted storyteller.
Anderson, born on September 13, 1876 in Camden in southwestern Ohio’s Preble County, is best known as the author of the famous and influential short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (1919). In the late 1920s Anderson began to write more nonfiction, starting with the editorials he composed for the two newspapers he owned—one Democratic and one Republican—in Marion, Virginia. During the Thirties he began to travel around the country more, spurred in part by his wife Eleanor Copenhaver, a YWCA social worker, to see firsthand the effects of the Depression on the American people and land. This last phase of Anderson’s career fits squarely into the broader trend in American letters at this time of engagement with social issues and journalistic observation.
Home Town is also an example of photo-text, a genre that is a hallmark of the 1930s and early 1940s. These are works combining photographs and text, often with the documentary purpose of exploring social topics and recording—and sometimes celebrating– American life. Archibald MacLeish combined his poetry with the work of government and press photographers in Land of the Free (1938). Erskine Caldwell’s and Margaret Bourke-White’s Say, Is This The U.S.A (1941) is a casual travelogue look at America on the brink of World War II, whereas their earlier book You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) examines rural southern poverty and has more of an activist bent. An exceptionally powerful work of photo-text is Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices (1941). Wright’s vigorous portrayal of life under American racism combines with the gritty photos to create a work that still packs a punch nearly eighty years later.
James Agee and photographer Walker Evans created a powerful work of combined images and text with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which appeared in 1941. Agee went far beyond his original assignment from Fortune Magazine to write an in-depth article on sharecropping families, producing instead a work that is a profound meditation on dignity, suffering, and the human family. This book differs from other photo-texts in that it is mostly text with a small selection of photos grouped together in most editions, but while Agee’s prose can stand on its own as a potent piece of writing, Evans’s pictures have become iconic and underscore Agee’s themes, creating a stark and moving complement to his prose. Nebraskan Wright Morris is another contributor to the genre. He combined his striking photos of Midwestern rural scenes with fiction in several robust photo-text works of the 1940s.
The Alliance Book Corporation published Home Town in October 1940. The book’s editor was Edwin Rosskam, who was also a talented photographer as was his wife Louise. Both had served as New Deal photographers. The book was part of a series called “The Face of America.” Other volumes in the series dealt with Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, California.
The FSA photos used to illustrate this post do not appear in Home Town, but they are similar in nature. I have chosen to highlight here the work of FSA photographer John Vachon for two reasons. One is that he is not as well known as I think he deserves to be, so this is an opportunity to show his work, although I’ve chosen some other examples than the pictures of his that appear in Anderson’s book. The other is that he was the government photographer assigned to document the early days of Greenhills, Ohio, one of three “Greenbelt” towns constructed by FDR’s Resettlement Administration during the Depression. The three Greenbelt towns of Greenhills, Ohio, Greenbelt, Maryland and Greendale, Wisconsin are widely recognized as exemplars of innovative town planning.
This year (2017) Greenhills has officially been designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior. I consider Greenhills my own hometown. I grew up several miles outside the village in Springfield Township, Ohio, but the township doesn’t have a town center and Greenhills was where I attended middle and high school, played little league baseball, went to the library and so on. I later lived there for eleven years and I’ve been a member of its historical society since the organization began in 1995 and am the current president. I’m glad to talk up my own hometown a little during this special time!
I hope the spring is beautiful wherever you are. Here is Anderson’s chapter on spring in Home Town:
Spring has come.
Spring is the time when the country comes most into the town, is most felt in the towns. The winds bring the message from the fields into the towns.
Ed Prouse is now going up and down the main street with a paper for people to sign. Put your name down for a dollar if you are a prosperous man for two or three dollars. We want a baseball team this year. We’ve got to buy uniforms, bats and balls. If you are a merchant and pay for a uniform, a player will wear the name of your store printed in big letters on his uniform.
Plant hollyhocks along the alleyways. Trim the grapevines.
“Hell, my wife is cleaning house again. A man can’t find a clean shirt, can’t even find his razor.”
“When the leaves on the maple trees are as big as squirrels’ ears it is time to plant corn.”
Windows of houses all over town are thrown open now, bedding out on clothelines, the new model cars coming in, mule markets in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri.
“If I can raise the price I am going to trade in the old car this year.”
A new aliveness in the main streets of the towns, more color in the windows of stores, spring term of court in county seat towns, a stir, an awakening, feel of earth invading the towns, smell of earth, new hope, warm spring rains, the vivid new green of grass on lawns before the houses, the children looking forward to the end of the school year, to swimming in the town’s pond or in the creek, to barefoot days.
Spring is a never ceasing wonder in the towns, the drab days gone, a new beginning. Nowadays the almost universal owning of cars takes men more and more out of the towns into the country. Town kids can’t wait for the summer days to come. There are plenty of Tom Sawyers and Huckleberry Finns left in American towns. On the first sunny days there will be the daring ones who sneak off to the creek, pond or river, plunge in, come out shivering.
“Better get your hair dry before you go home. Ma will raise cain if she finds out you been in.”
Formerly, only twenty-five or thirty years ago, almost every American family had a hog pen in the back yard. In the spring the town man bought a young pig, the stench of the pens to poison the summer air, but that time has passed, although you will still see in the American town, up to five thousand people, cows being driven off to the field at the town’s edge, mornings and evenings.
The great thing is the annual awakening, the apple, cherry and peach trees coming into bloom. In the town men become for the time half farmer, earth men. There is fear of a late frost to nip the bloom, talk of that going on in the streets, in the stores, when men gather in the town post offices for the morning mail. In the drug stores and the groceries the seed packages stand up in racks. They add a touch of color to the stores. The women gather about. They are planning their flower and vegetable gardens.
Hal Grimes, the house painter, is carrying on a little business on the side. In the back yard he has built row after row of boxes with glass covers, hot boxes for plants. He puts an ad in the town paper.
“Fine tomato and cabbage plants for sale.”
Men and women are driving out to Hal’s place in their cars. This is the busy time of year for Hal, plenty of paper hanging and painting to do, but his wife is on the job. She has put on slacks and gloves to protect her hands. She is serving out the plants.
“They say Hal makes nearly two hundred dollars out of his plant business every spring.”
Like all the other house painters and paper hangers, Hal has his hands full. The women nag at him.
“Hal’s got a mighty fine wife. It’s too bad he drinks.”
In all the Northern towns the families that can go off South during the winter months to live, during the winter months, in trailer or tourist camps in Florida, are coming home now. You see the great drift of cars, like swallows flying north in the spring.
Tall tales being told.
“How much did it cost you to live down there?”
“I wish I could get out of here in the winter. I can’t. I’ve got my store. I’ve got my law practice. I can’t take my kids out of school.”
Life in the towns spreading out in a new way, the old tight close life broken up by the coming of the new big paved highways, the streams of cars always flowing through the towns, endless rivers of cars, American restlessness.
Now the young blades of the town are all wanting new spring suits, the girls new spring dresses. There is a restlessness that gets into the blood. Now you see young couples on spring evenings walking slowly along streets with hands clasped together. June will be a great time for marriages.
“I want we should live together, have a house of our own, like a man and woman should.”
The young ones drive about in the family cars, sit together beside the country road, on quiet streets under the trees on moonlit spring nights, the young corn just thrusting through the earth in nearby fields, in the south in nearby fields the young cotton, problems of the young, in the towns as in the cities, how to get started, get going, set up new families, keep the old town life going.
“Sometimes I think I’ll have to join the army, get out of here.”
“Gee, I’d hate that, Jim. I’d miss you so much.”
In every town there is the slipshod lazy man who won’t clean up his place in the spring. He is slovenly and has a slovenly wife. His back yard is full of old broken boxes and tin cans. He won’t clean it up. He is an individualist.
“Hell, I’ve got the spring fever. Whether I clean up my yard or not is my own business.”
It is the time of new hope in the towns, the ever recurring miracle, changing the face of the towns. East, West, North, and South, the song of new life up out of the soil, in the towns men coming out of their walled-in winter life, strolling in the town streets, neighbor calling to neighbor.
“Spring is here.”
New gladness in the voices of young and old.
“Spring is here.”
Home Town by Sherwood Anderson. Photographs by Farm Security Photographers. Alliance Book Corporation, New York, 1940.
Sherwood Anderson: A Writer In America, Volume II by Walter Rideout. Introduction by Charles Modlin. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, Wisconsin. 2007.