Wikipedia will tell you that the National Arbor Day Foundation has bestowed upon Clyde, Ohio, the illustrious title of Tree City USA, and also that the Whirlpool Corporation calls the town home. You might learn, too, from the “Notable Residents” section of Clyde’s Wikipedia page, that former NFL tackle Tim Anderson has lived there, and that he was preceded in this by George W. Norris, a progressive senator from Nebraska during the early part of the twentieth century. Should you meet a Clyde native of a particular sort, though—in San Francisco, say, or New York—she might skip these details to tell you about a more hallowed pedigree. She might say, if she judges you a literary type, that she hails from the small town where Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is set. (Winesburg’s Wikipedia page will explain, if you happen to visit it, that it is not the setting for Winesburg, Ohio.)
It turns out, though—somewhat perplexingly—that Clyde natives eager to claim ties with Anderson are scarce. Since Winesburg’s publication, in 1919, residents have for the most part regarded Anderson as a prodigal child—a troublemaker and bawdy apostate from whom to keep a wary distance. A 2001 article in Cleveland Scene magazine titled “Unfavorite Son” noted that although the Clyde Public Library boasted a Whirlpool Room, “nary an alcove” had been dedicated to Anderson. For years, the library’s only copy of Winesburg “was kept in a locked closet with other ‘bad books.’” If you wanted a peek, “you had to ask the librarian, and she looked down at you with a scowl.” In the 1980s, an annual Sherwood Anderson Festival was inaugurated but lack of interest saw it swiftly snuffed. Local high school teachers exclude Winesburg from reading lists, and an Anderson scholar from a nearby college told Scene that at the time of the book’s release, townspeople regarded it as gossip: “They didn’t understand what fiction was,” he said. “They thought he was a liar.” It did not help, perhaps, that Winesburg contains much indelicate innuendo regarding married women, teenage girls, and the local religious establishment.
Still, nearly a century has passed since Winesburg’s publication. Anyone who might have detected in the novel traces of her own biography has surely passed on. Modern-day Clyde has little to recommend it, and it strikes one odd, at first, that natives would fail to claim Anderson with pride. A town of some 6,000 citizens fifty miles from Toledo, Clyde is a place of vacant storefronts and empty streets. Stoplights hang heavy between buildings of faded red brick, and plywood boards panel downtown windows. It is the sort of town from which escape can prove difficult and not the kind to which people readily relocate. People in Clyde are quick to discern condescension, and though Winesburg, Ohio owes its endurance to universality—to artful, empathetic investigations of human weakness and desire—they cannot shake the notion that it levels at their town a targeted indictment. They do not see in it a feat of artistic alchemy but a slim volume of petty judgment, a document of isolation rather than transcendence.
Without Anderson to get in the way, Clyde might construct an image that more closely reflects its inhabitants’ ideas about themselves. Some consider that James Birdseye McPherson, a Union general who was cut down at the Battle of Atlanta, ought to be the figure with whom the town is chiefly identified. Alternative candidates include—more or less in totality—Charles H. McCleary, a Union captain who reportedly once had an audience with Abraham Lincoln, and Rodger W. Young, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient. There are some who would happily forsake historical mascots, if only Clyde were known as the washing machine capital of the world.
Though modern Clyde did not, of course, figure in Anderson’s rendering, its residents evince striking similarities to his book’s protagonists. For Winesburg’s characters, too, the tension between how they feel themselves perceived and the substance of their lives breeds painful anxiety. Within them stirs “continual ferment” beneath placid exteriors. “Odd and delicate thoughts” secret themselves away and “the most extraordinary events” transpire in the mind. Longing for understanding, they find themselves mysteriously cordoned off from a “warm inner circle of life” they imagine easily accessible to others. To make themselves understood, Winesburg’s people often feel they must bolster their stature, attach themselves to bodies larger than their own. The Presbyterian minister Jesse Bentley wants urgently to “make his life a thing of great importance,” while George Willard, a young newspaper reporter, thinks that he must get himself “into touch with something orderly and big that swings through the night like a star.” George’s father, the irascible manager of a decayed hotel, fancies a future in Congress.
Cities often figure prominently in these imaginings. As a young woman, George Willard’s mother dreamed of a life on the stage, exhorting travelers to “tell her of life in the cities out of which they had come.” Alice Hindman feels sure that in Chicago, “men are perpetually young,” that “they do not have time to grow old.” Hopping a freight train, young Elmer Cowley aims for Cleveland to lose himself in crowds. There, he believes, “Life would begin to have warmth and meaning for him as it had for others.”
Winesburg has only one chapter set in a city, in which Enoch Robinson travels to New York to establish himself as a painter: “I’m getting to be … a real part of things,” he tells himself soon after arriving. But Enoch grows annoyed with his bohemian friends, who fail to parse the emotional underpinning of his work, and he sequesters himself in a narrow room overlooking Washington Square. He peoples the apartment with characters out of his imagination, carrying on discussions amongst a crowd whose members have no chance of misunderstanding one another. The idyll disintegrates one night when he feels compelled to explain himself to another of his building’s tenants, “to make her understand [him] … to see how important [he] was.” Enoch tells the woman about “everything that meant anything to [him],” and, after a period of raving, he believes she understands. But the thing he most wanted leaves him exhausted and unrelieved, and Enoch retreats to Winesburg utterly forlorn.
In his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz writes that Winesburg, Ohio showed him that literature need not concern “A real place: Paris, Madrid, New York, Monte Carlo …” Even kibbutz life, he saw, could shimmer: “I suddenly realized that the written world does not depend on Milan or London but always revolves around the hand that is writing, wherever it happens to be writing: where you are is the center of the universe.” Kazuo Ishiguro has said that the artistic disposition grows from a sense that “something has gone fundamentally wrong, some equilibrium has been lost somewhere way back … But there’s a consolation: you start to build your own world. You try to say, ‘Maybe the world is like this.’” What Ishiguro misses, though, is that practically everyone feels some version of that imbalance, and that relatively few of us share his ability to conjure a new world, to make wherever we are “the center of the universe.” Artists or not, we are all constantly engaged in trying to make sense of our surroundings—in figuring out how or if everything is connected, somehow, to everything else. Though her conclusions on the subject are less than encouraging, Joan Didion’s more inclusive estimation gets closer to the mark: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Places require stories no less than do individuals. And lacking the more monolithic identities of cities, small towns are frequently prone to self-mythologize. Bereft of crowds and lights, robust industry and commerce, they construct their stories—like birds’ nests—from found objects. Bits of history and rumor are stuck together with factoids and tall tales to compose an idea of a place, however incoherent. It is in large part to this tendency that we owe the culture on view in small towns across the country of billboards and water towers bearing the phrase: “Home of ____”. Most any attraction can fill the space: the Meanest Gator in the South or the World’s Smallest See-Saw, Arkansas’s Biggest Squash or Pennsylvania’s First Cheesesteak. Tammy Wynette, even; Bruce Jenner. (Clyde’s “Washing Machine Capital of the World” represents a variation on the theme.) Important is that the claim connect the town with something bigger than itself, tie it in some way—however absurd—to a larger conversation. Among other things, Anderson’s Winesburg stakes its pride in “Banker White’s new stone house,” and “Wesley Moyer’s bay stallion, Tony Tip, that had won the two-fifteen trot at the fall races in Cleveland.”
The phenomenon got a dark lampooning in the film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, in which Jim Carey’s Ace visits the hometown of Ray Finkle, a much-reviled former Miami Dolphin and the chief suspect in a mascot nabbing. Occupying a patch of Deep-South hinterland, the town—once buoyed by Finkle’s fame—has with his decline had its confidence shattered. Ace finds a population toothless and embittered, drunk, violent, and, in one case, suicidal. Quality of life, we understand, did not improve with a native son’s success. But the locals had for a brief time a bright story to tell themselves about the place of their origin. Finkle’s disgrace, which resulted from a missed field goal, severed his former neighbors from national discourse, returning them to depressed isolation. Never mind that their connections to Finkle were incidental, their sense of relevance imagined.
A protégé of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner rarely strayed from his small hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, and he devoted considerable ink to his characters’ struggles to connect with one another—to be felt, understood, and remembered. “Because you make so little impression, you see,” he wrote in Absalom, Absalom! “And so maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better, and give them something—a scrap of paper—something, anything … at least it would be something just because it would have happened, be remembered even if only from passing from one hand to another, one mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch, something, something that might make a mark on something that was once …” Faulkner has been much lauded for addressing timeless themes through his “little postage stamp of native soil,” as he had it, and it is possible to see in the peeling billboards staked just shy of property lines in American towns the writer’s scrap of paper writ large. The impulse Faulkner illuminates is visible, too, in the most basic graffiti—found on freeway overpasses and in public restrooms, carved in library desks and scrawled in elementary textbooks: Tom was here; Lisa was here; I was here. These billboards, with their claims to bizarre superlatives, they can be advertisements, true. But they are also pleas for remembrance. They are forget-me-nots.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a small town that does not rely for its self-image on the fortunes of one citizen. Nor—thanks to a historical society whose enforcement of zoning laws can be near-bellicose—does it allow billboards. But the colonial village of Haddonfield, New Jersey, remains nevertheless much attached to native curiosities. Haddonfield’s Wikipedia page will tell you, for example, that Harry Burns—the character Billy Crystal plays in When Harry Met Sally—hailed from Haddonfield, and that the late Hollywood producer Debra Hill grew up there. You might learn, too, that a number of Phillies and Flyers players have at one time or another been resident, and that the photographer Frank Stefanko shot the cover art for Bruce Springsteen’s album Darkness on the Edge of Town there. The comedian Joel McHale grew up in Haddonfield, you will read, and I. F. Stone. Born there, too, was Timothy Matlack, a Revolutionary colonel and firebrand delegate to the Second Continental Congress. As our oldest alumna, Wikipedia ranks Hadrosaurus foulkii, a bipedal dinosaur from the late Cretaceous period, whose bones were dug in the mid-nineteenth century from a local marl pit.
What, if anything, this data suggests about the town or the people that live there—how they add up—is difficult to say. But for the chance of proximity, they share no connective tissue, and nearness alone does not announce significance or pattern. The same might be said, of course, of the stars that compose constellations.
Though I could find no mention of it in the Wikipedia entry, I believed for most of my life that Haddonfield also housed an apocryphal bit of lore common to many quaint old eastern towns. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of American small-town mythologies, it is a legend so popular—and unverifiable—that real estate agents wore it long ago to cliché. The playwrights Moss Hart and George Kaufman even used it for a 1940 Broadway production, subsequently made into a film starring Jack Benny. George Washington Slept Here is the story of Bill and Connie Fuller, a young couple cajoled into buying an aged Pennsylvania farmhouse on the strength of rumor that the first president once spent a night there. Its comedy trades on the Fullers’ struggle to restore the dilapidated structure, and on the sustained suggestion that they’ve been had. But the drama also contains muted pathos: in their hapless attempts to convince themselves of Washington’s one-time occupancy of their home, the Fullers embody our shared need for connection to what Winesburg’s young newspaper reporter called “something orderly and big that swings through the night like a star.”
In 1750, the Indian King Tavern went up on the modest boulevard that makes up Haddonfield’s shopping district. A stately three-story structure of cream-colored plaster, with olive shutters and a low red-brick porch, the tavern served during the Revolutionary War as a gathering place, where travelers exchanged news from the road. It persists today as a museum, and since an elementary-school field trip twenty years ago, I’d had the impression—all hucksterism aside—that Washington actually slept there. Home recently to visit family, I set out for the museum one warm afternoon, intent on verifying what seemed to me my hometown’s worthiest claim to fame.
A middle-aged woman—a Mrs. Hess—wearing pinned graying hair and a colonial bonnet greeted me at the door, and agreed cheerfully to show me around. She led us first through the dining room, where place settings were arranged around plastic roast fowl, and on through the bar, which displayed a chalkboard beer list showing eighteenth-century prices. Next we climbed a staircase toward the Assembly Room, where, in 1777, a council had convened to vote New Jersey into statehood. In the sleeping quarters down the hall, Mrs. Hess pointed to a bed on which Dolley Madison had reputedly slept. (Mrs. Madison’s uncle was once the Indian King’s owner, and her visits were documented in a logbook.) Later, we descended to the basement and there, on one wall, was a high, stone arch cemented in its interior with brick. Mrs. Hess speculated that it might once have opened a tunnel that figured in the Underground Railroad. But she had no evidence for this.
Back upstairs, the late-day sun came through the tavern’s front windows, and all around us stirred the sourceless sounds of old, empty houses. The tour—the day’s last—was nearing its end, and I’d yet to address the purpose of my visit. Outside, there were iron rings where men had tied up horses.
“I thought I remembered something,” I said. “From when I was a kid—something about George Washington?”
“People always ask us that,” Mrs. Hess said, smiling.
It appeared for a moment that she would confirm the old story, and I felt a bristling at the back of my neck. The sort of shiver you feel encountering an affecting line of prose or a stirring progression of chords, or which you might sense in the company of ghosts.
We seemed suddenly near to something ineffable and very great. If in the national consciousness there is any node that gives out onto all others, it is our idea of George Washington. In a sense, there are no secreted selves or ambitions, no narratives large or small, no Americans to which he is not imaginatively connected. Despite Washington’s status as a slave-holding first families scion, he tends to stand in for a kind of ur-American and an embodiment of our best selves: at once independent and collaborative, honest, humble, intelligent, and just. His legacy contains powerfully the belief that we are all in something together, that we are united by unspoken sympathies, understandings. In going where he went, in slumbering where he slept, we hope perhaps to have that notion somehow confirmed. But I cannot say I wasn’t a bit embarrassed to feel moved by my perceived closeness to that bald, dead Virginian, who wore wigs and baseball pants, swords and wooden teeth. I cannot say it wasn’t strange.
“A lot of people passed through here,” Mrs. Hess said. “Soldiers and traders and travelers. Certainly, he would have been in the area. We know he was a member of the Gloucester County Hunt Club,” which had been a few miles away. “But there were other taverns.” The Indian King’s logbooks were incomplete: “There was a fire. And we lost some of our records.” Washington’s name does not appear in those that remain.
Mrs. Hess had become versed in delivering this news. Others had visited, hoping to find something that could not properly be found. “We like to think that he might have slept here,” she offered. Though conveying disappointment had become part of her duties, Mrs. Hess did not enjoy the task. She, too, wanted to sense, there in the dimming foyer, that we were meaningfully bound to one another—that we shared in something ethereal, refractive, and deep. But she could not say we did. She could not say, not with any degree of certainty, that George was here.
Chris Pomorski lives in New York. His work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review online, Salon, Narratively, and elsewhere. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.