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. Read More