Unfavorite Son

A small town shuns its most famous dead resident.

Mulholland Drive
Clyde, Ohio, is just a speck of a town near Sandusky, but it proudly lays claim to the grand title "Washing Machine Capital of the World." It's not an empty boast: Clyde's Whirlpool factory unloads 20,000 washers a day.

But even before it had all that sparkling enamel to live up to, Clyde liked to keep its reputation gleaming and spotless. In 1919, a hometown boy named Sherwood Anderson published a novel of small-town angst called Winesburg, Ohio. Admired by writers of the day like Carl Sandburg and H.L. Mencken, the book went on to become one of the classics of the early 20th century.

The people of Clyde, however, weren't sending Anderson congratulatory nosegays. Though Winesburg's title was borrowed from a village in eastern Ohio, the town between the covers was unmistakably a fictionalized Clyde. The layout of the literary town square and the real one were the same -- down to the turret of the Presbyterian church on the corner -- and the names of real people had been altered to a why-bother degree: Hurd's Grocery became Hern's Grocery, for instance.

In two earlier novels, Anderson had incorporated recognizable snippets of Clyde (where he lived until he was about 20) without much fuss. But Winesburg was different. Considered "racy" for its time, it's populated with repressed characters whose lives are filled with sexual longing. There's a Presbyterian minister moonlighting as a peeping Tom and a withered matron whose passionate tryst with her family doctor becomes the prelude to her demise.

For all its repression, the novel is actually quite poignant, portraying the townspeople as solitary candles flickering despondently in the rural abyss as the distant steam engines tell tauntingly of escape.

But the town fathers didn't quite get that part. "They all read it thinking, 'This is gossip about these people,'" says Larry Smith, a writer and Anderson scholar who teaches at the local campus of Bowling Green State University. "They didn't understand what fiction was. They thought he was a liar."

Eighty years have passed, and the "real people" in the book are long dead. But in Clyde, Anderson's still famous only as the writer who sullied the town's good name. Winesburg has never been taught in Clyde's classrooms, though it's a perennial reading-list favorite in high schools across the country.

The Clyde Public Library has a "Whirlpool Room," but nary an alcove commemorating Anderson. For years, its sole copy of Winesburg was kept in a locked closet with the other "bad books," says current head librarian Vicki Balemian. "If you really wanted to read it, you had to ask the librarian, and she looked down at you with a scowl."

Over at the Clyde Historical Museum, "General MacPherson is our hero," declares volunteer George Sinclair, referring to the Clyde native who was the Union's highest-ranking Civil War casualty. That's no fib -- the place is crammed with MacPhersonabilia: muskets, medals, even his dressing gown.

Their Anderson stash is much smaller: one industrial-sized paper clip. But that doesn't stop the ill will from flowing. "We still get elderly people who come in here and bad-mouth him, because of what their parents and grandparents said about that guy who made fun of Clyde in his book," says Sinclair. "They don't have much good to say."

Anderson's solitary Clyde devotee is Dorcas Harms, a platinum-blond grandmother who also leads tours of the Whirlpool factory. Fond of phrases like "He was a handsome devil" and "A lady doesn't tell her age," she has a tiny, damaged voice she claims came from conducting too many tours over the years.

"A lot of the stories were dirty," Harms confides about Winesburg. "People got upset with him. They wouldn't talk to him when he came back to town."

Harms does Winesburg tours so infrequently that she delivers her talk directly from index cards. The information on the cards came from an architect named Thaddeus Hurd, who was said to be the only Clyde resident who actually liked Anderson. A direct descendant of the Hurd grocery empire, Hurd handpicked Harms to do the tours.

She doubted she could handle it, but Hurd had faith in her. "He said, 'Dorcas, you can read the book, can't you?" So she did, along with other Anderson selections. "They were good!" she enthuses. "Good books."

When Hurd died in 1989, Harms became a voice rasping in the wilderness. She'd like the town to accept a plaque honoring Anderson, a gift from the Elyria-based Sherwood Anderson Literary Center. But she hasn't made much headway.

Historical Museum Director Ralph Rogers greets the idea of a plaque with a resounding harrumph. "My wife says [Anderson's] an old scoundrel," he says.

Will Schuck, the head of the Elyria faction, says he's learned to be patient. Though Anderson lived in Elyria for five years and wrote the basis for his first two novels there, even educated Elyrians say, "Sherwood who?" While the rest of the world mourned a famous author, his 1941 obituary in The Elyria Chronicle unobtrusively read, "Sherwood Anderson: Former Manufacturer."

Anderson's old house in Elyria "looks like a dump, but it's still there," says Schuck. "These haunts of his are still around, but nobody knows who he is."

But things are looking up. This year, the mayor of Elyria set the champagne corks popping when he issued a proclamation declaring September 29 "Sherwood Anderson Day." Festivities included punch, cookies, lectures, and photographs of Elyria around 1912. That was the year the 36-year-old Anderson had a nervous breakdown and left Ohio for good.

Clyde tried to host its own Sherwood Anderson festival in the 1980s, but organizers gave up after two years. "We couldn't draw the audience," says Smith, noting that prominent writers attended, but the locals stayed home.

Balemian says townies rarely ask about Anderson, but she fields lots of calls from Japan. "The Japanese, as a people, are very interested in Sherwood Anderson," she says. "They view him as being representative of how the Midwestern mind works. They study him to get a handle on how people in our region think."

Winesburg might not be the most flattering piece of Americana, but hey, it sure beats Jerry Springer.

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