Sunday, January 24, 2010

`The Bright Dust of Dreams'

Richard Lingeman closes Small Town America: A Narrative History 1620 - The Present with the final words of “Departure,” the final story in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio:

“…the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.”

Lingeman and Anderson came back to me last week when an e-mail arrived from an old friend in Ohio. I met her 29 years ago this month when I went to work as the city reporter for the Bellevue Gazette, my first daily newspaper. She was a legal secretary and served as the city council clerk. I was 27, with 16 months of experience editing the weekly newspaper of an even smaller Ohio town. I didn’t know a soul in Bellevue but was happy to be living four miles east of Clyde, Anderson’s boyhood home and his model for the fictional Winesburg.

Linda has remarried and moved to Tiffin, Ohio, about 30 miles southwest of Bellevue. She ran for office and was elected county clerk of courts and city auditor but now is retired: “I'm no longer in politics--thank God. That's a long, complicated, epic tale, and undoubtedly I'll write you more about it some other time—or maybe not.”

When I first read Winesburg, Ohio in 1970 I loved the book out of proportion to its literary worth (and still do). Ten years later, a few months before moving to Bellevue, I read the volume by Lingeman, who went on to publish a two-volume biography of Anderson’s friend Theodore Dreiser. In Bellevue I felt the self-inflicted loneliness of youth, exacerbated by the sense that I didn’t know how to be a journalist. I found comfort in my readerly proximity to Anderson (who had also edited a newspaper), a feeling intensified by Lingeman’s book, which he closes with a narrative of his visit to Clyde. He begins by writing:

“Sherwood Anderson’s Clyde, Ohio, is now a place of over four thousand people twenty miles east of Toledo. A 1966 town history still refers to Sherwood Anderson [who published Winesburg, Ohio in 1919 and died 20 years later] as `the black sheep of the Anderson family.’”

Linda’s note revived an era of my life infused with my devotion to Anderson and his work. After quoting the passage from “Departure” I cited above, Lingeman adds a final bit of prose poetry about Clyde and small town America. It’s a little corny but true to my experience:

“A town, a railroad station, a train setting off with a young man, a starting place, a beginning. It recedes behind us and vanishes with all those green and gold summer mornings of boyhood, the air smelling like brown sugar, the cicadas’ metronomic droning. A beginning…a starting place always there behind us, in memory. And the past decomposes into the bright dust of dreams…”

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