Thursday, June 02, 2016

`All Americans Come from Ohio Originally'

In the first lines of his second book, Sherwood Anderson (1951), Irving Howe sets the scene for his subject’s life:

“In the economy of late-19th-century America, Ohio was unique among the states. Like the Eastern seaboard it was seized by a passion for finance; in its cities massive industries sprang up, and from Cleveland the Rockefeller group began to dominate American business. At the same time, however, the frontier atmosphere of social novelty and `roominess’ had not yet completely evaporated from its life. Ohio stood midway on the scale of social organization between the commercial East and the agrarian West, subject to the blunt pressures and tacit influences of both, yet socially distinct from either.”

If Howe’s account relies a little too heavily on a Marxist account of “material conditions,” forgive him. He loves and respects Anderson without overvaluing his worth. I’ve written before about Howe’s account of his pilgrimage in 1943 to Clyde, Ohio, Anderson’s model for Winesburg. As a native of Cleveland who lived in Ohio until I was thirty, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the town next to Clyde, I find Howe’s explanation convincing. Ohio feels neither Eastern nor Midwestern. It’s no more Iowa than it is New York. My old neighborhood consisted of Slavs, a few Italians and a family transplanted from West Virginia. The novelist Dawn Powell (1996-1965), born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, about a hundred miles southwest of Cleveland, is supposed to have said: “All Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly.”   

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