Wednesday, September 08, 2021

'A Penciled Blur'

“In the distance we could see the faint outlines of the city of Cleveland, a penciled blur, and over it a cloud of dark smoke, the customary banner of our manufacturing world. I decided that here would be a delightful place to set up a writing shack or a studio, transferring all my effects from my various other dream homes, and spending my latter days.” 

Which he never did. That would be Theodore Dreiser in A Hoosier Holiday (1916), his account of the two-week motor tour he and friends took in August 1915, driving from New York City to his native state, Indiana, across pre-Interstate America. Though never accused of being a deft stylist, Dreiser’s passage quoted above is memorably evocative and concise, especially “a penciled blur.”


My hometown has never had its Joyce or even its William Kennedy. It’s a city people leave or pass through, like Dreiser, briefly. There’s pathos in reading about one’s birthplace before one’s birth. My mother was born in Cleveland less than five years after Dreiser’s visit, and my father a year after that. Hart Crane was a student at East High School in 1915, living at 1709 East 115th St. Sometimes it takes an outsider, even a Dreiser, to perceive the romance of familiar places (though Crane never found Cleveland romantic – he fled to New York City in 1916). By 1915, Sherwood Anderson had left Cleveland and nearby Elyria (and his wife and kids) and was living in Chicago, but that year he began writing Winesburg, Ohio, based on his childhood home in Clyde, seventy-five miles west of Cleveland. For five years starting in 1912, Edward Dahlberg lived in the Jewish Orphan Asylum in Cleveland, where he described himself as an “inmate.”


The novelist Herbert Gold, now ninety-seven, is another Clevelander but long a resident of San Francisco. In The Age of Happy Problems (1961), Gold collects his essays and reviews including “Cleveland: Inflation on the Erie,” a magazine-style feature originally published in discovery [sic] in 1951, the year before I was born. It reads as through it had been collaged together from a newspaper morgue and an encyclopedia, but Gold gives a glimpse of the flush postwar world I entered, when everyone had a job, the labor unions were thriving and Cleveland was the sixth-largest city in the country. Today, it’s fifty-fourth on the list and less populous than Fresno and Virginia Beach.


Gold catalogs the city’s boosterish nickname, “The Best Location in the Nation”; “Juno, the Transparent Lady” at the city’s Health Museum; “The Mad Killer of Kingsbury Run” – a serial killing case from the nineteen-thirties; Hart Crane’s brief residence; and The Flats, the industrial area along the Cuyahoga River (which famously caught fire in 1969) where, a quarter-century after Gold’s report, Pere Ubu and other punk bands evolved. Here’s Gold on The Flats, Cleveland’s version of Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” now long gone:


“By day this area is covered with an acrid pall. By night the sky is violet, throbbing and flaring with the reflection from the blast furnaces.”


Today I’m flying to Cleveland to visit my brother and, on Saturday, attend my fifty-first high-school reunion, to be held at a supper club in The Flats. Time and internet access will make blogging uncertain. I return to Houston on September 13.


Edward Bauer said...

My two college roommates were Cleveland guys, and I have many great memories of visits to their parents' homes -- one behind their Japanese grocery store on 38th and Payne. Bon Voyage!

Faze said...

I have a copy of The Age of Happy Problems and have xeroxed the chapter on Cleveland and distributed it to friends, to show them what people once thought of our city. The gist of the chapter is that Cleveland was to be envied because it really had its act together. It was a city that worked and innovated and solved problems - the Austin, Albuquerque or Seattle of its day. The chapter was written just before the city began the precipitate decline and bottomed out in the 1970s.

Today, I can recommend it as an easy and affordable place to live, whose suburbs especially offer a tremendous quality of life at a low cost. I moved back here after 20 years in Manhattan, and thank God every morning for the wonderful house and property I can afford - even as a writer.

My latest local thrill is biking what is called the Tow Path Trail, and its newest extensions into the industrial flats and downtown. An amazing ride into a landscape few other cities can match.

My brother, who moved to Florida 20 years ago, sometimes visits. "Well, well, well," he says, looking out the window as I drive him from the airport. "Lumpy old Cleveland."