Nearly 100 years ago, Sherwood Anderson published "Winesburg, Ohio," a book of linked short stories regarding an imaginary American town as seen through the eyes of George Willard. George is a young man about to leave his hometown to try his hand at journalism in the big city.
Few other books in the American literary canon are as evocative of place and community as Anderson's Winesburg, very loosely based on his hometown of Clyde, Ohio.
Don't forget that the part of northern Ohio where the author situated his town used to be part of Connecticut — the Western Reserve. And I fear that if one could visit Winesburg today it might look a little bit too much like Connecticut; that is, indistinguishable from it due to decades of sprawl.
Gone in Winesburg —it is not hard to imagine — are the Paris Dry Goods Store, Herrick's Clothing Store and Wracker's tobacco shop. Westly Moyer's livery barn lived on for a few decades as Moyer's Auto Repair and an old-timer may sense some sort of connection because the lot is now home to a Napa Auto Parts Store.
For the most part though, Main Street, paved and no longer covered in horse dung, has long been a mere ghost of what it was when the 19th century turned into the 20th. Yes, there is a CVS dominating one corner, but the train doesn't stop in Winesburg anymore.
The orchards where George went a-strolling with Helen White, the banker's daughter, are replaced by Georgetown Commons, a townhouse development meant, I suppose, to conjure up resplendent thoughts of the stately district near the nation's capital.
The Presbyterian Church is now the Winesburg (rarely used) Art Center. The old Trunion Pike, lined with big box stores, now has a number as its name and connects with I-80 some five miles north of town. Wine Creek long ago got put underground in a cement culvert and no one knows the town got its name from the creek.
Oh, yes, things do change, and maybe Winesburg today looks too much like Cromwell or Avon. But a town is more than its geography and its built environment, whether urban, suburban or rural. A town is its people, and the people of today's Winesburg still have stirrings, what Anderson referred to as "vague and intangible" hungers.
Though the population has grown more than George Willard could have imagined, it is still possible to "die alone" in Winesburg. Not that the people of this town are bad or uncaring, but it is awfully difficult to say what one means to say, whether you live in Ohio or Connecticut. Each person's thoughts and their reading of others' thoughts may be "betrayed by" their "desire to have something beautiful come into" their lives.
The Winesburg Eagle, according to Anderson, "had one policy. It strove to mention by name in each issue as many as possible of the inhabitants of the village." George Willard, as ace reporter, wrote notes such as the following: "A.P. Wringlet has received a shipment of straw hats."
But don't assume everything must have been simpler back then and over there in Ohio. Everyone did not feel blessedly contented. The boys of Winesburg, for example, had "seasons of wishing they could die gloriously instead of just being grocery clerks and going on with their humdrum lives." Winesburg might have had then and still has today a crackerjack baseball team, yet still today what the townspeople seek "in all the babble of words" is "to find … the true word," and that's been perplexing folks everywhere and for all time since God said "let there be light" and we were too befuddled to see it. In Windsor and Winesburg, "the crowded day had run itself out into the long night of late fall."
Dennis Barone is a professor of English and American studies at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford and is the editor of "Garnet Poems: An Anthology of Connecticut Poetry Since 1776" (Wesleyan University Press).