I’ve been teaching the novel Winesburg, Ohioby Sherwood Anderson as a way into rhetorical analysis of personal events for the last 13 years. Every so often I’m impressed to see some of my first year students have been assigned the book in high school, but most have never heard of the author, let alone the title of Anderson’s best work of fiction. For the last 10 years I’ve shown my students images of Clyde, Ohio, the town that was the original backdrop for the novel. Clyde was one Anderson’s childhood hometowns (Elyria, Ohio, being the other).
The first time I went to Clyde was in 2001, two months before 9/11. I returned to Clyde in 2005, 2006, 2011 and this year. As the years have passed, I’ve watched Clyde’s Main Street deteriorate to a bunch of empty buildings, but in the last two years I’ve seen Main Street try to revive itself. Although the town’s only local newspaper has moved to smaller offices, Main Street now has a coffee shop, a martial arts school, and no less than 4 places to get your hair done. The old office of the Clyde Enterprise is now a Green business, and the street is lined with hanging flower baskets and many empty store fronts. How is Clyde’s Main Street supposed to compete with the Wal-Mart where overweight shoppers smoking in Jazzys and Hoverounds are in constant interchange from the automated In and Out doors? Starbucks, Burger King and every other corporate dump that has invaded the farmlands lost by farmers who can no longer afford to work the land have left no room for small business.
The Whirlpool corporation, the largest employer in Clyde, owns so much land that twenty high school football teams could play games at the same time. And even though Whirlpool has been making machines for over 20 years in Clyde, they have no clue how a suspicious cancer cluster has effected more than 25 children (the EPA says Whirlpool’s pollution output is below regulated levels).
I have loved this small town for two reasons—because Clyde still has the very human soul that Anderson cared so much about, and because Clyde’s Main Street has been fighting for decades to ensure that her bricks, sidewalks and storefronts aren’t bulldozed for a Home Depot or an expansion of Whirlpool. Still, it’s clear that Clyde’s center, like the Main Streets around the nation, is fighting a battle it can not win. People love the idea of supporting local businesses, but they love saving money and convenience shopping even more. There are only so many hair-care stores that can occupy shops within two blocks, and I haven’t the heart to return to Clyde’s Main Street to see every storefront empty and/or boarded-up, buildings crumbling or cars driving by in search of somewhere else to go. I’m leaving here with little hope and a better understanding of why this little town meant so much to Anderson.
The residents of Clyde are a microcosm of all Americans. They have pets they love, drug problems, broken homes, happy marriages, healthy newborns, funerals and high school graduates, and they also have a world that is crumbling all around them. Like all Americans they rest their hope in the corporations that feed the super-rich and give them flat-screen TVs and car loans at 5%—just enough to make them shut-the-fuck-up and ignore the structure of our society. I’m worried that it is too late.
Clyde—If you ever make your Main Street main again, please let me know. I’ll be the first to congratulate you… and you’ll have restored my faith in more than you know.