Shadow and Shine: Ohio in the Literary Imagination

by Jana Tigchelaar
Featured Art: In The Sky Somewhere Else – Emma Stefanoff

In his preface to The Marble Faun (1860), Nathaniel Hawthorne infamously recounted the limitations of America as material for art and artists, citing the “difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.” Hawthorne’s words were and are astonishing in their obtuse, perhaps willful ignorance of one particular “gloomy wrong” shadowing America’s “commonplace prosperity” as the nation careened toward the Civil War. But they also set up the persistent idea that America is a contented and peaceful country, one without a shadowy past that is ripe for romantic literary exploration.
     The notion of America as a young, fresh, tabula rasa had its inception long before Hawthorne set pen to paper, and even then, in its earlier colonial and Revolutionary-era iterations, it was a lie. While Hawthorne’s description of America suggests a blithe happiness that characterizes the nation and its inhabitants, the specific literature of Ohio, for instance, would suggest otherwise. In fact, literary portrayals of Ohio seem particularly in tune with the tension between shining surface and hidden shadows. It is as if Ohio is, as Bill Ashcraft notes on returning home to the fictional New Canaan in Stephen Markley’s novel Ohio (2018), “the microcosm poster child of middle-American angst.”


     This angst is perhaps most famously captured in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which celebrates its centenary in 2019. Anderson’s short story cycle, populated by disaffected “grotesques,” highlights the idea of a vast difference between the placid surface and the tormented core of the community, and by extension, the state and the country. Winesburg’s residents are made grotesque, Anderson explains in the short story of the cycle, as they come to represent elements of humanity which might be beautiful in moderation, but which become unnatural and repulsive in excess. Characters struggle with isolation, failures of communication, and halting attempts to connect in some way with their neighbors and families. They are haunted by past sins, lost chances, and perceived slights, and Anderson suggests that they are troubled by “ghosts of old things” that “creep into [. . .] consciousness.” Theirs is a shadowy haunting that seems to emphasize the gloomy inner truth, not the bucolic surface.
     But while Anderson’s book of grotesques popularized this disparity between surface and interior, it is only one in a long line of literary depictions of Ohio that does so. One of the earliest Ohio authors, Alice Cary, provides a proto-realist glimpse into the depravity, deprivation, and disillusionment that characterize the experiences of women, the elderly, and others on the social margins in rural Ohio. Cary intriguingly offers a perspective on the American literary scene that seems to anticipate Hawthorne’s judgment of American settings and mood. In her conclusion to Clovernook, Second Series (1853), she addresses those who critique her regional sketches as “too sombre [in] tone; that a melancholy haze, an unnatural twilight, hangs too continually over every scene.” Cary responds that she’s written nothing more than reality, representing in her sketches “as much happiness as falls to the common lot.” So much for Hawthorne’s “broad and simple daylight” and “commonplace prosperity.” In her preface to Clovernook; Or, Recollections of Our Neighborhood in the West (1851), Cary asserts that Ohio can stand in for America—and indeed for the human race: “My native state,” Cary says, reveals “the little histories every day [. . .] to interest us in humanity.” Cary writes this realist, regional action to “dispel that erroneous belief” that the poor, rural Ohioans who populate her pages are unworthy of literary depiction; although the diversity she depicts is one of class, ability, and age rather than race, she also writes to show Americans that their “shadows” are something they hold in common. They are national shadows.
     Many other early literary depictions of Ohio develop this tension in the con- text of antebellum slavery. In his autobiographical Years of My Youth (1916), William Dean Howells writes that his abolitionist grandfather was essentially driven out of Wheeling, in what was then Virginia, and that his “fences and corn-cribs suffered from the pro-slavery convictions of his neighbors,” even in Ohio. Ohio stood symbolically for freedom in a number of antebellum texts— think, for instance, of Eliza’s harrowing escape from slavery to freedom across the icy Ohio River in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Of course, as Stowe knew, Ohio didn’t truly mean freedom for Eliza, thanks to the Fugitive Slave Law. Compelled by the passage of this act to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe made the debate over Ohio’s and other northern states’ obligations to follow and enforce the law central to the book. Following the river crossing, Eliza makes her way to the home of Senator Bird and his wife, who have been arguing over the Fugitive Slave Law (he supports it, she does not). Faced with an injured and desperate embodiment of America’s “gloomy wrong,” the senator, who just a week earlier had been arguing in the statehouse against Ohioans who put the “welfare of a few miserable fugitives before great state interests,” is converted.
     Toni Morrison echoed Stowe’s dramatic river-crossing scene in her neo-slave narrative Beloved more than a century later, and she similarly portrayed Beloved’s mother, Sethe, as affected by the Fugitive Slave Law. But slavery is only one of several national shadows in the Cincinnati–based narrative. Beloved’s characters are haunted by the legacy of sexual abuse, by ongoing violence against African Americans following emancipation, and by communities that ostracize rather than welcome. This last theme—the importance of healthy, supportive communities—appears in several of Morrison’s Ohio–based novels, including The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973).
     In spotlighting the shadows, the literature of Ohio frequently returns to the themes of community-belonging and estrangement—themes that further connect the region to the nation. It’s possible that the ur-American literary theme is the search for home, and while the literature of many regions might be characterized by struggles for belonging, Ohio’s place in the history of slavery, its status as promised-land and racial purgatory, makes that particularly acute. The place is also a quintessential origin—pastoral, regular. And while it is often associated with sturdy, basic values—a bellwether, a baseline—membership in this state is not an easy thing to earn.
     The idea of community-belonging and estrangement is the focus of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Solomon” (1873), which is set in a utopian German Separatist community in northern Ohio. In the vein of Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills,” this story portrays a man named Solomon who aspires to be an artist but is forced by necessity to work in the coal mines. Not long into the novel, two middle-class young women call on his home hoping to ben- e t from the sulfur waters for which the area is known. (Note the focus here on both resource-extraction and natural beauty, two specific markers of Ohio literature, and a tip-off that we can think of the place as both dehumanizing and nourishing.) Instead of being replenished, though, the women encounter Solomon’s deeply unhappy wife and eventually the thwarted artist himself. It is clear to the visitors that Solomon doesn’t belong in the community—he is not himself “Dutch,” and while he worked for various Moravians for years, the community finds him lazy and shiftless; his artistic talent and deep reading set him apart from the other coal miners; his wife, while aspiring to finer things, cannot match his intelligence. He is an outsider in economic and domestic ways, and within the story his unconventionalities mark him as somehow un–Ohioan.
     In addition to being a tale of community estrangement, Woolson’s story offers a preternaturally postmodern commentary on whether fiction can reveal the truth. While Ermine and Dora, the well-off visitors to the community, discuss the meaning behind a local place-name (“One-Leg Creek”), they disagree over the nature of truth and fiction. Dora insists that the “real legend” of the name would be better than any story they concoct, because “real life is always better than fiction.” Ermine disagrees, saying that “[i]n real life we are all masked; but in fiction the author shows the faces as they are.” Ermine’s statement about showing the faces as they are is amplified later in the story when she offers Solomon a lesson in perspective and portraiture, allowing him to brie y achieve his artistic vision. But Solomon’s tragic death emphasizes the gulf between fiction and reality and unmasks the true faces of Solomon’s community and his wife, who find no value in his dreams and aspirations. This ending fits what we know about Ohio literature, which includes both healing and harmful qualities. And perhaps fitting for a state that has been exploited for coal and natural gas, the stories here are often about surfaces and what’s beneath them.
     Revealing what’s at the heart of American identity seems to be the special mission of much Ohio literature. This is certainly the case in Markley’s recent novel Ohio. Told from the perspective of multiple narrators, all former class- mates at New Canaan High School in northeastern Ohio, and taking place over the course of one night, Ohio is gruesome and the homecomings of its characters increasingly grim. There is not just one secret shame at the core of this book, but dozens—sexual abuse and assault, homophobia, racism, drug addiction, infidelity, and murder, to name just a few. And while Ohio is described in a review in The New York Times as “the locus of 21st-century rust belt despair,” Markley goes to great lengths to convey that the despair is not Ohio’s alone. One of the narrators, veteran Dan Eaton, a history buff, describes the various land-grabs and dirty dealings with Native American groups that marked Ohio’s history, concluding,“In this fashion, the borders of Ohio were born.” But Dan goes on to say that this “battle would continue [. . .]. All the way to the glory of the Pacific.” Dan calls attention here to the state’s borders—imaginary demarcations between inside and outside. But of course boundaries are illusions. The circumstances that created Ohio apply to America as a whole.
     Ohio makes it clear that Ohio is best when its citizens realize that boundaries are illusions and that power lies in forming connections that cross those divides. Characters’ greatest sins are rooted in nativism, racism, and violence against the “other,” violence that Dan says is “not aberrant. It happens because of what we all have in common. How frail we are.” But the human frailty that Ohio’s characters have in common leads them not just to violence, but to transcendence. Dan’s history teacher, Mrs. Bingham, elucidates that possibility when recount- ing to Dan’s 7th-grade class the story of her family, what she calls her “Buckeye blood.” This story isn’t just about one person’s history, Mrs. Bingham clarifies. It’s about possibility, potential, and participation. The world will change, she says, and those changes “will amaze you. The changes you will experience, the chances you will have to shape those changes—I just cannot stress how astonishing and astounding and joyful an opportunity it will be.”
     Mrs. Bingham’s description of the potential for joy is ironically reaffirmed in the novel’s final scene, as a dying character sinks to the bottom of New Canaan’s Jericho Lake (the Biblical reference suggests both a promised land and divine aid in battle). The character’s death exists in multiple temporalities: she descends “into the depths of that man-made lake, down to the flooded ghost town at the bottom where she drifted into the wreckage of a drugstore on a forgotten Main Street.” Ohio, it seems, is worn out, in-the-past, drowned. But, simultaneously, the character reaches a cosmic “oblivion” in which she “[views] all of time backward and forward.” Her body oats among submerged pasts while her consciousness, in the abyss Markley describes as “holy,” recognizes that “nothingness is unstable and bound, practically galloping, toward new creation on foreign shores.”
     The moments of joy in Ohio come when the characters realize the potential inherent in expansion beyond borders—not only of Ohio, but the boundaries people erect between themselves and others. The Main Street wreckage at the end also returns us to Hawthorne and the question of American literature. After suggesting his dear native land had no dark shadows in the preface to The Marble Faun, Hawthorne predicted that future American writers would eventually find rich veins of native subject material: “Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wall flowers, need ruin to make them grow.” There is ruin and wreckage everywhere in Ohio, but, as the state’s literature shows, there is also growth— grotesque, boundless, joyful, and sacred.


Jana Tigchelaar is an assistant professor of English at Marshall, where she teaches classes in women’s writing, literary regionalism, and textual analysis. She is at work on Neighborly Encounters: Women’s Regionalist Literature and the Project of Neighborly Reconciliation, a monograph examining neighborliness and reconciliation in the work of nineteeth-century American authors. Her scholarship has appeared most recently in Legacy, and in Community Boundaries and Border Crossings: Critical Essays on Ethnic, Women Writers.

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