A geographic coincidence of birth binds Sherwood Anderson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Dean Howells, Toni Morrison, and James Wright to Ohio, yet the place has shaped them immutably. “Terroir” the French call it: the distinctive flavor imparted by a local landscape and climate, and the regional and historical circumstances of native growth.
As the novels and poems of these writers demonstrate, Ohio is a “between” place. It was the West when W.D. Howells was born in Martins Ferry in 1837: west of the Alleghenies, thinly settled and agrarian, beyond the pale of Eastern culture. A century later when James Wright was born in the same Ohio River town, coal mining and steel mills had replaced agriculture, but this now “mid”western place remained raw, insular, unsophisticated. For many African Americans, that same Ohio River marked the North. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s father, fleeing slavery in Kentucky, crossed over that border to assert his freedom, just as did Margaret Garner—the woman whose story inspired Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Later, in the first decades of the twentieth-century, the Great Migration took hundreds of thousands of families north to small cities like Dunbar’s Dayton or Morrison’s Lorain. “‘Most of our lives [as African Americans] are lived in little towns,’” says Morrison, “‘that’s where we made it, not made it in terms of success but made who we are’” (qtd. in Li 42).
For all five writers, small towns shaped who they were, anchoring them in space but often displacing them in time. The “jaded pastoralism” of Sherwood Anderson and James Wright expose dark fissures between traditional village life, industrialization, and modernity. In Dunbar’s poetry and Morrison’s fiction, the complexity and ambivalence of Ohio racial history leaves local traces on our larger national narrative. And even the sunny realism of Howells turns ambivalent in The Leatherwood God, when it hearkens back to the 1830s from a twentieth-century vantagepoint, imagining an urbane intellectual from Cambridge MA—an avatar of Howells himself—on a collecting expedition to the backwoods of Appalachian Guernsey County, seeking a bizarre piece of frontier history.
Using a multi-media platform that includes documentary film and hypertext, the five exhibits that follow analyze the novels, poetry, and short stories of five Ohio writers, examining the local places which inflected their work and highlighting their contributions to American culture.