Originally published in 1963 by the Ohio State University Press, Ohio Town quickly drew a near-cult following that Harper & Row would now evidently like to amplify in the wake of Santmyer’s best selling ” . . . And Ladies of the Club.” This personal diary of a small, Midwestern town’s evolution can be best summed up in Santmyer’s own words: “There is pleasure in what can be remembered.”
The strength of the book is in the subtlety of her memories, in an arresting tension that hovers between celebration, elegy, and wholesome nostalgia. Whether or not we are of her generation, her reminiscences strike familiar and universal chords, and the fictionalized history of Xenia, Ohio, becomes a stroll through American history. Santmver focuses each chapter on a different aspect of the town—courthouse, main street, library, cemetery, church, school, opera house, and railroad—and then leisurely meditates on the people and events that mark each place in her memory. She concludes that there is an “inexhaustible richness and complication of ordinary daily life” that constitutes “the hard, sometimes bitter but always rewarding experience of being men and women.”
Her portraits of some of the town’s people form a memorable gallery of quintessentially American men and women. Whereas Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (to which this has been inappropriately compared) highlights an array of frustrated and unbalanced town misfits, Santmyer presents the less sensational yet dignified simplicity associated with even the most humble of Xenia’s “characters.” In the library we meet Miss McElwain, stoop-shouldered, thin librarian, whose sharp, hostile eyes and tight bun of thin hair terrorized young patrons. Though her short fuse brought many a child to tears, “if you liked books more than you feared her . . . she forgave you for being a child.” She was found dead kneeling on the floor soon after the town had honored her 50 years in the library: “Whether she died praying or not was important to the Methodists, but not to the rest of us, who knew she was of the Elect.” We meet the talented printer at the opera house. He split his black tights in a critical spot while reciting “Woodman, Spare that Tree” and forced his wife to huff off indignantly when he performed a hula dance in his long winter underwear. On the darker side, we meet the burly Black policeman, Officer Simms, who enforced law on the notorious East End. Entering into frays “that no white man would have dared approach,” he was knifed and left dying in an East End alley. In her chapter on the railroad, she remembers Miss Toohey, an Irish Catholic woman who tended the Lady’s room at the train depot for years. She recalls how Miss Toohey kept the waiting room as she kept her own parlor, so circumspectly that no one dared drop a chewing gum wrapper. In addition. Miss Toohey always knew the “real” train schedules and would tell those arriving at the station when the train would arrive and whether it was best they wait there or go home because the train was late.
The book is not only about people, but also about train stations, doctors’ practices, high school plays, civil war records, grave markers, architecture, local politics, business practice and competition, library shelves, water towers, and cultural development as perceived by Santmyer. It is her imagination and memory that give all of these disparate elements coherence and meaning in a delicate structure of description, anecdote, history, nostalgia, gossip, and personal reflection. Seemingly no aspect of town life lacks the power to stir evocative memories.
Often, as in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a rush of memories can be triggered by a sensual experience in the present. She is able to revive the church Sundays of her youth by reexperiencing “the smoothness of cherry wood under the fingers, or the smell of rain and wet leaves across a spattered window sill.” The sound of a train whistle can also take one “back in time, in the long ago past. Particularly if it sounds at night . . . you are not remembering but being, for a brief instant, a child.” For Santmyer there seems to be only a thin line between memory and being,, twin dimensions of consciousness and experience.
Finally, landscape and authorial self are reflections of each other—each growing organically, each contributing something essential to the nature of the other. In the mental landscape where “time is the sum of nothing” and a year “will seem to have endured without beginning and without end,” one is both sad and pleased. Sad because of what seems lost, pleased in the knowledge that nothing in life is ever really lost. Ohio Town is a uniquely American book—perhaps even a minor masterpiece—which, beyond sharing a sensitive writer’s responses to her hometown, encourages a reconsideration of the meaning and value of our own experience.
[Ohio Town, by Helen Hooven Santmyer; Harper & Row; New York]