Washington Post Book World
September 2, 1984
In the next town south of Miss Helen Santmyer’s Xenia, and considerably before her, lived a historian named Robert Barclay Harlan. Mr. Harlan was a rather full character who was once arrested for causing a riot on the Fourth of July and, at the onset of the Civil War when he was in his sixties, led the local volunteers off to war under the flag from his front porch.
The collecting of his place’s history—and his is its major record for most of the 19th Century—was something of a social act, the result, it seems of many good conversations with his acquaintances. The clumsy pages, bereft of narrative skill, have nonetheless characters and detail and, here and there, a fine phrase to raise envy in any writer. Describing, for instance, the pioneer Warren Sabin, an early capitalist who tried many ventures and found none to his pecuniary satisfaction, Mr. Harlan notes felicitously that he was a man “who had the organ of hope very largely developed.”
Mr. Harlan bought long lace tablecloths for his wife, largely to cover his bottle, which he sat under the table, participated in some of his town’s history, wrote much of the rest of it, and died on his porch, peacefully I like to think, while writing a tract on farm equipment.
Miss Santmyer, fresh at 89 from her best-seller, Ladies Of The Club, has just reissued Ohio Town, which was written twenty-two years ago, and while she is more memoirist than historian, I think of her in the company of those good folk like Mr. Harlan, who struggled with their time and geography without much hope of reward or readership. Miss Santmyer has suddenly found both, and under the onslaught of it she has been plucky and funny, her head unturned. Her venerability, too, will likely spare us the details of a developing cocaine habit.
Ohio Town is a more successful book than Ladies. A nonfiction account of a small Ohio town in the early part of the century, it is told through the viewpoint of a child and the references of a woman who chose to remain there. The town is, of course, Miss Santmyer’s home, Xenia, a town distinguished in recent years only by fate, in the form of a tornado that devastated the heart of it and thus granted a Pulitzer prize to its newspaper by the virtue of geography.
She writes about the town institutions—church, library, opera house, school—and her language is decorous, measured, and somewhat distant. It is as though one institution were writing about another, which is understandable for she, herself, has become one of the town institutions.
While it is requiring of patience, she is a better journalist than novelist, and there are good, clear scenes that bring the fallow stretches to life. There is a chapter on the railroad, which ran down Xenia’s principal street only feet from the opera house, where the locals fit the train’s passing into the onstage drama, and through the detail in Miss Santmyer’s observation and emotion, it becomes a good essay about the power of the train on the imagination.
Her chapter on the East End, the black side of town, is an odd mixture of good scenes and people—some of the best people in the book—and a hint of some of the smoky, hidden life there, but also a naiveté that will likely have her pronounced racist. An earlier memoirist, Turgenev, in his pictures of Russian peasant like, Sketches From A Hunter’s Album, was also a member of nobility—Miss Santmyer is a Methodist—but he had a very lucid, almost fierce eye for the social frame of his time. In observing her East End, Miss Santmyer is always affectionate, yet the reader is constantly aware of her position of privilege and so we miss the scrutiny Turgenev brought to his people.
In chapters where this discernment is not called for, her position can be affecting, making the reader positively nostalgic for such a serene, unmarked passing. It is this quality informing Miss Santmyer’s memoir, that of a rather innocent woman-child watching. Her good scenes are visible through a certain calm air, over distance, the way hot weather produces mirages down country roads. She writes: “ … when nothing moved in the length and breadth of the sun-blazing streets, and only a few persons were to be seen in open shop doors or on the benches under the elms; when the trees themselves were limp, unstirring; when the tiled roof was red-hot against the sky, and the hands of the clock in the tower stood motionless at ten to three.” And we wish for the shade of elms and arbor-covered porches.
In between the good scenes are sections that list and catalogue, testament to Miss Santmyer’s years as librarian, and the reader’s tendency is to drive faster, looking for the mirages. Lulled by this innocent, kindly, tedious world, Xenia appears as the gift of the taxidermy, Winesburg-as-travelogue. And yet she sums her place up well: “The town has had no high moment of beauty and perfection to lay an obligation on us to preserve it as a museum. It encourages no glamorous illusion that life once was wholly fair; it is a background that makes no demands on its children; it does not sustain in them any extravagant hope. In these streets, under these roofs, they are free to dream their dreams in peace; they are also free to forget them when they must, without bitterness, and to accept instead the humdrum daily life of the generations of mankind … ”
In the historian Robert Barclay Harlan’s town just south of Xenia, and sometime around the time of The Depression, a young country schoolteacher named Roz McPherson went to the hotel there to meet Sinclair Lewis. Mr. Lewis, the disparager of Main Streets everywhere, was touring the Midwest with a play of his, and Main Street was in a retributive mood. Miss McPherson waited until the great man finished breakfast and, as he arose, she said, “Good morning, Mr. Lewis … ”
“Shut up,” he replied, and, as Miss McPherson would succinctly put it later, “That was how I met Sinclair Lewis.”
It is not likely that Mr. Lewis played Xenia, for I believe that the opera house was already gone, but if he had, he might have met that other young schoolteacher, Helen Hooven Santmyer, and he might have gracelessly told her the same thing.
Miss Santmyer, however, being a lady, would not have replied. She would have done just what she did: write Ohio Town. Although some think otherwise, Mr. Lewis never wrote a great book about the Midwestern small town. He did not even write a modest one. Miss Santmyer was written one that is modest, as she herself is, and for nonfiction these days, a small accomplishment is fine.