The paper on which George worked had one policy. It strove to mention by name in each issue, as many as possible of the inhabitants of the village. Like an excited dog, George Willard ran here and there, noting on his pad of paper who had gone on business to the county seat or had returned from a visit to a neighboring village. All day he wrote little facts upon the pad. “A. P. Wringlet has received a shipment of straw hats. Ed Byerbaum and Tom Marshall were in Cleveland Friday. Uncle Tom Sinnings is building a new barn on his place on the Valley Road.”
Sherwood Anderson, “The Thinker,” in Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
In small American newspapers during the twentieth century, little facts like George’s would be changed into narratives by complementation with headlines. Typically, a headline will create a sense of narrative by implying an answer to at least one of journalism’s standard queries.
Area Man Has Interesting Hobby
Who? You know: man. Where? You know: area. In rewrite, the abstracted record of an event has become the promise of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Furthermore, the story will name the man, and while it’s at it it will name his hobby too.
But “area” is a word that never needed a name. “Area” has already and forever included all of us – not just the man with the hobby but everyone who can read a newspaper’s mastheaded name (The Winesburg Eagle), because everyone under the shelter of (for instance) this eagle’s wings has been given to believe he has always known where he is, and who and how and why. “Area,” the noun, is a word that first enters our vocabulary through the inner ear, where the sense of balance makes us know ourselves to be at home upon firm earth. But after this particular noun has pervaded all of the ear and set to work modifying the sounds there, it begins to function as an adverb. Its grammar communicates a mode which once changed a man, for the brief instant it took to read his name, to this man. This man became one of the the marks left on George Willard’s scrap of newsprint (boldly, ephemerally – take your pick of any adverb ending in –ly) to implore the passing tribute of a sigh.
That wasn’t enough to hold a reader’s interest, of course. At the end of his book, George himself boarded a train and rode out of the Eagle’s range, his head filling with an idea of vanishing people doing vanishing things: “Butch Wheeler the lamp lighter of Winesburg hurrying through the streets on a summer evening and holding a torch in his hand, Helen White standing by a window in the Winesburg post office and putting a stamp on an envelope.” By now, George’s scraps of newsprint have vanished too. A different kind of newspaper, The Onion, now transmits packets of information about events lacking who or why, and in those stories “area” is a word that can be understood only as an objet d’art.
Area Panty Lined
With narrative and its illusions gone, nothing remains but a decontextualized, defamiliarized word: panty, odd retroconversion of an adjective to a noun. But that gives the grammar its own narrative happy ending, doesn’t it? After all, the silence surrounding panty is as much fun to hear as any word The Winesburg Eagle could ever print. In Winesburg, Ohio, says newsprint history, there once was a prose factory that manufactured garrulous sincerity out of short declarative sentences. But at the same instant, just two states to the east, there lived a doctor who noticed one rainy morning that a red wheelbarrow had begun automatically and inexhaustibly and wonderfully to fill itself with readable silence.