It began as a conversation with Belfast Central Library.
I mentioned a few of my favorite Irish authors and artists, and my counterpart in Belfast admitted to being less familiar with Ohio writers.
But this begs the question: If I had to pick a handful of writers to represent my state and make the literary equivalent of a mixtape, whom would I include?
Let’s start with the obvious and by “obvious” I mean the only living person born in the United States to be named a Nobel laureate.
Morrison was born in Lorain and has a residency at Oberlin College, but it seems reductive to strap her to a particular place. Yes, she’s from Ohio, and I hope she thinks fondly of her home state; but you don’t need to be a buckeye to appreciate her writing. You just need to be human.
I don’t know if any one author can embody an entire city, but Harvey Pekar got close.
What James Joyce is to London, what Naguib Mahfouz is to Cairo, what Lu Xun is to Beijing, Harvey is to Cleveland.
And what’s most amazing is that he didn’t set out to tell the story of Cleveland—at least, not at first. He only wanted to talk about his life. But by telling the stories of his coworkers at the VA hospital and his fight with cancer, he depicted the frustrations and hopes of an entire city.
Pekar wasn’t even the most cynical writer to come from Ohio. That distinction belongs to Ambrose Bierce.
Bierce was our Oscar Wilde—a provocateur, an invective. His words were so pointed, some people blamed them for President William McKinley’s assassination.
For an appetizer, read his short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek.” For a feast, try The Devil’s Dictionary. It’s composed of every pithy quip you’ll ever need to terrorize a dinner table. A few examples:
Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.
Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are not as they ought to be.
4. Gloria Steinem
Women everywhere (and people who care about the treatment of women) can claim Gloria as their own; but, yes, she was born in Toledo, Ohio, which makes her one of us.
While we may not think of Steinem firstly as a writer, she can and often did write brilliantly.
She wrote a 2-part expose about her experience as a Playboy Bunny that changed how many people perceived Hugh Hefner’s empire. Her collection of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, will make you laugh, cry and grit your teeth. Hopefully, it will make you think too.
Speaking of writers that can make me laugh and cry…
And then there’s Bill Watterson. With his art, he made the most ephemeral thing—a young boy’s imagination—tangible.
Calvin & Hobbes doesn’t need another elegy, but it could always use more readers.
(By the way, this means the same state that gave us Gloria Steinem also birthed the Get Rid Of Slimy girlS Club.)
If you think it’s presumptuous to include R.L. Stine in the same list as Toni Morrison and Ambrose Bierce, then you’ve never been to a Scholastic Book Fair.
In a pre-Harry Potter world, Goosebumps was every third grader’s favorite book series. We turned each lunch break into a book club meeting, as we talked about and swapped Stine’s books. (I should have never traded Monster Blood.)
Goosebumps may have been for kids. But, for a lot of us, he was the gateway to Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.
Coincidentally, Stine was also my gateway to Harlan Ellison.
This is the the guy who wrote—let’s just say it—the best Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” (Even though he was displeased with edits Gene Roddenberry made to his script.)
He’s won Hugo Awards and Nebulas and Edgars. He pushed the boundaries of science fiction so far that people had to call it by another name, speculative fiction.
8. Jill Bialosky
Jill Bialosky is the increasingly rare triple threat.
Her poetry, fiction and nonfiction are all moving.
She was first known as a poet and her Intruder is one of my favorite poetry books of this still young century.
But it’s her memoir, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life, that breaks me. Read it. Read it and feel.
You might not know Hart Crane, but your favorite writer probably does.
Tennessee Williams, Derek Walcott and Harold Bloom all thought of him as one of the most important poets of his generation.
From Chaplinesque, one of his best known poems:
The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.
Crane struggled with alcohol and depression, in part because he tried to suppress his homosexuality. He ultimately killed himself, jumping overboard while on a steamship in the Gulf of Mexico.
While it hurts to see genius cut short, we can still be grateful for what he left behind.
A lot of the authors I’ve talked about have come from cities and their suburbs: Cleveland, Lorain, Toledo, Columbus. (The exceptions—Ambrose Bierce, whose Miegs County is almost as rural now as it was when he was born; and Hart Crane, who was born in Garrettsville.)
I compensate with Sherwood Anderson, whose Winesburg, Ohio is still the most enduring depiction of small-town Ohio.
His short stories overlap as our lives often do, each person thinking they’re the heroine or hero of their own story when, in reality, we’re all just part of the larger tapestry.
But this is just my mixtape. Who would you include in yours?