My Amish Afternoon

There’s a scene in Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking where the main character is called to testify in dreamcourt. From the witness stand, he admits: “lately, I’ve been thinking about the reality of unreality and the unreality of reality.” In Humboldt Annotated, I explain that this sentence is not intended to be fiction.

As a writer, the reality/unreality divide is never far from my thoughts. This explains why my novel is stuffed with so many references to real places (the new American Wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Old Absinthe House, NOMA’s Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden), real events (Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, a reading at BookCourt, Tino Sehgal’s exhibition This Progress at the Guggenheim), real people (Paul Auster, Marina Abramović, Kermit Ruffins, Quvenzhané Wallis), even real family members (my sister-in-law, wife, and, of course, myself).

My fascination with exploring the reality/unreality divide was one of the reasons why I was so thrilled to be invited to speak to an AP English class at Hiland High School in Berlin, Ohio. In the realm of unreality, had he not been thrown out of Winesburg Middle School under the suspicion of being Amish, Humboldt would have attended Hiland.

Another reason why I found this invitation so thrilling was because it gave me the opportunity to visit Humboldt’s fictional birthplace: Winesburg, Ohio. At the time I wrote Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking, I had never actually been to the real Winesburg. Because of this, my description of the town is peppered with inaccuracies. For example, there is no Winesburg Middle School. Also there is no Winesburg branch of the Holmes County Library. The real Winesburg is way too small to support such amenities; the town is not much bigger than a fire station, a pizza parlor, and a cluster of old houses situated around a sharp turn on US Route 62.

I chose the town as Humboldt’s place of birth because of its impressive literary history: Winesburg, Ohio is the name of a short story collection by Sherwood Anderson. (In my novel, Humboldt absentmindedly attempts to walk out of the Winesburg branch of the Holmes County Library with a copy of this book without having first checked it out. Bad idea!)

For years, I avoided reading Anderson’s collection because I mistakenly thought it was filled with tales of small town hokum. Having endured so many years living in a small town, I saw no reason to seek out such hokum in fiction. When I finally read Winesburg, Ohio, I quickly realized how wrong I was: it’s a fantastic book.

But here’s the thing: at the time Sherwood Anderson wrote Winesburg, Ohio, he had never been to the real Winesburg either. The city depicted in the book is actually the author’s hometown of Clyde, Ohio. No one knows exactly why Anderson chose to rechristen his hometown. Perhaps, he was unaware that Winesburg was the name of a real town in Ohio. (Maybe) Or perhaps, he just liked the title. (Possibly) Or maybe he was just a drunkard. (Most likely)

In addition to Winesburg, my traipsing around Amish Country included stops at Heini’s Cheese Chalet, the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center, and Boyd & Wurthmann Restaurant. But I wasn’t sightseeing: I was pestering locals into recording videos of me reading from my novel.

Amish Country is a bizarre place, especially when you’re trying to explain to an old Mennonite woman how to use an iPhone to record a video. (“Think of this as a small, electronic butter churner; you push this button here to start churning the butter…”)

Making the afternoon all the more bizarre was the fact that while I was driving around Amish Country, dodging buggies and ogling the Amish, I was listening to an uninterrupted mix of old school rap and reggae compliments of SiriusXM. Here’s a small sampling of what I heard: Apache by The Sugarhill Gang (not the most culturally sensitive of songs), You Be Illin’ by Run DMC (classic Dr. J namedrop), Don’t Sweat the Technique by Eric B. & Rakim (it still sounded good), Human Beat Box by The Fat Boys (remember those guys?), Wa-Do-Dem by Eek-A-Mouse, Nobody Beats the Biz by Biz Markie, and 54-46 (That’s My Number) by Toots & the Maytals , which appears in my novel.

The musical highpoint of the afternoon came while crossing Killbuck Creek, which also makes an appearance in my novel (echoing a famous quote about Scotland’s River Spey, Killbuck Creek is described as “thrusting itself through Holmes County like a spear into a closing door.”) On my way into Amish Country, I crossed Killbuck Creek listening to Dre & Snoop’s Fuck wit Dre Day; one my way home, I crossed it listening to Lil Wayne & Birdman’s Stuntin’ Like My Daddy.

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