Sunday, December 13, 2015

Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

Sherwood Anderson is a singular writer whose most famous and characteristic work is this collection (or cycle) of short stories. There's nothing else quite like it, though the list of those influenced by him is long and illustrious: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, etc.—I would push it even further into the future and include Raymond Carver too. But though you can feel the echoes in these and other writers, no one I know wrote stories like these. The closest analogue in American literature might be the Spoon River Anthology collection of poems by Edgar Lee Masters. Anderson's stories have an air of discovery, even naivete, that is so unself-conscious that reading them almost feels like prying sometimes. The stories are connected by place—see title, noting that the real-life Clyde, Ohio, and not Winesburg, is the setting. They are also connected by a peripheral character who haunts the edges of most of them, a young man named George Willard. They aren't really stories at all, except in the sense of those told by firelight. They are more like meditations on and riffing off of the lives of a parade of isolated individuals who inhabit the town. "What about that Wing Biddlebaum?" someone might say in the darkness across the fire. "What about that Louise Trunnion, Seth Richmond, Wash Williams?" And Sherwood Anderson nods his head and thinks a minute and then starts to talk about each one. But it gets even more intimate than campfire stories, as Anderson probes deep for details almost not assembled, coming back to him in a jumble. Most of the stories are fragments of such recollections, sometimes amounting to nothing, sometimes amounting to a great deal. It's probably the elder George Willard who is telling these stories. It's autobiographical enough that way. But it's only incidentally about George—he's mostly just gossamer that somehow binds. The characters are stunted but that also includes George, the youth and the elder, hence it also includes Anderson himself, whether or not he understood that, which I think it's plain he didn't, even if the point of view bears some whiff of confession, judgment, and/or withering pity. The author is not exempt, whether it is George or Sherwood. Nor is the reader, of course, who may be forgiven some impatience with the simple dolts and fools who populate these stories. We are all citizens of Winesburg, Ohio, and have been from the minute we read a single one of these amazing stories.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Very good description of "Winesburg, Ohio", Jeff, especially the way the book's many sketches don't add up to an actual plot, nor display much of a sequence, and yet are intimately connected by George Willard's apprehension of the lonely lives of various characters in his home town, just as he's on the verge of escaping into the larger world himself. Back in the early '60s, when I was feeling adolescently alienated from my own Ohio home town, I discovered Sinclair Lewis's books, and his satire of small-town life, especially in "Main Street", enthralled me so much that I devoured almost all of his novels, even the minor ones, over a 2-year period. But then, around 1964, when I was getting ready to go to college, I came across "Winesburg, Ohio", and I was astounded how much more emotional depth it possessed compared to Lewis's books; Anderson had plunged on past the sociological conformity Lewis punctured, to go right to the existential angst beneath all these small-town lives. "Winesburg" was published a year before "Main Street", yet seemed several decades more modern to me. Anderson's book has remained an emotional touchstone for me, even though it's been some time since I've re-read it, but you've reminded me to go back to it soon. Ironically, I can't pick it up just yet, as I'm currently deep into a biography of Raymond Carver, whom you also mention in this piece! Terminal Buckeye, Richard Riegel

  2. Thanks Richard! I know what you mean about Sinclair Lewis -- I was shocked when I recently tried Elmer Gantry by how badly it was done. Do you know a later novel of his, Cass Timberlane? I've always thought that was a pretty good one. And I like Main Street and Babbitt, of course. But yes, Anderson was miles beyond him in so many ways. Thanks as always for your comments!

  3. I read Cass Timberlane during my Lewis Period of 1962-63, and I recall it as likely the best of his later novels. It was made into a movie in 1947, as was Elmer Gantry in 1960. Both were decent enough, but probably the finest cinematic realization of a Sinclair Lewis novel remains 1936's Dodsworth, directed by William Wyler, and starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor. I've seen it on TCM several times, and I'm always impressed. I think Dodsworth was a more personal story for Lewis than some of his earlier novels, as it was apparently based on the breakup of his first marriage, and that emotional authenticity carries over into the movie.

    Yes, Richard R.

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  5. I completely loved this when I read it 30 years ago. Glad to see you in the same place. I read Sontag's Against Interpretation this past summer, and I think she mentioned it in her camp essay--I recoiled a bit. (I think it was Sontag; it was a disparaging reference somewhere.)

    *Same comment I just posted a minute ago, with a minor typo corrected--it wasn't that I went off on some obscene rant...