Winesburg, Ohio is a town whose inhabitants, living in the early 20th-century Midwest, ache for fulfillment, passion, and meaning, and the way their stories are told by the great Sherwood Anderson never goes out of style. The collection starts with the story “The Book of the Grotesque.” An ailing old writer is contemplating his life, all the people he knew, and the “notions” they all had in their heads about life. He has written a book about them, but it hasn’t been published. But we, the readers, get to read it anyway in the haunting chapters that follow (and which go back to what might be called “the beginning,” though the book does not really follow any chronological order–it is not going to be confined that way). “It was the truths that made the people grotesques,”Anderson writes. “The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” The rest of the revealing narratives revolve around “Hands,” “The Teacher,” “The Thinker,” “Loneliness,” “A Man of Ideas,” “The Philosopher,” “The Strength of God” and more. These people are farmers, store keepers, newspaper writers, wives, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and preachers. They all reside in a small town circa 1919, but these stories are timeless.
Last month, prior to election day, The New York Times published a front-page story about the plight of a small-business owner inOhio. The woman who toiled to keep her diner open does not have a life all that different from the characters in the book, making a clear connection that while many things have changed in this country, some have not. The diner owner has clear desperation in her life, as do the characters in the book.Elyria,Ohiois in an all-important “swing state”–and that town happens to be where Sherwood Anderson once ran a mail-order and paint business down by the railroad line. According to the article, on a Thanksgiving Day, he said goodbye to his secretary, walked out the door and followed the tracks east, out ofElyria. This incident was an apparent breakdown that is thought to have led to this fictional classic.Andersonwas a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway, and his style of no-nonsense prose is somewhat similar to Hemingway’s.
The stories are told in third person, but are related through the narrative voice of George Willard, the town reporter, who shows up in most of the tales, sometimes taking an active role and at other times just telling a story. Who better to keep tabs on the townspeople then the young reporter who captures everything in his trusty notebook?Andersonnever lets the reader know if George is the old man from the first chapter, so we are left to decide for ourselves if he ever became a “real” writer, which was his dream–George, as others, exercises big dreams in his head. He does not have any easy life. His parents own a shabby hotel and have a terrible relationship with one another. His mother ends up being a recluse in her 40s (much older than it is now), never leaving her room. A couple of the chapters focus on her and how she loves her son but is powerless to express herself as she chooses.Anderson, though capturing the male psyche well (somewhat expected), does a great service to women and his depiction of them. One character was not suited for motherhood and Anderson is brutally honest about how that would play out in a time when that’s what women were expected to do.
There are a few “loose” women and several who are wound up tight, but they are all fascinating. Anderson lures the reader straight into these characters’ heads, engrossing us, making us feel empathy, anger, pity, elation, and scorn for these characters (insert your own emotion when you read it). I will never forget the frustration I felt for the young female character who waits ten years for a man (who readers know to be something of a snake oil salesman) to come back to her, putting her life on hold, having taken his promise seriously. The story of the preacher who spends hours peeping at a neighbor who reads in bed, just for the chance of a glimpse of white skin, is also excruciatingly painful to read. These are but two examples of the complex characters Anderson draws.
When the book was published in 1919, it was considered a scandalous piece of trash by many critics, and as with many revolutionary writers, appreciation of their work took some time. The themes include physical longing (and hints of premarital sex), a male teacher getting fired on suspicion of pedophilic behavior, unwed women having children, violence, the use of alcohol in excess (and a man’s strange connection with a young girl in the midst of that state), a religious zealot who considers making a bizarre sacrifice to God, and other social issues that weren’t discussed as freely then. But Anderson was telling his own truths, and the reader will not doubt at any time that these people were certainly based on real characteristics he encountered. His superb collection of characters is a relevant and insightful study of human behavior, and the book is one that deserves to live on.