Another pleasant surprise in my journey was Winesburg, Ohio. While I don’t like to know much regarding plot in advance of reading each book, I do routinely do a little research on the author and Sherwood Anderson is most certainly paramount in this gem of a novel.
Written in short story format, it is actually a culmination of 17 short stories with characters interspersed among them. What insight Anderson had into the inner thoughts of man and woman, surely the result of keen observation and soul-searching on his part.
Anderson hailed from Ohio and apparently abandoned family and job to pursue a writer’s life that I imagine was not well received. His attitude towards that life and his potential feelings of guilt are rather evident in the novel.
Anderson uncovers the little secrets of small town life ranging from loneliness to drunkenness and mental illness to accidental deaths. Published in 1919, some found the content of Winesburg, Ohio to be so offensive that it was burned in public.
There were so many interesting characters in the book that it is difficult to select one or two as Anderson has a knack for getting deep into the character’s essence with very few words.
George Willard, the town’s newspaper reporter is found in nearly every story and is surely the antithesis of Sherwood Anderson whereby a young George leaves town to become somebody only to return to the humdrum life in Winesburg, Ohio and the older Anderson left that life to pursue his dream of writing. Perhaps George’s failure was Anderson’s justification at leaving it at a time when he had lived and matured. George is liked by all the townspeople for his straightforwardness and listening skills, but shelters his true feelings of lost love and aspirations.
Kate Swift is another Winesburg returnee who has studied and traveled to New York and Paris. She returns home as a teacher and is observed by a peeping Reverend Harman smoking and reading in bed. She later attempts to encourage George Willard to pursue his dreams in what is a confused seduction. Here again, is Anderson propelling his alter ego to go forth and follow his passion.
The recurrent hand figures quite often and seems to reflect Anderson’s writing passion. He describes it reverently as it ties new laces, gets thrust into pockets, is given to others for shaking and so on. The story entitled “Hands” concerns a Wing Biddlbaum, the town outcast who settles in Winesburg after being falsely accused of inappropriate behavior with his male students. His only confidante is George Willard who observes his effusive use of his hands while conversing.
He, like most boys, was deeper than boys are given credit for being, but he was not what the men of the town, and even his mother, thought him to be. No great underlying purpose lay back of his habitual silence, and he had no definite plan for his life. When the boys with whom he associated were noisy and quarrelsome, he stood quietly at one side. With calm eyes he watched the gesticulating lively figures of his companions. He wasn’t particularly interested in what was going on, and sometimes wondered if he would ever be particularly interested in anything. Now, as he stood in the half-darkness by the window watching the baker, he wished that he himself might become thoroughly stirred by something, even by the fits of sullen anger for which Baker Groff was noted.
“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words,” she explained. “It would be better to give up the notion of writing until you are better prepared. Now it’s time to be living. I don’t want to frighten you, but I would like to make you understand the import of what you think of attempting. You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.”
Everyone knows of the talking artists. Throughout all of the known history of the world they have gathered in rooms and talked. They talk of art and are passionately, almost feverishly, in earnest about it. They think it matters much more than it does.
I know I would like to sit and chat with Mr. Anderson, perhaps in Washington Square. His wonderful eye for detail and his deep understanding of people’s inner thoughts would be something I’d love to gain as a writing skill. I’d like to ask, though I’m not sure I’d have the gall, why he felt he had to abandon his life to become a writer.
My rating for Winesburg, Ohio is a 10 out of 10.
To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.
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