Long before Sherwood Anderson wrote Winesburg, Ohio, authors looked
for ways to impart a sense of unity to a collection of tales—often through the
use of a 'frame story' or what the Italians call the
cornice.  We find this
structural device in, for example,
The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales,
and
One Thousand and One Nights. And certainly other authors had brought
the same characters back in a series of stories, most notably Arthur Conan
Doyle in his very popular Sherlock Holmes tales.  Anderson wasn't even the
first major writer to use a city as a unifying theme to a short story collection
—James Joyce published
Dubliners five years before Anderson released
his book.

Yet
Winesburg Ohio went further than any of these precedents in blurring
the line between the short story collection and the novel. As part of this
innovative approach, Anderson also created a
new kind of
Bildungsroman, the time-honored
coming-of-age novel, allowing his main character
George Willard to mature through a series of
experiences—usually involving his interactions
with other residents of the city and its environs
—and finally deciding to leave Winesburg and
set out on his adult life in the final pages of the
book.  "Now to me it seems that the theme of
the Winesburg book," Anderson wrote to play-
wright Arthur Barton, "the thing that really makes
it a book—curiously holding together from story
to story as it does—is just that there is a central
theme.  The theme is the making of a man out
of the actual stuff of life."  But more than one
character is transformed in this work: George Willard also serves as a
touchstone for the other citizens in his community; they turn to him as
friend, family member, confidant or adversary, and find that his presence
somehow helps them to define their own lives and ambitions.  

But Anderson creates a sense of unity in other ways.  Indeed, the
recurring characters may be less important than the city of Winesburg
itself.  No, this book is not an accurate account of life in the real
Winesburg, Ohio.  (Anderson didn't know of the existence of an actual
city named Winesburg in the state until after his book was published,
and had loosely based the setting on his boyhood hometown Clyde,
near Lake Erie.)  But this is a book about the kind of small town life in
America that many of his readers had experienced—indeed, it may well
be the quintessential book about that subject.  Nowadays we are familiar
with stories that aim to penetrate the façade of decency and propriety of
these communities and expose the sordid truths hidden from view. For
examples, check out
Blue Velvet, Peyton Place, American Beauty, The
Witches of Eastwick, Empire Falls,  The Graduate, Housekeeping, The
Shipping News
, The Last Picture Show and pretty much every TV soap
opera since the first one was aired in 1946.

The whole meme of the dirty secrets of small town life is overplayed by
now, but Anderson has a different angle, one that few others have
managed to imitate with any degree of success. The hidden side of
Winesburg, Ohio has little to do with tawdry affairs and naughty scandals.  
Instead, almost every character in this book is undergoing a metaphysical
crisis of some sort.  The term 'existentialism' didn’t exist back when
Sherwood Anderson wrote his masterwork.  Heidegger's
Being and
Time
was still more than a decade in the future, and Kierkegaard had
not yet been translated into English.  But Anderson's characters, in story
after story, face a challenge of meaning, of self-definition.  Their hidden
secret is not some private vice, but something much larger: they are
struggling to discover what sort of person they really are.  

This vague groping towards a self appears in almost every story in
Winesburg, Ohio.  The banker's daughter Helen White is grappling
with the meaning of growing from girlhood to womanhood, just as
George Willard aims to define himself as a young man, but her struggle
has almost nothing to do with any practical questions, say of boyfriends
or the proprieties of her home town, but addresses something more
elusive, a sense of finding a place of her own in the adult world. The
Reverend Curtis Hartman grapples with actual lust, but even here the
challenge presents itself as a dilemma of his soul, and his decision is
not about an actual affair—in truth, he has 'known' no woman other than
his reserved, unaccomodating wife—but a question of the kind of self
he hopes to cultivate and the vocation he should pursue. Elmer Cowley's
crisis draws on his determination to break away from the strangeness
of his parents and embrace a more normal, mainstream existence like
others in Winesburg—an amusing goal given the peculiarities of almost
every other resident in the town; but his sense of embarrassment and
shame are so intangible that when he tries to explain them to Willard,
he can find no words to describe his feelings.

Characters here are often at a loss for words.  They often wander through
the streets talking to themselves, mulling over their purpose and destiny,
but when they try to share these musings with others, the phrases won't
fit together, the center will not hold.  And even in those rare moments when
they encounter a soulmate, and stand face to face with someone else who
shares their situation—as happens with George Willard and Helen White,
or George’s mother Elizabeth and the local Dr. Reefy—an intimate
communication takes place non-verbally, but without those other
Peyton
Place
kinds of intimacy that we have come to expect in works of this sort.  

Anderson likened his characters to the deformed apples that lie on the
orchard ground after the other fruit has been picked.  Most of discarded
fruit is bitter, but some parts are not only edible, but of exquisite flavor—if
you know where to look. “Into a little round place at the side of the apple
has been gathered all of its sweetness," Anderson writes. "One runs from
tree to tree over the frosted ground picking the gnarled, twisted apples
and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the
twisted apples."  If I may extend his comparison, I would suggest that other
exposés of small town life have been content to find the bad apples, and
only Anderson has taken the trouble to find the sweet ones others have
missed.  Yet Anderson also describes his characters as "grotesques,"
and not only notes their deformities, but brings them to the forefront of his
narratives.

This is the paradox of
Winesburg, Ohio, but also the reason for this
book's lasting allure.  The beauty and deformity coexist.  They even
engage in some kind of dialectical synergy, impossible to explain but
present on almost every page of this curious pseudo-novel. Even
Anderson couldn't explain the paradox, although he was clearly aware
of it.  Towards the end of
Winesburg, Ohio he writes: "One shudders at
the thought of the meaningless of life while at the same instant, and if the
people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears
come into the eyes." But—and this may be the most remarkable
achievement here—both the sweet and the grotesque are hidden from
view in this work.  The casual observer of the citizens of Winesburg, Ohio
sees nothing but the familiar comings-and-goings of civic life.  Only the
reader is brought into the inner sanctum, and given an elusive glimpse
of the secrets within.  This is a big time achievement for a book on small
town America.  And—despite the countless send-offs of suburban and
village dysfunction that have followed in Sherwood Anderson’s wake—
one that no one has yet surpassed.  


Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
Winesburg, Ohio

by Sherwood Anderson

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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