Friday, February 8, 2013

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Two-thirds of a masterpiece
First published in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of 22 interrelated stories set in a fictional small town in the American Midwest. Though each story can stand alone as an individual work, they are so closely interwoven that some consider the book to be a novel. The protagonist of each story often makes a supporting appearance in the tale of his or her neighbor, relative, friend, or lover, while dozens of other characters are encountered only in brief cameos. George Willard, a young reporter for the local newspaper, appears in almost all the stories and unifies the various tales into a cohesive book. Everyone in town seems to consider him a kindred spirit, and they seek him out, asking him to serve as their confessor, chronicler, and/or psychiatrist.

In deceptively simple prose, Anderson vividly captures the everyday life of this small Ohio town during its period of transition from agrarianism to modern industrialization. The denizens of Winesburg struggle to find their place in this microcosm of modern society. Their sensitive souls are tormented by loneliness, isolation, guilt-ridden pasts, frustrated dreams, and a stifling ability to communicate their feelings and aspirations. Sinclair Lewis’s novel Main Street, published about the same time and also focusing on a Midwestern town, features an ambitious dreamer, Carrie Meeber, who envisions herself a prisoner within a conservative small town full of narrow minded bumpkins. In Winesburg, Ohio, everyone is Carrie Meeber. Everyone is a prisoner to something, and everyone wants out. For many of the characters, the big city represents salvation, as if their problems would just go away if they could escape to Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Chicago. More often than not, that salvation proves false and they return to Winesburg defeated. Having grown up in a small Midwestern town myself, I can say that much of Anderson’s portrayal of small town life rings true. It’s unclear, however, whether he’s proposing that the emotional turmoil and alienation felt by Winesburg’s residents is peculiar to the experience of small town life or merely indicative of the world at large.

Winesburg, Ohio is one of America’s earliest examples of modernist literature. Its influence on later modernist writers is readily apparent, most notably in the works of William Faulkner. While Anderson possesses a brilliant insight into human thought and emotion and expresses his vision in a beautiful narrative voice, most of the stories end all too abruptly and thus feel incomplete. It’s a conceit of modernism to think that it’s enough for the author to merely offer sketches of the way things are, without providing the reader with a satisfying beginning-middle-end plot structure. In most of these stories we’re deprived of an end, and one finishes each tale with the disappointment of having just read two-thirds of a novel, only to find the succeeding pages missing. The characters all finish their stories as if frozen in some tableau vivant. Reading Winesburg, Ohio is much like wandering through a gallery of Edward Hopper paintings. You’ve got a pretty good idea where these people have been, but you don’t have a clue where they’re going.

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