the 1962 Modern Library dust jacket of Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio

  • Author:  Sherwood Anderson  (1876  –  1941)
  • Rank:  #24
  • Published:  1919
  • Publisher:  B. W. Huebsch
  • Pages:  252
  • First Line:  “The writer, an old man with a white moustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed.”
  • Last Line:  “He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.”
  • ML Edition:  #104  (six dust jackets  –  1923, 1925, 1930, 1939, 1955, 1962); Classics paperback, gold hardcover
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #24
  • Film:  1973 television film
  • First Read:  Spring, 1994

The Novel:  “Don’t be grotesque.  We’re not in Ohio.”  So says the dying writer to his brother, a joke that both understand.  Anyone who has read and loved Winesburg, Ohio will get the joke.  What’s not funny is how many people have never read it.  I got lucky, got it in American Lit as a sophomore in college, years before it showed up on the Modern Library list.  I got it at just the right time.  It, more than any other book I have ever read, became the influence on how I write.  I hadn’t seen anything like it, the idea of the linked stories to form a coherent novel.  Some call it a story cycle, but to me that implies Dubliners, a variety of stories with a connection.  This is more than just a collection of stories, it is a coherent novel, any piece of which can be read separately, but which add up to greater than the sum of the parts.

In some ways, Winesburg is just another novel in a long traditional line.  It is a bildungsroman, the coming of age story, the boy leaving his small town to go out and make his way in the wider world.  It acts like a sentimental look back at the past that is slowly slipping away, the slow town life that helped make the boy who will become the man.  But it is the combination of sentiment and stark insight, a transition between naturalism and modernism, that Anderson achieves here.  A line like “By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before,” is the sentiment showing through.  But there is also the insight, tinged with the sentiment: “He was one of those rare, little understood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a loveable weakness.”  But then, there is also the clear line of what lies before the town, the transition through the industrial era into the modern era: “The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions.”

There are men in Winesburg who would fit very much into Joyce’s Dublin, like Wash Williams: “A thing had happened to him that made him hate life, and he hated it whole-heartedly, with the abandon of a poet.”  And indeed, this could easily have fit just behind Dubliners as one of the great short story collections of all-time, a collection lifted above others by the thematic connections running through the stories.  But, there is George Willard.  This boy, on the edge of being a man, whose time in Winesburg will become the “background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood,” is what makes this a novel.  He is there through all the night, linking the stories, listening to the crazed reverend yelling at him of the women he longs for, feeling the weight of his dead mother, learning from those who have not managed to escape while he has the ticket out in the morning.

That’s what I want to do, I thought to myself reading this in the Spring of 1994.  I want to write shorter pieces that can be pulled out.  Not just a chapter that could be run in a magazine.  I want to figure out how to do this, how to write short individual pieces that move forward, that come together in a coherent way.  There are books that try for this and some succeed (The Imperfectionists is the perfect example) and some don’t.  But Winesburg is the primer at which those of us who want to do this must come back to.  So many of these individual pieces have been anthologized and they all work as separate pieces, but they build towards an ending, they create a character and a town that are indelible.

And all of them are grotesque.  That is the joke, of course (and the writer and his brother – those are my characters).  That is what we are told at the very beginning: “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.”  Thankfully, I don’t actually believe that.  Because if so, the novel, which is my truth, becomes a falsehood and I become a grotesque.  The latter might have happened, but the former sure as hell hasn’t.