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Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
by Irving Howe
must have been no more than fifteen or sixteen years old when I first
chanced upon Winesburg, Ohio. Gripped by these stories and sketches of
Sherwood Anderson's small-town "grotesques," I felt that he was
opening for me new depths of experience, touching upon half-buried truths
which nothing in my young life had prepared me for.
A New York City boy who never saw the crops grow or spent time in
the small towns that lay sprinkled across America, I found myself
overwhelmed by the scenes of wasted life, wasted love--was this the
"real" America?--that Anderson sketched in Winesburg.
In those days only one other book seemed to offer so powerful a
revelation, and that was Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure.
years later, as I was about to go overseas as a soldier, I spent my last
weekend pass on a somewhat quixotic journey to Clyde, Ohio, the town upon
which Winesburg was partly modeled. Clyde
looked, I suppose, not very different from most other American towns, and
the few of its residents I tried to engage in talk about Anderson seemed
quite uninterested. This
indifference would not have surprised him; it certainly should not
surprise anyone who reads his book.
freed from the army, I started to write literary criticism, and in 1951 I
published a critical biography of Anderson.
It came shortly after Lionel Trilling's influential essay attacking
Anderson, an attack from which Anderson's reputation would never quite
recover. Trilling charged
Anderson with indulging a vaporous sentimentalism, a kind of vague
emotional meandering in stories that lacked social or spiritual solidity.
There was a certain cogency in Trilling's attack, at least with
regard to Anderson's inferior work, most of which he wrote after Winesburg,
Ohio. In my book I tried,
somewhat awkwardly, to bring together the kinds of judgment Trilling had
made with my still keen affection for the best of Anderson's writings.
By then, I had read writers more complex, perhaps more
distinguished than Anderson, but his muted stories kept a firm place in my
memories, and the book I wrote might be seen as a gesture of thanks for
the light--a glow of darkness, you might say--that he had brought to me.
passed. I no longer read
Anderson, perhaps fearing I might have to surrender an admiration of youth.
(There are some writers one should never return to.) But now, in the
fullness of age, when asked to say a few introductory words about Anderson
and his work, I have again fallen under the spell of Winesburg, Ohio, again
responded to the half-spoken desires, the flickers of longing that spot its
pages. Naturally, I now have some changes of response: a few of the
stories no longer haunt me as once they did, but the long story
"Godliness," which years ago I considered a failure, I now see as
a quaintly effective account of the way religious fanaticism and material
acquisitiveness can become intertwined in American experience.
Anderson was born in Ohio in 1876. His childhood and youth in Clyde, a town
with perhaps three thousand souls, were scarred by bouts of poverty, but he
also knew some of the pleasures of pre-industrial American society.
The country was then experiencing what he would later call "a
sudden and almost universal turning of men from the old handicrafts towards
our modern life of machines." There were still people in Clyde who
remembered the frontier, and like America itself, the town lived by a
mixture of diluted Calvinism and a strong belief in "progress,"
Young Sherwood, known as "Jobby"--the boy always ready to
work--showed the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that Clyde respected: folks
expected him to become a "go-getter," And for a time he did.
Moving to Chicago in his early twenties, he worked in an advertising
agency where he proved adept at turning out copy.
"I create nothing, I boost, I boost," he said about
himself, even as, on the side, he was trying to write short stories.
1904 Anderson married and three years later moved to Elyria, a town forty
miles west of Cleveland, where he established a firm that sold paint.
"I was going to be a rich man.... Next year a bigger house; and
after that, presumably, a country estate." Later he would say about his
years in Elyria, "I was a good deal of a Babbitt, but never completely
one." Something drove him to write, perhaps one of those shapeless
hungers--a need for self-expression? a wish to find a more authentic kind of
experience?-that would become a recurrent motif in his fiction.
then, in 1912, occurred the great turning point in Anderson's life.
Plainly put, he suffered a nervous breakdown, though in his memoirs
he would elevate this into a moment of liberation in which he abandoned the
sterility of commerce and turned to the rewards of literature.
Nor was this, I believe, merely a deception on Anderson's part, since
the breakdown painful as it surely was, did help precipitate a basic change
in his life. At the age of 36,
he left behind his business and moved to Chicago, becoming one of the
rebellious writers and cultural bohemians in the group that has since come
to be called the "Chicago Renaissance." Anderson soon adopted the
posture of a free, liberated spirit, and like many writers of the time, he
presented himself as a sardonic critic of American provincialism and
materialism. It was in the
freedom of the city, in its readiness to put up with deviant styles of life,
that Anderson found the strength to settle accounts with--but also to
release his affection for--the world of small-town America.
The dream of an unconditional personal freedom, that hazy American
version of utopia, would remain central throughout Anderson's life and work.
It was an inspiration; it was a delusion.
1916 and 1917 Anderson published two novels mostly written in Elyria, Windy
McPherson's Son and Marching Men, both by now largely forgotten.
They show patches of talent but also a crudity of thought and
unsteadiness of language. No one reading these novels was likely to suppose that its
author could soon produce anything as remarkable as Winesburg, Ohio.
Occasionally there occurs in a writer's career a sudden, almost
mysterious leap of talent, beyond explanation,
perhaps beyond any need for explanation.
1915-16 Anderson had begun to write and in 1919 he published the stories
that comprise Winesburg, Ohio, stories that form, in sum, a sort of
looselystrung episodic novel. The
book was an immediate critical success, and soon Anderson was being ranked
as a significant literary figure. In
1921 the distinguished literary magazine The Dial awarded him its first
annual literary prize of $2,000, the significance of which is perhaps best
understood if one also knows that the second recipient was T. S. Eliot. But Anderson's moment of glory was brief, no more than a
decade, and sadly, the remaining years until his death in 1940 were marked
by a sharp decline in his literary standing.
Somehow, except for an occasional story like the haunting "Death
in the Woods," he was unable to repeat or surpass his early success.
Still, about Winesburg, Ohio and a small number of stories like
"The Egg" and "The Man Who Became a Woman" there has
rarely been any critical doubt.
sooner did Winesburg, Ohio make its appearance than a number of critical
labels were fixed on it: the revolt against the village, the espousal of
sexual freedom, the deepening of American realism.
Such tags may once have had their point, but by now they seem dated
and stale. The revolt against
the village (about which Anderson was always ambivalent) has faded into
history. The espousal of sexual
freedom would soon be exceeded in boldness by other writers.
And as for the effort to place Winesburg, Ohio in a tradition of
American realism, that now seems dubious.
Only rarely is the object of Anderson's stories social
verisimilitude, or the "photographing" of familiar appearances, in
the sense, say, that one might use to describe a novel by Theodore Dreiser
or Sinclair Lewis. Only
occasionally, and then with a very light touch, does Anderson try to fill
out the social arrangements of his imaginary town--although the fact that
his stories are set in a mid-American place like Winesburg does constitute
an important formative condition. You
might even say, with only slight overstatement, that what Anderson is doing
in Winesburg, Ohio could be described as "antirealistic," fictions
notable less for precise locale and social detail than for a highly
personal, even strange vision of American life.
Narrow, intense, almost claustrophobic, the result is a book about
extreme states of being, the collapse of men and women who have lost their
psychic bearings and now hover, at best tolerated, at the edge of the little
community in which they live. It
would be a gross mistake, though not one likely to occur by now, if we were
to take Winesburg, Ohio as a social photograph of "the typical small
town" (whatever that might be.) Anderson evokes a depressed landscape
in which lost souls wander about; they make their flitting appearances
mostly in the darkness of night, these stumps and shades of humanity.
This vision has its truth, and at its best it is a terrible if narrow
truth--but it is itself also grotesque, with the tone of the authorial voice
and the mode of composition forming muted signals of the book's content.
Figures like Dr. Parcival, Kate Swift, and Wash Williams are not, nor are
they meant to be, "fullyrounded" characters such as we can expect
in realistic fiction; they are the shards of life, glimpsed for a moment,
the debris of suffering and defeat. In
each story one of them emerges, shyly or with a false assertiveness, trying
to reach out to companionship and love, driven almost mad by the search for
human connection. In the
economy of Winesburg these grotesques matter less in their own right than as
agents or symptoms of that "indefinable hunger" for meaning which
is Anderson's preoccupation.
against one another, passing one another in the streets or the fields, they
see bodies and hear voices, but it does not really matter--they are
disconnected, psychically lost. Is
this due to the particular circumstances of small-town America as Anderson
saw it at the turn of the century? Or does he feel that he is sketching an
inescapable human condition which makes all of us bear the burden of
loneliness? Alice Hindman in the story "Adventure" turns her face
to the wall and tries "to force herself to face the fact that many
people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg." Or especially in
Winesburg? Such impressions have been put in more general terms in
Anderson's only successful novel, Poor White:
men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they have themselves
built, and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls.
Now and then a man, cut off from his fellows by the peculiarities of
his nature, becomes absorbed in doing something that is personal, useful and
beautiful. Word of his
activities is carried over the walls.”
"walls" of misunderstanding are only seldom due to physical
deformities (Wing Biddlebaum in "Hands") or oppressive social
arrangements (Kate Swift in "The Teacher.") Misunderstanding,
loneliness, the inability to articulate, are all seen by Anderson as
virtually a root condition, something deeply set in our natures.
Nor are these people, the grotesques, simply to be pitied and
dismissed; at some point in their lives they have known desire, have dreamt
of ambition, have hoped for friendship. In all of them there was once
something sweet, "like the twisted little apples that grow in the
orchards in Winesburg." Now, broken and adrift, they clutch at some
rigid notion or idea, a "truth" which turns out to bear the stamp
of monomania, leaving them helplessly sputtering, desperate to speak out but
unable to. Winesburg, Ohio
registers the losses inescapable to life, and it does so with a deep
fraternal sadness, a sympathy casting a mild glow over the entire book. "Words," as the American writer Paula Fox has said,
"are nets through which all truth escapes." Yet what do we have
want, these Winesburg grotesques*, to unpack their hearts, to release
emotions buried and festering. Wash
Williams tries to explain his eccentricity but hardly can; Louise Bentley
"tried to talk but could say nothing"; Enoch Robinson retreats to
a fantasy world, inventing "his own people to whom he could really talk
and to whom he explained the things he had been unable to explain to living
his own somber way, Anderson has here touched upon one of the great themes
of American literature, especially Midwestern literature, in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the struggle for speech as it
entails a search for the self. Perhaps the central Winesburg story, tracing
the basic movements of the book, is "Paper Pills," in which the
old Doctor Reefy sits "in his empty office close by a window that was
covered with cobwebs," writes down some thoughts on slips of paper
("pyramids of truth," he calls them) and then stuffs them into his
pockets where they "become round hard balls" soon to be discarded.
What Dr. Reefy's "truths" may be we never know; Anderson
simply persuades us that to this lonely old man they are utterly precious
and thereby incommunicable, forming a kind of blurred moral signature.
a time the attentive reader will notice in these stories a recurrent pattern
of theme and incident: the grotesques, gathering up a little courage,
venture out into the streets of Winesburg, often in the dark, there to
establish some initiatory relationship with George Willard, the young
reporter who hasn't yet lived long enough to become a grotesque. Hesitantly,
fearfully, or with a sputtering incoherent rage, they approach him, pleading
that he listen to their stories in the hope that perhaps they can find some
sort of renewal in his youthful voice.
Upon this sensitive and fragile boy they pour out their desires and
frustrations. Dr. Parcival
hopes that George Willard "will write the book I may never get
written," and for Enoch Robinson, the boy represents "the youthful
sadness, young man's sadness, the sadness of a growing boy in a village at
the year's end [which may open] the lips of the old man."
the grotesques really need is each other, but their estrangement is so
extreme they cannot establish direct ties--they can only hope for connection
through George Willard. The
burden this places on the boy is more than he can bear.
He listens to them attentively, he is sympathetic to their
complaints, but finally he is too absorbed in his own dreams. The grotesques
turn to him because he seems "different"--younger, more open, not
yet hardened-but it is precisely this "difference" that keeps him
from responding as warmly as they want.
It is hardly the boy's fault; it is simply in the nature of things.
For George Willard, the grotesques form a moment in his education;
for the grotesques, their encounters with George Willard come to seem like a
stamp of hopelessness.
prose Anderson employs in telling these stories may seem at first glance to
be simple: short sentences, a sparse vocabulary, uncomplicated syntax. In
actuality, Anderson developed an artful style in which, following Mark Twain
and preceding Ernest Hemingway, he tried to use American speech as the base
of a tensed rhythmic prose that has an economy and a shapeliness seldom
found in ordinary speech or even oral narration.
What Anderson employs here is a stylized version of the American
language, sometimes rising to quite formal rhetorical patterns and sometimes
sinking to a self-conscious mannerism.
But at its best, Anderson's prose style in Winesburg, Ohio is a
supple instrument, yielding that "low fine music" which he admired
so much in the stories of Turgenev.
of the worst fates that can befall a writer is that of self-imitation: the
effort later in life, often desperate, to recapture the tones and themes of
youthful beginnings. Something
of the sort happened with Anderson's later writings.
Most critics and readers grew impatient with the work he did after,
say, 1927 or 1928; they felt he was constantly repeating his gestures of
emotional "groping"-what he had called in Winesburg, Ohio the
"indefinable hunger" that prods and torments people.
It became the critical fashion to see Anderson's "gropings"
as a sign of delayed adolescence, a failure to develop as a writer.
Once he wrote a chilling reply to those who dismissed him in this
way: "I don't think it matters much, all this calling a man a muddler,
a groper, etc.... The very man who throws such words as these knows in his
heart that he is also facing a wall." This remark seems to me both
dignified and strong, yet it must be admitted that there was some justice in
the negative responses to his later work.
For what characterized it was not so much "groping" as the
imitation of "groping," the self-caricature of a writer who feels
driven back upon an earlier self that is, alas, no longer available.
Winesburg, Ohio remains a vital work, fresh and authentic.
Most of its stories are composed in a minor key, a tone of subdued
pathos--pathos marking both the nature and limit of Anderson's talent. (He
spoke of himself as a "minor writer.") In a few stories, however,
he was able to reach beyond pathos and to strike a tragic note.
The single best story in Winesburg, Ohio is, I think, "The
Untold Lie," in which the urgency of choice becomes an outer sign of a
tragic element in the human condition.
And in Anderson's single greatest story, "The Egg," which
appeared a few years after Winesburg, Ohio, he succeeded in bringing
together a surface of farce with an undertone of tragedy.
"The Egg" is an American masterpiece.
influence upon later American writers, especially those who wrote short
stories, has been enormous. Ernest
Hemingway and William Faulkner both praised him as a writer who brought a
new tremor of feeling, a new sense of introspectiveness to the American
short story. As Faulkner put
it, Anderson's "was the fumbling for exactitude, the exact word and
phrase within the limited scope of a vocabulary controlled and even
repressed by what was in him almost a fetish of simplicity ... to seek
always to penetrate to thought's uttermost end." And in many younger
writers who may not even be aware of the Anderson influence, you can see
touches of his approach, echoes of his voice.
about the Elizabethan playwright John Ford, the poet Algernon Swinburne once
said: "If he touches you once he takes you, and what he takes he keeps
hold of; his work becomes part of your thought and parcel of your spiritual
furniture forever." So it is, for me and many others, with Sherwood
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