Sherwood Anderson's central character in Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard, is cautioned by Kate Swift not to "become a mere peddler of words" (p. 161). Anderson may have been talking to himself, challenging himself to write a narrative that would be remembered. If so, he succeeded.
Winesburg, Ohio is one of twenty-seven works Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941) wrote and is considered his masterpiece. It was published by B. W. Huebsch in 1919, although Anderson had begun to write the short sections that make up the episodic novel in 1915 and 1916. The story "Godliness" was not originally part of the novel but was added to it in 1917 when Anderson abandoned another novel for which it had been intended. The subtitle of Winesburg, Ohio is A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life and the tales that make up the loosely constructed novel story cycle make it decidedly different from other works of its time.
Much of Winesburg, Ohio is autobiographical, taken from Anderson's childhood and adolescence in Clyde, Ohio, and his later experiences in Cleveland, Elyria, and Springfield. In fact, Anderson spent nearly half his life in Ohio. He was born in Camden, Ohio, on 13 September 1876 to Irwin M. and Emma Smith Anderson, and eight years later the family moved to Clyde. Suffering from alcoholism, Anderson's father could barely support his family. In 1895 Anderson's mother died. The next year, Anderson left Clyde for Chicago, where his brother lived. George Willard, whom critics consider to be based on Anderson, loses his mother at the same age that Anderson lost his.
Although Anderson owned his own business and for a time owned and edited two newspapers in Marion, Virginia, he is best known as a fiction writer Page 1198 | Top of Article and, more specifically, as the creator of George Willard and the other grotesque characters who people the pages of Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson began to write Winesburg, Ohio while he was in Chicago working for an advertising agency. He said later that he was walking one day through the city after being fired from his job, and, when he arrived home, he wrote "Hands," one of the short stories later included in the novel, in one sitting. Several of the tales were published in magazines before being included in the longer manuscript.
Impressed by Gertrude Stein and her stylistic innovations and deeply affected by Nathaniel Hawthorne's portraits of unusual characters, Anderson in turn influenced writers such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, and Edgar Lee Masters (especially his Spoon River Anthology, which is made up of character sketches presented as elegies), John Steinbeck, and Thomas Wolfe.
Winesburg, Ohio became an American classic largely because of its realistic portrayal of the isolation of modern society after World War I. Anderson belongs to the literary tradition founded by Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser, who celebrated the ordinary American, and Winesburg, Ohio remains one of the best examples of average people dealing with intense emotional issues at a significant moment of time.
Anderson's other works include Poor White (1920) and Dark Laughter (1925), and among his most successful short story collections are The Triumph of the Egg (1921) and Horses and Men (1923). One of his best-known and most anthologized short stories is "Death in the Woods," published in 1933. With that stark tale of a woman who confronts her own mortality and with Winesburg, Anderson was guaranteed a place in American literary history.
THE BOOK OF THE GROTESQUE
Anderson originally planned to call his collection "The Book of the Grotesque," but a publisher suggested that he name the book for the town it portrays so vividly. Anderson's flawed characters draw their literary power from lives spent in service to one individual truth, Anderson's definition of "grotesque." In fact, some consider Anderson a naturalistic writer specifically because of his interest in the grotesque.
In "The Book of the Grotesque" that begins the story cycle, Anderson writes:
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. 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. (P. 6)
The obsessions the characters develop separate them from one another and the stories that make up the collection are tales of unending despair that do not progress toward a resolution. The structure of the novel is circular, not linear. The characters remain isolated, trapped in their unspoken longings for one another.
Winesburg, Ohio is concerned with the plight of modern men and women in postwar America. Anderson characterizes the people in this American small town as "wanting love more than anything else in the world and not getting it" (p. 75). Anderson considered his fictional characters to be lonely and frail, unable to navigate the world of materialism and industrialization in which they find themselves. Their challenge is to find a way to communicate clearly and to reach out to others, a task that seems nearly impossible as the family structure and sense of community are coming under assault in the modern era. The thematic heart of the work is best expressed in "Sophistication": "In the main street of Winesburg crowds filled the stores and the sidewalks. Night came on, horses whinnied, the clerks in the stores ran madly about, children became lost and cried lustily, an American town worked terribly at the task of amusing itself" (p. 237).
Individual characters illustrate the themes of loneliness and longing for connection. For example, Louise Bentley begins to think obsessively about John Hardy and to long for the life she believes that others have attained: "It seemed to her that between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up and that she was living just on the edge of some warm inner circle of life that must be quite open and understandable to others" (p. 79).
In "The Thinker," Seth Williams resents Willard, the newspaper reporter who serves as a unifying consciousness in the stories. Longing for love and uncertain about how to pursue it, Williams gives up, saying: "That's how it'll be. That's how everything'll turn out. When it comes to loving someone, it won't never be me. It'll be someone else—some fool—someone who talks a lot—someone like that George Willard" (p. 137). Later in the novel, Elmer Cowley, too, expresses jealousy: "George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of the town" (p. 195). Like all the other characters, Cowley wants to stand out among his peers, to reach out to another human being who understands and appreciates him. He cries out, "I will not be queer—one to be looked at and listened to. . . . I'll Page 1199 | Top of Article be like other people" (p. 194). Ironically, of course, both Williams and Cowley fail to befriend Willard because of jealousy, making their isolation even more pronounced. Both become "queer," talked about or ignored by the townspeople, and mysterious even to themselves.
IMPORTANCE OF THE COLLECTION
In an introduction to the 1993 Signet Classic edition of Winesburg, Ohio, Irving Howe writes that he fell "under the spell" of the novel when he first read it and each time he reread it "responded to the half-spoken desires, the flickers of longing that spot its pages" (p. viii). Anderson longed for his characters to find freedom and personal expression. "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" (p. x). In a particularly insightful portion of his analysis, Howe writes:
Narrow, intense, almost claustrophic, 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. . . . 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. (P. xii)
As one of Anderson's biographers, Howe also understands the characters who populate the fictional Winesburg.
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. . . . These grotesques matter less in their own right than as agents or symptoms of that "indefinable hunger" for meaning which is Anderson's preoccupation. (P. xiii)
In the face of that suffering and defeat, even George Willard's personal development comes at a price, as he confronts his own despair in "Sophistication": "He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. . . .With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another. . . . He wants, most of all, understanding" (p. 239). He and Helen White stand poised to enter adulthood with all its uncertainty and inevitable losses. This short story remains one of the most carefully crafted in the collection and ensures that readers will understand Willard as representative of disappointment and longing.
In "Departure," the final story, Willard boards a train in search of a new life and a place that will fulfill his dreams. In addition to being the narrative center of the stories, Willard takes on allegorical significance as he tries to explain those whom he encounters to one another and as he reaches out—at least somewhat successfully—to begin a career and to find love.
The language of Winesburg, Ohio is rich and compelling. In each story, a character is unforgettably portrayed and illuminated, and a moment is chronicled. Winesburg, Ohio becomes a microcosm of life, and when Willard finally boards the train, Anderson gives the reader a ray of hope for the others in the town. In "Death," Doctor Reefy cautions a townsperson, "You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life" (p. 226). But readers of Winesburg, Ohio may believe that Willard will move to a new place where his expectations will be met and where those whom he encounters will be warm and welcoming. Perhaps he will even find that "divine accident of life."
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. Introduction by Irving Howe. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Anderson, David D. Sherwood Anderson: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.
Burbank, Rex J. Sherwood Anderson. New York: Twayne, 1964.
Howe, Irving. Sherwood Anderson. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951.
Howe, Irving. Introduction to Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Rideout, Walter B., ed. Sherwood Anderson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Schevill, James Erwin. Sherwood Anderson: His Life and Work. Denver, Colo.: University of Denver Press, 1951.
Sutton, William Alfred. The Road to Winesburg: A Mosaic of the Imaginative Life of Sherwood Anderson. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1972.
Weber, Brom. Sherwood Anderson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1964.
White, Ray Lewis. The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson: Essays in Criticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.
White, Ray Lewis, ed. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.