I was surprised by Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (published 1916). I thought it would be an Our Town-esque view of life in a small town. It was very similar in its setting to Thornton Wilder’s play in that it focused on people in a small community. But Sherwood Anderson’s collection of stories was remarkably deep, conveying realistic emotions on a level beyond those explored in the comparatively basic Our Town (which I love for its perspective on family, relationships, and life; thoughts here).
In deceptively simple modernistic prose, Anderson captured the loneliness of people and the secrets all hold inside. Each story captures the intimate thoughts on worries of a different person in Winesburg, with the entire volume creating a silhouette of the small town’s makeup. Although everyone is nosy about one other in a town of less than 2,000 people, no one really knew each other at all.
How universal this seemed to be; it extends to today. We may be less nosy about our neighbors, but we certainly don’t know each other any better!
George Willard, the teenaged newspaper reporter, was the character that echoed throughout each story, since he was so well known by the town. He provides a context for each character. Given the details I know about him by the end of the book, he easily became my favorite. I wanted to see how he related to the others and to hear of his successes. I loved the ending chapters: a perfect way of rounding out the volume, with a touch of hope for the future.
My favorite chapters were many, and I can’t begin to explain the ways in which Anderson drew me in to the stories. “Hands,” being the first story after the prologue, stunned me with its frankness and its sexuality. I was expecting Our Town, and this was not that at all. I was completely drawn in to the collection after reading the four-part “Godliness” about three generations that had grown up in Winesburg, and from then on, I found myself enthralled with each of the subsequent stories. Some were partially heart-breaking (such as “Queer”) and others simply thought-provoking reflections on life, such as “The Untold Lie.” As I mention in the previous paragraph, I loved the last chapters, which brought everything full circle.
I began Winesburg, Ohio knowing very little of the writing style: I only knew of the context. When I did read the introduction after reading a portion of the book, I was nodding my head with the assertion that Anderson’s slim volume greatly influenced Faulkner and Hemingway, and that Anderson began his story after reading Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Lee Masters. Anderson may have written a few years before modernism became a fact, but his prose is stark and matter-of-fact, and yet beautiful in a way similar to the modernists that claim him as an influence. (Wikipedia names him a “new realistist” but I definitely see the hints of modernism in his prose.)
I’m glad I finally read Winesburg, Ohio. I’d suggest its classic status remains in force for a reason. If you want subtle prose that will amaze you with its power and depth as it considers individuals’ hopes and dreams, then you should give it a try too.
P.S. Although I didn’t read this book specifically for Banned Books Week (not doing well at planning ahead these days), it has been banned before, specifically from the Clyde, Ohio public library. Sherwood Anderson grew up in Clyde and many of the characters in Winesburg, Ohio were based on people he grew up with. They weren’t too happy with the portrayal in Anderson’s book.
What would you think if someone wrote a book about the people in your home town?