Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

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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?

Reviewed on September 28, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I started this years ago and only read a little bit; something about it just didn’t click with me. However, that was at the beginning of my Classics Renaissance, so I may not have been ready for it. I should give it another try someday.

  • I read this in an Intro to Humanities course I was taking at the local community college when I was still in high school, roughly 15 years ago now, and I still remember how much I loved the book. It’s actually still on my shelves, and I will have to reread it someday.

  • I picked up a copy of this in the Spring at the first Borders closing in my area. I had never heard of it, but it sounded amazing so I am glad I picked it up! Thanks for the great review-I’ll have to make sure I get to this one sooner or later!

  • I knew this is considered a classic, but I honestly had no idea of what it is about or how it is structured. I’m so glad I read your review because I’ve always been curious, but for some reason I had a negative reaction whenever I saw it. Now I will think differently!

    • Anbolyn » maybe the ugly book covers caused the negative reaction? he he. My library copy is very ugly (not one of the three above). I think also one doesn’t expect a collection of related stories about small town turn-of-the-century America to be all that exciting, so maybe that’s why too. I hope you give it a try!

  • I always thought this was similar to Our Town…like Anbolyn commented, I know Winesburg, Ohio is a classic but have never read enough about it to know what it’s about. So glad I read your review. I’m in a short story mood right now so maybe it’s the time for me to read this one; plus, I can’t help feeling a little ashamed that I’ve never read any of Anderson’s work, but have managed to find so much time for, say, Rick Riordan.

    • Ellen » It’s interesting because although it is short stories, you have to read them all together to get the full impact of what Winesburg, Ohio is. Definitely connected short stories. And I think this is the only “big” work by Sherwood Anderson. None of the other things he published struck me as “must read classics.” So don’t feel bad you haven’t gotten to him yet 🙂

  • I think many people are shocked by how deeply these stories look into the despair of the character. It is almost as if you stop off for lunch in a small cafe in Ohio in 1916 and one of the patrons knows as much about life as Chekhov-

  • I really liked this one too. I was also expecting something closer to Our Town and it was so much darker than that. It felt very honest though. Things in a small town can be so oppressive because everyone knows your business and it was interesting to read a book that really acknowledged that, even though it was written so long ago.

  • Ha, that’s good, ban a book because you don’t like that the characters are based on you. I’m pretty sure only the people in the town knew which character was based on which resident!

    I definitely like the sound of Winesburg, Ohio. I’ve heard the title but didn’t know much about it. I’ll add it to my classics project list, which I really need to get back to reading from!

  • I know very little about this book, except that it’s a series of stories about a particular community. The fact that it was banned by the community it was based on fascinates me, and I never knew Hemingway cited Anderson as an influence. Must read this one soon. 🙂

    • Darlyn » Yes, I was so surprised by the Hemingway/Faulkner/etc crew crediting him as an influence. Once I started reading, though, I could see it. So well done, I think! Enjoy 🙂

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