Tip of the Quill: A Journal
On Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
Winesburg, Ohio

Attempting to ease into my rededication to reading the classics, I decided to start out with a slim volume that I vaguely remember reading before, when I was in high school or perhaps junior high: Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 Winesburg, Ohio.
As I read through it, I was struck by the truth of the old adage that you never read the same book twice, for the same reason that you never step in the same river twice. When I was younger, I groaned with disinterest while flipping through the pages, skipping ahead to try and find something in it that would catch my interest. I blame this partly on the dullness of the familiar: Anderson based this collection of short stories on his own experiences in a small town in Ohio, and having grown up in one I can easily name similar characters and situations from my own upbringing, even though they were separated by nearly a century and a half. As an adult, now I have more respect for that very quality of timelessness: while the characters at play in these twenty-four lightly linked tales are very much creatures of their era, struggling with the dawn of the industrial age of farming, the notions of women’s liberation and so on, they are also shot through with timeless themes such as the clashing of generations, the struggling with religion (which I can tell you is a very common theme in rural America even now), and the frequently damaging and unfulfilling siren’s song of the city.
Another glint of insight provided by rereading this book as an adult: that very quality that weighed the text down for me as a kid, the ‘dullness of the familar’, is likely to be the same quality that makes the book sparkle for inner-city children intrigued by the strangeness of small town life. Because mine is an inherently multithreaded mind, I’m also reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and enjoying its (admittedly satirical) depictions of the class struggles of early New York, largely because Archer’s experiences are so different from my own. It’s almost a variant on The Prince and the Pauper itself, a literary case of “the grass is always greener”, yet somehow both The Age of Innocence and Winesburg, Ohio seem to me to be “written for city people” in a way that you don’t find in many genre works. The advent of urban fantasy seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon (although that too is, I’m sure, something that could stand for some research) with China Mieville’s King Rat standing as, perhaps, the most thoroughly urban fantasy work that springs to mind – there is something about Mieville that is unrelentingly inner-city, so much so that when his Un Lun Dun bears a staggering similarity to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere it feels like less of an homage or a rip-off as it does a kind of grittier remix. It’s a question of “other” versus “wonder”, I suspect, with a certain formula at play as to the nature of the author, the content, and the audence: an author of a place can write about the place for either audiences of of the place or not of the place. Mieville, in his jungle beats and dirty streets, feels like a writer of the city writing about the city for readers in the city, Gaiman feels like a writer of the country writing about the city for readers in the country, and while Anderson comes across as a writer of the country writing about the country, Winesburg, Ohio feels like it’s written for metropolitan audiences.
It’s not for nothing that Anderson’s original title for the book was The Book of the Grotesque; although it’s very easy to imagine Anderson drawing inspiration from the caricatures of Leonardo da Vinci (through which grotesques the artist managed to both learn and convey deep underlying connections and truths about humanity in general), there’s also an undertone of the carnival at play here, with his characters stretched into such horrific amplifications that they wouldn’t be out of place in a traveling freak show. It’s these amplifications that make each of the short tales feel less like stories and more like simple character sketches. Most of them clock in at only a few pages – although there are twenty-four tales in the book, most with succinct, one-word titles like “Hands”, “Adventure” and “Respectability”, the 1992 Penguin paperback I’m reading is a slender 248 pages. Yet the tales are wide-ranging and diverse, so much so that it feels like there might be something for everyone here. The common theme is loneliness, as Malcolm Cowley notes in his introduction:

George Willard is growing up in a friendly town full of solitary persons; the author calls them “grotesques.” Their lives have been distorted not, as ANderson tells us in his prologue, by their having seized upon a single truth, but rather by their inability to express themselves. Since they cannot truly communicate with others, they have all become emotional cripples. Most of the grotesques are attracted one by one to George Willard; they feel that he might be able to help them. In those moments of truth that Anderson loves to describe, they try to explain themselves to George, believing that he alone in Winesburg has an instinct for finding the right words and using them honestly.

While this feels like the kind of heroic self-centeredness only a writer can indulge in (“their immortal souls can only be saved through the power of language!”), it is the ways in which these characters are shown to become cut off from the world that makes their vignettes interesting. Further, as I noted before, the range displayed here means that there’s a little something for everyone in these pages: were I teaching this book to a class, I might divvy the stories up among them based on their interests: a romantic might be asked to analyze the tragedy of Alice Hindman in “Adventure,” while a fan of thrillers might be asked to investigate the horrors of purple-faced Wash Williams in “Respectability”.
Another teaching point for the book might be an examination of Anderson’s language: the author’s sentences are somewhat herky-jerky, not as abrupt as Hemingway but still fairly staccato and occasionally overly simplistic in their structure. (Of course, this is coming from a guy who frequently overuses subphrases and semicolons to string sentences along for multiple lines at a time, so that might be an issue of personal preference.) More disturbing is the gear-grinding manner in which Anderson occasionally leaps back and forth in time from one paragraph to the next. This is done in a fashion not of authorly foreshadowing but more of a storyteller’s aside; in fact, there are multiple places in the book where it becomes all too easy to imagine that you’re sitting on the front porch of the New Willard House, rocking away beside the author himself as he unspools these tales of this town between puffs of a cigarette or sips of homemade lemonade. The author intermittently slips in a sentence in first-person (“I go too fast”, for example) that reminds the reader that these are not events recorded but a stories being consciously and carefully told. It’s an interesting approach, an authorial method more commonly seen in England than in American texts (I think; again, this may be an area for future research) but it fits in well with the general age and flavor of the book as a whole.
Do I like the book? That’s a difficult question to answer, largely because it varies from story to story. Some of the tales remain guilty of the same overwrought “look at me, look at how tragic this is, isn’t this literary?” attitude that I’ve recoiled from ever since I first started reading the classics as a kid, and there are some places in which Anderson’s “lookee at the freakshow” carney barker tone grates on my small-town nerves as an excruciating blend of condescending and pretentious, and the knowledge that Anderson was a small-town kid like me makes me alternate between forgiveness and resentment at his coarse capitalization upon that – our? – way of life. Still, as a reader, writer and teacher I do recognize the value in the text and the value in reading the text, as illustrated above; therefore, while I might not prescribe this book for pleasure reading (except, perhaps, “Responsibility”, which was indeed pretty cool) I’d still say that Winesburg, Ohio is definitely worth its admittedly brief required time.