Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

I should say up front that Winesburg, Ohio  was not a book that I was just dying to read. We’ve dealt with Sherwood Anderson’s influence here and here, and it was his influence on writers I have loved, more than anything else, that prompted me to check out his most famous book.

So what kind of book is it? Not a novel, that’s for sure. Not even a short story collection in the strictest sense- though each of the stories could technically stand on their own. It’s actually a short story cycle, where a number of stories work together like a mosaic to fill in a picture larger than themselves.

The common theme tying them all together seems to be the notion that meaningful connections with other people, even in a place as small as Winesburg, are a deceptive mirage you can never quite get to. A number of the stories focus on near -connections, typically occurring on long walks about the town (there is a bar in Winesburg, but not much else in the way of entertainment), but ultimately the characters are disappointed to find themselves bereft of the friendship and understanding that they so desperately craved. If I were to sum up the plight of Anderson’s characters in one word, I would say that they yearn .

Now, there are  some repeating characters we get to know a little better than others, especially the character of young George Willard, who serves as a kind of sounding board for the lost souls of his town, and whose decision to leave Winesburg in the last story gives the book its ending. But no matter the length, each story is a kind of simple character sketch, or a study in backstory- almost like a writing exercise. I was impressed with the eloquent way in which he puts their inner lives on display for the reader, as in this quick but precise description:
“In the big empty office the man and the woman sat looking at each other and they were a good deal alike. Their bodies were different, as were also the color of their eyes, the length of their noses, and the circumstances of their existence, but something inside them meant the same thing, wanted the same release, would have left the same impression on the memory of an onlooker.”
Each character’s got a history, and each finds himself in a dilemma, but there aren’t many happy resolutions or neatly tied-up endings. Every story simply adds another tile to the mosaic, which I why I would say that, in the end, the main character is probably Winesburg itself.

It’s worth checking out, as a “founding document” of modern American fiction, if nothing else.

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