Library of America
Sherwood Anderson’s interrelated collection of short stories is a masterpiece of the form. As good as other works such as The Triumph of the Egg are nothing quite matches the magic of Winesburg, Ohio. Published 100 years ago, it is both modern and wistful, describing a time, even when it was first published in1919, that had long passed. It is that mix of wide-eyed realism and a kind of nostalgia for a small town America that never quite was what it seemed, which makes Winesburg such a compelling read.
Winesburg opens with a form of a frame story, or at least the idea of one. An old writer has written a book about the truths of men, the truths that make them grotesques. It is a book that is never published, but are we reading it? Is Winesburg full of grotesques? I won’t answer that, but even this little story has the marks of an Anderson jewel: multiple levels of story telling, that of the writer and the carpenter; a desire to touch something metaphysical: a truth, an emotion, a dream; and a concision of style that is not minimalist, but is never long. His brief paragraph about the carpenter which captures the horrors of the Civil War and what we now call PTSD is fascinating.
There are a couple overriding occupations for Anderson: the rise of the modern industrial world; and the dark, unsaid disappointments of the inhabitants. The former theme weaves its way throughout as a coloration. It creates the idea of an idyllic small town America, one pure, quiet and beautiful. It is a powerful image, one that still animates American thinking. Usually, he is discrete in his descriptions: a beautiful sunset, the laughter of berry pickers on their way home in the dusk. Other times he is direct, discussing the rise of machines, the coming of industrialism (an archaic usage that captures the passion for the machine age).
It is the latter, though, were Anderson spends most of his time. In a town of 1900 during the mid 1890s, few are happy: failed marriages; marriages made in haste when one lover becomes pregnant; dreams of passion foundering on the realities of a marriage. For Anderson it is not just the social constraints that are important, but the internal passions, often unvoiced and vaguely understood. They drive his characters to take a lover or marry, because they see in the other a way out of a small town, a boring life. The big cities of Cleveland and Chicago are always off in the distance, tempting, influencing, putting ideas into the heads of the inhabitants. He captures it well in most stories, but the two stories about Elizabeth Willard, a sick woman who slowly fades away in her forties, are stand outs. Both show a woman fully aware of the disappointments in her life and unable to overcome the depression which it brings on. But she finds a kind of solace in hoping her son, George the one character who moves throughout all the stories in the work, will leave town much like she wanted to before she married her husband. He also creates a kind of tender connection in her relationship with Dr Reefy. Both of them are damaged individuals and they find in her visits a kind of solace, a forbidden love that is never quite spoken, not quite realized, but gives them a fleeting hope. It is in these moments the nostalgia darkens and this ideal place is less than ideal. A passage from the penultimate story captures this sense well.
There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.
Winesburg, Ohio is still a masterwork of the short form that still holds up.The creative vision of his short stories are still magical. And the picture of a world already long past when he wrote the collection, has the right mix of darkness and light, showing that there is no perfect past. Small town America, despite the glowing memories made manifest in places like Disney’s Main Street, was as unfulfilling as any other place; perhaps even more.