A River Runs Through It:
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio
Originally published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
I’ve recently come to the interesting reflection that many of my American literary peers began their reading and writing lives as Anglophiles. If a young reader has the inclination to pursue the music that rings throughout the realms of gold that exist in literature, it’s often the magic rhythms of Donne or Keats or Housman that calls them in. And who on Earth is better than Shakespeare at seducing the ear and the mind and the heart into devotion to the word? Or, just as often, it’s the strange and striking (but psychologically familiar) allure of the settings and subject matter of Jane Austen or the Brontës or Charles Dickens that draws young readers into the world of books. I remember being fascinated as a young reader by both the word choices and the inner and outer universes in Dickens and then being utterly astounded by the quadruple pun on “coal” in the first few lines of Romeo and Juliet. Who knew that words and sounds and ideas could be so endlessly polysemous and associative? Although I’d been an addicted reader ever since I first found out that you could represent spoken words and interior thoughts by using abstract marks on paper, this Shakespearean riff was my true initiation into the deepest mysteries of the word.
Strangely, though, I still didn’t become an Anglophile the way that so many other readers did. My formative literary world was American, mostly written in my own contemporary American English, and it was peopled by workers and loners and misfits rather than by aristocrats in fancy dress fretting about who was going to marry whom (this fascination came later, especially with Proust and Tolstoy). My formative literary world was authored by Steinbeck and Hemingway and Harper Lee and Arthur Miller—all seemingly engendered by His Holiness Mark Twain. Then when I was a teenager reading John Dos Passos and William Faulkner and William Saroyan and Henry Miller, I found a recurring name springing up as another common influence among almost all of my favorite twentieth-century writers: Sherwood Anderson. When I finally read his seminal 1919 collection, Winesburg, Ohio, I then followed his wellspring of influence in nearly infinite directions—initially back forward, but then nearly endlessly outward in both time and space, always starting the process anew when I found a particularly potent book or author or stream of writers.
Perhaps it was the fact that Anderson was a fellow Ohioan—born in Camden, only thirty miles from my hometown of Dayton—that made the language and world of Winesburg, Ohio so compelling to me. Anderson had famously abandoned his family in Ohio to become a writer, which also appealed to the young reader/writer looking toward the larger world of artistic dedication. Anderson had moved a lot in his early life, growing up mostly in Clyde, Ohio, in the north of the state, and then later moving around to nearby Cleveland and then to Elyria (a city whose name recalls the classical Illyria, the setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; also: Anderson went to college at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, a school named after the more famous Wittenberg University in Germany, whose most famous fictional alumnus was Hamlet). There’s a real town in northwest Ohio named Winesburg, but most critics agree that it was Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson lived from around age eight until age fourteen, when he was forced to quit school and help support his family, that was the model for his most famous book.
A kaleidoscopic panorama of smalltown America, Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of interrelated stories that many critics say works as a novel. Anderson most wanted to be a novelist, but his best work was his short fiction, and perhaps the reason why Winesburg, Ohio works so well is because its discrete tales accrete meaning and multiply their facets as the book progresses, melding Anderson’s penetrating gifts as a storyteller with his larger novelistic aims. This method of building a fictional town (Anderson actually supplies a map of Winesburg and its main haunts at the beginning of the book) and of having different stories intersect along its streets’ intersections directly influenced William Faulkner’s “Yoknapatawpha County” series of novels and stories, which in Absolom! Absolom! also has a map of its fictional layout (Anderson was Faulkner’s friend and early mentor). Another excellent (and somewhat neglected) literary landscape to which Winesburg and Yoknapatawpha are tributaries is the “Manawaka” series of novels and stories by Margaret Laurence—a Canadian author whose mind had surely traveled widely in Ohio and Mississippi and in whose works the reader can actually see the people and relationships and houses and towns reflecting off of each other and fashioning a world as complex and as compelling as our own.
Along with its varied interconnections, one of the ways that Winesburg, Ohio holds together and builds to its gemlike level of refraction is through the growing presence in the stories of George Willard, a young reporter who interacts with and reflects the lives of Winesburg’s inhabitants. Like all other small towns on the planet (including those outside of Ohio), Winesburg is both friendly and solitary, full of hope and fear, and steeped in dreams and disillusion, and because people trust him and confide in him, George Willard is one of our main lenses into the town’s lives. The book is written in third person, though, and so we’re privy to the thoughts and actions of characters whose worlds of experience and memory are far beyond the purview of George Willard’s consciousness. Through George Willard’s eyes, through the townspeople’s eyes, and through our own eyes, we see people and relationships evolve constantly, with no single facet remaining the same from viewpoint to viewpoint.
There’s almost no chance that at this point in his life Anderson could have read Proust, who in 1919 was still revising and expanding the later volumes of In Search of Lost Time, but evaluating Anderson in hindsight, the dynamism of Winesburg, Ohio’s characterizations seems to parallel the way that nothing in Proust’s world remains static or tied to any single perspective (including its first-person narrator’s). Although critics often associate Anderson with the literary school of American Naturalism (see Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 Spoon River Anthology for a similar approach), and although the technical influence of Anderson’s writing style is seen more clearly in conventional writers than in avant-garde ones, it seems probable that Anderson would have been familiar with the work of Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce, because the levels of seeing and understanding and portrayal in Winesburg, Ohio seem to have deep affinities with many aspects of early Modernism. Ultimately, Anderson remained a fairly conventional writer, and even while his profound influence spread widely through writers of varying styles (Nabokov famously declared that there was only one school of writing that mattered: the School of Talent; and clearly the talented writers saw Anderson’s greatness), even some of Anderson’s most beholden descendents disclaimed him when times and styles changed. Even the deeply indebted Hemingway and the ungracious Faulkner wrote cruel parodies of him. But while there was some merit to their criticisms, these were probably just cases of pupils trying to distance themselves from an early master.
Anderson’s artistic fortunes started to diverge not long after Winesburg, Ohio, and perhaps Hemingway and Faulkner saw this coming before anyone else. Although it was a huge success among writers and critics, Winesburg, Ohio didn’t sell well, and as Anderson pursued his dream of being a novelist, his works became more popular with the public and less popular with his fellow writers. Perhaps his was an example of a great artist following the wrong artistic stream, both in form (the novel) and in style (conventional works for a popular audience). Or perhaps his was yet another example of an author with only one truly great work in him. Either way, Winesburg, Ohio is a tremendous cataract in humanity’s endless flow of creative fiction. It’s one of the great works of American literature, and of world literature, and for its brief 220 pages it makes Ohio the size of ancient Greece (I’ve often mused that Anderson should have called the book Elyria, Ohio and had one of his characters declare, “This is Elyria, lady”). Finishing the book as a teenager in Ohio, though, I joined George Willard on the train as he left his hometown (“a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood”) and wanted the book’s final story, “Departure,” to be just the beginning.