Sherwood Anderson’s famous novel of interconnected stories, Winesburg, Ohio is a recent sortie that I have made into the fictional past, into the country of a contemporary view of life, seen one hundred years after its time. It is a stark, realistic, bleak, and occasionally funny portrayal of life in a small town. Anderson has been said by other commentators to have influenced both Steinbeck and Hemingway, and this I can readily believe, but in two different ways. To Steinbeck he imparted his eye for detail and human weakness, such as was evident in his Monterrey books. To Hemingway, the brevity of style and concise description. Although both of these scions surpassed Anderson in one way or another, as is fitting, it is interesting to see at least a part of the foundation on which they were building when they wrote. And just as Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson worked on some of the same literary themes, I still feel that Anderson was the better craftsman, eschewing the mill of cranking out one book per year (as Lewis did for a while in the teens and twenties), and writing a work of higher quality as a result.
As for the tales themselves, they are loosely interconnected, with the only real recurring figure being George Willard, the town journalist. The various stories, told as brief, staccato incidents in the various lives, are the sorts of stories that one finds, living in a small town. Although it is less possible to live in quite so isolated a fashion in the America of the ‘teens, I am just old enough to remember a world much more similar to the one Anderson describes, where one’s horizons could literally be no farther distant than the county seat, or perhaps the nearest medium-sized town. The changes wrought and brought by technology are at once creative and destructive, giving us a world of instant communication and community, but at the expense of the closeness of neighbors and friends.
Anderson’s world is a world of the mundane calendar which stretches back into the anglo-european past, a world of feast days and fairs. It is also a world of the minutiae of the small town, of the characters which inhabit it: the local braggart, the drunkard, the spinster, the fast woman, the seducer, the idiot, the dreamer, and those trapped forever in their roles, having missed the window of possibility which might have led to greatness, or at least, to escape.
In a way, too, this is a Ray Bradbury-esque world, as he too was fond of evoking the small middle western town, albeit by adding magic and fantasy into the mix. Take Bradbury’s fictional locale of Greentown, Illinois, which appears many times in his works. If you were to strip away the magic, and make everyone slightly darker and less sympathetic than typical Bradbury characters, I believe you’d end up in the vicinity of Winesburg, Ohio.
I’ve yet to put foot in the state of Ohio, but I already feel as though, were I to find myself there today, it would feel familiar. And that is, for me at least, Anderson’s best achievement in this book. It’s probably not a book for everyone – few books are – but it’s still relevant, one hundred years later. If it will still be in another hundred years… well, ask me then.
Originally reviewed 29 November 2012.
Find your copy on AbeBooks.com.