Tuesday, September 21

Considering Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio"

It is time to add another name to the pantheon of major and minor literary deities who have disappointed me. Be it an honor or otherwise, Sherwood Anderson now stands in my mind alongside Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro and Henry James as those writers who have been built up and then failed to earn my esteem. It's not that I couldn't respect their works and themes and ways with words, but they failed to strike that deeply resonant cord within me and remain a splinter in my mind. Perhaps it is too much to expect, but after hearing so much, anything less than a life-altering work from these writers would have to be considered a failure. Maybe, probably, my response would be different if I had read more than a single work of Anderson, but Winesburg, Ohio is held up as his greatest and sometimes used as evidence for how the Noble prize for literature has missed the actual great works of Jorges Luis Borges and Marcel Proust while passing ten million kronor to Sully Prudhomme, Frédéric Mistral and Verner von Heidenstam.

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of vignettes about the residents of this small town. In the prologue, Anderson sets the stage for the series by writing:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.


And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some were quite strong and snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
It's a pretty sentiment, though I am prone to disagree with and believe it to be nonsense, more or less. In that it's like Joel McHale in Community's season finale as he considers whether Slater, who is like him on New Year's Day with a list of resolutions, or Britta, whose is like him four weeks later when he's hitting the snooze button and screening his mother's calls, would be better for him, whether it would be better for him to strive to be a better person or to know himself. It's nicely put and thematically interesting but requires ignoring the episode just past where he gave Shirley his priority registration because of Britta's influence.

And so Anderson explores the truths and falsehoods held dearly by the residents of Winesburg, Ohio. There's the teacher who was run out of town on accusations of touching his students. There's the artist who prefer imaginary friends to the real. There's the landowner who desires a male heir to defend their property from Philistines. There's the reverend who peeks at a woman as she reads in bed. There's the man who hates women. The only two truths necessary to exist in this town are that life and marriage are miserable things and that sharing your defining story with the town's youngest reporter is a good thing.

There are a wide variety of characters present. For that and for making them each distinctive, I give Anderson credit. In that he does right in forming the backbone of the work, but then Anderson goes and does them a disservice by forcing their stories into just a few pages. Twenty-two characters are identified and explored in the 231 pages in this volume. That's just more than ten pages for each, and the typeset is not exactly compressed. It's enough room to describe each character's background and leaves little room for much else. Few characters face conflicts, but those that happened and were decided long ago. When Anderson prefers to give each character such short shrift, though, the entire book begins to fill more like a collection of character sketches and preparations for a much better, longer work. It should be no surprise that the most compelling stories in the book come from "Godliness, a Tale in Four Parts," where the three lead characters have four times the time and space to develop.

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