Saturday, April 25, 2009

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

I guess I must be attuned to stories of loneliness or alone-ness – not the same thing – because it informs much of my own writing. In reading novels, more often than not that is what will jump out at me – witness my description of Honest Lil and Thomas Hudson in the post on Islands in the Stream below. And so Winesburg, Ohio, with its series of interlinked stories of isolation and disappointment and disconnection, was always going to appeal to me.

In Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson creates a place that is everyplace and people who are everypeople, and their small hopes and fears – barely, if at all, articulated – are those that each of us hide in our own quiet, private, solemn places. His characters – grotesques – are emotionally crippled but their desire for something else in life – just for something to happen – connects powerfully with the reader. With their every failure of communication comes a jolt of something – recognition, wistful regret, quiet compassion – that threatens, even if just for a short time, to penetrate the hard crust of everyday reality that we all immerse ourselves in. In their disconnection from each other, these sad, lonely people somehow connect with us, the readers, in a way that is gloriously ironic and deeply affecting. Malcolm Cowley gets it right when he calls Winesburg, Ohio a ‘work of love, an attempt to break down the walls that divide one person from another, and also in its own fashion, a celebration of small-town life in the lost days of goodwill and innocence.

In terms of American literature it is an interesting novel. Written in 1919, it prefigures some of the nostalgic pastoralism that came to typify Southern writing between the wars. In its catalogue of damaged characters, it begins to develop the grotesque which comes to be a dominant figure in later Southern writing, although it must be said that Anderson’s grotesques are softer and warmer and, with the exception of Jesse Bentley, less possessed of menace than later Southern grotesques. Rosemary Laughlan describes them as:

those who are agonizingly incomplete or unfulfilled, those who have had to suppress their overwhelming desires and needs to love, and, according to the Writer who collected their stories, those who mistook a myth or falsehood for a truth around which to center their lives. As a result, they express their frustrations or delusions sporadically in eccentric behavior.

This question of truth is important. In the first story, The Book of the Grotesque, we read:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were beautiful.

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

It was the truths that made the people grotesques.

This begins to articulate many of the preoccupations of the Southern novelist. There is a kind of Rousseauian appeal to a golden age of innocence before man lost his noble savagery. There are hints of the politics and powerplays and posturings which disfigure the social life of man. There are matters of truth and honour and decency, and our Fall from the grace of truth. And then there are the results of that fall, the grotesques which populate the literature of the south. Thus, although Cowley is right to characterise the novel as a ‘work of love’, there is nothing nostalgic or comfortable here. In its depiction of isolation, Winesburg, Ohio prefigures much of the coming generation of American writing, with its preoccupations with man and society and industrialism and the inescapable progress of technology.

Modern readings of the novel tend to focus on George Willard, the journalist who appears in many of the stories and is the natural link between a number of the characters. David Stouck even suggests he is a persona of the author himself. It is to George that these sad people turn, as though seeking through him to have their stories told in print, made real. And, of course, in a kind of mimetic twist, that is precisely what happens. But George, a young man with his own dreams and fears, is unable to bear the burden of their expectations. He who could relieve them is unqualified by life to do so, and so their loneliness persists. Describing it as being ‘composed in a minor key’, Irving Howe notes the novel’s ‘subdued pathos’, and while this is undoubtedly a strength, for Howe it is also suggestive of its limitation. Perhaps so, but there is a sustained beauty to the writing here, and these small tragedies linger in the imagination.

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