Sherwood Anderson published this collection of short stories in 1919 all set in fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio. Even though it's written in the third person, it's told through the narrative voice of George Willard, the town reporter, who shows up in most of the stories, sometimes taking an active role and at other times just telling a story.
It is obvious that the writer loves these people, and is frustrated at the isolation and unhappiness of their lives, even though he makes it clear that they hold within themselves everything needed to make them happy. The character in the first story is a dying old writer who is attempting to write about all the people he has known as a "book of grotesques". What follows is the collection of stories, which each character fulfilling that expectation.
There are the young lovers who don't quite connect; there is a old man so obsessed with religious fervor that he attempts to sacrifice his grandson; there is a married man who regrets it all and tries to warn a younger man of future unhappiness; there's a doctor and a sick woman who try to connect. The book is full of people who toil all their lives and never achieve happiness. As I made my way through the book I kept hoping that even one of the characters would rise above the morass. It didn't happen.
The writer has a wonderful sense of place and the town of Winesburg in the early part of the 20th Century is very real. These people were not poor or disadvantaged in the usual sense of the word; they didn't suffer fire, floods or famine. Instead, they trapped themselves in their own psychological webs that made it impossible for them to lead anything but sad unfulfilled lives. This is a fine book and stands alone as a clear voice of its time.
... Isn't one of the ultimate benchmarks of successful parenting when your child selects a book from her bookshelf, and says: "Here Dad, you may enjoy this"? Of course I had to overcome that instinctive shudder when I recognized the not very "zippy" title as belong to one of those "school assignment" books I had so successfully dodged. Yet considering it is far past the time to reconsider that initial aversion, and that the only teacher I have to please is myself; and then there is the matter of the pedigree of the recommender... so why not?
I did not get past the introduction before I uncovered a recommendation that reinforced the others. Sherwood Anderson was a mentor to both Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, no small matter in itself. The not very fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio is based on the very real town of Clyde, Ohio, wherever that is. It proves to be located not that far off the shores of Lake Erie, between Cleveland and Toledo. Clyde still has only around 6,000 people, and their website promotes the virtues of small town living. But where is their most famous writer? You have to "drill down" two levels in their website, to find a brief, two sentence mention of the writer who literally "put them on the map." They'd rather talk about their Civil War General, James McPherson, or the Whirlpool plant. So, perhaps the ultimate endorsement: he had told too much about them, a realistic assessment of the town that jars with the "pro-business" image the website promotes, and thus numerous folks today are still not fond of him.
The book itself is composed of 24 short stories; many of them could be "stand alone" in their excellence. In some cases the character appears only in that story, such as The Reverend Curtis Hartman in "The Strength of God," or Enoch Robinson in "Loneliness." There are other characters, such as Helen White, and George Willard, who is a reporter for the local newspaper at 18, and is a thinly disguised Sherwood Anderson, who appear in multiple stories. Anderson's introductory story, entitled "The Book of the Grotesques" about a writer who: "All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques," which may be a bit harsh, but clearly this book is peopled with life's outliers, and many "lives of quiet desperation." Issues that haunt the papers today were covered by Anderson then, such as the male teacher who may have placed his hands on the boys once too often, and was run out of town, and the female teacher who had "a thing" for a lad 12 years her junior. There is also the voyeuristic preacher, and the farmer who is an instrument of "God's will." All not your normal Chamber of Commerce fare.
Anderson's prose is lean; his characters are drawn tightly and swiftly, and he seems to have a knack for the specific detail that says so much more about the person. There is also much normalcy in the book; much concerns the longing of the human heart, the figurative and literal groping with the opposite sex that is part of the coming of age process, and beyond. As in real life, the relationships can become complex and ambivalent, and Anderson even speculates on the nature of the solace his fictional mother may have been obtaining from the local doctor. Some reviewers were concerned that everything didn't tie together in the end - but I figure that is the essence of real life. In the conclusion, George Willard, just like the real life Sherwood Anderson, boards the train, and leaves town, seeking his place in the wider world. The irony is that the material for his finest writing was obtained during his first 18 years, in Clyde.
Much belated apologies, certainly for myself, as well as those 1-star reviewers, to the English teachers who tried in their Sisyphean task. Mea culpa. And thanks to my daughter for this solid 5-star read.
on January 13, 2011
I'm ashamed to say that I avoided this book for decades - decades! - based soley on a cover. My mother had the book on her bookshelves, an older edition with a painting of a turn of the century couple courting on the front. It looked vaguely impressionist, and left me to conclude that the stories inside would probably be a bunch of sentimentalist claptrap. How wrong I was!
The book inside is more akin to a Hopper painting than a Degas. Anderson manages an amazing level of character development within the short stories. The stories themselves work independently, but also work together to tell the story of an American Midwestern town. And the feeling one is left with is that everything you have read is essentially and authentically American.
To comment on the Kindle version specifically, it seems well formatted to this reader. I've noticed a typo here and there, but nothing glaring, and nothing that distracts from the experience of reading the book.
In the context of today's tell-all society, the kinds of human revelations and insights that Sherwood Anderson wove into the Winesburg stories may seem tame and even pedestrian. But at the time, few good writers were even attempting to penetrate into the "real life" experience of ordinary Americans. His efforts so many years ago are all the more valuable today, however, since it provides us a glimpse of what life was *really* like for some people in much-romanticized "small town America."
This novel is really a collection of loosely interrelated short stories, or perhaps even a series of character sketches, but so what? The value here is in the individual images and insights that Anderson provides, not in any emergent "plot."
The glimpses into the inner lives of ordinary Americans and the fine descriptions of place, mood, and events that Anderson provides in this work still speak to some readers, at least, today. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
on February 12, 2001
Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" is a string of twenty-one connected stories (plus an introduction) that, like James Joyce's "Dubliners", links a community of people to a single place and time and explores common themes. Most of the stories are told from the vista of the recurring central character George Willard, the local newspaper reporter and a sort of alter ego of Anderson, who used his own rural hometown of Clyde, Ohio, as a model for Winesburg.
Rather than an idyllic portrayal of American small town life in the 1890's, these stories are about psychological isolation, loneliness, and sexual repression and frustration brought about by small town mores. These people are as sad and neurotic as any that might be found living in the big cities. Anderson calls them "grotesques," people who are warped by the sanctimoniousness of provincial piety and their own inhibitions. His nonchalant, ironic way of writing understates the peculiarity and the gloominess of the stories.
The stories are loaded with symbolism that is difficult to decipher. My favorite is probably the four-part "Godliness", which, in a satire of religious fervor, merges parodies of the biblical tales of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac and David's slaying of Goliath. But all the stories have interesting allusions of various degrees of subtlety. This work must have seemed quite groundbreaking in its depth, complexity, and boldness when it was first published in 1919.
on July 16, 2007
There was one particular scene (Chapter entitled 'Drink') toward the end of the novel that for me truly exemplifies one of the main points of this American masterpiece. In this poignant scene, a poor old woman and her orphaned, young grandson Tom are riding along in a train headed toward Winesburg. They were leaving Cincinnati in hopes to build a new life. The old woman grew up in Winesburg and was so gung ho about going back to her old town that as the train pressed on, she began to tell Tom how 'he would enjoy his life working in the fields and shooting wild things in the woods there.' She was delighted and excited about living in a small, close-knit community again. However, when the train finally arrived in Winesburg her excitement and delight turned to confusion, disappointment, and fear. For now, the once tiny village had now grown (in the past fifty years) into a large, flourishing town. She was so shocked upon her arrival that she didn't even want to get off of the train. She then turned to her grandson and said, "It isn't what I thought. It may be hard for you here."
I remember when I read this passage above, for my heart began to ache. I knew exactly what she was thinking and I could feel her pain!
This novel is essentially made up of a group of short stories about the townsfolk of Winesburg, Ohio in the early 1900's. However, it could be any town anywhere in America and it could take place at anytime, including today. All of the citizens, although completely unique and different from one another, each share one thing in common - they are all lost and searching for something that will bring meaning into their lonely lives. However, no matter what the "Saturday Evening Post" might tell you, life in small-town America isn't all that grand - especially if you are a man like our main protagonist George Willard. A man, like many of the other characters he comes in contact with in the novel, who secretly yearns to escape the narrow-mindedness of the mediocrity which reigns supreme in small-town, USA. However, the real conundrum is this - while George and the others are looking for a way out of the madness, they are also all searching and hankering for a sense of community and belonging. They wish to connect, they can't connect, they then become lonely and disillusioned and stir crazy. Eventually, like so many other people in their same situation, they feel trapped. Dean Koontz may sum it up best when he perceptively points out in his 'Afterword' of the novel, "these characters are repressed by their culture but equally by their inability to deal with their ambivalence, an indecisiveness that reduces them to bundles of potential energy without hope of expression."
I can't recommend this one enough. It's too bad Anderson's classic will pretty much go down in history as a one-hit wonder (although he has written many excellent short stories). I really, really loved his style of writing and apparently he influenced such American literary legends as Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and John Steinbeck to name a few. To me, I think it is Steinbeck who most resembles Anderson's style. They both are really able to capture the true essence of the common man: "The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say. p. 161" I used to believe that Steinbeck was the greatest writer when it came to really understanding the true embodiment of the common, American man. It's the reason I love him so. He was able to dig the deepest into our hearts, minds, and souls and see the parts of us that even we fail to see 97% of the time. That being said, Anderson, in "Winesburg, Ohio", is able to dig even deeper believe it or not. I think one of the secrets to this is because both of these men were more than just writers. They both held a variety of different jobs and surrounded themselves with the 'common man' much more so than that of other great writers who spent their life hanging out with like-kind fellows and never had all that real world experience. In many ways, they were the common man! However, that's just one simple man's simple opinion.
When all said and done, this classic novel will have you thinking about it for a long time after you've finished reading it. I had one hec of a time trying to put it down. It's a quick read, but it's a read that will stay with me for a long, long time. I will never forget it and wouldn't hesitate recommending it to all of you bibliophiles out there. Easily, easily, easily a five-star pearl!
on March 2, 2009
This edition of "Winesburg, Ohio" was edited in a very bizzare manner. It seemed as though the text from another edition was brought over and simply pasted to this edition, which caused words to be hyphenated in the middle of paragraphs. In other words, what seemed to happen was where a word that might have been at the end of a line in one previous edition was now positioned in the middle of a line, but it was still hyphenated as it had been. This was very distracting and after the second page I had to stop reading, because the hyphen-ation was break-ing words that should not have been bro-ken and, in effect, alter-ing the em-phasis and meaning of the text. Very shoddy editing.
on October 19, 2009
I'm specifically reviewing the Signet Classic edition, which contains an afterward by none other than horror/suspense mega-star Dean Koontz. Koontz gives an intelligent, sober, and laudatory interpretation of both Anderson's life and career, and an interpretation of the text. The selection of Koontz, one of our most popular and commercial novelists, to talk about Winesburg, one of our most literary and un-commercial classics, peeked my interest to re-read Anderson's great book and read Koontz's comments.
I'm glad I did. Winesburg is full of wonderful loner characters that still resonate today. And Koontz's afterward shows that even the most popular and mainstream of American novelists still has one foot firmly rooted in the history of classic American literature. I think this is a wonderful lesson, especially for young people who wonder why they are "forced" to read books like Winesburg in school. For any of us who have felt misunderstood, felt odd, felt like an outsider; who have made mistakes, gone down, and never quite recovered; Winesburg is a sweet balm to soothe us. This book is as emotionally cathartic (probably more so) than any "entertainment" novel full of monsters, psychos, and killers. Koontz shows that while he writes one type of book, he can equally appreciate another. A good lesson. A great book.
on December 20, 2011
First published in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of 22 interrelated stories set in a fictional small town in the American Midwest. Though each story can stand alone as an individual work, they are so closely interwoven that some consider the book to be a novel. The protagonist of each story often makes a supporting appearance in the tale of his or her neighbor, relative, friend, or lover, while dozens of other characters are encountered only in brief cameos. George Willard, a young reporter for the local newspaper, appears in almost all the stories and unifies the various tales into a cohesive book. Everyone in town seems to consider him a kindred spirit, and they seek him out, asking him to serve as their confessor, chronicler, and/or psychiatrist.
In deceptively simple prose, Anderson vividly captures the everyday life of this small Ohio town during its period of transition from agrarianism to modern industrialization. The denizens of Winesburg struggle to find their place in this microcosm of modern society. Their sensitive souls are tormented by loneliness, isolation, guilt-ridden pasts, frustrated dreams, and a stifling ability to communicate their feelings and aspirations. Sinclair Lewis's novel Main Street, published about the same time and also focusing on a Midwestern town, features an ambitious dreamer, Carrie Meeber, who envisions herself a prisoner within a conservative small town full of narrow minded bumpkins. In Winesburg, Ohio, everyone is Carrie Meeber. Everyone is a prisoner to something, and everyone wants out. For many of the characters, the big city represents salvation, as if their problems would just go away if they could escape to Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Chicago. More often than not, that salvation proves false and they return to Winesburg defeated. Having grown up in a small Midwestern town myself, I can say that much of Anderson's portrayal of small town life rings true. It's unclear, however, whether he's proposing that the emotional turmoil and alienation felt by Winesburg's residents is peculiar to the experience of small town life or merely indicative of the world at large.
Winesburg, Ohio is one of America's earliest examples of modernist literature. Its influence on later modernist writers is readily apparent, most notably in the works of William Faulkner. While Anderson possesses a brilliant insight into human thought and emotion and expresses his vision in a beautiful narrative voice, most of the stories end all too abruptly and thus feel incomplete. It's a conceit of modernism to think that it's enough for the author to merely offer sketches of the way things are, without providing the reader with a satisfying beginning-middle-end plot structure. In most of these stories we're deprived of an end, and one finishes each tale with the disappointment of having just read two-thirds of a novel, only to find the succeeding pages missing. The characters all finish their stories as if frozen in some tableau vivant. Reading Winesburg, Ohio is much like wandering through a gallery of Edward Hopper paintings. You've got a pretty good idea where these people have been, but you don't have a clue where they're going.
on September 20, 2007
Let's just start with the fact that Faulkner, Hemingway, and Wolfe worshiped at this man's feet and that this book is the reason why. There are many reviewers here that just can't figure out what the author is trying to get across. How is that possible? He states it flat out in just about every story, but in the Book of the Grotesque, he's abundantly clear. We each seize upon an obsession that deforms us to the point that we are incommunicable to each other. Anderson then goes on to observe case studies of that dynamic in action.
This book is completely underrated for its impact. If you wonder why you begin to enjoy short stories right around 1920, this is the reason. Anderson created the purely psychological revelatory ending. It took Raymond Carver to knock that out of vogue, but it was vulnerable primarily because it had been done so many times. I will stand fully behind the arguement that the only short story worth your time before this is Joyce's The Dead, and that's because it has an Andersonesque ending. If anyone can provide another example, I'm dying to know.
Anderson created the modern short story with this book. He lost credibility later because he wasn't able to follow this stunning first act. However, he inspired and mentored America's next generation of authors, and his relegation to the literary dung heap is absurd. Granted that he took almost his entire mood and subject matter from Spoon River Anthology, but he certainly delivered a masterpiece in short order.
All of Anderson's short stories are worthwhile, and I wish that you could easily find his later collections in print. Triumph of the Egg, Horses and Men, and Death in the Woods are each spectacular collections, but don't have the cohesion of Winesburg. Individually, however, there are stronger stories in the other collections, so seek them out if you like Winesburg. Anderson finds the mythic in the commonplace and presents it in the language of the common man of the time. It's inspiring, and nobel prize winning careers have been made in the attempt to pull off the same effect. Only Faulkner can claim to have succeeded.