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Winesburg, Ohio Paperback – January 4, 2014
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Actually, saying that the book, misleadingly characterized by the Modern Library as a novel, contains portraits of inhabitants of a small Ohio town puts it too generously. Instead, the author picks off his characters' psychic scabs to show us what lies beneath. Rather than whole people, we see only bits of pain, longing, disillusionment, or regret.
To be fair, the meticulously careful writing touches the border of poetry from time to time. The author does manage to create some compassion for his "grotesques," as he calls them. But if you have the audacity to prefer actual novels, with multidimensional characters and at least a thread of plot, if you enjoy books where you wonder what happens next, you probably have better things to do in the time that remains of your reading life than linger in the dreary writing-exercise world of "Winesburg, Ohio."
In some ways, I was reminded of Rudyard Kipling's Plain Tales From The Hills. Both tapestries are written from a journalist's perspective and their vignette structure is the same. While Kipling's characters and setting are more colorful and exotic owing to its Indian setting, Anderson's people feel more commonplace. Anderson takes his commonplace characters and strips back the facade.
One of the stories about a lonely woman reminded me of the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby. The same yearning pervades this collection of stories.
The author is omniscient, which means that he explains a lot of what is going on in his protagonists instead of leaving it to the reader. And, in the tone of an old-fashioned chronicler, he mostly gives an introduction into the persons' families, their backgrounds first. So, all in all, his subject and his style struck me as a little heavy-going.
And yet, if one reads on, the various parts begin to form an authentic picture and atmosphere. Anderson's strongest point, to my mind, is that he creates unforgettable characters. Very often these are erratic, wild, bizarre creatures who are prisoners not only of their primitive surroundings, but also of their lonely and strange personalities. Mostly their conflicts erupt in a dramatic situation, which breaks off abruptly leaving many questions open and giving food for thought. The extraordinary thing is that though these characters may appear as the more or less crippled products of their time and place, they strike one as being representative of the human situation in general. I could not help being strongly appealed to by their mostly unhappy lives, feeling that they reveal more about our human lot than the promise of constant happiness in our time.
The person that seems to be relatively untouched by unhappiness is the central figure, George Willard, the young reporter of the town's newspaper. Obviously Anderson saw himself in that figure and in another artist, namely in the story "Loneliness", a painter with the telling name Enoch Robinson. Some facts of Anderson's life seem to correspond with the outline of this story, showing that he also had his share of unhappiness. The overall feeling that to me sums up the atmosphere of this book best can be found in the thoughts of George Willard as he is on the point of leaving Winesburg: "One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life (...) while at the same instant one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes."