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240 pages, Paperback
First published May 8, 1919
[I]n 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 all 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….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.The first story is the Genesis of the novel to come, the creation story behind the people who stumble about in futility as they attempt to connect with one another and make themselves understood, so trapped within their image of the ‘truth’ that they cannot create outside its boundaries.
It is essentially a literature of revolt against the great illusion of American civilization, the illusion of optimism, with all its childish evasion of harsh facts, its puerile cheerfulness, whose inevitable culmination is the school of “glad” books, which have reduced American literature to the lowest terms of sentimentality.Anderson exposes life in its raw form, without the opportunity to comb its hair or apply makeup, and by avoiding the convenience of administering external interference as justification for a characters shortcomings, implies that many of our defects and dilemmas are wrought by our own hands. Failure to adequately express ourselves through socially acceptable conventions is the foible that forces us into emotional isolation and existential angst, most openly diagrammed in the character of Wing Biddlebaum who’s hands and their flamboyant flailing or easy rest upon the shoulders of young boys cause him to be run out of town and spend his twilight years wandering the streets of Winesburg beset by bitter solitude ¹. There is the epic, biblical in nature as well as biblically influenced², tale of Jesse Bently attempting to assert his godliness only to be met with misunderstanding and horror by his grandchild (with the gloriously executed, tragic subplot of his daughters tearful life as her attempts to proclaim love result in an unsatisfactory, face-saving marriage of convenience); Alice Williams nude flight through the town in an effort to free herself from the promise to wait for a man that will never return to her—a promise that robs her of her golden years as she withers in loneliness—; Seth Richmonds efforts to win Helen White’s heart by proclaiming he is leaving town in hopes it will make her realize how his absence will inflict misery upon her, but then having to leave before the opportunity of love can blossom; and a whole slew of others damned by their own attempts to carve their mark into the history of Winesburg.
have to know life…It would be better to give up the notion of writing until you are better prepared. Now it’s the time for living. I don’t want to frighten you, but I would like to make you understand the import of what you think of attempting. You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.Anderson’s novel is an exquisite expression of this sentiment, and it is only through their late-night/drunken/bitter/etc. confessions to, or interactions with, George that we can see through the veils of grotesqueries to flowering souls within.
Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.Through the book’s frequent glimpses at George’s maturation, a sort of bildungsroman is erected. Carefully placed not in the forefront of the novel, as a book bent on sentimentality would have it, but subtly omnipresent and lurking in the background, Anderson is able to employ all the emotionally stimulating and memorable aspects assigned to the coming-of-age tale without letting its warm glow overpower the real message at hand. In effect, this becomes a literary coming-of-age for the reader with Winesburg as the canvas upon which the realization of the human condition is splattered. Through George we learn what hides in the human heart, and through George we grow to empathize with our fellow man. Like many others, George inevitably leaves Winesburg to pursue his dreams, and hopefully, unlike the rest, he will achieve them. The characters try in many ways to escape the mundane and stagnant town, often seeing Helen White as the way out. Even George seeks after her, winning her fancy under the pretext of understanding love so he can write about it in a novel. To the males of Winesburg, Helen and and her wealthy family represent a way out, a higher goal of sophistication and sensuality. However, most fail to win her hand, much like those who leave Winesburg fail to achieve their glory and riches. Perhaps, despite the meaningfulness of our unique coming-of-age moments, we fail to bring our lessons learned into adulthood and falter at the alter of life. We must properly express ourselves and let our creative powers grow to the heavens, not keep them locked up as does Enoch Robinson, slowly slipping into madness within the confines of his New York apartment speaking with the idealized imaginary friends that replace his friends of flesh-and-blood, foibles and blunders. Winesburg, Ohio is a war-cry for literature, rising bloodied and sullied from the trenched, unashamed to be seen in such a dark and animalistic state, to plunge it’s bayonet through the ribcage of fictions that would glorify humanity while sweeping any inconvenient ugliness under the rug.
In the big empty office the man and the woman sat looking at each other and they were a good deal alike. Their bodies were different as were also the color of their eyes, the length of their noses and the circumstances of their existence, but something inside them meant the same thing, wanted the same release, would have left the same impression on the memory of an onlooker.
What is the matter with me? I will do something dreadful if I am not careful. Turning her face to the wall, she began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live & die alone, even in Winesburg.One of my favorite portraits is titled "Sophistication" & features both George Willard and Helen White, who seem to have a longing for each other but are unable to express their feelings to others and while unsuccessfully attempting to express these fleeting sensations to each other, ultimately come to a realization that there is a commonality of spirit that links them, for "in the darkness, the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly & waited.". Alas, when George finally decides to flee Winesburg, Helen fails to arrive in time to see his train off at the station.
for 5 years she scrubbed the floors in a building & then got a place as a dish washer in a restaurant. Her hands were all twisted out of shape. When she took hold of a mop or a broom handle her hands looked like the dried stems of an old creeping vine clinging to a treeAnd there is Enoch Robinson, once an artist in New York City "who was like a writer busy among the figures of his brain" a man who feels lust & marries a girl who sat next to him in art school to solve his lust but still feels lonely, with "strange fevers keeping him awake at night." In time, the marriage fails and Enoch befriends...
shadow puppets of his own making, including a woman with a sword in her hand, an old man with a long white beard who went about followed by a dog, a young girl whose stockings were always coming down & hanging over her shoe tops. There must have been 2 dozen of the shadow people, invented by the child-mind of Enoch Robinson who lived with him.If only the Winesburg townsfolk had lived in the age of Twitter & Facebook, their fates might have evolved quite differently but in so many cases, they seem never to be able to give vent to their inner feelings to those closest to them & sometimes not even to themselves. Sherwood Anderson referred to the characters in Winesburg, Ohio as "grotesques" but went on to say that "some of the grotesques were beautiful" & further, that "it was the truths that made people grotesque."