Saturday, 27 April 2013

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: Book review

To drink with this


The manliest of cocktails. Picture Don Draper sipping alone in a darkened office, drowning his angst and alienation. The first documented definition of the word ‘cocktail’ listed the constituent ingredients of the old-fashioned, making it the quintessential American cocktail. Harsh whiskey and bitters, alleviated by sugar and a zesty citrus twist. Drink a few and drown the pain.

What’s what

Sherwood Anderson, according to wikipedia, was influential in the success of both Faulkner and Hemingway. Despite his unlikely name, he seems to have since faded from popular awareness. (Or so I assume - maybe this is a signifier of my benighted cultural awareness and you are sitting clucking at your laptop in disbelief, while caressing your much-loved tattered paperback version of Winesburg, Ohio.)

Reviews I have read of the book have described it as a volume of short stories, albeit interconnected by their setting in the small town of Winesburg. I don’t feel that this accurately sums up the novel though - each chapter may focus on a different character and encompass one particular event, yet characters from earlier stories pop up again and not just the town they share but the overarching themes are consistent across all the stories.

Look, if you insist on uplifting or feel-good reading material you won’t appreciate this. Personally I didn’t find this a particularly depressing book, but then I often think that early exposure to Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and the Gormenghast trilogy has now inured me against literary sadness. Not to mention His Dark Materials - what in life or in books can compare to the separation of Will and Lyra? Worlds apart forever, people - what is an unhappy marriage when compared to that?! Sherwood, write something that makes me cry non-stop for three days and then we’ll talk about what’s depressing.

The tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere. Sometimes the boy thought they must all be inventions, a pack of lies. And then again he was convinced that they contained the very essence of truth. Pg 18

Anderson is simply a beautiful writer, and Winesburg was ridiculously quotable. These vignettes of small town life were quite racy when published in 1919 and still feel quite unusual in that there is little plot aside from the day to day events in the lives or ordinary people.

In the presence of George Williard, Wing Biddlebaum, who for twenty years had been the town mystery, lost something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world. Pg 4

The banal is juxtaposed with massive and overwhelming emotions. Anderson details the longing for expression, connection and understanding within all his characters. Each of his characters feel profoundly isolated and alienated from the town they live in and those around them. They all long to be understood and struggle with desires which they cannot even fully articulate to themselves, let alone work out how to achieve.

It seemed to her that between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up and that she was living just on the edge of some warm inner circle of life that must be quite open and understandable to others. She became obsessed with the thought that it wanted but a courageous act on her part to make all of her association with people something quite different, and that it was possible by such an act to pass into a new life as one opens a door and goes into a room. Pg 40

The narrator addresses the reader directly throughout, and despite the flat and laconic tone adopted the overall effect is of gentle melancholy.

Most boys have seasons of wishing they could die gloriously instead of just being grocery clerks and going on with their humdrum lives. But this is not the story of Windpeter Winters nor yet of his son Hal who worked on the Wills farm with Ray Pearson. It is Ray’s story. It will, however, be necessary to talk a little of young Hal so that you will get into the spirit of it. Pg 104

This philosophical and finely drawn sense of sadness pervades every chapter of the novel and somehow makes the detailed and often absurd character portraits even more poignant. Anderson is quoted in the introduction saying that he modelled his characters on people from his hometown, and the people of his novel all feel vivid and realistic. Anderson describes their inner tragedies dispassionately yet the reader can’t help but identify with his ordinary characters consumed by extraordinary feelings.

The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. He shivers and looks eagerly about. The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling. Pg 121


Deserves to be rescued from obscurity and lauded for its searing and beautifully written portrait of early twentieth century small town USA.

“I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,” she thought, and turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in 56

On the big screen

These guys have done it already:

I think I would go for a different approach. A series of hour long episodes for TV, each featuring one of the novel’s stories would in my opinion represent this sprawling and considered text better than a film could.


Eminently readable but with the literary cachet of Faulkner and Hemingway.

There was nothing particularly striking about them except that they were artists of the kind that talk. Everyone knows of the talking artists. Throughout all of the known history of the world they have gathered in rooms and talked. They talk of art and are passionately, almost feverishly, in earnest about it. They think it matters much more than it does. Pg 84

1 comment:

  1. The passages that you quote remind me of Stephen King, but I guess that is the nature of laconic American prose. This has made me want to read it; thanks!