Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Winesburg, Ohio - Sherwood Anderson

After achieving last year's goal to read 52 books, I set out on a new, very different journey.  Over the next several years, I am aiming to read what Modern Library has declared the 100 Best Novels of all time.  If you read my last post, you know that I have started Ulysses by James Joyce, but have discovered already how much of a challenge it will present.  I did not want to abandon the challenge while I try to work through that beast.  So, instead, Sherwood Anderson's little classic Winesburg, Ohio will officially be my first completed book on the list.  

I read Anderson's book in high school for my AP American History course.  Just like Remains of the Day, it proved itself to be a book I simply was not ready for intellectually.  Perhaps my natural disdain for Ohio (I have lived here my entire life) created a bias against the book.  More likely, however, I believe I saw the stories Anderson presents as too mundane to appreciate that very quality as their message.  

Winesburg consists of a collection of stories, each one centering on a resident of the small town.  The novel takes place in the early 1900s - the book was published in 1919.  Nothing particularly spectacular happens in these chapters, these lives.  Most are fairly somber stories, filled with discontent rather than joy.  For its time, Winesburg dealt with some shocking issues, including sexual promiscuity and the degradation of village life; although, compared to today's literature, I found it very tame.

In some ways, young George Willard serves as a narrator of sorts.  He finds his way into each character's story, if only for a brief moment.  As in real small town life, everyone's lives are intertwined and have direct effects on others.  The character of Doctor Parcival suggests to George the idea for a story about people themselves.  His concept is "that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified."  This idea within the book mimics the book itself in many ways.  The people of Winesburg are unhappy, each suffering through their own trials, feeling very alone in the process.  As Irving Howe points out in the book's introduction, "Misunderstanding, loneliness, the inability to articulate, are all seen by Anderson as virtually a root condition, something deeply set in our natures."

Many readers have labeled this book as 'depressing.'  After all, basically no one gets a happy ending, except for George Willard who gets out of town in hopes of starting a new life.  Personally, I do not think depressing is the right word.  Maybe 'hopeless'?  For me, the stories of people hurting served as such a reminder of our broken state.  We are all broken and hopeless without True Love.

Anderson himself proved to be a sort of literary one-hit wonder.  His other work is regarded as fallen far short of Winesburg.  For whatever reason, he was able to briefly tap into an understanding of the human condition, particularly for those in a small, dying town.  He saw the truth that people wanted to give themselves and the truth that they actually were.  As he states,
"There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon.....It was the truths that made the people grotesques.  The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter.  It was his notion that 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."
This statement could not be more true of those in Winesburg and of so many people in the real world.  We decide what label we want and strive to achieve it, yet along the way we lose ourselves.  When we try too hard to be one thing, we distort that thing into our image of it, thereby forever eluding authenticity through our struggle for it.  To be authentic, to be true, must be a natural journey and not a prescribed one.

Perhaps that is true of Anderson's writing.  His greatest work was this reflection of real small-town life, which he experienced.  His foray into American realism became critically acclaimed.  They do say, after all, that you should write what you know.  And, the occupants of Winesburg are heart-breakingly authentic in their lonely, searching state.

Have you read Winesburg? Did you find it depressing? Hopeless? Boring?  What makes literature and/or the characters therein authentic?

Pages: 240
Date Completed: April 11, 2013

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