Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson

Cover of Winesburg, Ohio

Rank: B+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Fall, 2011

Author Name: Sherwood Anderson

Review: Well, I thought myself quite clever when I dreamt up comparing Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to Jean Toomer’s Cane. Turns out the comparison is so commonly made that it appears on the Wikipedia page for Winesburg, Ohio. So much for that.

Winesburg, Ohio is a (short!) collection of short stories which take place, for the most part, in the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio (not to be confused with the real town of Winesburg, Ohio, which is farther north than the fictional Winesburg). Most involve, in some way, George Willard, a young man who is, apparently, Winesburg’s only reporter, but otherwise, each tale focuses on a different resident of the town of Winesburg, Ohio. Structurally, there are no surprises, so you shouldn’t expect any if you pick this one up.

The surprise (for me) in reading Winesburg, Ohio came in the interiority of the characters Anderson describes. It rather reminded me of something written by Tove Jansson. Every single character—perhaps every resident of Winesburg—is filled with a terrible, quiet desperation. Each of them is near their breaking point, and quite a number of them reach it. It’s as if the town itself has driven all of them insane—not in any cheap Stephen King sort of way, mind you, but in a subdued William Faulkner sort of way. (One wonders, in fact, if Anderson had any influence on Faulkner, reading through these tales of repressed anxiety.)

Though the collection is short, the book could hardly have been longer without becoming a bit monotonous (or without breaking the mood). The standouts, as I see them, are “‘Queer’”, “Hands”, “Tandy”, “The Strength of God” and the “Godliness” stories. Given the length of this collection, I highly recommend it.

Something that’s been troubling me, though, is the place that Winesburg, Ohio occupies in the history of literature. It’s on the Modern Library’s top 100 at number 24, which is a good thing, because I don’t think I would ever have heard of it otherwise. If Winesburg, Ohio does anything that’s rather different, it “is franker about sex than most novels of the time”. Indeed, “[p]erhaps no novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life”.

Oh, wait a minute. Those words were written about Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street—you know, the much celebrated novel that’s 44 places lower on the Modern Library list and was published one year later.

Having read both Main Street and Winesburg, Ohio now, I must ask: Why the hell does Main Street get so much attention?! Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Sinclair Lewis (Babbitt was a high school favorite), but absolutely everything that Main Street is praised for is something that Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio did first—and better. I mean, come on: Frank discussion of sex? Winesburg, Ohio makes Main Street read like a church bulletin! And the town of Winesburg is the Everytown, U.S.A. that Lewis’s Gopher Prairie purports to be—it even has a main street called Main Street! And not only that, the reader gets the message (“small towns aren’t bastions of wholesome morality”) without the author having to shove it in your face. And the book is shorter, to boot!

Listen, I may talk a lot of malarky sometimes, but if there’s one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty: There is no reason to read Main Street in a world where Winesburg, Ohio exists. The latter does what the former attempts to do, and does it better and in fewer pages—and it did it first. If I could, I’d grab the year 1920 and shake it vigorously by the shoulders and tell it to pay better attention to 1919—or, even better: I’d go back in time and tell Ben Huebsch to call the book Main Street, rather than Winesburg, Ohio. Let Sinclair Lewis try to publish a book called Gopher Prairie and see how successful it is!

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