Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories that is more than the sum of its parts; the short stories are connected, all being set in the fictional town of Winesburg and concerning overlapping characters. We are most interested in George Willard, a town native who we most often see as a young man working as a reporter at the town paper (or, “the” reporter). Several of the stories give us Willard’s experiences (always in third person), but a number of them concern other inhabitants of the town. These men and women usually have some small personal tragedy that has thrown off the rhythm or intentions of their lives.
The work as a whole has a very quiet, contemplative tone and mood. Very little of great import goes on; but simple, sad lives are carried out, and hearts are broken quietly. It is moving. Anderson excels at bringing a character to life for a brief moment; and then he moves on.
I came to this book through Hemingway’s recommendation (and was finally motivated to get it off the bookshelf for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge‘s Ohio requirement). It has been a little while since I’ve read a biography of Hemingway so I’m a little rusty on the details, but I recall that Anderson played a role in his early writing career – encouraged him to write, gave him tips, maybe recommended him for publication. I think he pushed Hem to move to Paris as a youngster, which he did with his first wife Hadley, with results that I think we can safely say influenced his career as a writer. Anderson definitely influenced his style; I got this out of Malcolm Cowley’s excellent introduction, but it’s readily evident even without that clue. The same short, simple sentences that say so much with so few words are recognizable in Anderson’s stories; see my book beginnings post, or:
The Presbyterian Church held itself somewhat aloof from the other churches of Winesburg. It was larger and more imposing and its minister was better paid. He even had a carriage of his own and on summer evenings sometimes drove about town with his wife. Through Main Street and up and down Buckeye Street he went, bowing gravely to the people, while his wife, afire with secret pride, looked at him out of the corners of her eyes and worried lest the horse become frightened and run away.
This quotation comes from “The Strength of God,” one of my favorite stories.
As character sketches, these short stories are outstanding. As a whole, though, this book failed to grasp me the way I’d hoped – certainly it failed to grasp me the way Hemingway does. While I saw Papa on these pages, unmistakably, I was also constantly reminded of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, another quiet, subdued story about everyday, small-town life and its quiet tragedies. Perhaps it is the repetition of that phrase, “Main Street,” that got me, but I kept seeing Lewis’s work in this one, and frankly Main Street is a more memorable book. Like happens to me sometime when I fail to deeply appreciate one of the “classics” (ahem The Picture of Dorian Gray), I worry that it’s me, not the book, that I’ve missed something beautiful that would be obvious to someone with just a little higher IQ. I have to shrug this off, though. This collection does have value; I don’t want to give an impression otherwise, it just might not be *my* ideal cup. Almost every story builds a character who is real and often sympathetic. The tone is unique and if nothing else, the view into small-town life of a certain era is fairly unique. We can’t all love the same books, and life is more colorful for it.