Winesburg, Ohio is dedicated to the memory of the author’s mother, Emma Smith Anderson, who died when Sherwood was nineteen. She had exercised a crucial influence on her son’s attitudes to life, for he wrote that her “keen observation on the life about her first woke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives.” This hunger persisted throughout Anderson’s life and extended even to his attempts at autobiography. He continued to search for the wellsprings of the personality, the psyche, of all the characters in his grand drama of life, including himself.
In a prefatory sketch to Winesburg, Ohio, called “The Book of the Grotesque,” Anderson offers an insight into his goal and method in the collection of stories that follows. An old writer offers an allegory about the early days of humankind, when there were many thoughts but no truths; people assembled thoughts and constructed their own tentative truths to live by, but in so doing each became a “grotesque,” and “the truth he embraced became a falsehood.” Anderson even enumerates some of the principal truths that made people into grotesques: “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. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.”
What is intended by this account is not unequivocal but seems to suggest that by taking a truth out of context and without regard to other truths, a person can follow a false philosophy and become eccentric and even pitiable. The two dozen stories about small-town folk who fail to conform to the norms of society and are accordingly alienated from their fellows never satirize those forlorn and unsatisfied people, those solitaries, those loners. They explore the roots of their disquietude, which are frequently found to have had their origins in some apparently insignificant experience, affront, or rejection that has been long denied or forgotten but is recalled for the edification of Anderson’s persona, the youthful George Willard, newspaper reporter for the Winesburg Eagle.
None of Anderson’s characters is a representative of power, authority, or success in the traditional sense—even the schoolteacher, Kate Swift; the clergyman, the Reverend Curtis Hartman; and the town doctors, Dr. Reefy and Dr. Parceval, are individuals of neither achievement nor authority. Their sullenness and reclusiveness, their very attitudes toward themselves, their neighbors, and life itself demand explication, and Anderson finds in the slightest indication of emotional stress (a sign, a movement, or a look) a means for opening his story. One critic has noted that Anderson was preoccupied by a desire “to describe the agonies and the failures of the unsuccessful, the deprived, and the inarticulate,” and it became apparent early in the twentieth century that this could often be accomplished plausibly by the application of the insights of Viennese psychologist Freud, who placed stress on both the role of dreams and the suppression of sexuality.
Anderson’s immediate precursors in American fiction, such as Dreiser, Frank Norris, Ambrose Bierce, and Sinclair Lewis, had worked against the popular mode of sentimental fiction and had led a “revolt against the village” in favor of realistic portrayals of the expanding industrial society. Their realistic and naturalistic fiction was putting an end to the romanticism that had survived into the twentieth century. They were less interested in the psychological than in the economic, political, and social influences on individuals, however. It was Anderson who undertook the development of this approach to characterization.
He sought, somewhat paradoxically, to do it within the modern equivalent of the village, the small town on the periphery of the great new industrial cities of the Midwest—the small towns that were the refuge of many of the former inhabitants of the cities.
The grotesques of Winesburg are not engaged in any grand enterprises or plots; rather, they are depicted in the smallest of human endeavors, and their traumatic experiences or socially disapproved actions in the past are—seen in proper perspective—either very minor aberrations or ones subject to multiple interpretations. Yet it seems that just such minor events, decisions, or traits are the ones that affect the lives of ordinary people. The focus of each story is not the solving of a complicated plot but rather the recognition of an epiphany, a special insight or revelation, that explains life’s vicissitudes and failures. Action and plot are...
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