Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Winesburg. Ohio village of some one thousand inhabitants. All two dozen stories in Winesburg, Ohio are set in Winesburg, a small town probably based on Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson lived as a young boy. One of the qualities that makes Winesburg a novel rather than a simple collection of stories is that the village setting is constant, and the same characters (especially the central character, George Willard) wander through it in different stories. In most editions of the novel, a map of the town’s layout faces the title page and shows its two main roads, Main and Buckeye Streets, the railroad tracks, and the eight most important structures in the town, including the railroad station, the New Willard House hotel, the office of the Winesburg Eagle, and the fairground. Winesburg is like any small midwestern village: Surrounded by farms, it is the regional center of commercial and social life.
The stories concern several of the prominent citizens of the town, including two doctors (Reefy and Parcival), the Presbyterian minister (Reverend Curtis Hartman), and a schoolteacher (Kate Swift). Most of the characters in the stories are lonely, estranged from their fellow townspeople, and incapable of expressing their inner, often neurotic longings. Part of the “revolt from the village” movement in American letters at the beginning of the twentieth century—a literary movement which included poet Edgar Lee Masters...
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The First World War
World War I was the first of two conflicts in this century to draw most of what is referred to as Western Civilization (generally speaking, Europe, North America and Russia) into battle. It was the first war to use submarines, aerial bombings and chemical warfare, which added a new dimension of impersonality to the usual carnage of war.
It began in Europe, where the battles between ethnic groups in the Balkan nations at the end of the nineteenth century led to a balance of power between two rival military alliances: The Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France and Russia. Most of the smaller countries were affiliated with one of these or the other. On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian. When the Austrian government blamed Serbia, obligations to existing treaties pulled most of the nations into war, one at a time.
Originally, Americans were reluctant to become involved: President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 with the campaign slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War." In early 1917, though, Germany started using submarines against ships traveling to Great Britain, and the United States, which had warned against such action, was drawn into participating. When peace was declared in 1918, thirty-two nations had been involved in the fighting, with 37 million casualties and 10 million civilian deaths.
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Winesburg, Ohio is most noticeably a series of short stories, each one capable of making sense if read by itself. Reading the book as a novel requires some imagination and a willingness to be loose with one's definition of just what a novel is.
There is a main character, George Willard, but his significance is based mainly on the fact that he appears in almost all of the stories. Often, he is not central to the story's action, but is just mentioned as someone that a central character has spoken with. If the reader accepts the fact that George's appearances must be more than a coincidence, then it would follow that the whole book is one continuous piece, with each independent story defining George and moving him forward toward some final resolution. The fact that George leaves town in the last story supports this reading. It seems to provide a climax to the book in general.
There is a continuing character who comes to a resolute change at the end Readers who are willing to agree that this is enough evidence that the book is indeed a novel will look for signs within the stories, even those with little or no mention of George, that he is growing throughout the book to be the person he is in "Departure." They will find enough evidence to see a novel's structure running throughout the collected stories.
Sherwood Anderson despised stories that existed in order to serve...
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Although Anderson was a superb literary craftsman of the short story, his major contribution was the originality of setting and style. He was a master of narrative perspective, combining techniques borrowed from Mark Twain with elements of his own myth theme. His stories develop a strong sense of dramatic situation, setting, action, symbols, metaphors, and images. He is regarded as one of the pioneers in the use of "depth psychology." His technique enabled him to write short stores totally of character rather than plot.
If Anderson was influenced by other writers, it is not apparent in his stories. Some critics think that Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1915) suggested a general structural arrangement for Anderson's stories. But Anderson had evolved his views of art and life and the essence of Winesburg, Ohio — "understanding and sympathy" — by 1914, and the extent of Masters's influence is questionable. Anderson read, and was certainly influenced by the works of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and George Borrow, whose The Romany Rye Anderson particularly admired. The roots of an American heritage that are so important in the writings of these writers are also central to Anderson's work, but whether he read these authors during his formative years is not assured.
Anderson also knew Gertrude Stein's works, and even met her in Europe later in life. No doubt he admired her ability to create...
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One biographer says of Anderson that he often "becomes the unnamed spectator in his own books, a charmed and delighted visitor on earth" and that the reader "shares with him the sense of discovery under drab exteriors" of the qualities of beauty in what might be considered ordinary people and things. Having spent his childhood and young adulthood in small, Midwestern towns, he was evidently a sensitive observer of the people who lived in them. He was attentive to the impoverished inner lives of broken, sensitive people, the pervasive mood of social degeneration, provincialism, tragic limitation, isolation and dullness, and the vague longings and dissatisfaction of the culturally deprived and inarticulate. He was also aware that small towns could likewise harbor hopes, ambitions, talents, and love.
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Compare and Contrast
1919: Soldiers coming back from World War I had experienced massive destruction in the age of airplanes and automation. Because American manufacturing facilities were not damaged the way those in Europe had been, the U S. economy prospered in the 1920s.
Today: After the military build-up of the 1980s created an economic crisis, running up unprecedented trade deficits, the American economy has stabilized and is enjoying prosperity without war.
1919: F. W. Woolworth died at age 67. The Woolworth chain of five-and-dime stores started in 1879 and had over 1000 stores in small American towns by the time it was incorporated in 1911, becoming the first franchise in many rural centers like Winesburg.
Today: The Woolworth chain closed its last stores in 1997, run out of business by huge discount stores, particularly the Wal-Mart chain, which has over 1700 stores built on the outskirts of American downtown areas.
1920: The 18th Amendment, prohibiting sale and consumption of alcohol, was passed by Congress, to go into effect on January 20, 1920.
1933: Prohibition was considered a failure because it did not greatly reduce alcohol consumption and it encouraged gang violence. The 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition, became effective December 5, 1933.
Today: Many states are lowering the amount of alcohol that the law will tolerate in the blood of a person who...
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Topics for Further Study
The characters in Winesburg, Ohio are very specific to their place and time. Write a short story that brings one of these characters forward to your town. Would they be better adjusted than they are presented in the book? Would the added burden of fast-paced modern life be too much for them? Would they find help for their problems that was not available in Winesburg?
Research the Chicago renaissance of the 1910s and 1920s. Report on one of the writers that Anderson was acquainted with: Edgar Lee Masters, Harriet Monroe, Margaret Anderson, Francis Hackett, Ben Hecht, or Floyd Dell. Try to focus your biographical report on where the writer lived before coming to Chicago, and how moving to a major metropolitan area affected her or his writing.
In the twentieth century, America had gone from being a principally rural country to being overwhelmingly urban and suburban. Explore the social elements that changed society during Anderson's time, when towns like Winesburg were already becoming old fashioned.
One of the few things that is learned about George Willard's father, Tom Willard, is that he is a staunch Democrat. In "The Thinker," Tom Willard argues with a traveling salesman about the relationship between President William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the U.S. Senator from Ohio. Explore the situation that is referred to in this story and report on what it tells readers about the two men holding the argument.
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The puzzle in Anderson's literary career, according to biographer Walter B. Rideout, is the "apparent suddenness with which, so near the beginning of it, he made a kind of aesthetic quantum jump from his apprentice novels to his masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)." His two "apprentice" novels were Windy McPherson's Son (1916) and Marching Men (1917) and a volume of unrhymed poems entitled Mid-American Chants (1919).
Some critics have come to the conclusion that after Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson was merely covering old ground. Lionel Trilling held fast to his conviction that Anderson had "success with a simple idea" and continued in the same vein. Later critics, such as Welford Dunaway Taylor, logically conclude that with the kind of popularity Anderson's works continue to enjoy, "it matters little what was said so long ago." All of Anderson's books are readable even to a contemporary audience, who may be more accepting of his experimental fiction than Anderson's more conservative peers.
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Some of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio were recorded (1983) and are available on the Caedmon label. E. G. Marshall plays "The Conscience of Winesburg."
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There are three different versions of a "Winesburg, Ohio" audio cassette available: from the Audio Bookshelf, 1995; from Recorded Books, 1995; and as an audio cassette or phonographic album from Caedmon, 1983.
A 1977 video, "Sherwood Anderson's I'm a Fool," is available from Perspective Films, 1977.
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What Do I Read Next?
Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 collection of free-verse poems, Spoon River Anthology, was one of the most direct influences on Winesburg, Ohio. Published the year that Anderson started the book, each poem tells the story of a different citizen of a fictional town, Spoon River.
When Anderson was writing this book, between 1915 and 1919, Chicago was experiencing a literary renaissance. Among the writers of Anderson's circle of friends in those days, Floyd Dell is considered one of the most innovative. His 1920 novel, Moon Calf, is like Winesburg, Ohio in that it draws heavily on the author's past in a farm community, applying urban sensibilities and a sense of pity that comes from sophistication.
Although Winesburg, Ohio is considered Anderson's finest, most haunting work, he wrote many other novels, poems and short stories. His 1925 novel Dark Laughter is the most highly-regarded work of long fiction and was the most financially successful during his lifetime.
Ernest Hemingway considered Anderson to be a friend and mentor—it was Anderson who introduced Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and other European writers who were to become part of the Hemingway legend. Hemingway's 1925 collection of stories, In Our Times, shows the influence of Winesburg, Ohio in the way that the separate stories all refer back to one main character and theme.
Anderson wrote several autobiographies,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Sherwood Anderson, Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs, edited by Ray Lewis White, The University of North Carolina Press, 1942.
Sam Bluefarb, "George Willard- Death and Resurrection," in The Escape Motif in the American Novel Mark Twain to Richard Wright, Ohio State University Press, 1972, pp. 42-58.
H. W. Boynton, "All Over The Lot," in The Bookman, Volume XLIX, No. 6, August, 1919, pp 728-34.
Carl Bredahl, '"The Young Thing Within' Divided Narrative and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXVH, No 4, summer, 1986, pp. 422-37.
Malcolm Cowley, "An Introduction to Winesburg, Ohio," The Viking Press, 1960, pp. 1-15.
Waldo Frank, "Winesburg, Ohio After Twenty Years," in Story, Vol. XEX, No 91, September-October, 1941, pp. 29-33.
James M Mellard, "Narrative Forms in Winesburg, Ohio," in PMLS, Vol. 83, No 5, October, 1968, pp 1304-312.
"A Gutter Would Be Spoon River," in New York Sun, June 1, 1919, p. 3.
Tony Tanner, "Sherwood Anderson's Little Things," in The Reign of Wonder Naivete and Reality in American Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 205-27.
Rebecca West, "Winesburg, Ohio" in New Statesman, Vol. XIX, No. 484, July 22,1922, pp. 443-44.
For Further Study
David D Anderson,...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Burbank, Rex. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Twayne, 1964. This accessible study of Anderson’s life and work provides a fine introduction to his first novel.
Crowley, John W., ed. New Essays on Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Presents a variety of critical points of view and provides a forum of interpretative methods about Winesburg, Ohio.
Dewey, Joseph. “No God in the Sky and No God in Myself: ‘Godliness’ and Anderson’s Winesburg.” Modern Fiction Studies 35, no. 2 (Summer, 1989): 251-259. Dewey’s essay searches the novel for its religious implications by focusing on the character of Jessie Bentley and shows how George Willard, as an artist, reshapes her search for spiritual communion.
Reist, John S., Jr. “An Ellipse Becomes a Circle: The Developing Unity of Winesburg, Ohio.” CEA Critic 55, No. 3 (Spring-Summer, 1993): 26-38. This general study highlights the way the reader’s experience can grow through a close examination of the text.
Rigsbee, Sally Adair. “The Feminine in Winesburg, Ohio.” Studies in American Fiction 9, no. 2 (Autumn, 1981): 233-244. Argues that the meaning given to the women characters in Winesburg, Ohio provides the novel with an important source of its...
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