Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 work Winesburg, Ohio can alternatively be described as either a novel composed of short vignettes or a series of linked short stories. In either case, it is known for its sparse, minimalistic, and descriptive style.
Winesburg, Ohio focuses on basic descriptions of a series of residents of the fictional town of Winesburg, coupled with straightforward retellings of anecdotes from their lives. Take these lines from the section “An Awakening,” which provides a description of its main character:
Belle Carpenter had a dark skin, grey eyes, and thick lips. She was tall and strong. When black thoughts visited her she grew angry and wished she were a man and could fight someone with her fists.
The neutral focus on details like Belle’s skin and eyes in this example show how the style of Winesburg, Ohio could, in some ways, be characterized as Naturalism. This refers to a literary movement that is defined by objective, realistic description and detached portrayals of society as opposed to an emphasis on imagination, symbolism, and fantasy.
On the other hand, the last sentence of the passage above provides clues as to why some critics also see characteristics of Expressionist literature in Winesburg, Ohio. Expressionism emphasizes heightened or even exaggerated emotions, often dark in nature, and subjectivity instead of objectivity. To write of Belle’s “black thoughts” and violent tendencies is more Expressionism than Naturalism.
Another example of this dualistic style can be found in the introductory story of Winesburg, Ohio, “The Book of the Grotesques.” It begins:
The writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed. The windows of the house in which he lived were high and he wanted to look at the trees when he awoke in the morning. A carpenter came to fix the bed so that it would be on a level with the window.
Here, the text is once again very straightforward, descriptive and plain. Yet later on, this section mentions the writer in his bed, having a dream of:
[...] a long procession of figures before his eyes.
You see the interest in all this lies in the figures that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.
The writer imagines the people of Winesburg as “grotesques”—"not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness." This heightening and exaggeration of the characters, coupled with the fact that it all takes place within a dream (subjectivity), point to the Expressionist tendencies in Winesburg, Ohio.
Ultimately, Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is characterized by a mix of styles, all presented in simple, detached language. The distinctive tone and structure of Winesburg, Ohio has influenced other authors like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Ray Bradbury.