Sherwood Anderson

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Sherwood Anderson American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1912

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 alluded to, but they are distant and merely set the stage for the discovery of the reasons for the inglorious lives of characters diminished by materialism and the mores of small-town provincialism and philistinism. Notwithstanding their epiphanies, none of Anderson’s characters appear defeated and crushed; they all manage to continue, though much chastened and more philosophic.

The simplicity of Anderson’s style has often been remarked upon, and many critics have supposed that it had a direct influence on the style of Hemingway and his many followers and imitators. At its best it has all the virtues of midwestern speech: straightforwardness, honesty of statement, freedom from artificial flourishes and rococo constructions, demotic vocabulary, and the predominance of the simple declarative sentence.

His language, though, is not without detail and vividness, as one can see in the opening of “An Awakening”: “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.” Anderson’s simple vocabulary and syntax suit his subjects to perfection: He captures the very essence of simple lives in simple language. It was Gertrude Stein, the famous mentor of American writers and experimenter with language, who commented that no one in the United States could equal Anderson for “a clear and passionate sentence.”

Winesburg, Ohio

First published: 1919

Type of work: Short stories

A newspaper reporter recounts significant episodes in the lives of the interesting and sensitive residents of his small town.

Winesburg, Ohio offers detailed analyses of more than twenty of the residents of a fictional town in the region of Dayton, Ohio, and it introduces more than a hundred of the inhabitants of this community of some eighteen hundred people—the greatest number through incidental anecdotes and pointed, penetrating vignettes. The result is something akin to a novel, though there is no unifying story line and no central character or protagonist—George Willard, the young newspaperman, being merely the one through whose eyes the townsfolk are viewed.

The prefatory chapter, which concerns an old writer’s dream of a procession of grotesques, sets the pattern for the sequence of twenty-two stories that follows; the writer’s unpublished manuscript, “The Book of the Grotesque,” set forth his theory that the moment one took a truth and tried to live by it, it became a falsehood. Anderson’s book offers his implicit insight that any virtue that is overindulged or pursued uncompromisingly degenerates into its antithesis, a vice.

Winesburg, with its three doctors, three saloons, several churches, large residential hotel (the New Willard House, an ancient establishment), school, farms, newspaper office, and several specialty stores adjacent to the railroad station, is the quintessential small town of American legend. It is a quiet, gentle little town built upon the fundamental Protestant virtues and populated by industrious, frugal neighbors—or so it seems. Anderson, however, shows that Winesburg, representative of most small towns, harbors mainly people who are far from happy, successful, and contented.

His stories explore the backgrounds and private aspirations or motivations of representative inhabitants—doctors, teachers, clergymen, retailers, and shop assistants. All of them are, in one way or another, “alone and defeated” and living lives that are unfulfilled. They quietly nurse their hurts and failures, trying to hide them from others.

Most of the characters stand, lie, or sit by windows and doors: Symbolically they are separated, set apart from the town. Almost all are shown trying to reach out to touch others. Their hands are described in particular detail, such as Dr. Reefy, with his “gnarled knuckles”; Elizabeth Willard, with her “long white hands,” hands that are “white and bloodless”; and Tom Willy, the saloonkeeper, whose hands looked as though they had been “dipped in blood that had dried and faded.” Kate Swift, the schoolteacher, desperately wants to touch her former student, George Willard, as she (now thirty) realizes that touching is a necessary preliminary to intimacy, and she realizes that sexual intimacy is an essential ingredient of a full and satisfying life.

Further, most of the characters at some point seek out George Willard as someone they believe will be interested in them as individuals and not only as sources of newspaper copy. Kate Swift sees him as “rapidly becoming a man,” though he still has “the winsomeness of the boy”; that is, he has some of the qualities of the worldliness of age and some of the traits of the physically firm and attractive. It is this combination of characteristics—attractive mind and physique—that makes Willard appealing to many of the characters, even to the Reverend Curtis Hartman, the Presbyterian pastor whose wife is “afire with secret pride” in him. Hartman confesses, when he thinks about his wife, that he almost hates her because “she has always been ashamed of passion and has cheated me.” Most of the other characters are aware of their lack of sexual fulfillment also; many obtain temporary satisfaction through illicit or occasional assignations in the woods beside Waterworks Pond.

Significantly, most are seen wandering the streets alone at night as they escape their confining homes and rooms: Almost all the houses in Winesburg seem to have back windows that look out on alleyways through which the lonely prowl, like scavenging animals, in their search for contact, companionship, and love.

One of the most interesting of the stories is “Hands,” which offers a portrait of Wing Biddlebaum, a fat, bald little man with “nervous little hands” who had once been a teacher but had an innocent passion for caressing the hair or shoulders of his students. Biddlebaum has been a Winesburg resident for twenty years and is “the town mystery.” As Adolph Myers, he had been run out of his Pennsylvania town when a half-witted boy misunderstood the motivation of his teacher’s touching him, and he has since picked fruit and done farm labor to earn a livelihood. He is something of an enigma, for when he talks to George Willard, his eyes glow and his hands rise: He sees beauty, and he seeks to attach himself to it. Truly, as Anderson suggests in a phrase, this is “a story of hands”—as are many of the others.

Many of the characters in Winesburg, Ohio display outward signs of their inner conflicts and torments; they have nervous tics such as scratching an elbow until the coat sleeve is worn through, they chuckle incessantly, or they wear their clothes continuously for ten years. They have an irrepressible urge to talk to willing listeners; they run nude into the rain; they drink heavily; they use pillows as surrogate lovers. Even George Willard, after losing his virginity to Kate Swift, “courted” the young boy Seth Richmond. All the characters, as representatives of universal people, have their hidden, repressed desires, their stories of traumatic loss, their life-scarring memories of experiences that transformed their optimism, expectation, and potential satisfaction into failure, bitterness, and introversion.

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Sherwood Anderson Short Fiction Analysis