Overview of Sophistication

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Ever since ‘‘Sophistication’’ appeared in 1919 as part of the ending of Winesburg, Ohio , critics have been unable to account for the continuing hold it has on the literary world. Even though we live in a highly technological, industrialized world, the cluster of stories which make up the novel...

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Ever since ‘‘Sophistication’’ appeared in 1919 as part of the ending of Winesburg, Ohio, critics have been unable to account for the continuing hold it has on the literary world. Even though we live in a highly technological, industrialized world, the cluster of stories which make up the novel still provides a telling account of human life trapped in community— the same community in which each townsperson, druggist, grocer, parson, and farmer searches for lasting communion. The purpose of this essay is to show how Anderson’s descriptive power, haunting language, simple dialogue, and carefully arranged series of events all come together to form an artistic and moral whole. ‘‘Sophistication’’ is a fundamental part of the novel, and in this essay it will be treated as such, instead of as a short story on its own.

Irving Howe has commented that ‘‘Winesburg is an excellently formed piece of fiction, each of its stories following a parabola of movement which abstractly graphs the book’s meaning.’’ However, he concludes that ‘‘The ultimate unity of the book is a unity of feeling, a sureness of warmth, and a readiness to accept Winesburg’s lost grotesques with the embrace of humility. Many American writers have taken as their theme the loss of love in the modern world, but few, if any at all, have so thoroughly realized it in the accents of love.’’ The accents of love ebb and flow in the novel as each of the characters in each of the stories reaches out for acceptance and fulfillment. However, these absorbing, moving, sometimes terrifying searches for acceptance come to a climax in ‘‘Sophistication’’ as the ebb and flow of emotion is realized in a dramatic merger of the feeling of ‘‘mutual respect’’ that envelopes George and Helen. This wisdom, this insight, as momentary as it is, nonetheless prepares George to leave Winesburg to search for his own identity, freed from the trap of the small town, but also educated by the relationships he has experienced with various lost and searching souls.

Waldo Frank, who first published some of the episodes of the novel in the journal Seven Arts, of which he was managing editor, has argued that the power of the novel is lyrical: ‘‘For an analogy to the aesthetic of the Winesburg tales, one must go to music, perhaps to the songs that Schubert wove from old refrains; or to the lyric art of the Old Testament psalmists and prophets to whom the literary medium was so allied to music that their texts have always been sung in the synagogues. The Winesburg design is quite uniform: a theme-statement of a character with his mood, followed by a recounting of actions that are merely variations on the theme.’’ He goes on to say ‘‘These variations make incarnate what has already been revealed to the reader; they weave the theme into life by the always subordinate confrontation of other characters (usually one) and by an evocation of landscape and village.’’ But the confrontation of characters is not subordinate to the theme; it is the theme, for the novel weaves its magic into a web of social encounters that constitute finally a total moral, social and artistic unity that is unforgettable.

For example, Helen White is not the only woman with whom and by whom George is shaped. Similarly, Kate Swift, George’s school teacher, realizes his literary potential: ‘‘Kate’s mind was ablaze with thoughts of George Willard. In something he had written as a schoolboy she thought she had recognized the spark of genius and wanted to blow on the spark.’’ She has been unable to express her inner passionate nature, and like Dr. Parcival, she hopes that George might become her surrogate. And after his rendezvous with Louise Trunnion, George sneaks back to town muttering, ‘‘nobody knows.’’ Continuing to seek his identity through sexual encounters, George ultimately fails with Kate Swift because he is younger than she, and because he has not gained enough discipline with the words that he speaks.

It is not only sexual encounters with women (for which Anderson was criticized as immoral and lascivious) that shape George. The novel is also about writing—its importance and effects. George is a younger newspaper reporter, and the villagers seek out George for his power with words, for they—many of them quite older than he—have never been able to say what they mean. For example, Dr. Parcival, who is a failed medical doctor, is writing a novel which almost certainly will never be published. So he declares to George: ‘‘You must pay attention to me. . . . If something happens perhaps you will be able to write the book that I may never get written. The idea is very simple, so simple that if you are not careful you will forget it. It is this—that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.’’ The doctor is rather excessive in his reference to Christ; but if that crucifixion was for all humankind, it is not difficult to see that all pain, all suffering, all hope and hopelessness are gathered up into one aching whole, the town of Winesburg, which is a local manifestation of the entire human race.

Anderson in the section called ‘‘Godliness’’ provides the religious context for the townspeople. Jesse Bentley is an old man who thinks he is a failed prophet of Yahweh. ‘‘There were two influences at work in Jesse Bentley and all his life his mind had been a battleground for these influences. First there was the old thing in him. He wanted to be a man of God and a leader among men of God. His walking in the fields and through forests at night had brought him close to nature and there were forces in the passionately religious man that ran out to the forces in nature.’’ It is in his cultural insecurity that Bentley’s religion also fails, for modern life has produced an almost entirely new world in which ‘‘Jesse formed the habit of reading newspapers and magazines. He invented a machine for the making of fence out of wire. Faintly he realized that the atmosphere of old times and places that he had always cultivated in his own mind was strange and foreign to the thing that was growing up in the minds of others. The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse, the man of God as it was to the men about him.’’ So, the older gods of the harvest, the supernatural God of the heavens, has begun to die, or at least to disappear, and thus Jesse is losing his grip: ‘‘when night came on and the stars came out it was harder to get back the old feeling of a close and personal God who lived in the sky overhead and who might at any moment reach out his hand, touch him on the shoulder, and appoint for him some heroic task to be done.’’ His failure as a lost leftover from the 1890s (the time of the novel) obstructs achievement of the religious sophistication or wisdom which the ancestors of Winesburg achieved. This makes all the more profound George’s and Helen’s moment of sophistication at the end of the novel. Emptied of supernatural power, loosened from Bentley’s God, George and Helen show that modern community, though momentary, is still deep and moving.

Anderson combines the themes of sexuality and verbal power in George’s humiliation with Belle Carpenter, in the story ‘‘An Awakening’’ : for ‘‘an hour Belle Carpenter and the young reporter walked about under the trees in the sweet night air. George Willard was full of big words. The sense of power that had come to him during the hour of darkness in the alleyway remained with him and he talked boldly, swaggering and swinging his arms about.’’ His silly preening, ranting and whispering to Belle lead to his embarrassment, for Ed Hanby, Belle’s real lover, arrives and makes a fool of George. ‘‘Three times the young reporter sprang at Ed Hanby and each time the bartender, catching him by the shoulder, hurled him back into the bushes. The older man seemed prepared to keep the exercise going indefinitely but George Willard’s head struck the root of a tree and he lay still.’’

What an immense difference between these encounters and the final sophistication, or achievement of communion, between George and Helen at the end! George seeks another of like mind; Anderson puts it this way: ‘‘With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another. If he prefers that the other be a woman, that is because he believes that a woman will be gentle, that she will understand. He wants, most of all, understanding.’’ This moment of sophistication is sad and bittersweet, but not cynical and bitter and dark, as some critics have said. For example, Lionel Trilling remarks: ‘‘his people have passion without body, and sexuality without gaiety and joy, although it is often through sex that they are supposed to find their salvation.’’ He further contends, ‘‘Anderson liked to catch people with their single human secret, their essence, but the more he looks for their essence the more his characters vanish into the vast limbo of meaningless life, the less they are human beings. . . . Certainly the precious essence of personality to which Anderson was so much committed could not be preserved by any of the people or any of the deeds his own books delight in.’’ Although these judgements come from one of the finest literary and cultural critics the United States has produced, they are wrong, especially as they might apply to ‘‘Sophistication’’ and all of Winesburg, Ohio.

Better to listen to another great American novelist, William Faulkner, who contended that Anderson ‘‘was sometimes a sentimentalist in his writing (so was Shakespeare sometimes) but he was never impure in it. He never scanted it, cheapened it, took the easy way; never failed to approach writing except with humility and an almost religious, almost abject faith and patience and willingness to surrender, relinquish himself to it and into it.’’ Such was the writer Sherwood Anderson, about whom Faulkner also wrote these lines after having seen him at a cocktail party for the first time in a long while, because Anderson had been affronted by an unpublished satire on him which Faulkner had done: ‘‘Then I remembered Winesburg, Ohio and The Triumph of The Egg and some of the pieces in Horses and Men and I knew that I had seen, was looking at, a giant in an earth populated to a great— too great—extent by pygmies, even if he did make but the two or perhaps three gestures commensurate with gianthood.’’

‘‘Sophistication’’ is one of the gestures, part of the greater gesture, Winesburg, Ohio which endures because it grips us as an artistic unity comprised of many shorter narratives. In ‘‘Sophistication’’ George and Helen attain ‘‘the thing needed’’; and in ‘‘Departure,’’ George prepares to leave the town on the morning train. ‘‘With the recollection of little things occupying his mind he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.’’

Source: John S. Reist Jr., ‘‘Overview of ‘Sophistication’,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998. Reist is a Christian clergyman and Professor of Christianity and Literature at Hillsdale College in Michigan. His 1993 essay on the unity of Winesburg, Ohio was included in a recent critical edition of that work.

American Silences: The Realism of James Agee, Walker Evans, and Edward Hopper

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Anderson shows the impossibility of the honest communication of feeling by surrounding his grotesques [in Winesburg, Ohio] with a chorus of towns-people whose constant example reveals the meager possibilities of actual speech. The speech of the chorus is nothing but cliches and slogans, the language of the near-official American dogma of success and masculine bullying as it has filtered down to the small provincial town. Implicit in a number of the stories is the belief that most speech is mimicry, that most of the words that people say are imitations of what they have heard others say. Thus George reiterates the military officer’s command and Elmer the idiot’s foolish saying. The overheard loud chatter of the town is mostly boasting, the telling of lies that are regarded to be assertions of deeds that deserve society’s approval. Anderson relates little of such discourse, but he refers to it as gossip, boasting, and joking—modes of speech essentially self-serving, as well as impersonal and unoriginal. Winesburg culture offers no acceptable mode of private communication. Dr. Reefy writes notes to himself, which he crumples in his pockets; other characters wave their arms, pace the streets, and get drunk—all improvised, inadequate substitutes for a speech that always fails them.

In several of the stories sexual contact is represented as an easier form of communication between man and woman than conversation, and probably for that reason not as satisfying as the dreamed of conversation would be. In the fragile and rare moments in which love is experienced in Winesburg, Ohio its expression is in silence. The main example is ‘‘Sophistication,’’ the climactic story that concerns George Willard’s final experience before his departure from Winesburg. In other ways as well, the story is the coda of the principal themes of the book and its most coherent resolution of the difficult problem of communicating for characters most comfortable with silence.

‘‘Sophistication’’ is George Willard’s story, and it shows his state of mind and feelings after his encounters with numerous lonely people and before his departure from Winesburg. The recent death of his mother has brought home to George a strong sense of his own mortality. ‘‘The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds’’. He recalls with shame his own ‘‘stout talk’’ in his previous walk with Helen White, whom he desires to be with this night. On the previous summer evening he could speak to Helen only by boasting of his confi- dent ambitions: ‘‘I’m going to be a big man, the biggest that ever lived here in Winesburg’’. The distasteful recollection makes addedly repugnant the overheard boasting of a man whose horse had just won the race at the country fair, to which George had responded: ‘‘Old windbag. . . . Why does he want to be bragging? Why don’t he shut up?’’

The important setting of ‘‘Sophistication’’ is the Winesburg County Fair, the day-long celebration in which ‘‘an American town worked terribly at the task of amusing itself’’. At first the ‘‘sense of crowding, moving that closed in about him’’ is oppressive to George, an intensification of the usual threat of the townspeople to his private self. But as in most of the stories the life of the town—even on its annual day of festivity—barely touches George, and in this story more than any we see Anderson’s representation of community as a hollow fiction.

Helen’s mother had invited an instructor from her daughter’s college to stay with the family during the fair, and through the instructor and Helen’s mother Anderson gratuitously introduces another instance of fraudulent speech—the language of class and intellectual pretension. When the instructor tells Helen, ‘‘Your life is still bound up with the life of this town’’ Helen thinks ‘‘his voice sounded pompous and heavy’’. She flees to the garden thinking ‘‘that the world was full of meaningless people saying words’’. In the garden she encounters George, who has impetuously decided to enter Helen’s house to speak with her. Thus the meeting is prepared by the separate repudiations of ‘‘bragging’’ and ‘‘words’’ by the young man and woman. When George finds Helen he wonders ‘‘what he had better do and say’’. In fact he says nothing, nor does Helen, as they walk to the grandstand in the fairground, where they sit for awhile, and then walk down the hill. For more than three pages the couple is together and Anderson includes not a word of dialogue. Earlier in the evening George had felt the need for Helen’s understanding, and at the very end of the story, ‘‘for some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together the thing they needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible’’.

Nearly as reticent as his characters, Anderson does not further elaborate ‘‘the thing they needed’’; to do so would cheapen the various desperate efforts of the other characters to define the object of their desires. But in the course of the interlude shared by George and Helen, some striking feelings that affect George give substance and definition to that which makes maturity in the modern world possible. First, George experiences the strange silence of the fairground a few hours after it had been crowded with people: ‘‘The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying’’. This is a new and different silence for the Anderson character—the silence not of inarticulateness but of loss, negation, the absence of life. It is a silence external to oneself and therefore a mode of experiencing the relation of the world of nonself to the self, which is also silent. Explicitly George interprets the sensation as a reinforcement of his sense of ‘‘his own insignificance in the scheme of existence’’, but the insignificance is a paradoxical kind of significance. Retaining the mood induced by the deserted fairground, he tightly holds Helen. The two share the same feeling and thus further enlarge their sense of identity as they experience its frailty: ‘‘In the mind of each was the same thought. ‘I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,’ was the substance of the thing felt’’.

Helen and George remain silent. ‘‘They kissed but that impulse did not last.’’ Slightly embarrassed, they ‘‘dropped into the animalism of youth. They laughed and began to pull and haul at each other. . . . they became, not man and woman, not boy and girl, but excited little animals’’. They laugh again; George rolls down the hill; Helen runs after him. Then, with Helen holding George’s arm, they walk away ‘‘in dignified silence’’. Except for the momentary embarrassment after each rejects the tentative impulse to kiss, the entire episode is remarkably easy and spontaneous—certainly the only occasion in the book of such intensely felt companionship. The close emotional attention to external silence takes George and presumably Helen beyond the confines of self, and presents George for the first time with a consciousness of his neighbors as ‘‘his people,’’ most vividly felt in their absence. The refusal of sex underscores the inadequacy of sexual relationships apparent in the several stories that deal with the subject. The recovery of the ability to play like children, even animals, is a physical expression of life and joy that is not sexual but is more satisfying than sexuality, perhaps because it is free of tension, aggression, and the awkward assumption of adult powers. Although George realizes that ‘‘there is no way of knowing what woman’s thought went through her mind,’’ he feels little need to know and is not once disturbed by his own silence during the entire episode.

The experiencing of love and friendship through silence is very much in accordance with Emerson’s and Thoreau’s prescriptions for ‘‘love’’ and ‘‘friendship.’’ But ideal silence in Anderson is no transcendence of materiality and mortality, rather an untroubled acquiescence in one’s normal mode of being. Otherwise in Winesburg, Ohio silence is almost always a handicap, a terrible disability resulting from what the inarticulate characters mistakenly regard as a crippling affliction that prevents intercourse with others. In ‘‘Sophistication’’ it is the opposite. Silence itself becomes the only and the essential mode in which love and understanding can be achieved.

Source: J. A. Ward, in American Silences: The Realism of James Agee, Walker Evans, and Edward Hopper, Louisiana State University Press, 1985, pp. 46–50.

Sherwood Anderson and the Lyric Story

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At this date, not much remains to be done by way of appointing Sherwood Anderson a place among American writers; in fact he himself succinctly indicated his own position when he remarked in the Memoirs that ‘‘For all my egotism, I know I am but a minor figure.’’ There is little disagreement, either, about the work on which Anderson’s reputation rests—Winesburg, ‘‘Death in the Woods,’’ a few stories from The Triumph of the Egg. When we come to estimate the accomplishment represented by Winesburg, however, things are not quite so clear. There are those who wish, still, to view the collection as a frame-story, but they then must reckon with the difficulty of seeming to reduce all the stories to the dead level of equivalent exhibits. Those on the other hand who want to read Winesburg as an initiation novel about George Willard have to face the problem of resting their case upon a character who in the end remains the thinnest figment. To choose to relegate Anderson and Winesburg to the limbo of regionalism is no longer acceptable.

Perhaps the sanest way is to view Winesburg, an uneven collection, as a special kind of amalgam of naturalism and lyricism. Every reader, whether approvingly or not, acknowledges the lyric intensity of the best Anderson stories. To Herbert Gold, Anderson is ‘‘one of the purest, most intense poets of loneliness,’’ while Irving Howe (who has also called Anderson a ‘‘pre-poet’’) holds that no other American writer ‘‘has yet been able to realize that strain of lyrical and nostalgic feeling which in Anderson’s best work reminds one of another and greater poet of tenderness, Turgenev.’’ Robert Gorham Davis ascribes the ‘‘great impression’’ made by Winesburg to its ‘‘freshness and lyric intensity.’’ It is Paul Rosenfeld, however, who has seen most clearly that Anderson’s lyricism is a method as much as an effect, for to this reader, Anderson’s narratives ‘‘really are lyrics with epic characteristics, lyrics narrative of event.’’

In analyzing the elements that go into Anderson’s lyricism, Rosenfeld notes the ‘‘legendary tone, the repetitions of slow rhythms and the loose joints’’ of the American tale, as well as the personal feeling that rises from the region between Anderson’s ‘‘conscious and unconscious minds.’’ But Rosenfeld places greatest stress on the purely verbal aspects of Anderson’s poetic quality, for

Anderson’s inclusion among the authors of the lyric story . . . flows first of all from the fact that, using the language of actuality, he nonetheless invariably wrings sonority and cadence from it; unobtrusively indeed, without transcending the easy pitch of familiar prose. . . . He sustains tones broadly with assonances and with repeated or echoing words and phrases. He creates accent-patterns and even stanza-like paragraphs with the periodic repetition or alternation of features such as syllables, sounds, words, phrases, entire periods. . . . (Introduction to The Sherwood Anderson Reader, pp. xiv–xv.)

Many readers of Anderson will see these assertions as a part of Rosenfeld’s special pleading and will doubtless be more inclined to share Irving Howe’s belief that amidst the ‘‘ chaos of his creative life Anderson had to cast around for a device with which to establish some minimum of order in his work’’ and found it ‘‘in the undulations of his verbal rhythms. . . .’’ Indeed, it is precisely in those pieces where he was ‘‘most at sea imaginatively’’ that ‘‘the rhythm is most insistently established.’’

Rosenfeld, I think it can be shown, is on much stronger ground when contending that Anderson’s stories are—in other ways—‘‘lyrics with epic characteristics,’’ and in holding that

As for his own specimens of the lyric story-kind, they have ‘inner form’ like Gertrude Stein’s, but their rhythms are livelier, longer, more self-completive than those of the somnolent lady-Buddha of the rue de Fleurus. While wanting the suavity of expression in Turgenev’s lyric tales, Anderson’s share the warmly singing tone of the Russian’s, surpass them of course in point of tension, and have the Andersonian qualities of subtlety of attack and humorous and acute feeling, perceptions of the essential in the singular, glamour over the commonplace, boldness of image. . . . Wonderfully they ‘stay by us.’ (Sherwood Anderson Reader, p. xix.)

What, precisely, is the ‘‘inner form’’ of Anderson’s stories and how can they be said to be ‘‘lyrics with epic characteristics’’?

In the first place it must be noted that the best Anderson stories always contain and lead up to a revelation, epiphany, or state of realized experience. Robert Morss Lovett has said that Anderson’s stories ‘‘reach outward into the unknown,’’ while Granville Hicks asserts that ‘‘Surfaces, deeds, even words scarcely concern him; everything is bent to the task of revelation.’’ To Herbert Gold, ‘‘The experience of epiphany is characteristic of great literature, and the lyric tales of Anderson give this wonderful rapt coming-forth, time and time again.’’ Irving Howe—uncomplimentarily—notes that Anderson ‘‘wrote best when he had no need to develop situations or show change and interaction—,’’ but Anderson’s own ideal of art is expressed precisely in his idealization of ‘‘the tale of perfect balance,’’ with all its ‘‘elements . . . understood, an infinite number of minute adjustments perfectly made. . . .’’

Summaries of Anderson stories reveal even less than is usually the case about the significance of the narratives; obviously in Anderson what is at stake is not histories, biographies, gossip, or even tales. From Anderson’s best work one does derive an unmistakable sense of authentic experience being worked out from within, in the manner of the great Russians—Turgenev and Chekhov—with their unparalleled suggestiveness and extreme economy of means. Like the Russians, Anderson does not ‘‘import his poetry into the work—he allows only the poetry that is there’’ (Herbert Gold). The significance of an Anderson story has very little to do with the ‘‘facts’’ that are related but it has something to do with the arrangement of those facts and with the relationship of these ‘‘epic’’ elements to other, more properly poetic strains.

Anderson’s abandonment of pure naturalism involved him in a movement away from structures dependent upon sequential action or gradually increased intensity and toward an arrangement of events which would better dramatize the centrifugal, diffused, resonant effect his materials called for. The halting, tentative, digressive style, and the circular, hovering or ‘‘Chinese box’’ approach to ‘‘what happened’’ thus do not so much demonstrate Anderson’s affectation of the manner of oral taletelling as they illustrate his understanding that the ‘‘epic’’ base of the story must be manipulated in such a way that weight is thrown upon the signifi- cance of the happenings as it reveals itself to the central consciousness and to the reader, rather than upon the events themselves. This is, of course, essentially a ‘‘poetic’’ strategy.

Moreover, as Jon Lawry has demonstrated in his reading of ‘‘Death in the Woods,’’ the narrative strategy, by which the story is not really ‘‘told’’ to any assumed audience, makes it possible that ‘‘its process of growth and contact is discovered by the audience, through the act itself rather than through the narrator’s relation of the act,’’ for ‘‘The audience is invited to enter as individuals into a process almost identical with that of the narrator and to reach with him for contact with another life.’’ This narrative method makes it possible for the ‘‘unacknowledged audience’’ to ‘‘share directly not only the narrator’s responses but his act of discovering and creating those responses’’—and this is precisely the ‘‘method’’ of the post-symbolist lyric. It is also the technique by which in Anderson fantasy is most controlled, or, ‘‘if not exactly controlled, simplified, given a single lyrical line,’’ and ambivalent— if not contradictory—emotions enfolded within one action. . . .

In ‘‘Sophistication,’’ the ‘‘epic’’ elements are arranged in such a way that George Willard’s restlessness and puzzlement are dramatized—rather than merely reported—through the structure itself with its jerky, spasmodic focusing and refocusing. Anderson, moreover, demonstrates a high degree of cunning in not attempting any sort of philosophic resolution of George’s dilemmas but by providing instead a rather quiet culminating scene in which all the contradictory aspects of George’s and Helen’s consciousness are caught up in a symbolic action (is it ludicrous to see a resemblance to Yeats’ use of the great-rooted blossomer?):

It was so they went down the hill. . . . Once, running swiftly forward, Helen tripped George and he fell. He squirmed and shouted. Shaking with laughter, he rolled down the hill. Helen ran after him. For just a moment she stopped in the darkness. . . . When the bottom of the hill was reached and she came up to the boy, she took his arm and walked beside him in dignified silence.

Other symbol-like devices appearing in the story are the cornfields, the dry leaves and trees, the stallion, and the grandstand. Anderson’s conducting of the narrative is too loose and diffuse for these objects to form a genuine symbolic pattern, but their presence does add power to the lyric suggestiveness of the narrative. . . .

It is in the Winesburg stories such as ‘‘The Thinker,’’ ‘‘Adventure,’’ ‘‘Hands,’’ ‘‘Sophistication,’’ and ‘‘The Untold Lie’’ that Anderson manages to reinforce a certain surface fidelity with what Ernest Boyd has called the ‘‘deeper realism which sees beyond and beneath the exterior world to the hidden reality which is the essence of things.’’ By combining in a special manner the story’s ‘‘epic’’ elements with characteristic lyric devices, Anderson is able, at least on occasion, to reach the ‘‘something totally private, untouchable, beyond appearance and action, in all of us’’ and thus exemplifies his own belief that ‘‘To live is to create new forms: with the body in living children; in new and more beautiful forms carved out of materials; in the creation of a world of the fancy ; in scholarship; in clear and lucid thought. . . .’’

Source: Sister M. Joselyn, ‘‘Sherwood Anderson and the Lyric Story,’’ in The Twenties: Poetry and Prose, 20 Critical Essays, edited by Richard E. Langford and William E. Taylor, Everett Edwards, Inc., 1966, pp. 70–3.

The Simplicity of Winesburg, Ohio

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Where ‘‘An Awakening’’ records a defeat, ‘‘Sophistication’’ records in all ways a triumph. Though Anderson presents the moment in essay rather than dramatic form, there comes to George, as to ‘‘every boy,’’ a flash of insight when ‘‘he stops under a tree and waits as for a voice calling his name.’’ But this time ‘‘the voices outside himself’’ do not speak of the possibilities of universal order, nor do they speak of guilt. Instead they ‘‘whisper a message concerning the limitations of life,’’ the brief light of human existence between two darks. The insight emphasizes the unity of all human beings in their necessary submission to death and their need for communication one with another. It is an insight that produces self-awareness but not selfcenteredness, that produces, in short, the mature, ‘‘sophisticated’’ person.

The mind of such a person does not ‘‘run off into words.’’ Hence Helen White, who has had an intuition similar to George’s, runs away from the empty talk of her college instructor and her mother, and finds George, whose first and last words to her in the story, pronounced as they first meet, are ‘‘Come on.’’ Together in the dimly-lit fair grounds on the hill over-looking the town of Winesburg, George and Helen share a brief hour of absolute awareness. Whereas his relationship with Belle Carpenter [in ‘‘An Awakening’’] had produced in George self-centeredness, misunderstanding, hate, frustration, humiliation, that with Helen produces quite the opposite feelings. The feeling of oneness spreads outward, furthermore. Through his communication with Helen he begins ‘‘to think of the people in the town where he had lived with something like reverence.’’ When he has come to this point, when he loves and respects the inhabitants of Winesburg, the ‘‘daylight’’ people as well as the ‘‘night’’ ones, the way of the artist lies clear before him. George Willard is ready for his ‘‘Departure.’’

Like Hart Crane, other readers will find the simplicity of Winesburg, Ohio ‘‘baffling’’; but it is very probably this paradoxical quality which has attracted and will continue to attract admirers to a book that Anderson himself, with a mixture of amusement, deprecation, defensiveness, and satisfaction, quite accurately termed ‘‘a kind of American classic.’’

Source: Walter B. Rideout, ‘‘The Simplicity of Winesburg, Ohio,’’ in Shenandoah, Vol. 13, no. 3, Spring, 1962, pp. 20–31. Rideout has written a biography of Sherwood Anderson, scheduled for publication in 1998.

Sherwood Anderson: Impressionism and the Buried Life

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356

The climax (perhaps it should be called the high point in George’s life until then) of [Winesburg, Ohio] occurs when George and Helen White reach a complete understanding one autumn evening, sitting up in the old grandstand on the fair grounds, rapt and wordless. ‘‘With all his strength he tried to hold and to understand the mood that had come upon him. In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. ‘I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,’ was the substance of the thing felt.’’ It is most significant that this experience is almost entirely wordless. The shared feeling, indeed, is of seeking and wondering. It is inarticulate because it occurs in a world without meaning. Such incidents suggest that men’s instincts are good but that conventional morality has warped and stifled them. Interpreted in terms of the divided stream of transcendentalism, they show that the spirit is misdirected because its physical house is mistreated. When Whitman wrote

Logic and sermons never convince, The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so.

he was making the same plea for the liberation of body and spirit together that we infer from Winesburg, Ohio. I say infer, because Anderson does not precisely say this; one might infer that he regards these repressions as inseparable from life—that he takes the tragic view of man—but I do not think entirely so. The pains of growth are probably inevitable, but the whole world is not as confining as Winesburg, and Anderson seems to say that people should be able to grow up less painfully to more abundant lives. His protagonist does, and gets away from Winesburg, though he endures torments and misunderstanding and unsatisfied love which cannot be laid to Winesburg so much as to the condition of youth in this world.

Source: Charles Child Walcutt, ‘‘Sherwood Anderson: Impressionism and the Buried Life,’’ in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 60, no. 1, January-March, 1952, pp. 28–47.

The Book of the Grotesque

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

The burden which the grotesques would impose on George Willard is beyond his strength. He is not yet himself a grotesque mainly because he has not yet experienced very deeply, but for the role to which they would assign him he is too absorbed in his own ambition and restlessness. The grotesques see in his difference from them the possibility of saving themselves, but actually it is the barrier to an ultimate companionship. George Willard’s adolescent receptivity to the grotesques can only give him the momentary emotional illumination described in that lovely story, ‘‘Sophistication.’’ On the eve of his departure from Winesburg, George Willard reaches the point ‘‘when he for the first time takes the backward view of life. . . . With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. . . . Already he hears death calling. With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with all his hands. . . .’’ For George this illumination is enough, but it is not for the grotesques. They are a moment in his education, he a confirmation of their doom. ‘‘I have missed something. I have missed something Kate Swift was trying to tell me,’’ he says to himself one night as he falls asleep. He has missed the meaning of Kate Swift’s life: it is not his fault: her salvation, like the salvation of the other grotesques, is beyond his capacities. . . .

Winesburg is an excellently formed piece of fiction, each of its stories following a parabola of movement which abstractly graphs the book’s meaning. From a state of feeling rather than a dramatic conflict there develops in one of the grotesques a rising lyrical excitement, usually stimulated to intensity by the presence of George Willard. At the moment before reaching a climax, this excitement is frustrated by a fatal inability at communication and then it rapidly dissolves into its original diffuse base. This structural pattern is sometimes varied by an ironic turn, as in ‘‘Nobody Knows’’ and ‘‘A Man of Ideas,’’ but in only one story, ‘‘Sophistication,’’ is the emotional ascent allowed to move forward without interruption.

Source: Irving Howe, ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque,’’ in Sherwood Anderson, Stanford University Press, 1951, pp. 91–110.

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