Style and Technique

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Because Anderson’s work focuses on internal conflict and internal resolution, one would expect his writing to give more attention to internal than external matters in general. Even so, many critics have found it surprising that Anderson’s sparse style offers so little in the way of descriptive details about location and...

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Because Anderson’s work focuses on internal conflict and internal resolution, one would expect his writing to give more attention to internal than external matters in general. Even so, many critics have found it surprising that Anderson’s sparse style offers so little in the way of descriptive details about location and setting.

The first sentence of “Sophistication” begins “It was early evening of a day in the late fall.” The day of the week and the date are unspecified, as are the names of the berries that once grew in the dry fields, or of the stores that the people pass as they walk down Main Street. The implication is that for these people, one day is much like another, a field is a field, a store is a store. They do not notice details about their surroundings, and Anderson wants the reader to ignore them as well. What matters is what George—Anderson’s Everyman—is thinking as he walks through Anytown, U.S.A.

George and the narrator do notice the most minute action and detail about the people in the town, however. The narrator describes the stickiness of sleeping children’s fingers and the shining faces of young boys with their first sweethearts, but aside from a few dry leaves and interchangeable trees, there are no descriptions of nature. There is much noise, supplied by crying or shouting children, or fiddlers tuning their instruments, or horns blaring, but there are no birds singing or dogs barking. It is almost as though all these players were actors on a stage with no set.

Anderson is almost stubborn in his refusal to describe locations, even when moving around is the central action. All readers know about George and Helen’s travels on that long-ago summer night is that they stopped “by a fence near a field of young corn.” However, this walk is an important memory for both of them. Their walk this fall evening seems to cover considerable ground—they leave town, cross fields, climb and descend Waterworks Hill, and sit at the fairgrounds. However, these places form only the vaguest pictures in the reader’s mind. By providing as few details about the terrain as possible, Anderson keeps the reader’s attention focused entirely on the internal struggles of George and Helen.

Historical Context

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History Frozen in Time
Anderson’s ‘‘Sophistication’’ reflects almost none of the modern culture into which the United States was moving during the time of the story—the 1890s. During this time, the nation’s cities were rapidly industrializing—railroads and steel mills dominated the landscape of the Eastern United States. In a few years, automobiles would begin to irrevocably fracture community life by allowing people to live and work in vastly wider areas. But in Winesburg, Ohio, modeled on the town of Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson lived as a child, life had not yet succumbed wholly to the modern age. Nevertheless, young people of the day, like George and Helen, felt the pull of the cities and longed to break free of the ‘‘old-fashioned’’ world of their parents, in which county fairs and horse races figured prominently. George longs for city life, where he can immerse himself in the frenetic pace of a daily newspaper, making an impact in a realm larger than his own small town. Likewise, Helen is attending college in the city of Cleveland—still an unusual move for a young woman of the time. Though she invites a professor home with her, his trite attempts at urbanity bore her. She urges George to follow his dream to the city, in a scene that was undoubtedly played out by millions of young people at the turn of the century as the United States became increasingly urbanized. As an exercise in bittersweet nostalgia, Anderson ignores the era in which he was writing. In 1919, the world had just waged the deadliest war in history, and technologies like airplanes, automobiles, telephones, and modern weaponry were transforming the world, both for better and for worse. During this time of chaos and immense growth, Anderson recalls an earlier time, evoking vivid memories of small-town life—both the joyousness of a county fair and the restlessness of the young generation who felt the urge to participate in the urban turmoil of modern life, forsaking the things they grew up with as being old-fashioned and ‘‘unsophisticated.’’

Literary Style

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Point of View
‘‘Sophistication’’ is told in the third person omniscient, meaning that readers have access to the thoughts of both George and Helen. The narrator, who is not to be confused with the author, succeeds in moving readers into George’s mind for the purpose of identification with a young man on the brink of maturity. In the same way, the narrator explains how Helen feels: ‘‘What George felt, she in her young woman’s way felt also. She was no longer a girl and hungered to reach into the grace and beauty of womanhood.’’ At the same time, the narrator remains somewhat distant. The distance created by a third-person point of view helps instill a tone of wistfulness to the moment of discovery between the young couple.

The setting for ‘‘Sophistication’’ is the small midwestern town of Winesburg, Ohio. More specifically, the social hubbub created by the county fair creates a contrast for the tale of loneliness and connection between two people. The action and words of the townspeople, which George takes to be coarse, create the scene from which his understanding of self arises. Both George and Helen share a magical moment in the bleachers of the empty fair ground, the silence even more striking after a day of carefree fun by others, but fun that neither of them felt or enjoyed themselves.

Descriptive Language
The language of ‘‘Sophistication’’ is simple, and the narrator carefully paints a colorful portrait of a town during its county fair, using many adjectives and metaphors: ‘‘People surged up and down like cattle confined in a pen.’’ ‘‘Young men with shining red faces walked awkwardly about with girls on their arms.’’ There are ‘‘murmurs of voices and the loud blare of horns.’’ Other metaphors include the description of ‘‘little flames of the fire [that] danced crazily about,’’ and ‘‘the wind [that] whispered among the dry corn blades.’’ Through the description of so much action, all happily attributed to the social event of the fair, George’s bad mood and Helen’s longing appears all the more out of sync with the setting. Through these descriptive contrasts Anderson gives more power to the very understated plot of his story.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: In ‘‘Sophistication,’’ the town’s residents ‘‘work terribly at the task of amusing itself.’’ Entertainment of the day takes a variety of forms. Drinking occupies many men, but it is unacceptable for a woman to appear drunk. Socializing is a favorite activity of women, and they frequently gather for meals, or in parlors to talk, sing, play games, or have afternoon tea. Dances are popular, and more physical activities such as roller-skating and bicycling are gaining in popularity.

1919: Movies are a primary source of entertainment, though they remain silent until 1927. At 10 cents a ticket, however, it is an affordable way for many people to spend a weekend afternoon. By 1916, comedic actor Charlie Chaplin was well-known around the world. In 1918, Chaplin and another popular movie star, Mary Pickford, each signed contracts with film studios for more than $1 million. Other forms of entertainment include burlesque and vaudeville shows.

1990s: New technologies, including television, VCRs, cable television, and computers expand possibilities for in-home entertainment. Popular social activities include movies, sporting events, and theater. Admission to movies may cost $7.00 or more.

1900s: The Winesburg County Fair is responsible for bringing crowds of ‘‘country people’’ into town. County fairs have been in existence in Ohio since the mid 1800s and are promoted by the Ohio Agriculture Department, organized in 1846. The fair brings people together to celebrate the state’s farming industry. Livestock and other farm products are judged and awarded prizes.

1990s: Farmers comprise about 2 percent of Ohio’s population in 1996, but agriculture remains the state’s largest single industry, and county fairs are still popular. Modern county fairs are promoted on the World Wide Web and livestock are tested for illegal drugs that may be used to enhance the appearance of champion animals. Of Ohio’s 88 counties, 87 have county fairs. While fairs are still designed to showcase local agriculture, additional attractions often include carnival rides, political booths, and variety of merchants and entertainment.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Anderson, Maxwell. ‘‘A Country Town.’’ The New Republic, June 25, 1919, pp. 257, 260.

Cowley, Malcolm. Introduction to Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, Viking Press, 1960, pp. 1–15.

Faulkner, William. ‘‘A Note on Sherwood Anderson.’’ In Essays, Speeches & Public Letters, edited by James B. Meriwether, Random House, 1965, pp. 3-10.

Frank, Waldo. ‘‘Winesburg, Ohio after Twenty Years.’’ Story, Vol. 29, no. 9, September-October, 1941, pp. 29-33.

Howe, Irving. Sherwood Anderson: A Biographical and Critical Study, William Sloane Associates, 1951, 271 p.

Mencken, H. L. ‘‘Novels, Chiefly Bad—II.’’ The Smart Set, Vol. 59, no. 4, August, 1919, pp. 140, 142.

Rideout, Walter. ‘‘The Simplicity of Winesburg, Ohio,’’ Shenandoah, Vol. 13, no. 3, Spring, 1962, pp. 20-31.

Trilling, Lionel. ‘‘Sherwood Anderson.’’ In The Liberal Imagination, Viking Press, 1947, pp. 22–33.

West, Rebecca. Review of Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, in The New Statesman, Vol. 29, no. 484, July 22, 1922, pp. 443-44.

Further Reading
Abcarian, Richard. ‘‘Innocence and Experience in Winesburg, Ohio.’’ University Review, Vol. 35, Winter, 1968, pp. 95-105. Considers the wastefulness of human life to be the central focus of Anderson’s novel.

Asselineau, Roger. ‘‘Beyond Realism: Sherwood Anderson’s Transcendalist Aesthetics,’’ The Transcendentalist Constant in American Literature, New York University Press, 1980, pp. 124-36. Argues that each story in the novel is lyrical poetry.

Baker, Carlos. ‘‘Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg: A Reprise,’’ The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, Autumn, 1972, pp. 568-79. States that the themes of quest and suppression, not sexuality, unite the stories.

Boyd, Ernest. Introduction to Winesburg, Ohio, Modern Library, 1919. Theorizes that the novel is a depiction of rebellion against American society.

Dewey, Joseph. ‘‘No God in The Sky and No God in Myself: ‘Godliness’ and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Modern Fiction Studies, Summer, 1981, pp. 251-59. Jesse Bentley unlocks the puritan vision of life for George Willard.

Gross, Barry. ‘‘The Revolt That Wasn’t: The Legacies of Critical Myopia,’’ CEA Critic, Vol. 2, January, 1977, pp. 4-8. Gross states that the novel is a nostalgic memoir for rural America, not a critique of it.

White, Ray Lewis. ‘‘Of Time and Winesburg, Ohio.’’ Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, Winter, 1979-80, pp. 658-66. Discusses the historical facts of the novel, stating that the action of the novel extends from July, 1894 to April, 1896.

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