Critical Overview

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As is the case with any groundbreaking work of art, there is a tendency to view the early critical responses to Winesburg, Ohio as being shortsighted and prudish, reflecting a world that was both unable to appreciate Anderson's accomplishment and much less sexually sophisticated than our own. There is some truth to this view, but much of it can be traced to the fact that the original reviewers did not, for obvious reasons, have the benefit of studying the book for eighty years, and so their analyses seem to be much simpler than those written today.

Adjusting for the modern critic's advantage of accumulated Anderson studies, the critics who commented on Winesburg when it was first published appear to have been quite astute in what they had to say. Only a few critics took Anderson to task for examining subjects like shame and lust in his work, like the writer for the New York Sun who announced to the world that the book dealt with "nauseous acts" in a review called "A Gutter Would Be Spoon River" (the title refers to Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 poetry collection, also about inhabitants of a small town). A few other reviewers proclaimed disgust, but they were published mostly in family papers where the main interest was not literature but sales.

Their influence was exaggerated by several sources, including Sherwood Anderson himself, who seemed to allow each negative comment to strike with ten times the impact that he allowed to praise. In his Memoirs, he complained that he had been portrayed "almost universally, in public prints, as a filthy-minded man and that after the book was published, for weeks and months, my mail was loaded with letters calling me 'filthy, “an opener of sewers,' etc." It may have been convenient for him to remember himself being martyred like this, for, as he says in the following paragraph, "We men of the time had a certain pioneering job to do... "

A more typical response of the time would have been H. W. Boynton's generally favorable review hi the August 1919 edition of The Bookman. Boynton recognized the depiction of life in Winesburg as being "a life of vivid feeling and ardent impulse doomed, for the most part, to be suppressed or misdirected ... ". He did not ignore the sexual content of the book, but correctly and quietly assumed that Anderson was caught up in the excitement about Sigmund Freud that was sweeping the intellectual community: "At worst he seems hi this book like a man who has too freely imbibed the doctrine of psychoanalysis.... At best he seems without consciousness of self or of theory to be getting to the root of the matter—one root, at least— for all of us."

Throughout the decades, it is this lack of self-consciousness that has made Winesburg, Ohio a favorite among writers. The writers of the "Lost Generation," those who had been through World War I and started making their mark in the literary world in the late twenties, looked upon Anderson as a sort of father figure in a way that they never looked up to his peers, probably because his success without being too obvious appealed to their artistic senses.

The book's appeal to artists was captured by Rebecca West, whose 1922 review for New Statesman called Winesburg, Ohio an "extraordinarily good book." She went on to explain that "it is not fiction, it is poetry. It is unreasonable; it delights in places where those who are not poets could not delight... it stands in front of things that are of no...

(This entire section contains 986 words.)

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importance, infatuated with their quality, and
hymns them with obstinate ecstasy."

Waldo Frank, who in the 1910s edited Seven Arts, a Chicago magazine that originally published several of the Winesburg stories, remembered in a later essay that he had been thrilled with the intuitiveness of the stories. For that reason he had feared revisiting them after twenty years, not knowing if they would have the impact they had in his youth. To his delight, the stones that he had remembered as being held together by the writer's instincts actually turned out to be examples of "technical perfection."

Because Anderson was so popular with writers, he drew the attention of critics, who could not accept the strange elements of Winesburg with a sense of mysticism: it was their job, after all, to explain it. In 1960, Malcolm Cowley's famous essay that introduced the Viking Press edition of Winesburg, Ohio, identified the root of the book's intangible greatness in the way that Anderson worked. "He knew instinctively whether one of his stories was right or wrong, but he didn't always know why," Cowley wrote. "[I]f he wanted to improve the story he had to wait for a return of the mood that had produced it, then write it over from beginning to end ... ".

As the world has become more logical and accountable, so literary criticism also has been able to accept a successful mystery, and as Winesburg, Ohio has continued to hold public attention, critics have sought to identify what creates the book's unique mood. Tony Tanner's essay in his book The Reign of Wonder: Naivete and Reality in American Literature identified the unnamed element as "the constant inclusion of seemingly gratuitous details." James M. Mellard explained in 1968 that other critics had overlooked the fact that there was not just one structure to the stories, but many. Sam Bluefarb identified a pattern of escape that he found common in American literary works in his 1972 book The Escape Motif in the American Novel. A. Carl Bredahl found the book to be held together by the twin urges of sex and art in his 1986 essay "The Young Thing Within: Divided Narrative and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio."

As these examples show, recent critical trends have pushed toward more complex explanations of the book, but admiration for Anderson's artistry have stayed fairly constant throughout the book's long history.


Winesburg, Ohio


Essays and Criticism