Places Discussed

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Winesburg. Ohio village of some one thousand inhabitants. All two dozen stories in Winesburg, Ohio are set in Winesburg, a small town probably based on Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson lived as a young boy. One of the qualities that makes Winesburg a novel rather than a simple collection of stories is that the village setting is constant, and the same characters (especially the central character, George Willard) wander through it in different stories. In most editions of the novel, a map of the town’s layout faces the title page and shows its two main roads, Main and Buckeye Streets, the railroad tracks, and the eight most important structures in the town, including the railroad station, the New Willard House hotel, the office of the Winesburg Eagle, and the fairground. Winesburg is like any small midwestern village: Surrounded by farms, it is the regional center of commercial and social life.

The stories concern several of the prominent citizens of the town, including two doctors (Reefy and Parcival), the Presbyterian minister (Reverend Curtis Hartman), and a schoolteacher (Kate Swift). Most of the characters in the stories are lonely, estranged from their fellow townspeople, and incapable of expressing their inner, often neurotic longings. Part of the “revolt from the village” movement in American letters at the beginning of the twentieth century—a literary movement which included poet Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology, 1915) and novelist Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, 1920)—Anderson showed the isolation and frustration of small-town life. “I told the stories of repressed lives,” Anderson later said about Winesburg, Ohio. Attacking one of the dominant myths of American culture, Anderson demonstrated that village life, far from being supportive and joyous, was marked by alienation and restlessness, the legacy of American puritanism and commercialism.

New Willard House

New Willard House. Winesburg hotel run by Tom and Elizabeth Willard. Shabby and disorderly, the New Willard House reflects the lives of its inhabitants. Elizabeth Willard has inherited the hotel from her father, but it is an unprofitable venture. She and her husband are estranged, but both pin their hopes on their young son George, the reporter for the Winesburg Eagle who wanders the village gathering stories for his paper. As a young girl in her father’s hotel, Elizabeth had dreamed of escaping Winesburg and becoming an actress. In one of the last stories of Winesburg, Ohio, “Death,” Elizabeth Willard has a brief affair with Dr. Reefy, but then she dies. Her death helps to free her son from this unhappy town.

Winesburg Eagle

Winesburg Eagle. Offices of the local newspaper. Located (according to the frontispiece map) at the main intersection of town, the newspaper office is the site of much traffic. People wander in to talk to George Willard, especially late at night, for George is often there, if not working, then thinking about his encounters with the various “grotesques” who inhabit his village. No one story is set in the office, but several end here. At the conclusion of “The Strength of God,” for example, the Reverend Hartman spills out his religious epiphany to George “half incoherently”; at the end of “The Teacher,” Kate Swift lets George Willard take her in his arms in this office—and then starts to beat on his face with her “sharp little fists.”


Fairground. “At the upper end of the Fair Ground, in Winesburg,” Anderson writes in the penultimate story, “Sophistication,” “there is a half decayed old grand-stand,” and here George Willard and Helen White go late one fall evening. With Helen, George no longer feels the loneliness and...

(This entire section contains 659 words.)

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isolation he has felt in town, and her presence renews him. “They kissed but that impulse did not last.” Instead, mutual respect for each other grows; “they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.” Several months later—and in the next, last story—George Willard leaves Winesburg, alone.

Historical Context

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The First World War
World War I was the first of two conflicts in this century to draw most of what is referred to as Western Civilization (generally speaking, Europe, North America and Russia) into battle. It was the first war to use submarines, aerial bombings and chemical warfare, which added a new dimension of impersonality to the usual carnage of war.

It began in Europe, where the battles between ethnic groups in the Balkan nations at the end of the nineteenth century led to a balance of power between two rival military alliances: The Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France and Russia. Most of the smaller countries were affiliated with one of these or the other. On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian. When the Austrian government blamed Serbia, obligations to existing treaties pulled most of the nations into war, one at a time.

Originally, Americans were reluctant to become involved: President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 with the campaign slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War." In early 1917, though, Germany started using submarines against ships traveling to Great Britain, and the United States, which had warned against such action, was drawn into participating. When peace was declared in 1918, thirty-two nations had been involved in the fighting, with 37 million casualties and 10 million civilian deaths.

The veterans who returned to the United States in 1918 were angry and disillusioned, having participated in destruction on a greater scale, with deadlier weapons, than the world had ever known before. Of the one million Americans drafted and sent overseas, many came from small rural towns like Winesburg, and may never have gone beyond the county limits, much less traveled to Europe and killed people, if not for the war. The returning veterans brought back stories of their experiences, cracking the shell that secluded farm towns from the outside world. Winesburg, Ohio was published the year after the war ended.

The Rise of the Soviet Union
Russia's weak economy, coupled with the strain of a great number of military defeats in World War I and the subsequent high casualties, forced Russian Tsar Nicholas to abdicate his throne in March of 1917. A liberal government took control of the country briefly, but protests and riots quickly forced them from power; the moderate government that followed did no better to restore order. In October of 1917 the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, staged a revolution and reorganized the country under principles of Marxist socialism.

To American artists and intellectuals, the Russian Revolution stood as a symbol of hope that social progress toward equality was possible and that the market forces that disfavored creativity could be overthrown one day. Journalist John Reed, whose 1919 book Ten Days That Shook The World gave his eyewitness account of the Revolution and who founded the American Communist Labor Party, became a sought-after speaker for social events.

To American politicians, the threat of a revolution was justification for continuing the wartime censorship that had been established to protect military secrets. Charges were brought against writers and publishers who were branded as "radicals" and "freethinkers." Ordinary citizens were split: more identified themselves as "communists" or "socialists" than at any time since (their affiliation with leftist politics would come back to haunt them thirty years later, during the blacklisting that made many lose their jobs in the 1950s), but those who supported capitalism feared leftists, as being not just different political parties, but as a threat.

The Chicago Renaissance
When Sherwood Anderson moved to Chicago in 1913, he found a blossoming literary environment. Among the writers that he became acquainted with, some famous and some yet-to-be, were Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Harriet Monroe, Ben Hecht, and Floyd Dell. Literary magazines of lasting cultural significance, such as Poetry, Little Review, and Seven Arts were new and eager to publish works by writers who were just starting to build their reputations.

Enthusiasm was high among this group for the experimental art of the post-Impressionist painters, such as Cezanne, van Gogh, and Gaugin, who stopped trying to reproduce visual images and worked instead to record their internal impressions of what they saw, reducing physical forms to abstract structures. The art exhibit at the 69th Regimented Armory in New York City from February 17 to March 15, 1913, made history as the first modern art showing in the United States. To this day, the Armory Show is referred to as a defining moment in American art. In 1914 the show traveled to Chicago, where angry students of the Art Institute were so offended that they burned an effigy of painter Henri Matisse. Anderson and his friends spent nights discussing artistic theory and determining how they could apply theories about paint to their work with words.

Literary Style

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StructureWinesburg, Ohio is most noticeably a series of short stories, each one capable of making sense if read by itself. Reading the book as a novel requires some imagination and a willingness to be loose with one's definition of just what a novel is.

There is a main character, George Willard, but his significance is based mainly on the fact that he appears in almost all of the stories. Often, he is not central to the story's action, but is just mentioned as someone that a central character has spoken with. If the reader accepts the fact that George's appearances must be more than a coincidence, then it would follow that the whole book is one continuous piece, with each independent story defining George and moving him forward toward some final resolution. The fact that George leaves town in the last story supports this reading. It seems to provide a climax to the book in general.

There is a continuing character who comes to a resolute change at the end Readers who are willing to agree that this is enough evidence that the book is indeed a novel will look for signs within the stories, even those with little or no mention of George, that he is growing throughout the book to be the person he is in "Departure." They will find enough evidence to see a novel's structure running throughout the collected stories.

Sherwood Anderson despised stories that existed in order to serve their plot, usually with the actions occurring one upon the next in order to lead readers in one direction, with no more purpose than to sting them with a surprise at the end. An example of such a story might run like this: a man decides to make enough money to marry the girl he loves; he works hard for years and uses inferior materials in his construction business, in order to amass his fortune; the very day that he is on his way to propose to her, he finds out that she has been killed in the collapse of one of the shabby buildings he put together. Anderson called such stories "poison-plot" stones because they were built upon coincidences, not character. When he was writing Winesburg, Ohio, poison-plot stories were practically all that mainstream magazines published—today we still have the stories of 0. Henry (William Sydney Porter) as examples of the types of heavily plotted stones published at the turn of the century.

The stories in Winesburg, Ohio often fail to capture the interest of novice readers of literature because they are structured around character, not plot. These stories introduce readers to their central characters, show how these characters see the world, and then, at the climax, their external circumstances do not change much, even though then-personalities may be changed forever.

The events of this book could happen nowhere else but in a small Ohio town. In part, this is due to definition, because the author has defined this book as happening in or around the town of Winesburg. In addition, the stones all stay close to Winesburg because they just would not make sense anywhere else. In a larger town, in another part of the country or in a different country, there would not be the social pressure toward conformity that is unique to the American Midwest That pressure is integral to the stories, squeezing any artificial sense of comfort out of the characters, which pushes them to act, which develops their stories.

The map of downtown Winesburg in the front of the book helps to orient readers to where specific actions take place in relation to others, but Anderson could have explained such relationships within the text if they were important. More significantly, the map makes the town seem real, as if offering proof of Winesburg's existence, beyond what the fiction writer says.

The one story that is written in a distinctly different style from the others is "The Book of the Grotesque," which mentions neither George Willard nor the town of Winesburg and uses a different narrative style, with a narrator who exists within the story. "The Book of the Grotesque" helps introduce readers to the story that follows by placing the incidents in Winesburg within the memories of a tired, disturbed old man, which helps to explain why the stories have such an indistinct, dreamy feel about them. It also introduces the idea of the grotesque, asserting that each of the characters to follow has one thing exaggerated, which helps readers of Winesburg, Ohio understand what makes the characters behave as they do.

Literary Techniques

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Although Anderson was a superb literary craftsman of the short story, his major contribution was the originality of setting and style. He was a master of narrative perspective, combining techniques borrowed from Mark Twain with elements of his own myth theme. His stories develop a strong sense of dramatic situation, setting, action, symbols, metaphors, and images. He is regarded as one of the pioneers in the use of "depth psychology." His technique enabled him to write short stores totally of character rather than plot.

If Anderson was influenced by other writers, it is not apparent in his stories. Some critics think that Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology (1915) suggested a general structural arrangement for Anderson's stories. But Anderson had evolved his views of art and life and the essence of Winesburg, Ohio — "understanding and sympathy" — by 1914, and the extent of Masters's influence is questionable. Anderson read, and was certainly influenced by the works of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and George Borrow, whose The Romany Rye Anderson particularly admired. The roots of an American heritage that are so important in the writings of these writers are also central to Anderson's work, but whether he read these authors during his formative years is not assured.

Anderson also knew Gertrude Stein's works, and even met her in Europe later in life. No doubt he admired her ability to create mood through incremental adjectives, figurative language, and refrain — qualities found in his own work. His themes of isolation and emotional poverty in Winesburg, Ohio suggest a strong bond with her Three Lives.

Social Concerns

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One biographer says of Anderson that he often "becomes the unnamed spectator in his own books, a charmed and delighted visitor on earth" and that the reader "shares with him the sense of discovery under drab exteriors" of the qualities of beauty in what might be considered ordinary people and things. Having spent his childhood and young adulthood in small, Midwestern towns, he was evidently a sensitive observer of the people who lived in them. He was attentive to the impoverished inner lives of broken, sensitive people, the pervasive mood of social degeneration, provincialism, tragic limitation, isolation and dullness, and the vague longings and dissatisfaction of the culturally deprived and inarticulate. He was also aware that small towns could likewise harbor hopes, ambitions, talents, and love.

Compare and Contrast

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1919: Soldiers coming back from World War I had experienced massive destruction in the age of airplanes and automation. Because American manufacturing facilities were not damaged the way those in Europe had been, the U S. economy prospered in the 1920s.

Today: After the military build-up of the 1980s created an economic crisis, running up unprecedented trade deficits, the American economy has stabilized and is enjoying prosperity without war.

1919: F. W. Woolworth died at age 67. The Woolworth chain of five-and-dime stores started in 1879 and had over 1000 stores in small American towns by the time it was incorporated in 1911, becoming the first franchise in many rural centers like Winesburg.

Today: The Woolworth chain closed its last stores in 1997, run out of business by huge discount stores, particularly the Wal-Mart chain, which has over 1700 stores built on the outskirts of American downtown areas.

1920: The 18th Amendment, prohibiting sale and consumption of alcohol, was passed by Congress, to go into effect on January 20, 1920.

1933: Prohibition was considered a failure because it did not greatly reduce alcohol consumption and it encouraged gang violence. The 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition, became effective December 5, 1933.

Today: Many states are lowering the amount of alcohol that the law will tolerate in the blood of a person who has been operating a motor vehicle; at the same time, a growing percentage of the population, discouraged by the feeble results of strict drug policies, is calling for legalization of drugs.

1919: The 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote in the United States, was adopted by
Congress and was ratified by the states the following year.

1972: The Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed that
women would be treated equally with men, but it failed to be ratified by two-thirds of the states in the next ten years and therefore did not become law.

Today: Social groups monitor discrimination against women and offer legal support to those who have been mistreated due to gender.

1921: The pogo stick was invented. Throughout the 1920s, children kept themselves amused
bouncing on a spring-powered stick.

Today: The most sought-after games for children are those with computer graphics.

1921: The first nonstop transatlantic airplane flight went from Newfoundland to Ireland in 16
hours, 12 minutes.

Today: The Concorde can fly from New York to Pans in less than four hours.


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Some of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio were recorded (1983) and are available on the Caedmon label. E. G. Marshall plays "The Conscience of Winesburg."

Media Adaptations

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There are three different versions of a "Winesburg, Ohio" audio cassette available: from the Audio Bookshelf, 1995; from Recorded Books, 1995; and as an audio cassette or phonographic album from Caedmon, 1983.

A 1977 video, "Sherwood Anderson's I'm a Fool," is available from Perspective Films, 1977.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sherwood Anderson, Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs, edited by Ray Lewis White, The University of North Carolina Press, 1942.

Sam Bluefarb, "George Willard- Death and Resurrection," in The Escape Motif in the American Novel Mark Twain to Richard Wright, Ohio State University Press, 1972, pp. 42-58.

H. W. Boynton, "All Over The Lot," in The Bookman, Volume XLIX, No. 6, August, 1919, pp 728-34.

Carl Bredahl, '"The Young Thing Within' Divided Narrative and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXVH, No 4, summer, 1986, pp. 422-37.

Malcolm Cowley, "An Introduction to Winesburg, Ohio," The Viking Press, 1960, pp. 1-15.

Waldo Frank, "Winesburg, Ohio After Twenty Years," in Story, Vol. XEX, No 91, September-October, 1941, pp. 29-33.

James M Mellard, "Narrative Forms in Winesburg, Ohio," in PMLS, Vol. 83, No 5, October, 1968, pp 1304-312.

"A Gutter Would Be Spoon River," in New York Sun, June 1, 1919, p. 3.

Tony Tanner, "Sherwood Anderson's Little Things," in The Reign of Wonder Naivete and Reality in American Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 205-27.

Rebecca West, "Winesburg, Ohio" in New Statesman, Vol. XIX, No. 484, July 22,1922, pp. 443-44.

For Further Study
David D Anderson, "Moments of Insight" in Sherwood Anderson. An Introduction and Interpretation, Barnes and Noble, 1967, pp 37-54. Views Winesburg, Ohio as a "collection of short stories and sketches" and emphasizes Anderson's focus on problems of communication Describes Anderson's narrative mode as "character-plotting," in which changes in the character's state are more important than outward incident.

Maxwell Anderson, "A Country Town," in Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson, edited by David D. Anderson, G K. Hall & Co , 1981, pp 32-4. This review of Winesburg, Ohio, originally published in The New Republic in June of 1919, shows that at least some of the reviewers of the book's time "got" the ideas that Sherwood Anderson was presenting.

Sherwood Anderson, The Writer at His Craft, edited by Jack Salzman, David D Anderson, and Kichinosuke Ohashi, Paul P. Appel Publisher, 1979. A collection of Anderson's minor texts, including reviews, tributes to other writers, travel sketches, and notes on writing. A good source of background to Anderson's writing career.

Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller," in Illuminations, edited by Harry Zohn, Schocken, 1968, pp. 83-109. A brilliant essay, focused on the 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov. Benjamin establishes important distinctions between novels and storytelling in their handling of time, their relation to readers, the nature of experience, and the place of death. He sees in Leskov the remnants of a storytelling culture about to disappear definitively with industrialization and the rise of information.

Peter Brooks, "The Storyteller," in Psychoanalysis and Storytelling, Blackwell, 1994, pp. 76-103. Though not specifically about Anderson, Brooks provides ways of thinking about the meaning of storytelling in Winesburg, Ohio.

Irving Howe, "The Book of the Grotesque," in Sherwood Anderson, William Sloane Associates, 1951, pp. 91-109. Interprets Anderson's use of the grotesque as ethically motivated. The grotesques are those who have sought the truth and been misled; grotesqueness is not merely deformity, but also the trace of deeper feeling that has been damaged or estranged.

Clarence Lindsay, "The Community in Winesburg, Ohio, The Rhetoric of Selfhood," in Midamenca, No. 15, 1988, pp 39-47. Challenges "romantic" readings of Anderson's characters that pit the good individual against the bad, narrow-minded community Anderson uses subtle irony to unsettle this opposition, showing how characters use it rhetorically to justify isolating themselves and defining themselves as different.

William L Phillips, "How Sherwood Anderson Wrote Winesburg, Ohio," in Winesburg, Ohio: Text and Criticism, edited by John H Ferres, Penguin, 1996, pp. 267-90. An important study, based on manuscripts discovered in the 1940s, of the genesis of Winesburg, Ohio. The manuscripts reveal that Anderson had a large-scale work in mind in composing the individual chapters and that the book versions of the chapters published separately in magazines were often closer to the original drafts

David Stouck, "Anderson's Expressionist Art," in New Essays on Winesburg, Ohio, edited by John W Crowley, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp 27-51. Discusses Anderson's connections with modernist painting and writing.

Wellford Dunaway Taylor, "Anderson and the Problem of Belonging," in Sherwood Anderson, Dimensions of His Literary Art, edited by David D Anderson, Michigan State University Press, 1976, pp 63-75. Examines Anderson's status as an "outsider" in the world of literature, speculating on how that may have helped form, the prevailing mood of Winesburg, Ohio.

Ray Lewis White, Winesburg, Ohio. An Exploration, Twayne Publishers, Inc, 1990. White is one of the foremost scholars on Anderson's works, having edited all three volumes of the author's autobiography and written numerous books and articles about him This one explores three themes: "The Youth," "The Grotesques," and "The Town and the Time."


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Burbank, Rex. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Twayne, 1964. This accessible study of Anderson’s life and work provides a fine introduction to his first novel.

Crowley, John W., ed. New Essays on Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Presents a variety of critical points of view and provides a forum of interpretative methods about Winesburg, Ohio.

Dewey, Joseph. “No God in the Sky and No God in Myself: ‘Godliness’ and Anderson’s Winesburg.” Modern Fiction Studies 35, no. 2 (Summer, 1989): 251-259. Dewey’s essay searches the novel for its religious implications by focusing on the character of Jessie Bentley and shows how George Willard, as an artist, reshapes her search for spiritual communion.

Reist, John S., Jr. “An Ellipse Becomes a Circle: The Developing Unity of Winesburg, Ohio.” CEA Critic 55, No. 3 (Spring-Summer, 1993): 26-38. This general study highlights the way the reader’s experience can grow through a close examination of the text.

Rigsbee, Sally Adair. “The Feminine in Winesburg, Ohio.” Studies in American Fiction 9, no. 2 (Autumn, 1981): 233-244. Argues that the meaning given to the women characters in Winesburg, Ohio provides the novel with an important source of its artistic unity.

White, Ray Lewis. Winesburg, Ohio: An Exploration. Boston: Twayne, 1990. This book-length study examines the novel’s historical context, the general importance of the work, and its critical reception. Provides a close reading of the text and a selected bibliography.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide