Sunday, September 9, 2018

Reading Winesburg, Ohio through a screen - "He was a sensitive man"

The strange thing about reading Winesburg, Ohio (1919) was seeing a literary tradition suddenly gel, the one that is Hemingway and Faulkner and any number of writers publishing fiction today.  Maybe I should have seen the same thing earlier, reading Gertrude Stein, for example, but I had not read Winesburg, Ohio then.  I was missing a step.

Sherwood Anderson was an intuitive writer, an experimental writer in the sense that he had to write his story to know what he was writing.  I have read that his method of revising stories was to literally rewrite them, to start at the beginning and redo it all from scratch.  Winesburg, Ohio appears to be highly conceptual.  Stories about characters who live in the same small town intersect and by the end perhaps even form a story connected enough to be called a novel.

The “novel” stars George Willard, Boy Reporter, so a writer and a blatant stand-in for a younger Anderson, not that Anderson had been a boy reporter.  His background was a notch or two down the social scale from George’s.  Still, his story ends the way it pretty much has to.  The last story is titled “Departure.”  It was a surprise, though, to read that Anderson had not planned any of this out, had not intended to include “himself,” but just wrote one story, then another, all set in a vaguely described but concretely named place, until the fourth story, about a troubled mother and son, gives him a character who can cross paths with everyone else.

That’s the conceptual innovation, the interconnected stories, even if it was not exactly new.  Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories (1900) has something in common, but has the disadvantage of not being especially good.  Spoon River Anthology (1915) is an immediate, direct, and acknowledged predecessor.  Was it really that important that someone do up a town in prose rather than verse?  I guess so.

For Hemingway and Faulkner, the prose was just as important.  The changes must be modest, but the Edith Wharton I have been reading feels like a logical, artful extension of 19th century prose style, while Anderson feels like he’s tossed out some of the old luggage.  He feels more like what I read in magazines today.

“The Untold Lie” is about a pair of farmhands.  The younger one, a wild man, gets a girl pregnant, and tells the older one, Ray, about it.  Ray is jolted.  “He was a sensitive man and there were tears in his eyes.”  He thinks through his own life, his own marriage.  He has a sublime encounter with the beauty of the Ohio countryside.  “The whole world seemed to Ray Pearson to have become alive with something just as he and Hal had suddenly become alive when they stood in the corn field staring into each other’s eyes.”  Ray gropes towards something like a moral, a lesson about the functioning of the universe, but the meaning recedes and the story ends.

Perhaps that is what I am seeing.  Characters in short stories will, once this device diffuses among other writers, no longer learn lessons but will have experiences which seem like they ought to be full of meaning, and maybe they are, who knows.  But anyways, something happened.

There is no real reason to read Winesburg, Ohio with any of this in mind.  I am just describing what I saw.  It was like a haunted book, with shades from the future passing through the stories.


  1. Characters in short stories will, once this device diffuses among other writers, no longer learn lessons but will have experiences which seem like they ought to be full of meaning, and maybe they are, who knows. But anyways, something happened.

    I think this might be the influence of Chekhov, first through Anderson's reading of Dreiser, and then of Anderson's direct reading of Chekhov. It was Chekhov who began to write stories where a realization is given to the reader rather than the protagonist, and once the reader sees what's happened, the story ends; it doesn't matter if the characters in the story have an epiphany or learn a lesson.

    The novel-as-linked-story form has really taken root in America. There are a bunch of them. Elizabeth Strout won a Pulizer a couple of years ago for one.

  2. Yes, I assume that is the path of transmission. Something like that. American readers had to be trained in this European form. Trained to enjoy it. Maybe they just needed someone like Anderson to make it American (setting, characters), so readers could recognize the truth in it.

    Maybe the linked-stories form fits our workshop model well. The writer can work on her "stories" without the rest of the workshop even knowing that they are secretly a novel.