Winesburg, Ohio, is certainly the geographical ancestor of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Washington, and Lumberton, North Carolina (Blue Velvet) -- not soWinesburg, Ohio, is certainly the geographical ancestor of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Washington, and Lumberton, North Carolina (Blue Velvet) -- not so much for its omens of severed ears and one-armed men, but for its wealth of turbulent emotion (e.g., rage, despair, lust, contempt... all the good ones, really) concealed behind a picturesque scrim of small town American life. Yeah, the shopworn theme of middle class American repression has been done to death -- Sam Mendes’s American Beauty may have seemed its trite little death knell -- but the masters always manage to make it fresh and insightful. And let’s not forget, naysayers, that Sherwood Anderson published this, his masterpiece, in 1919. That’s right. Ninety years ago, and I guarantee that it’s a helluva lot more modern, in language and sensibility, than some of the stuff being written today. If it weren’t for the talk of carriages and Butch Wheeler lighting the street lamps, you might not even guess at its age at all. It’s had literary Botox or something.
One of my new favorite books of all time, Winesburg, Ohio is also the longest shortest book I have ever read in my life... which isn’t to say that it’s tedious or verbose or difficult, but that each short story in this compilation of character sketches about Winesburg residents contains so incredibly much, that the emotional weight of three or four of them in one sitting is enough or is as much as human empathy will tolerate. Make no mistake... The people of Winesburg are, for the most part, pretty fucking miserable. I ain’t kidding you: the lion’s share of them are privately contending with some deep sense of loss or regret or dissatisfaction which they are -- or merely feel -- powerless to overcome.
I mean, just take a good look at a few of ‘em: Wing Bindlebaum lugs around the (unfounded) rumors of his pedophilia, keeping him from expressing himself freely; Elizabeth Willard suffers from marrying her cold, neglectful husband Tom because 'he was at hand and wanted to marry at the time when the determination to marry came to her' (ah, romance!); Elmer Crowley is so obsessed with the fear of being perceived as strange (or 'queer' in the original sense of the term), that he makes of himself the most inexplicable town oddity; and Alice Hindman, who I think is the saddest one of all (no small feat), saves herself for a man who has left town and forgotten her and lies in bed at night 'turning her face to the wall [and:] trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.'
Wow is right. There are some pretty baroque -- not to say bleak -- interior lives inhabiting these plain and simple-seeming folk. Because the narrative component in these stories is only a means to illustrate -- no, not illustrate -- transmit these inner lives to the reader, I think it’s fairer to call them vignettes. Regardless of seasons, characters, and particulars, each one transpires in a gauzy-golden-late-autumnal-Bergmanesque-twilit-dream-state. We see too opaquely into the psychological interiority for this to be hard-and-fast realism. We experience these vignettes primarily as auras, moods, and eulogies.
Sherwood Anderson’s use of language in Winesburg, Ohio is definitely worth mentioning because it feels profoundly unique. Yeah, sure, his sparse, colloquial prose is a kindred spirit of sorts with Gertrude Stein’s and Ernest Hemingway’s, but it’s certainly not neat or easy. What I mean is that, just because the bulk of the words are elementary, monosyllabic, it doesn’t follow that the reader glides effortlessly over the prose. Anderson often tosses in non-sequiturs, layered abstractions, mysterious phrases, and clunky rhythms to keep his readers fully engaged. Nestled within the simple, matter-of-fact narration in 'Death,' for instance, we find these two sentences:
In the big empty office the man and the woman sat looking at each other and they were a good deal alike. Their bodies were different as were also the color of their eyes, the length of their noses and the circumstances of their existence, but something inside them meant the same thing, wanted the same release, would have left the same impression on the memory of an onlooker.
Incredible. 'Something inside them meant the same thing.' That little verb, dispatched in an unfamiliar and enigmatic way, makes the sentence. Rather than feeling or thinking the same way, the two shared a significance. What does that mean exactly? You can almost grasp it or catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of your eye, but it’s one of those things you need to feel to really understand.
I also can’t help but love the serial parity of eyes, noses, and existences in the second sentence. There’s a beautiful awkwardness in that phrase that quietly thrills me. (Yes, I’ll own my literary geekiness. It thrills me... and, now, no longer quietly!)
Winesburg, Ohio is only the nineteenth book I’ve added to my literary Valhalla, otherwise known as my 'pants-crapping-awesome' bookshelf. It is a rare and beautiful thing, and I am still wondering if you realize how much I loved it... If not, call me at home and I’ll tell you all about it. ...more