Thursday, 18 March 1999

Sherwood Anderson: Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1998

Sherwood Anderson's best known work is a collection of short stories about a fictional small town in the American Mid-West. Even today, when it has already had eight years' influence on American literature, the book still comes across as something unusual. Though the stories are connected (they share characters, and focus on the newspaper reporter George Willard as well as sharing location), Winesburg, Ohio is in no sense a novel; there is no overarching plot binding everything together.
It could almost be argued that the short stories in the book are not really stories at all; they themselves lack plot and perhaps could be more accurately described as character studies. Each tells us something about one of Winesburg's inhabitants: their background, history, relationships, or mannerisms. As we build up a picture of these people, we come to understand the town as well.

In some ways, the stories reminded me most strongly of James Joyce's Dubliners, which pick out some (often trivial) event in the lives of those who live in Dublin so as to give an overall picture of the Irish city. So far as I remember, the stories in Dubliners were less connected, characters not recurring, and the event being described in a story assumed more importance than in Anderson's work, which is more concerned with atmosphere.

Each character has something unusual about them. This is important to Anderson's vision of small town American life, as the introductory tale demonstrates: this is basically about a fairy tale about "The Book of Grotesques". This emphasis on the things which have shaped the people of Winesburg provides a dark edge to the stories and makes it into a collection which is about the heart of the twentieth century view of humanity.

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