Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Penguin no. 609: Winesburg, Ohio
by Sherwood Anderson

There is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes the backward view of life. Perhaps that is the moment when he crosses the line into manhood. The boy is walking through the street of his town. He is thinking of the future and the figure he will cut in the world. Ambitions and regrets awake within him. Suddenly something happens; he stops under a tree and waits as for a voice calling his name. Ghosts of old things creep into his consciousness; the voices outside himself whisper a message concerning the limitations of life...for the first time he looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives, and again disappeared into nothingness. The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy.

The very early Penguins look so similar that choosing between them can be a fairly random process when you are unfamiliar with the authors and the titles. In general I don't mind this;  it seems to me there is always something to be learnt from reading an old book, even when I don't particularly enjoy it. But sometimes I will hear a title mentioned, and that mention will focus my attention, and make a particular book stand out. The wonderful thing about owning so many old Penguins is that when that mention comes, I often don't have to search for the book: it will be sitting at home on my bookshelves overlooked and unread.

And so it was with this one. Winesburg, Ohio is not forgotten and it isn't obscure, but the title didn't mean anything to me. It was the blog Interpolations which first drew it to my attention, because the author stated that he had read this particular book 11 times, and naturally I was intrigued by a book that could captivate any reader to that extent (especially one whose reviews are so interesting and insightful). I cannot claim to love it as he does, but I will certainly read it again, and I think it would be fair to describe it as unforgettable. It is unlike any book I have read before and is almost unclassifiable. It lies somewhere between a collection of short stories and a novel, while being neither. The tone is sombre, and the prose is simple, with the occasional passage that is so profound that the depth of the insight seems almost irreconcilable with the simplicity of the language, intensifying the effect. The whole book captures and conveys a sense of sadness and loneliness that is not easily forgotten.

Winesburg, Ohio presents a portrait of smalltown America at the beginning of the 20th Century by focusing on the outliers, those individuals who stand apart from the common townsfolk. The picture is built up like a mosaic, from a set of distinct stories, each one sketching out one or more of the characters of the town. The story is in these descriptions, and the author looks beneath surface impressions offering insights into why these people are as they are: each trapped by something that has happened to them or something they believe. Each of these individuals is remarkable, but their stories are small and they end quietly, generally without hope.

It is a picture comprised of parts. The story isn't linear; the book has an air of being written organically, as though the completion of one story inspired ideas developed in other stories. Some are connected only through the location, others because so many of the characters are drawn to the young reporter George Willard, who works for the local paper, observing and recording the small details of the inhabitants' lives. There is no introduction to the town; we come to know its streets, buildings, shops and features through the movements of these characters. In this way the sadness and limitations of their lives colours the picture of the town as well. It comes across as small, faded, decrepit and forlorn. A place to leave behind, and eventually George Willard does just that.

This unusual approach to creating a book is prefigured in the first story, The Book of the Grotesque. A writer lies in his raised bed experiencing a waking dream of procession of figures, all grotesque but not all awful. Their grotesqueness is born of their obsession with a single belief which they take to be a truth, but which their fanaticism makes a falsehood. And as the writer becomes obsessed with this idea and the procession of figures, he himself risks becoming a grotesque. This is the idea developed in the book: Winesburg, Ohio is a procession of grotesques. There are a few that are horrible, their fanaticism restricting the lives of those around them, but the remainder are sympathetically portrayed. They have the 'sweetness of the twisted apples', an idea developed in the story Paper Pills, and a secret to be discovered by the observant . This is a book which influenced much of the American literature which followed it, and it is interesting and unforgettable  because of the originality of the approach.


  1. I'm so intrigued, this sounds like an amazing novel! Was it difficult to get through, being non-linear? I love that kind of writing, but I do find that you have to work pretty hard to get through them...worth the trouble tho.

  2. Hi Mandi,

    It wasn't difficult to get through, although it was perplexing to begin with, because it was so unlike anything else. I think the best analogy would be with constructing a jigsaw puzzle. Each story gives you a little bit of the picture of the physical town and of the community, but not in any conventional order. At the end you are left with the picture, and whatever meaning you take from that picture, but no real plot, and that was enough. It seemed to me that creating a book this unusual so successfully was a real achievement.

  3. It sounds fantastic. I'm a big fan of David Lynch, and it sounds quite a bit like how he tells his stories - great to read/watch stories that require a bit of a faith, a patience, that the picture will become clear(er).

    As it happens, I've actually ordered a copy of this book now, so that I can read it for myself :-)

  4. Smile. Then another smile. Cheers, Kevin

  5. One of my favourite books, in university Winesburg, Ohio set me off on a bit of a Sherwood Anderson tear; this despite the fact that I'm not really one for short stories (a flaw, I know). You're right in that the book treads the border between being a novel and a collection of short stories, though I feel it leans toward the latter. I do admire the man and his work, but don't hesitate in saying that he wasn't much as a novelist.

    I believe the only other Penguin Anderson is The Egg and Other Stories, a 1989 Classics collection (not to be confused with The Triumph of the Egg and Other Stories from 1921). Highly recommended.

  6. Hi Mandi, Wonderful to hear that it's still available. I hope you enjoy it, or at least enjoy the unusual approach and simple prose, and the portrayal of American life from early last century.

    Thanks for visiting the blog, Kevin. And congratulations on that beautiful new daughter.

  7. Yep, I tracked it down. Not a cool Penguin copy though I'm afraid...had to settle for a new copy.

  8. I love this work also-it is a hugely influential book-for interested parties it can be read online as it is now in the public domain-I enjoyed your very perceptive review a great deal

  9. I believe that Anderson created this oft-copied story-telling technique.

  10. He elaborated an approach that was (perhaps most famously today) used just before him by Kipling and Saki, and more or less contemporaneously in poetry, no less, by SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY by Edgar Lee Masters.

  11. I just finished this book: and I am very impressed with it. Your review is great. I would only add that in a way, for me, it wasn't a portrayal of the town's outliers that Anderson was sketching: my take on it is that each and every person (both in Winesburg, and the world at large) is unique and has a story to tell. In a sense, we are all amalgamations of the Grotesque and Grace



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