Honors English 11
30 April 2008
Sixty years after its first publication, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio continues to stand as a ‘classic’ of modernist American fiction. Anderson effectively paralleled his life with short stories describing members of his own hamlet of Clyde, Ohio. The actions of his fellow Ohio residents inspired him to create these stories outlining the lives of his peers. Sherwood Anderson was greatly influenced by the ideology, small-town politics, and interpersonal conflicts of his childhood in a small town in Ohio.
Sherwood Anderson was born on September 13, 1876, in Camden, Ohio. In 1884, Anderson and his family moved to the small town of Clyde, Ohio. (Mahoney 19) Clyde, Ohio is the model for the town of Winesburg (Mahoney 20). Anderson loathed his drunk of a father because of the lack of love shown to his mother and resented him because of the humiliation and poverty that his endeavors had caused (Mahoney 21). Two major events shaped the feelings of Anderson about life. First, when he was only nineteen years old, Anderson’s mother died, and his family pursued to split apart (Mahoney 22). Anderson had a mental breakdown due to two things. The pressures of trying to succeed in business and writing and the conflict between his yearning to leave his unhappy marriage to Cornelia and his commitment to his family caused a breakdown that doctors diagnosed as nerve exhaustion (Mahoney 22). His collection of short stories known as Winesburg, Ohio, chronicles his life in a rural Ohio town, telling stories of frustration, angst, and cultural “letdowns.” (White)
Within Winesburg, Ohio, there are three storytellers. There is George Willard, the town reporter, there is “the writer” at the beginning of the text, who is supposedly telling the story of all the characters in the book, and there is the most powerful storyteller, Sherwood Anderson. The two characters reflect Anderson himself, and unlike other writers, they are not meant to present a moral or a philosophy (Modlin 71). Instead, their role, like the one Anderson envisioned for himself, is to collect stories about people that combine to tell something about the world (“Grolier Winesburg, Ohio Analysis”). The ideology of the town is to remain very relaxed and calm about all events that happen in their humble town, so reported and inquisitive behavior is really a culture shock when Willard steps in (Rideout 42).
By listening to those around him, George collects the tales of Winesburg and so helps to create the town. George’s paper seeks to “mention by name in each issue, as many as possible of the inhabitants of the village,” so George runs around collecting stories and “All day he wrote little facts upon the pad” (Anderson 128). He does not himself invent stories, yet he helps to shape the town by serving as its voice and selecting which stories to tell. This is why George represents the town to several people, such as Elmer Cowley who queries: “Did he not represent public opinion?” (Anderson 195) George, in his small way in a small town, is able to shape one version of the truth in Winesburg, by selecting which stories to present, but he himself, like the other storytellers, is not empowered to grant supremacy to one idea or another. This represents Anderson’s beliefs on the shaping of literature. As a child, Anderson wrote on many different small town subjects and he claimed that this shaped the way his career in literature would pan out.
The old writer consciously rejects the writerly urge to declare one truth as more valid than others. He wants to tell the stories of people he has known, and he believes truths are valid ways to continue the great story. Yet, to be too completely bound to only one truth is dangerous: “It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (Anderson 6). Instead, the old writer chooses to present the parade of people with their various truths and lies. However, he reflects the author in that he is choosing which stories to present.
When he draws attention to the fact that he is telling one story instead of another, Anderson underscores and parallels his own role as a selector of truths to present, rather than a teller of truths (Sutton). Several times, he writes, “But this is not the story of…” such as when he explains that he is not telling Windpeter Winters’s story (Anderson 204). Although he needs to include aspects of those stories to tell other stories, he is clearly indicating that there are other stories he could have selected. Therefore, he is the chooser of stories, not the creator of them.
The man who selects the tales to tell has a great deal of control because he is presenting one set of ideas. By insisting that he is only a chooser of people’s stories, Anderson is also claiming that the truths already existed for him to select among. This means that he is collecting ideas that really are truthful, and it enhances his power as a story selector rather than a creator of fiction (Sutton). This selection of truths alludes to the idea that Anderson really desired control (Sutton). Many instances throughout the novel reveal that he has a constant need for control. Such as when Willard’s mother prays for her beloved son’s own demise. (Anderson 21) She does not want him to achieve success because it would bring an end to her normalcy that was not established by her.
The way Anderson requires the reader to allude to tensions, plot twists, and different awkward situations is refreshing to say the least. At the end of Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard and Helen White spend an evening together without speaking much to each other. This time together helps them both come to terms with their impending adulthood and “For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed” (Anderson 248). The reason cannot be explained because its meaning comes from the absence of words, and to try to pin it down with words would be destructive. Words are too weak for this situation, even though Anderson acknowledges the natural tendency to try to put things into words. There is a tension in this text between people’s expectation that words should contain great meaning and the actual weakness of words. He really expresses a tension that is evident in a small village. Growing up in Clyde, Ohio, Anderson was known to be a youth filled with angst. He left school at age fourteen and left for Chicago only two years later (Mahoney 44). He related Winesburg, Ohio, to his frustration and disappointment with his own hometown (Mahoney 45).
Anderson seems to have a very tumultuous relationship with women. After his father’s business failed, they were forced to move frequently, finally settling down in a rural village in 1884 (Mahoney 18). Family difficulties led his father to begin drinking heavily and this lead to him spend much of his time at work and with his mother (Mahoney 19). Anderson described his mother as a very hardworking, yet distant woman (Mahoney 20). This is paralleled in Winesburg, Ohio. Elizabeth Willard desperately wants to have some type of meaningful conversation with her son, but her attempts to speak to him are simply awkward. Their time together always ends with her suggesting he get outside and him agreeing that he should probably take a walk (Anderson 28). She wants to believe that there is a strong bond of sympathy, but she also realizes that words are useless and she cannot find a way to speak to her son. She is glad that he is not “a dull clod, all words and smartness” (Anderson 28), but is also left lonely because she cannot make herself understood to him (Anderson 87). Even on her deathbed, when she has significant information to impart about the hidden money, she is unable to speak to him. Hence, there is a great gap between the significant thoughts she would like to express and the actual potential of words to voice those thoughts.
Winesburg’s tensions and oddities pull the town together and creates a very awkward surrounding and environment for the townsfolk. Everyone in the village seems very frustrated with the modern rural establishment, yet no one can possibly speak out against it. The obvious symbolism and connection Anderson brings creates an almost autobiographical sense to the novel. Winesburg, Ohio, will stand as a testament to Anderson’s mastery of small town tension and boredom.