Sherwood Anderson grew up in Ohio, but not in Winesburg, (there is such a place, but
it is in the eastern part of the state in Amish Country, near where I live). Anderson's name of Winesburg is fictional, but the town was actually Clyde. I
am familiar with that one, too, since it is about half way between Tiffin and Sandusky, in central Ohio. I went for my Bachelor's degree in Tiffin. Published
in 1919, this novel brought Anderson recognition as a writer.
Anderson was born in 1876 in Camden, Ohio, the third of seven children. Though they were considered well-off, his father seemed to be a no-gooder. They left Camden suddenly, stayed a few years in Caledonia, then settled in Clyde. By this time, his father could barely get work to support the family. Sherwood was good at earning money doing odd jobs, for which he often skipped school, dropping out all together at age 14. You may read more about his life at Wikipedia, or you may read this book, because reading the Wikipedia article correlates much between Anderson's characters and his own life.
I am not a big fan of realism. I find this particular style of writing to be especially uncomfortable. Is it real? Perhaps, but it seems that the authors of works in this mode take the worst of the worst behavior and portray it as if it were the norm. It isn't until the end of this book that you realize there are others in the town and their lives are much more normal and less disturbing.
Still, having grown up during the '50s and '60s in, not a small town but here in the country, there were many aspects of this novel to which I could relate, even at that much later date. Mothers were supposed to raise the kids, but they weren't too good at it, and unlike today, fathers spent very little time with and paid little attention to their children. Many had drinking problems and did not support the family well. There was little intimate communication between husbands and wives. Most families were basically dysfunctional. While relationships today certainly have serious problems, I think that the whole women's equality movement, begun back in the '60s especially gave women a stronger voice and the courage to use it in relationships. I have lived through a great transition, (which is growing even greater). Sometimes one needs to look back in order to see ahead.
Winesburg, Ohio is not so much a novel as an interconnected series of characters portraits of the most colorful people in the town (of course the more normal people would be boring to write about!). The "point of reference" character, from which all other characters seem to revolve around is George Willard, the son of the hotel owner Tom Willard (actually it was his mother's hotel, and Tom gains it by marriage). George, though he has to deal with the same family issues as the other townsfolk, and is also struggling with the same loneliness and stagnation, he seems to at least have a more stable head on his shoulders, and most likely represents Anderson himself. He is the reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, and though there is a chapter devoted to him, he flits in and out of everyone else's chapters, too.
Loneliness and inability to express feelings, coupled with a craving to find something in life worth living for and opportunities to move forward are the curses of this small town (and probably most others at the time, and perhaps some even now), that effect everyone portrayed. And these deficiencies have contributed to the residents' odd behaviors and strange perceptions of life in general. Sexual exploration among the characters here is also frequent, in many cases to fill the void left by loneliness, or to prove the importance of one's self.
In Part One of the chapter called "Godliness," Jesse Bentley inherits the family farm, perhaps seeming the least likely to succeed in that profession, but the only son left after the other four are all killed in the Civil War. Jesse had gone to school to become a minister, but his father called him home to take care of the farm. He attacks his responsibility with fervor and determination, to the point of fanatic obsession, and in turn, becomes one of the wealthiest land owners in the vicinity, buying up farms as they became available. He is also a religious fanatic, taking the Bible literally and having strange ideas about his importance and the way "God" operates in his life. He works his wife literally to death. Still doing hard farm labor in late pregnancy, she dies in childbirth, and what is worse, bears him a daughter rather than the son he for which he prayed.
The daughter, Louise, grows up unloved and dysfunctional. Her story is in Part Three, "Surrender." She goes to live at the Hardy residence since the two fathers are friends. Working hard in school, she earns the praise of Mr. Hardy while creating only resentment and hatred from the two Hardy daughters. She eventually marries the only son, John, thinking she is pregnant, but is not, and later regretting her choice. It is a marriage made in hell, resulting in the birth of only one child, a boy named David. He, in turn is so miserable in his dysfunctional home that he goes to live with his grandfather, Jesse, who now has the heir he has longed for.
And though David is much happier here, his grandfather often scares him. In Part Four, "Terror," in fact Jesse's religious fervor becomes so scary that, while out in the woods, David runs away. His grandfather pursues him, but David hits him with a slingshot. Thinking him dead, David leaves Winesburg and does not return.
This chapter, the longest in the book, also touches upon the industrial revolution and its effect on farmers, at least the wealthy ones that could afford the machinery. Though at the beginning, Jesse, like the other farmers, labored hard and glorified "God," he later enters the more modern era:
He began to buy machines that would permit him to do the work of the farms while employing fewer men and he sometimes thought that if he were a younger man he would give up farming altogether and start a factory in Winesburg for the making of machinery. Jesse formed the habit of reading newspapers and magazines. He invented a machine for the making of fence out of wire. Faintly he realized that the atmosphere of old times and places that he had always cultivated in his own mind was strange and foreign to the thing that was growing up in the minds of others. The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him. The greedy thing in him wanted to make money faster than it could be made by tilling the land.
Each chapter is devoted to the story of one of Winesburg's inhabitants, except for
"Death," which is about Dr. Reefy, a dirty man who has few patients and cares little, and Elizabeth Willard, George's mother; her death, and the affair
between the two.
In "The Strength of God" we read about the lust that develops in Reverend Curtis Hartman for the teacher, Kate Swift, as he accidentally sees her through the window lying in bed reading one evening. But in the next chapter "The Teacher" we hear the other half of the story, about Kate's lust for George Willard, her former student.
In many of the stories, someone hauls off and beats up someone else, and that person is often George, simply because they are frustrated and angry and need to take it out on an innocent person. George is a person that many townspeople seem to resent because they look upon him as having his life in order, at least more so than they do. One of the stories, "Tandy," is about a little child and "Sophistication" is about Helen White, probably the most normal of all the characters. There are 22 chapters in all.
Despite of my general discomfort with Realism in literature, I actually enjoyed reading this one. It is quick and easy to understand, and well written. And of course, it is about Ohio, a particular interest to me.
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