Sherwood Anderson is best known for his novel Winesburg, Ohio, in which small town life is keenly observed. The introductory Note to the Dover edition says:
Sherwood Anderson ((1876-1941) was a quintessentially American writer who not only pioneered new techniques in the short story form, but also significantly influenced the style and concerns of a whole generation of American writers who came after him, most notably William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.
He was also supported by his colleagues of the "Chicago Renaissance" which included Theodore Dreiser, known for his
"realism" writing style. Anderson's stories remind me very much of that particular author. They are not pretty. They are dreary and depressing and make
one feel uncomfortable. But they are good stories nonetheless, just not what I would consider fun or entertaining. Sometimes we would just rather prefer less
honesty. This small volume contains twelve very short stories and one longer novella.
Anderson captured the mindset of turn-of-the-century America. The stories are about loneliness, the inability to express one's feelings, and worse yet, being uncertain what one's feelings really are. They are about people stuck in small towns dreaming of freedom. Many are about women afraid to express sexuality or even feel it, and others are about married men who become obsessed with another woman. Some stories are about senile old people, or poor and struggling people; hopelessness, fear, and stagnation.
If Anderson's writings express his observation of Americans at the time. I personally am unable to relate to the feelings of his characters. And yet. . . going back many decades, to my childhood, this book recalled to me an aspect of life long forgotten. Perhaps that's why it is so uncomfortable. I lived through the sixties: Women's Liberation, sexual freedom and open expression of one's views. The sixties changed everything. It's hard to imagine the way life was before.
In my family, and most families I knew, the mother raised the children and most fathers had little to do with family life other than earning a living. The man was the head of the house and there wasn't much discussion between spouses. Feelings weren't discussed. Sex was sinful. One never strayed from the pattern. Well, I did, but I was a rebel.
Yes, I guess these stories do bring back a life I have forgotten. I remember the loneliness, but now as an adult, I cannot remember what loneliness feels like. As far as I'm concerned, the less I'm around people the better. I think our fast-paced, stressful society and instant communication has turned people in the opposite direction, yearning for solitude.
When I graduated from high school, I couldn't wait to get away. I had to have my fling in the city, but then I was ready to come home. If I had not gone away, perhaps I would still feel as the characters in these stories, that their lives have never been really lived. I live my life to the extreme. In addition, I think the spiritual awakening movement, also an outcome of the sixties, brought to attention by people such as The Beatles, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and later writers such as Deepak Chopra and Shakti Gawain have given followers a sense of inner purpose. I wonder if the events of the sixties had been different, if we would still be struggling with these same issues. But then again, I expect many people probably still are, by the number of suicides and drug addictions. Reading this book has set me off thinking about the changes which have occurred in the nearly six decades I've spent on this planet. And while these stories are all distressing, they are very powerful.
I also wonder if these struggles were, or are mostly an American thing. The book I read just previously to this was Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility. It seems that in late eighteenth-century England, women had opinions just like men, and weren't afraid to express them. Many other books I've read from this time period by English authors portray a mindset quite opposite to that of early twentieth-century America and I wonder why. There was certainly no Women's Lib back then. Anderson's stories have definitely provided much food for thought, and the thoughts are quite fascinating.
Because there are so many stories in this collection, I won't comment on each, especially since I've provided such a general portrait of them as a whole, but I will mention a couple that stood out for me personally. Incidentally, the only one containing humor, albeit dark humor, is The Egg.
Unlighted Lamps is about a father and daughter living in a small town in Illinois, not far from Chicago. The father is a doctor, and the mother has been gone for years. They are not well off. On this one day, Doctor Lester Cochran announces to his daughter that he has been diagnosed with heart disease, and could die at any time. The rest of the story is about all the feelings that should have been expressed between the two, but instead a coldness and distance has defined their relationship. Mary Cochran never really heard the truth about what happened to her mother. It is when Mary accidentally runs into someone who was one of the doctor's patients that she learns of his kindness and generosity. She longs to embrace her father and speak her heart. As she is struggling with emotions, so is he, and he also resolves to sit with her and speak words that should long ago have been said. This was also my favorite story in the collection. Here are Mary's thoughts after she speaks to her father's former patient:
A great new love for her father swept over her and in fancy she felt his arms about her. As a child she had continually dreamed of caresses received at her father's hands and now the dream came back. For a long time she stood looking at the stream and she resolved that the night should not pass without an effort on her part to make the old dream come true.
That same evening, her father has similar thoughts when he remembers his wife telling him she is pregnant:
On that evening long ago when Ellen had told him of the coming of the great adventure of their marriage he had remained silent because he had thought no words he could utter would express what he felt. There had been a defense for himself built up. "I told myself she should have understood without words and I've all my life been telling myself the same thing about Mary. I've been a fool and a coward. I've always been silent because I've been afraid of expressing myself—like a blundering fool. I've been a proud man and a coward.
"Tonight I'll do it. If it kills me I'll make myself talk to the girl," he said aloud, his mind coming back to the figure of his daughter.
The New Englander is about a woman who spent her entire life on her family's
farm in Vermont. All her brothers have now died, except one, and her parents decide to move out to Iowa to be near Tom. Elsie Leander is glad to leave,
thinking she will be released from the stagnation and dullness of her life in Vermont. But the stagnation is within herself and she is afraid to venture
forth. Her behavior, emotions and inexperience seem like those of a young woman, so we are shocked when we find out her age.
The last story in the collection is the novella,—46 pages in the Dover edition. Out of Nowhere into Nothing is about Rosalind Wescott, who suddenly leaves Chicago to visit to her small home town in Iowa. She is struggling with a dilemma, and wants to speak to her mother about it. Before she does, many other events happen that open her eyes and help her to make a decision. The story then goes back in time, and we learn about the issue of concern.
There is one last comment I have about this book, and it isn't about Anderson's stories, it is about the Dover edition. In a usual collection of stories, the name of each particular story normally appears on the top of every recto (right-hand) page. That makes it easy to find a spot if you wish to read a passage again, or, in my case to write a review, or even if you just forget the name of the story you are reading (which I frequently did). This edition lacks that information and I found that aspect extremely annoying throughout the reading of this book.
Other than that, despite the dreariness of these stories, as mentioned above, I still recommend reading them. If you want to get a grasp of the restlessness and uncertainty of small-town America at the turn of the century, this one paints a revealing and thought-provoking picture.
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