Through twenty-three connected short stories, the author looks into the lives of the inhabitants of a small town in the American heartland. In a simple and intense style, these psychological portraits of the sensitive and imaginative of Winesburg's population are seen through the eyes of a young reporter-narrator, George Willard. Their stories are about loneliness and alienation, passion and virginity, wealth and poverty, thrift and profligacy, carelessness and abandon.
The stories are told to George Willard, a young newspaperman aspiring to be a writer, who seem to draw others into him perhaps because of his sensitivity or being a writer, simply somebody who could understand. From their stories, we see a depiction of alienation, of loneliness, of inner struggles, of unexpressed desires, of unfulfilled sex lives, of frustrated ambitions. We see that each strives for happiness but never quite reaches it, and immediately we sense even from the first stories that their being inarticulate is a common trait that prevents this from happening. Beneath a seeming quiet life is a passionate, tormented soul. The failure to connect is a recurring theme. In attempting to relate their narratives to George, we feel that the characters are trying to inject some meaning into their empty lives.
Among others, there is a tale of the old writer who wants to write "a book of grotesques", and a four-part narrative of religious fervor that parodies the biblical tales of Abraham's sacrificing of Isaac, and David and Goliath.
The variations of stories of inner fervor but repressed wills are bleak and can be depressing at times. And it almost seems improbable that a town could be peopled at once with so many odd characters, bizarre and angst-ridden individuals. But the book does leave much for thought, and even if we perhaps don't care to admit it, the themes of alienation and frustration are something we recognize, to varying degrees, in our own individual, modern lives.
I long to see an "American Masterpiece Theatre" created, and the stories here dramatized for it. Would win Golden Globes and Peabodys and such-like prestige awards, done well.
Are these parallels too much of a stretch? Too reductive? Maybe these two novels aren’t as similar as all that.. but they do have common themes, and more than anything else, they both leave me with a sense that Nature and History have ganged up to play a cruel joke on many of us: making us on one hand genetically and socially conditioned to congregate in packs, but on the other hand shaping our society to be so rigidly hierarchical, so full of oppressive demands and expectations, and governed by such complex unspoken nuances of manner and custom that the whole process of socializing and getting along in large groups hardly feels achievable to many, and hardly seems worthwhile to many others. Most of us ultimately find a livable balance between inputs and outputs: a tolerable equilibrium between the mental and physical energy we must expend, and the social and material life that they buy for us. We don’t quite live out our wildest dreams, but we get enough of what we need to soldier on. Frequently this involves either accepting that we can’t "have it all", or redefining our idea of what "having it all" means.
That’s great for those who make it, but society and economics are hard, and not everybody ends up with the "happy-enough" ending. Some people give up on the standard prizes… the proverbial 2.3 kids and the house in the suburbs with the white picket fence. They follow some other dream, God bless ‘em, and some find their own happiness. Hermits, starving artists, nuns, and other eccentrics essentially say "fuck it". They haven’t found conventional happiness, and they’re done trying. I’m not sure whether this represents victory or defeat. Regardless, this book isn’t about those people; this book is about the people who can’t seem to attain the orthodox version of happiness, but don’t have a better dream to replace it with. It’s people who can’t quite master the rules of social success, but can’t or won't reject mainstream civilization and its prizes either.They keep following society’s rules, knowing on some level that the game is rigged against them, but following nonetheless, because they lack either the courage or imagination to take another path. Consider Ray Pearson: miserably married for decades to the girl he got pregnant, in a fleeting moment of passion. Consider Elmer Cowly: painfully awkward and overly-self conscious, who leaves his family and a secure job to head off into the night, dreaming of a distant city, where he might "… get work in some shop and become friends with the other workmen and would be indistinguishable. Then he could talk and laugh. He would no longer be queer and would make friends. Life would begin to have warmth and meaning for him as it had others." God damn; is that the saddest thing you’ve ever heard? It’s not so different from the kids at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Infinite Jest, is it? Those kids leave their families to attend the prestigious academy, placing all their hopes for deferred happiness in the dream of a career in professional tennis,"…this game the players are all at E.T.A. to learn, this infinite system of decisions and angles and lines Mario’s brothers worked so brutishly hard to master: junior athletics is but one facet of the real gem: life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without." Fuck. Kill me now, if that’s what it’s all about.
This isn’t a philosophy book, but it’s written by an observant and philosophical author. I don’t directly identify with any of the characters; I’m generally satisfied with my life, even if the review suggests otherwise. So why did these assorted vignettes about sad, disenfranchised characters touch me so? Probably because I think our social systems deserve to have their warts pointed out. They’ve evolved as a successful way to maintain order over time, which has some benefits for the community at large, but is frequently cruel and stifling to the individual, who may pay a high price for overrated things like acceptance and a sense of belonging. Sherwood Anderson seems to be telling the great abstract System that it’s not as fucking awesome as it thinks it is; and even though I’ve bought into it (or sold out to it) in many ways, there’s a part of me which still holds out against it, and which thinks the System deserves this tongue lashing, and probably a lot worse.
I was skeptical of this book because I thought the title sounded dull and the generic title even more dull-dom. However, I decided to read it only because I am from a small town in Ohio. It turns out, I am happy I live in Ohio.
The stories are detailed with realistic, well-rounded characters. Typically I steer away from short stories as many times it seems the endings are simple cutoff. This author delivers. His stories, though short, are well formed and entertaining. I was taken back to a different time of life, perhaps better in some ways as I read through.
A man and woman meet at a bar. They begin to talk and learn that each has trouble staying in long-term relationships because their sexual tastes are considered deviant. Excited, they decide to return to the woman’s apartment. After a bit of heavy petting, the woman excuses herself to her bedroom, promising to return wearing something more appropriate. Minutes pass and the woman emerges from her room in dominatrix attire to find the man nude, spent and smoking a cigarette. Incensed, she admonishes him for finishing without her. He replies, "Lady, I don’t know what your idea of kinky is but I just fucked your cat and shit in your purse."
The man closes the book. He is at the car wash. His daughter dances in front of him, hopping from colored tile to colored tile in the run down, if air conditioned, interior of the building. He remembers the dreams of youth.
He remembers standing on a hillside in Corona Del Mar and looking down upon a gigantic house under construction as his father tells him he is meant to be a writer. A plywood turret of what is to become a huge personal library is framed by the hazy blue of the Pacific Ocean. The house will be that of Dean Koontz, who would go on to write the Afterword for the 2005 Signet Classic Edition of Winesburg, Ohio.
The man remembers boyhood, when the dream of being a writer was new. He is eleven. He and his parents have moved to the working class community of South Gate. For the first time, he applies himself to his schoolwork. He wins a city-wide essay contest and is rewarded with an article in the newspaper and a free lasagna dinner. His parents, whose marriage is failing, declare a temporary truce and whisper with one another about their destined-for-greatness son. Almost as impressively, a biologically precocious Latina he goes to school with named Claudia asks him to sleep with her. Blushing, he buries his head in his desk. He does not know what it is to sleep with a girl, he only knows that Catherine Bach of Dukes of Hazard fame has made him feel funny on several different occasions.
One day he is accosted at the school bus stop by another boy named Jose who is jealous of the attentions of the resident alpha-female. Jose is beaten bloody and chased home by the boy. The school bus shows up just as Jose's family spill from their house, whipped into a bloodlust that the most fervent mujahideen would envy. As the eldest brother approaches the departing bus, his eyes meet the boy's through a window. The boy answers his foreign slanders by sticking out his tongue.
The boy did not become a writer. The man he became thinks of all the things he has left unsaid and of all the feelings he has never shown. He is at the hardware store. He buys a drain snake because his Hispanic wife's hair has clogged the shower. He is mildly irked, but he loves her. He loves his daughter. He loves his life. Old friends are coming over today and he will laugh. He thinks that anyone who has read Winesburg, Ohio and given it less than four stars probably only has sex like Jesus is in the room working the lights.
The problem is that that's as far as Anderson gets. By the middle of the collection, he has said what he has to say and from then on he keeps repeating himself. The characters' incoherent blabbering ("You'll know what I mean! You see, what I mean is, you know what I mean!") becomes unbearable towards the end. The characters become indistinguishable. They are all grotesque, surrendered, pathetic. They accept suffering, without ever rebelling or even just asking why they have to suffer. There is no disgust or anger at life in Winesberg, there is no humor as a coping tool, there is almost no dignity to be preserved. Rather than a complete, coherent book, the collection is a single overdrawn and overstretched good scene.
A very well written book, that I will revisit in the future. The only draw back on it was the frank bleakness of the lives and loves. I believe this is why it took me three tries to actually get started and finish the book. It has sat on the shelf for almost 17 years begging to be read, but each time I started I had a bad taste I didn't feel comfortable swallowing, so .... patooie... it was spit out. This time I kept going with determination and came away much more satisfied than I thought I would.
In the penultimate story, the narrator observes of a young woman, "it seemed to her that the world was full of meaningless people saying words." Perhaps this applies to all the characters in the novel, or perhaps we're encouraged to believe that young newspaper reporter who is nearly the main character and seems to be the chronicler of the town's adventures is a different sort of man.
Such moments of keen insight were too often surrounded by passages that feel more subtly sinister in the winter of 2017:
"The young man took Mary Hardy into his arms and kissed her. When she struggled and laughed, he but held her the more tightly. For an hour the contest between them went on..."
Over and over, women are waiting for men to deliver them from their lives. Maybe that is merely an accurate reflection of a time when women couldn't vote, unmarried women could rarely own property or conduct business, and rarely attended college. But at several moments in the story, it all felt more sinister to me.
I wish I'd read these stories a decade ago. I suspect I would have loved them without the complicated mixed emotions I have now.
"All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they have themselves built, and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls."
"...the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, he called it his truth, and tried to live by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood."
"Only the few knew the sweetness of the twisted apples."
"Be Tandy, little one," he pleaded. "Dare to be strong and courageous. That is the road. Venture anything. Be brave enough to dare to be loved. Be something more than man or woman. Be Tandy."
"I was furious. I couldn't stand it. I wanted her to understand but, don't you see, I couldn't let her understand. I felt that then she would know everything, that I would be submerged, drowned out, you see. That's how it is. I don't know why."
"Things went to smash," he said quietly and sadly. "Out she went through the door and all the life there had been in the room followed her out."
"...and Hall had suddently become alive when they stood in the corn field stating into each other's eyes."
"Love is like a wind stirring the grass beneath trees on a black night," he had said. "You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life. If you try to be definite and sure about it and to live beneath the trees, where soft night winds blow, the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly..."
"I have come to this lonely place and here is this other," was the substance of the thing felt.
"...the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood."
Almost embarrassed to admit, I might not have picked this up were it not for the Stanford Book Salon. I read in someone's review that the author died from peritonitis after his intestine was perforated by a piece of a toothpick left in a martini olive. I just want to reassure everyone that knows about the czuk "Martini Night" ritual on (most) Fridays, that we do not toothpick our Castlevietro olives.
My favorite quote from the books comes from the chapter titled "Death, concerning Doctor Reefy and Elizabeth Willard":
"Their bodies were different, as were also the color of their eyes, the length of their noses, and the circumstances of their existence, but something inside them meant the same thing, wanted the same release, would have left the same impression on the memory of an onlooker.
I would suggest this to anyone looking to feel less alone in the world, anyone who is confused and feels lost, or anyone who just needs something they can't explain.