Winesburg, Ohio

May 20, 2007

winesburg.jpg Sherwood Anderson’s iWinesburg, Ohio is a “novel” that takes place entirely in a small Midwestern town during the turn of the century. Although the book is actually a collection of short stories, it is considered a novel because the stories are loosely connected by the town, and by the man, a reporter, considered the “main character.”

I love the dedication that Sherwood wrote for this book, and I think it says a lot about the content and his purpose in writing the stories-

“TO THE MEMORY OF MY MOTHER, EMMA SMITH ANDERSON, whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives, this book is dedicated.”

The book has no central plot, but each story or vignette describes a character dealing with, or more accurately, struggling with some facet of life, more often than not struggling with a relationship. These are not happy stories about happy people leading happy lives. One of my favorite stories in the book, “The Untold Lie,” describes two farmhands, one long-married, and the other young and unattached, discussing the merits of marriage. The young one has gotten a girl “in trouble” and is asking his elder for advice- whether marriage is a worthwhile venture. The elder refuses to answer, but spends the rest of the afternoon considering his married life. At the last minute he races to catch his young friend, to tell him “the truth.” He catches him but his friend is no longer interested in his advice, he is marrying the girl because he loves her. As the elderly man returns home, he has pleasant memories of his life, and realizes that the advice he would have given, would have been a lie.

Anderson’s book is highly acclaimed (it is on many of the top 100 lists) and is said to have changed the course of short story writing in America. I reluctantly admit that I didn’t really enjoy it that much, although it was good enough to keep me reading. This becomes something of an anomaly for me because if I were ever to attempt to write fiction, this is likely the type of book that I would choose to write, although the content would likely be different. But I do like observing others and their lives, trying to understand what makes people tick.

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9 Responses to “Winesburg, Ohio

  1. litlove Says:

    I often find I’m harder to please when it comes to books that approximate the kind of thing I’d want to write myself. The inner critic has already got going on the subject matter, as it were. Would Anderson’s tales be like Garrison Keiller’s at all?

  2. Brad Says:

    litlove- There is no comparison to Garrison Keillor’s tales, except that they are centered on a small town and its inhabitants. There is very little humor in Anderson’s stories. Mr. Keillor celebrates life and people- Sherwood seems to focus on life’s failures.

  3. Dorothy W. Says:

    I read a few of these a while back and wasn’t thrilled by them either, although I’m not against giving them another try. I’m not sure what the problem was — a slow pace maybe?

  4. ombudsben Says:

    I read Winesburg, Ohio about 20 years ago, but enjoyed it. I remembered it as an interesting bridge between rural, horsedrawn America and urban, motorized America. Yes, a book about human failings, but also frailties, too.

  5. JCR Says:

    This is a wonderful review of Winesburg. I read that book online (the only one I’ve done) because it is posted legally at bartleby.com, and other sites.

    Sorry about not participating in the meme thing… I have been thinking about some things lately and they need to be reassessed (my war experience, especially). Will talk to you soon, I hope.

  6. Cam Says:

    Winesburg, Ohio is the only book that I read in college that I truly remember hating. I’m sure that there were others that I disliked, but many years later this is still the book that I think of negatively. I enjoyed your review, and was thinking as I began reading it, that maybe I should re-read this and I’d change my opinion. And then I read your last paragraph and thought: “Maybe, not!”

  7. LK Says:

    Oh, I liked this book. Especially the story Hands.

  8. Brad Says:

    Dorothy – I likely will try them again as well. There are enough readers that enjoyed the book that make me feel like I may have missed something, or read them at the wrong time in my life.

    omsbudsben – I wonder if it just wasn’t the right time for me to read a book that centered on failure and fraility.

    JCR – I hope you work everything out. I have never experienced serving in a war, and it is difficult to imagine the impact on one. My son is Iraq for his second tour- 15 months this time, and even as a parent it is a frightening experience.

    Cam- I think enough have enjoyed it that you should give it a second chance.

    LK- I agree that “Hands” was one of the better stories inthe book.

  9. Kate S. Says:

    I have long been meaning to read this book as it is touted as a pioneer (the pioneer?) of the story cycle form which I’m very keen on. But I have to confess that every time I have picked it up, I have abandoned it again rather quickly. I find your lukewarm response to it oddly reassuring! Perhaps I’ll give it another go though, for the sake of literary history.


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