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.

Dubliners

January 27, 2007

James Joyce’s Dubliners is an easy introduction to Joyce, and was by far the most accessible of his works that I have read. I haven’t had the patience for Ulysses yet and have given up twice. I did enjoy his Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but his short stories are an easier read.

I am not typically a big fan of short stories, preferring novels, but I am a fan of good characterizations, and Joyce manages to accomplish character development even in this short form. His also manages to create a portrait of the lives of Dubliners in the early 20th century. His self-proclaimed purpose was to show Dublin under four of its aspects, “childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life. The stories are ordered in that general manner.

This is not a “feel-good” book. Most of the characters do not achieve the happiness that they are looking for, victims of a time, place and circumstances that preclude it. The concepts of the individual stories are not unusual, but based on my (limited) experience with short story collections, the way that all the stories form a single unified whole, is unusual.

I have to admit that I enjoyed Portrait of an Artist more than this collection of stories. I suspect I may be in the minority.