Friday, July 31, 2009

Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson was published in 1919. The book is essentially a series of character sketches about the inhabitants of the town of Winesburg, Ohio. Many of the same characters appear in multiple sketches.
The writing in Winesburg, Ohio is very clear and crisp, kind of like a serene, flat pond. It is soothing just to read it, even without taking in everything, kind of like listening to a song without focusing on any of the words. Anderson makes lots of direct matter of fact statements: “He was an old man with a white beard and a huge nose and hands” and “In Winesburg as on the farm Louise was not happy.”
The story begins with “The Book of the Grotesque” in which a fictional elderly writer sets out to write a book. “The writer had known people, in a particularly intimate way that was different from the way in which you and I know people.” The central thought of the writer‘s book is that “there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth.“
With Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson is saying that amidst the small town gossip and activities, something much deeper is going on in the lives of its individuals. With these character sketches, Anderson attempts to capture the essence of these people’s lives.
Some of the sketches are quite nice, for example “Hands”, where Dr. Reefy marries “the tall dark girl” and finds a relief to his loneliness during their brief marriage before she dies; he “read to her all the odds and ends of thoughts he had scribbled on bits of paper”
And some of the stories are downright depressing; “Adventure”, where Alice clings to the fantasy of a lover who has moved away and long lost interest in her, and who in the end decides to “face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”
In this disparity of experience Anderson’s descriptions are accurate since every life experiences brokenness with some wholeness and brokenness with no wholeness. However, the sketches take on an overwhelmingly dark aura; “he was lonely and had begun to think that loneliness was a part of his character”, “her loneliness seemed unbearable”, “he hated life whole-heartedly, with the abandon of a poet.”
The darkness seems almost comical when you see it recurring in every character, and though certainly every person experiences loneliness during his or her life, to what extent would it characterize a person? When you consider that in writing these character sketches Anderson is singling out and highlighting the experiences that most define his characters, you wonder if he is choosing the right ones?
Additionally, Anderson often admits to his inability to describe exactly what it is that he is trying to say, writing instead, “The poet is needed here.” This makes the reader wonder, does he even himself know what he is trying to say? Or is he trying to achieve some sort of an artificial profundity, sort of like the kind of people who feign to have knowledge of classical music, but who should really be taking hits off of a bong and listening to Spoon? Why doesn’t he just write at his own level, rather than try to say something at a depth that he himself cannot even reach?
It is interesting to consider that Anderson names his book “Winesburg, Ohio” rather than “the people who live in Winesburg Ohio.” The characters seem to have a steadfast alliance to the community; consider the character who moves away from Winesburg, then does whatever she can to get back, using the money that she found on the ground in her desperation. And Alice, who lives her whole life in Winesburg, even though she is unhappy and lonely there.
This makes you wonder if a version of Winesburg, Ohio could be written in 2009, where people will quickly sever their ties to a community to go to college, for a work or a relationship.

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