In this lesson, we will learn about Sherwood Anderson's unique collection of related short stories, ''Winesburg, Ohio.'' We will take a look at the community of characters that define this seemingly quaint midwestern town. We will also consider the historical context in which the larger work was created.
Sherwood Anderson grew up in Ohio in the late 1800s. By the time his writing life had begun to take shape, the United States was beginning to be a part of international conflict. Young men and women were preparing for war, and an optimistic nation was heading into a future of technological advances that would change everything. With industrialization, city life became prevalent, and a certain sense of nostalgia was felt for the quaint and peaceful life of the Midwest. Before the Great Depression changed everything, many longed for what was perceived as the quiet, small-town existence where neighbors knew neighbors and worries did not extend to happenings beyond town boundaries.
Modernist writer Sherwood Anderson
Sherwood Anderson had a very specific and unique insight into this concept of the heartland town.
His iconic work Winesburg, Ohio, a kind of novel made up of 22 related short stories, is a portrait of many characters in small-town America. What is really distinct about this work is that during this time of nostalgia, Sherwood Anderson paints a very different picture of the heartland existence - one that is individual in its struggle with loneliness and isolation. In that sense, Anderson takes this all-American ideal and exposes it as a writer of the lost generation might, with a spotlight on the gritty reality that defines it. Why is this so important? Well, Anderson is really representative of writers of the time period, influenced by the changing world and a sense of helplessness and loss with the changes brought on by industrialization and WWI. What he chose to do was focus this writing lens, for the first time, on middle America.
Winesburg, Ohio is considered modernist literature for a few reasons. First, Anderson did something interesting with form - rather than writing one fluid novel, he wrote twenty-two short stories united in setting, characters, symbolism and, to a certain extent, mood. Each story concerns a different character in Winesburg (in fact, there are over 100 characters named in Winesburg, Ohio) while relating, in some way, to the protagonist of the entire work, George Willard. It is considered both a short-story collection (or short story cycle) and novel.
This was also a kind of experimental work, because of his choices in language and focus. Anderson wrote in what was considered very plain prose with a spotlight on character insight rather than plot. The way he revealed unhappiness in his characters along with the way they relate to their environments defines Anderson as a naturalist writer. Written from 1915-1916 and published in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio is one of those works that illustrates that shift in perspective from rural to city life, from pre- to post-war mentality, from idealism to gritty reality.
Stories and Characters
George Willard is the protagonist in the short stories
In addition to considering author choices in focus, form and language, it makes sense to take a brief look at some of the stories themselves. It's apparent that a few tales seem related while others do not, but what unites most of them is George Willard, the protagonist and town newspaper reporter who appears either in relationships or through dialogue.
'The Book of the Grotesque' is a kind of introduction for the entire work. It's a story that centers around an old man who lays in bed and considers, while half-asleep, the people he knew in his life. In this half-conscious state, figures take on a grotesque quality in his mind. This story sets the tone for the rest of the work and hints at the hues of dysfunction and sadness that lurk beneath the surface in each character.
'Hands' is about a solitary man named Wing Biddlebaum who lives on the outskirts of town. He hasn't become close to anyone recently except for George, who comes to visit him from time to time. It is revealed that Wing was once a schoolteacher who was accused of inappropriate relationships with his students. He escaped that situation only to live this lonely life in Winesburg.
'Mother' is a story whose focus is on George Willard's sickly mother Elizabeth Willard. In it, she considers what her life has become, her family business which never seems to prosper, her unhappy marriage and the bleakness she feels about her very existence.
'The Philosopher' concerns Doctor Parcival, a talkative man who often visits the Winesburg Eagle to make conversation with George. He is still fairly new to Winesburg and seems affable, but he also hints at having a darkness within him. When a girl is killed in town, Parcival's behavior becomes even more strange.
'Godliness' is a four-part section that feels like more of a dramatic and sad saga chronicling three generations of the Bently family and their work and suffering on their family farm. George does not appear in this section.
'Adventure' is about Alice Hindman, a young woman in her twenties who lives with her mother. Alice longs for an old beau who moved away a long time ago. Sadly, she comes to the understanding that some people will always be alone - and that she will most likely lead a lonely life.
'Respectability' centers around a gruff and angry telegraph operator named Wash Williams. Wash, a man who has seemingly given up on his own health and appearance, tells George that his life was ruined when he found out that his beloved wife had cheated on him several times. Since then, he has a particular disdain for women.
'The Strength of God' is the story of a reverend in town and the temptation he feels when he encounters a local young woman, Kate Swift.
'The Teacher' is about Kate Swift and her developing relationship with George Willard.
'Loneliness' is the story of Enoch Robinson, a man who has returned to Winesburg after living in New York. He tells George Willard of his life in New York, the time his wife left him, and how he eventually created a crowd of imaginary friends with whom he lives.
'An Awakening' centers around a young girl, Belle Carpenter, in whom George is interested - but he must contend with another man who is interested in her as well. Belle sees both men until George must fight for her attention and is humiliated one night when he is pushed to the side. The other man takes Belle away.
'The Untold Lie' is about Hal, a man who tells his co-worker, Ray, that he has gotten a girl pregnant. Ray, whose marriage came about under similar circumstances, has to deal with his reaction to this.
'Drink' is about a young boy named Tom who moves to Winesburg to be with his grandmother when his parents die. Tom decides one day to get drunk to see what it feels like. George Willard happens by and they have a conversation about a girl they both like.
'Death' centers around the failing health of Elizabeth Willard. In the time before her death, she feels a connection with the town doctor, although nothing comes to fruition. When she dies, George feels overwhelmed with various emotions.
'Departure' focuses on George Willard and the day that he leaves Winesburg for good.
It is difficult to see from these small snapshots, but there are a few common threads that connect the stories and carry the reader along. One is George Willard - through his relationships to other characters, we are able to see him develop into a mature man who must deal with his mother's death, and whose chance at a new life comes when he leaves Winesburg. After all, it is this town that is filled with so many people who feel lonely. This is really the second commonality among the stories - the alienation of the characters who either want love and can't get it, want relationships but live outside of society, or just live with regret. Each person's story is sad in some way - extreme in sadness, loss, desire, drama, etc. This is why the story called 'Grotesque' is a kind of introduction; it really foreshadows the kind of people the reader meets later in the work.
For all of these reasons, many argue that this is an example of naturalism in literature. While the realism movement sought to portray the working class as it really was - the mundane and the everyday - naturalism (which is considered an offshoot of realism) created a world where the human condition suffered with no way out of the effects of one's environment. Clearly, this is the case with the isolated characters we meet. George, of course, is the exception because he leaves Winesburg, but everyone else is stuck and sad and resigned to their reality.
Think about how this might have been received when first published. Small towns were a beloved emblem of all that is American, the concept of family and love, an ideal - well, this small town wasn't ideal at all. Obviously a very different kind of writing that was exposing what Anderson believed was this common struggle of the individual - that struggle to find a place with comfort, love, purpose and acceptance. Again, this was very typical of post-WWI writing and of this lost generation of writers.
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, is part short-story cycle and part novel. In it, the reader meets several inhabitants of Winesburg, all of whom in some way relate to the protagonist of the work, newspaper reporter George Willard. What is evident from each story is that the people of this quaint, all-American Midwestern town suffer individually from sadness and loneliness. It serves as a grim picture of the human condition in a place where they are unable to change, despite an outsider's perspective that a town like this should be a sunny place to live. Many believe this is what makes Winesburg, Ohio a naturalist work.
In addition, this is a classic in the post-war literary community. It breaks from traditional form in that it is not one continuous novel, but rather 22 short stories. Anderson also creates a unique work here in his choice to focus on plain prose that gives insight into character emotion rather than creating a plot-focused work. Published in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio is emblematic of that shift from pre-war ideals to post-war disillusionment.
Once you have finished this lesson, you should have the ability to:
- Recognize that Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio is an example of naturalist literature
- Identify the protagonist and other characters in the book
- Summarize the plot of the book's short stories
- Analyze the book's major themes