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Beneath the Surface

Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin

Winesburg, Ohio was first published in 1919 by the small New York firm of BW Huebsch. Ben Huebsch was also the first US publisher of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) and James Joyce’s Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (both 1916)

In his book of twenty-four loosely related short stories, Winesburg, Ohio (A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life), the American writer Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) made arguably his most significant contribution to both American and world literature. It has had an immense influence on generations of readers and writers, from William Faulkner (1897-1962) to Amos Oz (1939-2018). Faulkner said of him in an interview in 1956: “He was the father of my generation of American writers and the tradition of American writing which our successors will carry on. He has never received his proper evaluation. Dreiser is his older brother and Mark Twain the father of them both.” Oz recalled in 1985:

I had a Hungarian teacher at Kibbutz Hulda who never set foot in America but who told me to read ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ after it was translated into Hebrew. She knew I was a secret poet and wanted me to write prose. I had thought the real world was outside ‒ in Jerusalem or New York or Paris. ‘Winesburg’ showed me that the real world is everywhere, even in a small kibbutz. I discovered that all the secrets are the same ‒ love, hatred, fear, loneliness ‒ all the great and simple things of life and literature.

Almost three decades later, in 2011, Oz said of Winesburg, Ohio: “That book inspired me to be a writer, perhaps more than any other.” Philip Roth’s 2008 novel Indignation is set in part at Winesburg College in Winesburg, Ohio. His protagonist holds a part-time job as a waiter at the “New Willard House”, evoking the protagonist George Willard and the fictional location of Anderson’s book. Still, as Anderson helped to influence the writing of his successors, so his own writing in Winesburg was influenced by the books he read and admired, like Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches (1847-51) and George Borrow’s autobiographical Lavengro (1851) and his tales of gypsy life in England, The Romany Rye (1857). Through these writers and in writers like his fellow mid-American Mark Twain, Anderson found points of reference for writing about love, loss, loneliness, longing, desire, desolation and death in his Winesburg stories. In his own time Anderson was influenced by the Kansas-born poet, playwright and biographer Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) and his Spoon River Anthology (1915). It is a collection of verse ostensibly based on villagers buried in the cemetery in a fictional small town in Illinois. The dead voices in their unquiet graves in its opening lines begin: “Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley, / The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter? / All, all are sleeping on the hill.” With its dark view of small-town life, the anthology became a bestseller and inspired Anderson to begin writing the stories that were ultimately to become Winesburg, Ohio. Although Winesburg is not without its critics, it could well be argued that its capacity for distilling the turbulence of the emotional lives of over a hundred characters, some appearing once and others many times, represents the pinnacle of Anderson’s writing life and legacy. The book was described by The New York Times in Anderson’s obituary in 1941 as:

A series of devastating tales of a small, mid-Western town. America was mid-West conscious then. Within a year Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Main Street’ was to disturb literate America. But ‘Winesburg’ set the pace. In part, it was autobiographical. Its underlying theme was escape from the crudities and frustrations of small-town life ‒ the search for ‘an America alive’. 

The course of what was to become Winesburg, Ohio began in the autumn of 1915. While living in a boarding house in Chicago and working as an advertising copywriter Anderson began to write stories describing the lives of the inhabitants, or “grotesques” as he called them of Winesburg, a fictional Ohio town, in the 1890s. To be sure, he drew on his well-spring of experiences from growing up in the town of Clyde, Ohio where he spent his childhood and teenage years. He was born in Camden, Ohio in 1876 into a rural family worn down by poverty, the third of seven children born to Irwin and Emma Smith Anderson. His mother died aged forty-two in 1895, and the death precipitated the break-up of the family. It is to her that he dedicated Winesburg, Ohio. As he put it, “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”. He seems to have cast Irwin and Emma in the characters of Tom and Elizabeth Willard, the mismatched parents of the young Winesburg Eagle reporter George Willard in two of the stories, “Mother” and “Death”. By 1896 Anderson was living in Chicago, where he worked at various unskilled labouring jobs. In 1900 he completed high school and accepted a job in advertising, which was the beginning of his move for a time into the world of business. By 1907 he was settled in Elyria, Ohio with his first wife, Cornelia Lane, and was managing a roof and paint supplies business. He began writing, and by 1912, after a nervous breakdown, he effectively abandoned his life as a businessman, walking out of his Elyria office. In 1915 his two stories “The Book of the Grotesque” and “Hands” were published in Masses magazine. As it turned out these two stories were the first to appear in Winesburg, Ohio when it was published. That said, “The Book of the Grotesque” acts as a prologue to the collection. There, the narrator tells of an old writer who wrote a book which he called “The Book of the Grotesque”. It was never published. However, the narrator got to read it once and came to understand people and things he was never able to understand before. The narrator summarised what he took from the old writer’s unpublished book:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

The old man listed hundreds of truths in his book. There was the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy and many others. And then the people came along and snatched up one of the truths. Then, there were those who snatched up a dozen of them. It was the old man’s theory that it was the truths that made the people grotesques:

It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

The “Book of the Grotesque” reveals Anderson’s core philosophy on human connections where each person lives according to his or her own “truth”. The word grotesque derived from “grotto”, because the walls of caves in ancient times would often be decorated with representations of distorted, exaggerated human and animal figures. Following on from this idea, Anderson’s “grotesques” become distorted or fractured by life experiences. They simmer with “continual ferment” behind the mask of placid exteriors. To use Anderson’s own metaphor they possess a “sweetness of the twisted apples” that evokes the reader’s understanding and empathy rather than complete distrust, dislike or aversion. In his analogy, only the perfect, uniform apples from the Winesburg orchards are accepted in the city stores:

They have been put in barrels and shipped to the cities where they will be eaten in apartments that are filled with books, magazines, furniture, and people. On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected…One nibbles at them and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness. One runs from tree to tree over the frosted ground picking the gnarled, twisted apples and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples. (“Paper Pills”)

In the presence of George Willard the genius loci of the town, the grotesques find someone they may talk to. In “Hands”, there is Wing Biddlebaum (previously Adolph Myers):

With a kind of wriggle, like a fish returned to the brook by the fisherman, Biddlebaum the silent began to talk, striving to put into words the ideas that had been accumulated by his mind during long years of silence. Wing Biddlebaum talked much with his hands. The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression.

Seen in this way, Anderson’s characters long for understanding and think themselves to be cut off from a “warm inner circle of life” that everyone else seems to be part of. They wish to attach themselves to entities larger than themselves. The Presbyterian minister and farmer Jesse Bentley “[w]anted terribly to make his life a thing of great importance, and as he looked about at his fellow men and saw how like clods they lived it seemed to him that he could not bear to become also such a clod”.

Hopping on a freight train, young Elmer Cowley aims for Cleveland to lose himself among the crowds. There, he believes, “life would begin to have warmth and meaning for him as it had for others”. George Willard thinks that he must get himself “into touch with something orderly and big that swings through the night like a star”. Yet he is a listener and an observer, a touchstone, confidant, friend, fiancé, son, adversary to the diverse inhabitants of the town. His presence allows those caught in a fog of inarticulacy to speak of their own inner lives and ambitions. Those who dream of escape, harbour half-spoken desires, their lives not fully lived, find in him a conduit to some form of expression. Although they do not simply speak: they cry, they stammer, or mutter, or sputter, or erupt, like Joe Welling  in “A Man of Ideas”, “who was like a tiny little volcano that lies silent for days and then suddenly spouts fire”. In “Respectability”, Wash Williams struggles to explain his eccentricity and what happened to him. In “Surrender”, Louise Bentley “tried to talk but could say nothing”. In “Loneliness”, the only story Anderson set in a city, Enoch Robinson travels to New York to establish himself as a painter but returns to Winesburg and retreats into a fantasy world only to invent “his own people to whom he could really talk and to whom he explained the things he had been unable to explain to living people”. In 1631 René Descartes called Amsterdam an “inventory of the possible”, and for the characters in Winesburg the cities of Cleveland, New York and Chicago offer up a late nineteenth century inventory of all that is possible. In “Sophistication”, Helen White, the Winesburg banker’s daughter returned home after a few months from Cleveland, where she had been attending college, “thought that the months she had spent in the city, the going to theatres and the seeing of great crowds wandering in lighted thoroughfares, had changed her profoundly”. In the end, there are those who remain in the town. In “The Strength of God”, Reverend Curtis Hartman grapples with actual lust. In “Paper Pills”, the aging Doctor Reefy sits in his empty office close to a window covered with cobwebs. The thoughts he writes down on slips of paper he calls his “pyramids of truth”, but as they are eventually discarded we never know what his “truths” were:

Doctor Reefy was a tall man who had worn one suit of clothes for ten years. It was frayed at the sleeves and little holes had appeared at the knees and elbows. In the office he wore also a linen duster with huge pockets into which he continually stuffed scraps of paper. After some weeks the scraps of paper became little hard round balls, and when the pockets were filled he dumped them out upon the floor. 

In “Adventure”, Alice Hindman shimmers with self-awareness, having spent years waiting for her fiancé to return from the city as promised so they could be married. She determines “to get a new hold on life”. In “The Philosopher”, Doctor Parcival hopes that George Willard “will write the book I may never get written”. However, by the end of Winesburg, Ohio George also leaves for the city: as a crowded day had run itself out into the long night of a late autumn day he looked out of the train’s window as “the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood”.

Winesburg, Ohio’s path to publication was not any easy one. By the time BW Huebsch read Anderson’s manuscript in August 1918 it had already been rejected on both sides of the Atlantic. In London the John Lane Company, which had published Anderson’s previous two novels. Windy McPherson’s Son and Marching Men, would not publish it, deeming it “too gloomy”. But Huebsch, who had first introduced American readers to James Joyce and DH Lawrence, decided to publish it. In a letter to Huebsch, Anderson expressed the core of his focus on writing about the interior journeys of his fictional characters: “there is within every human being a deep well of thinking over which a heavy iron lid is kept clamped”; he believed it was the writer’s aim to release that clamp. Victoria Glendinning expressed a similar sentiment in writing about Elizabeth Bowen’s early fiction, saying “Life with the lid on” is the essence of Bowen’s early fiction, wherein “passion and terror lie beneath, partly controlled, partly controlling”. Perhaps Bowen in one cultural milieu and Anderson in another seem for a time at least to have grappled with similar themes. In the first two years after its publication Winesburg, Ohio sold a modest 5,000 copies. By contrast, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, published in 1920, sold more than 390,000 copies in its first two years. At that time of its publication Anderson’s book fared little better with critics, although some, among them HL Mencken, praised it. The most telling attacks targeted Anderson’s alleged preoccupation with thwarted desire and sexual repression, topics seen as a violation of the prevailing literary taboos. In his hometown of Clyde, Ohio it is said the head librarian burned copies of Winesburg, Ohio, and for many years members of the Clyde Public Library who asked for a copy waited while the librarian got the key to a locked cupboard where it and other “bad books” were stored. Somehow a single copy had escaped the flames.

In his memoirs, written two decades later, Anderson recounted that after Winesburg came out, “for weeks and months, my mail was loaded with letters calling me “filthy”, “an opener of sewers”; the criticism, he said, “made me ill”. Yet Winesburg, Ohio earned its longevity because Anderson captured a society in flux and on the cusp of change with a speeding-up world racing towards it. With its dirt roads, horses and gaslight, its shopkeepers, farmers and bakers it represented a rural culture soon to be transformed by great social and technological changes. In 1890, two-thirds of Americans lived in small farm towns not unlike the fictionalised Winesburg. In 1900 the horse was the main means of travel, and fewer than 14,000 cars bumped along the roads. By 1920 there were nine million. By 1920 passenger trains tripled the number of miles travelled in the decade before the 1920 census, making the railroads America’s largest industry and biggest employer. Factories, boring gas wells, stringing telegraph poles, electric lights, subways, running water, sewage lines, paved streets became part of the changing America. Anderson has the narrator in “Godliness” allude to some of those changes:

In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the interurban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America.

In a memoir published in 1924, A Story Teller’s Story, Anderson avoided calling himself an author or a writer. Rather he saw himself as a storyteller; as he expressed it, “as a tale-teller I have come to think that the true history of life is but a history of moments. It is only at rare moments that we live.” In Winesburg, Ohio Anderson tasked George Willard with capturing a history of characters stuck between silence and social interaction, verbal inadequacy and talk. The nature of his achievement was perhaps best expressed by John Updike in an interview in 1984: “Anderson’s parade of yearning wraiths constitutes in sum a democratic plea for the failed, the neglected, and the stuck.”


Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin is an independent researcher and author of Utopianism in Eighteenth-Century Ireland.