Book Review

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Photo on 25-06-2013 at 19.32

Sherwood Anderson, and more specifically his volume of interconnected short stories, Winesburg, Ohio, has had an odd history. Once considered a highly influential text, and Anderson a highly influential writer, his fortunes changed dramatically when Ernest Hemingway published, in 1926, The Torrents of Spring, a parody of Anderson allegedly so cutting that his critical and commercial reputation was left in tatters. This is made all the more mean when one is aware of the fact that Anderson was an early advocate and mentor of Hemingway. In fact, it was he who facilitated the introductions to Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound’s Parisian clique that really allowed Hemingway’s career to blossom.

Anderson was popular amongst the not very nice people in the generation of writers below him because he had a mid-life crisis and abandoned his wife and family in his late thirties to, largely apropos of nothing, pursue a career in literature. Following the dream, they said. Following the dream. The fact that Anderson too was not the most responsible or pleasant of people perhaps justifies Hemingway’s cruel treatment of him a little, but treating women like shit was hardly behaviour “Papa” disapproved of…

This collection of stories is attributed as key to the development of style and subject matter of William Faulkner’s works, as well as Ernie’s, and having read both it is definitely possible to see Anderson’s legacy.

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of stories dealing with the various inhabitants at various social strata of a (fictional) rural town. From the telegram officer, local newspaper writer, store clerks, farm labourers, bank tellers, store owners, it feels like a reasonably fair spread of the men and women that would have made up the population of a town like that at the beginning of the 20th century. It focuses on sexuality in a way that is quite impressive for its 1919 publication date, and Anderson certainly makes conspicuous use of all the trendy Freudian analysis that was fashionable at the time. It is certainly a modern text in the sense of one understands why characters behave as they do – there are motives, often motives they are unaware of themselves… The stories are interesting, one in particular ‘A Man of Ideas’ – link here – stood out (to me) as being particularly well-plotted, engaging and unexpected.

The crispness of his prose is recognisable too from writers who deliberately sought to emulate him, but, sadly, they did do it better. One can read this enjoyable and interesting collection as an intellectual curiosity, and be quite fascinated by the similar use of people and place and even sentence structure to early Hemingway – some of the less good Nick Adams stories could have been slotted in here (Illinois changed to Ohio) and the average reader unaware of the change.

Other writers tried to do what Anderson did with this collection, and sadly for him, they achieved more. But he did it first, and he did it publicly, and he only lost face because a former protege of his decided to squash him for his own personal gain.

A good, well-written collection of rural American stories. But The Snows of Kilimanjaro it isn’t…

4 comments on “Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

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