Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio [New York; 1919]
For two weeks, I've been reading this book a chapter or two a night before going to bed, generally reading it out loud in as plain and uninflected a tone as I could. It's been an aesthetic experience I won't soon forget.
I'm kind of resentful that (as far as I can tell) it took me until later in life to become aware of the contributions of Sherwood Anderson to US modernism; a contemporary of Gertrude Stein and Theodore Dreiser and something of an example to people like Hemingway, Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Dos Passos, he was one of the major literary causes célèbre of the late 1910s and early 1920s, and if his reputation slipped later he had more or less been rehabilitated by the time I was taking an interest in the period; but all my teachers came from his fallow period. Anyway. Winesburg, Ohio, in case you don't know, is a short-story cycle about a single small farming town in the late nineteenth and (presumably) early twentieth century, composed in pieces and occasionally published in little literary magazines over the course of the 1910s and published as a book in 1919. What struck contemporaries most when faced with it was its unembarrassed attitude about sex, its deliberately pared-down and unemotional language, and its complete lack of romanticization of small-town Midwestern life. Although formally it's a collection of short stories, few of the stories have any particular power on their own: the accumulative effect, particularly as it coalesces into practically sequential action in the second half of the book, is what matters. (If I were compiling a list of the best novels of the 1910s, and I foolishly am, it would count.)
Winesburg, by Anderson's accounting, is populated by congenital misfits, broken idealists, unhappy marriages, and person after person wholly incapable of articulating even to themselves the powerful sensations and impulses surging uselessly about in their brains and bodies. My used copy had nearly every instance of the word "hand" underlined, which drove home how often people tried and failed to connect with one another. I've rarely felt more frequently or more shamefully that I recognized myself in a book; the young men, with their abortive sexual adventures, social inadequacy, and agonizing inarticulateness, and the old men, with their consuming regrets, failed ambitions, elaborate but embarrassing inner lives, and inability to see other people as people, reminded myself of myself more often than was comfortable. I've often felt that I was raised in an echo of the nineteenth century and then found myself an adult in the twenty-first (which may be why I'm so consumed by the shift of modernism), but what I'm absurdly most grateful to Sherwood Anderson for isn't his putting down many of my self-perceptions onto the page, but for his lack of judgment about it.
Too long, didn't read: Winesburg, Ohio is in fact a great book and deserves its original and its later rescued reputation.
March 24, 2017