Sherwood Anderson - Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio - Sherwood Anderson, Malcolm Cowley

When European artists want to place their symbolical tale in a setting that’s nowhere and everywhere they often settle for Central-Eastern Europe. There are so many countries there, the borders keep changing all the time, no one can keep up, so the artists can let their imagination run wild. They can even invent a whole new country and stick it somewhere between Hungary and Czech Republic. Poland is also a good place. A classic Spanish baroque play – Life is a Dream by Calderón de la Barca takes place in an imaginary Poland. The French Ubu Ori by Alfred Jarry also takes place in Poland (further explained by the author as ‘in Poland that is nowhere’). 

The American equivalent of Central Europe is Midwest. It’s the nowhere and everywhere of the USA. If you looked at those maps on Buzzfeed where Europeans were asked to label American states, you saw that the whole of Midwest was usually covered with question marks.

Sherwood Anderson grew up in Ohio and invented a little town in Ohio to place his stories of sadness and grotesque. He subverts the received wisdom that loneliness is an affliction endemic to big cities, and questions the rhetoric that makes us believe that small towns are oases where humans are there for one another. Anderson proves that just because everybody knows each other’s name doesn’t make them feel any less alienated for this alienation is a condition endemic to all human kind. 

And the greatest tragedy is that we all feel we are the only one suffering from it and we constantly compare ourselves to the other seemingly well-adjusted folks. All lies! We are all lonely and we all feel that life should be something else, something more. We are yearning for that je-ne-sais-quoi, as if someone made us a promise at the beginning of our lives and backed out on it.

"For a month his mother had been very ill and that had something to do with his sadness, but not much. He thought about himself and to the young that always brings sadness."

Anderson is a great poet of a small town, so generous towards his subjects, never sparing any effort to describe their inner lives in the greatest detail. Oh, the frustration of not being able to communicate with the others, to express those suffocating feelings! No wonder all the dialogues feel so stiff and stunted. Anderson takes his own advice (in the book voiced by a teacher):

"If you are to become a writer you'll have to stop fooling with words," she explained. "It would be better to give up the notion of writing until you are better prepared. Now it's time to be living. I don't want to frighten you, but I would like to make you understand the import of what you think of attempting. You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say."

Sadly and ironically, the author could never reproduce the success of this collection. Although he tried and tried he only created washed-down and trite versions of Winesburg, Ohio and nothing quite as poignant as this book. 

Doubly sadly, those that came after him, those that learnt from him and quoted him in their influences turned out to be superior and more talented. 

"Thoughts came and I wanted to get away from my thoughts. I began to beat the horse. The black clouds settled down and it began to rain. I wanted to go at a terrible speed, to drive on and on forever. I wanted to get out of town, out of my clothes, out of my marriage, out of my body, out of everything. I almost killed the horse, making him run, and when he could not run any more I got out of the buggy and ran afoot into the darkness until I fell and hurt my side. I wanted to run away from everything but I wanted to run towards something too. Don't you see, dear, how it was?"

On a final note, let’s not forget how revolutionary this volume must have been at the time. Some of subjects discussed were: premarital sex, paedophilia, alcoholism, religious zealousness, physical desire, etc.