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Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, OhioWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was completely mesmerized by this collection of stories. Though I have seen it listed at times as an American classic, it was not one on my radar screen (or that long virtual list we all keep) to read. I've probably even passed it by before. But last week, on a cold, rainy day at Lake Okoboji I came across a Modern Library edition in an antique store for only $5 and decided to give it a try.

And since I began it on Monday, I've devoured it.

Published in 1915 these stories are set in Winesburg, Ohio, a small town of around 1500, situated on a railroad line and sixteen miles south of Lake Erie. It is in a valley of farms, including orchards and berry farms. The time is just after the turn of the last century -- Civil War vets are still alive.

I thought it would be quaint images of small town life in a previous era. It is not. Elements of that are there, but this book is so much more and different than that.

The prologue is entitled "The Book of the Grotesque." In it a writer imagines that truths used to lie about and were beautiful, but then people came along and picked them up and distorted them. "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."

Reading the prologue I was both confused and intrigued about what I had gotten myself into.

What follows is a series of stories about the people of Winesburg, and each one is odd in his or her own way. Queer would actually be a great description, in its original English meaning of odd or different -- it is also a word that appears in that way in one chapter of the book, as one character doesn't want to be queer and goes insane maybe because he doesn't realize everyone else is as well.

Though there is a clear influence of the Gothic, this is realist fiction. I realized that this novel is the link between Hawthorne and Steinbeck. I caught shades of Poe and Melville (many of the characters seem as obsessed with one thing as Ahab was with the white whale) and precedence for Updike (one chapter is an early Rabbit, Run), Roth (one chapter suggests Portnoy), and more. The style of writing is closest to Steinbeck -- I kept thinking of In Dubious Battle, for instance. Realizing these connections, I contend that this is an essential American classic -- essential to understanding our literary history.

But what really struck me was the realistic appraisal of small town, Midwestern life. No sentimentality here. Anderson reveals that our quaint images are a facade for incredible violence, repressed desires, miserable lives, and mental illness. Lots of mental illness. This life seems to drive almost every character either insane or to violence and sometimes both.

But I couldn't escape the idea that there was even more in this book than everything I had yet realized. It is probably not enough to contend that this reveals the reality of Midwestern life a century ago. I think there is still great truth in it for our contemporary context. Midwesterners are very reserved and don't like talking about issues and concerns. There is some healthy understanding of boundaries in this, but it can also verge into its own unhealthiness, refusing to deal openly and honestly with problems. Midwesterners are less demonstrative and physical, indicating that levels of repression still exist. And there is a strange provincialism.

Thinking of grotesque characters calls to mind the racist, homophobic, and otherwise strange sheriff's deputy we encountered in Western Nebraska in January 2011.

I wondered if anyone is writing exactly this kind of fiction. Television, I decided. Episodic, realistic stories which present the queer and grotesque characters in American life. The best television shows, things like Six Feet Under, would seem to descendants of Anderson's book.

So, even with all of that, I feel that there is even more to this book. That I was on the cusp of some great revelation. This is definitely one which will live with me and to which I will have to turn again some years hence.

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