The Sadness of Sophistication:
anderson's Winesburg, Ohio
Anderson’s project is much like James Joyce’s. He focuses on his own (fictionalized) small town in the hope that by analyzing the people there he might gain and express insights about people everywhere, since, as Joyce so eloquently put it, “In the particular is contained the universal.” The book is made up of short stories, each “concerned with” a specific character, though some characters appear in more than one story. George Willard, a young newspaper reporter who dreams of moving to “some big city” to work for a more important paper and make his way as a writer, plays the “hero,” and through him we see most clearly the theme of the work as a whole: how experiences change a person. Though Anderson reportedly wanted to call his work “The Book of the Grotesque,” William Blake’s famous title, Songs of Innocence and Experience, might have worked as well.
The opening story retains the title “The Book of the Grotesque,” and stands apart from the others in that it is not definitely about Winesburg, and the main character is not named. Instead of discussing particularities, then, this story sets up a sort of universal philosophy through which we can interpret the rest of the book. In it, a writer and a carpenter discuss whether or not anyone can ever really know anything for sure. According to the writer in the story, the answer is no: “The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. 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 characters in Anderson’s own Book of the Grotesque, i.e. Winesburg, Ohio, are not all “grotesques” by this definition, at least not all the time. As they grow older and more experienced some, though certainly not all (nature plays a role, too), become calmer and less inclined to grasp at invariable ideological precepts by which to live their lives.
An example of a character made less “grotesque” through experience is Elizabeth Willard, George Willard’s sick, depressed mother who, though married to someone else, is emotionally and sometimes physically intimate with one of the town doctors. Before she dies, Elizabeth Willard remembers herself as a young woman of eighteen: “In all the babble of words that fell from the lips of the men with whom she adventured she was trying to find what would be for her the true word.” She finds it from her lover and friend Dr. Reefy, but the “truth” is something that her eighteen-year-old self would have been unlikely to understand. According to Dr. Reefy, “Love is like a wind stirring the grass beneath trees on a black night. … You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life. If you try to be definite and sure about it and to live beneath the trees, where soft night winds blow, the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly and the gritty dust from passing wagons gathers upon lips inflamed and made tender by kisses.” In other words, something beautiful and true becomes perverted and unpleasant when forced to become something that it is not by nature—that is, permanent.
The pacing of the book also reflects the theme of innocence and experience; the Blakean terms fit better than ignorance and wisdom, or even innocence and wisdom, because what occurs over time is simply “experience,” and nothing more definite than that. It is true that the “knowledge” the characters discover can only be derived through experience, but this type of knowledge is hardly solid; rather, it is the knowledge of change, of impermanence, of life as moments of beauty followed almost immediately by disappointment. There is often a slow, plodding feeling to the pacing of the stories, except when an important emotional experience occurs, and then things speed up, like a quickening heartbeat. The book is somewhat episodic but all the while it builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, so that the ending feels cohesive and inevitable, or at least it did to me. Naturally, a book about a young writer in a small town must end with the writer leaving.
Sherwood Anderson. In “Winesburg, Ohio,” what is clear to readers is not always clear to the characters.
But just because the newly sophisticated George Willard is compelled to leave in search of new experiences does not mean that Winesburg or its people are worse or less interesting than in other places. This is clear enough for the reader, if not always for the characters themselves. They are admirably appreciative of the land, for example: “All the low hills were washed with color and even the little clusters of bushes in the corners of the fences were alive with beauty.” And though male characters dominate, female characters are treated with sympathy and insight too, if not as much nuance and depth as their male counterparts, some of whom are very poetic and “gentle” indeed. Listen to Tom talking about the girl he loves: “[Tom] said that Helen White was a flame dancing in the air and that he was a little tree without leaves standing out sharply against the sky. Then he said that she was a wind, a strong terrible wind, coming out of the darkness of a stormy sea and that he was a boat left on the shore of the sea by a fisherman.” Tom says these things while he is drunk, an experience he undertakes in order to “learn things.”
In each story Anderson moves from past to present, and sometimes back again, letting us know not only what each character is thinking, but also the historical context for their views and how they came to see that way. By the last two stories, “Sophistication” and “Departure,” we have become well-acquainted with the musings of newspaperman George Willard, as well as those of many other characters around him. In “Sophistication” George, feeling excited and troubled by the cognitive changes inside him, seeks the comfort of a woman’s understanding, and finds it in Helen White. “There is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes the backward view of life,” Anderson writes. “Ghosts of old things creep into his consciousness; the voices outside of himself whisper a message concerning the limitations of life. From being quite sure of himself and his future he becomes not sure at all.” Both Helen and George are feeling this way, and an evening spent sitting and walking together, almost entirely in silence, helps each come to terms with their own “sadness of sophistication” as, the author implies, all deep thinkers must.
When the ghosts creep in, movement is called for. The last story, “Departure,” is alive with possibility. “The trees along the residence streets in Winesburg are maple and the seeds are winged. When the wind blows they whirl crazily about, filling the air and making a carpet underfoot. George came downstairs into the hotel office carrying a brown leather bag.” George Willard is about to leave home to make his own way in the world. Though the story takes place so many years ago, much is the same as it is today, or was twelve years ago (when I left home), at any rate. Just like today, the people of George’s small town are excited for him, and do what they can to send him off right. And, just like today, the leaving moment, which George has dreamt of for so many years, happens in an instant. The relinquishing of another truth—the idea of departure as salvation—will take longer.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Killing the Angel, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.