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Winesburg, Ohio Sherwood Anderson


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    All men lead their lives behind a wall of misun-
    derstanding they have themselves built, and
    most men die in silence and unnoticed behind
    the walls. Now and then a man, cut off from
    his fellows by the peculiarities of his nature, be-
    comes absorbed in doing something that is per-
    sonal, useful and beautiful. Word of his activities
    is carried over the walls.

These "walls" of misunderstanding are only seldom due to physical deformities (Wing Biddlebaum in "Hands") or oppressive social arrangements (Kate Swift in "The Teacher.") Misunderstanding, loneliness, the inability to articulate, are all seen by Anderson as virtually a root condition, something deeply set in our natures. Nor are these people, the grotesques, simply to be pitied and dismissed; at some point in their lives they have known desire, have dreamt of ambition, have hoped for friendship. In all of them there was once something sweet, "like the twisted little apples that grow in the orchards in Winesburg." Now, broken and adrift, they clutch at some rigid notion or idea, a "truth" which turns out to bear the stamp of monomania, leaving them helplessly sputtering, desperate to speak out but unable to. Winesburg, Ohio registers the losses inescapable to life, and it does so with a deep fraternal sadness, a sympathy casting a mild glow over the entire book. "Words," as the American writer Paula Fox has said, "are nets through which all truth escapes." Yet what do we have but words?

They want, these Winesburg grotesques*, to unpack their hearts, to release emotions buried and festering. Wash Williams tries to explain his eccentricity but hardly can; Louise Bentley "tried to talk but could say nothing"; Enoch Robinson retreats to a fantasy world, inventing "his own people to whom he could really talk and to whom he explained the things he had been unable to explain to living people."

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In his own somber way, Anderson has here touched upon one of the great themes of American literature, especially Midwestern literature, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the struggle for speech as it entails a search for the self. Perhaps the central Winesburg story, tracing the basic movements of the book, is "Paper Pills," in which the old Doctor Reefy sits "in his empty office close by a window that was covered with cobwebs," writes down some thoughts on slips of paper ("pyramids of truth," he calls them) and then stuffs them into his pockets where they "become round hard balls" soon to be discarded. What Dr. Reefy's "truths" may be we never know; Anderson simply persuades us that to this lonely old man they are utterly precious and thereby incommunicable, forming a kind of blurred moral signature.

After a time the attentive reader will notice in these stories a recurrent pattern of theme and incident: the grotesques, gathering up a little courage, venture out into the streets of Winesburg, often in the dark, there to establish some initiatory relationship with George Willard, the young reporter who hasn't yet lived long enough to become a grotesque. Hesitantly, fearfully, or with a sputtering incoherent rage, they approach him, pleading that he listen to their stories in the hope that perhaps they can find some sort of renewal in his youthful voice. Upon this sensitive and fragile boy they pour out their desires and frustrations. Dr. Parcival hopes that George Willard "will write the book I may never get written," and for Enoch Robinson, the boy represents "the youthful sadness, young man's sadness, the sadness of a growing boy in a village at the year's end [which may open] the lips of the old man."

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