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Winesburg, Ohio Sherwood Anderson


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What the grotesques really need is each other, but their estrangement is so extreme they cannot establish direct ties--they can only hope for connection through George Willard. The burden this places on the boy is more than he can bear. He listens to them attentively, he is sympathetic to their complaints, but finally he is too absorbed in his own dreams. The grotesques turn to him because he seems "different"--younger, more open, not yet hardened-- but it is precisely this "difference" that keeps him from responding as warmly as they want. It is hardly the boy's fault; it is simply in the nature of things. For George Willard, the grotesques form a moment in his education; for the grotesques, their encounters with George Willard come to seem like a stamp of hopelessness.

The prose Anderson employs in telling these stories may seem at first glance to be simple: short sentences, a sparse vocabulary, uncomplicated syntax. In actuality, Anderson developed an artful style in which, following Mark Twain and preceding Ernest Hemingway, he tried to use American speech as the base of a tensed rhythmic prose that has an economy and a shapeliness seldom found in ordinary speech or even oral narration. What Anderson employs here is a stylized version of the American language, sometimes rising to quite formal rhetorical patterns and sometimes sinking to a self-conscious mannerism. But at its best, Anderson's prose style in Winesburg, Ohio is a supple instrument, yielding that "low fine music" which he admired so much in the stories of Turgenev.

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One of the worst fates that can befall a writer is that of self-imitation: the effort later in life, often desperate, to recapture the tones and themes of youthful beginnings. Something of the sort happened with Anderson's later writings. Most critics and readers grew impatient with the work he did after, say, 1927 or 1928; they felt he was constantly repeating his gestures of emotional "groping"-- what he had called in Winesburg, Ohio the "indefinable hunger" that prods and torments people. It became the critical fashion to see Anderson's "gropings" as a sign of delayed adolescence, a failure to develop as a writer. Once he wrote a chilling reply to those who dismissed him in this way: "I don't think it matters much, all this calling a man a muddler, a groper, etc.... The very man who throws such words as these knows in his heart that he is also facing a wall." This remark seems to me both dignified and strong, yet it must be admitted that there was some justice in the negative responses to his later work. For what characterized it was not so much "groping" as the imitation of "groping," the self-caricature of a writer who feels driven back upon an earlier self that is, alas, no longer available.

But Winesburg, Ohio remains a vital work, fresh and authentic. Most of its stories are composed in a minor key, a tone of subdued pathos--pathos marking both the nature and limit of Anderson's talent. (He spoke of himself as a "minor writer.") In a few stories, however, he was able to reach beyond pathos and to strike a tragic note. The single best story in Winesburg, Ohio is, I think, "The Untold Lie," in which the urgency of choice becomes an outer sign of a tragic element in the human condition. And in Anderson's single greatest story, "The Egg," which appeared a few years after Winesburg, Ohio, he succeeded in bringing together a surface of farce with an undertone of tragedy. "The Egg" is an American masterpiece.

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