I read Winesburg, Ohio on the recommendation of Kevin From Canada. I am happy to have taken Kevin up on the recommendation as the book is now a favorite. After reading it, I also recommend the book without reservations. But do not take my word for it. As Kevin recounts, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Roth, Kitteridge and many other highly regarded authors have been heavily influenced by and pay homage to this work.
The book is a strange mix of story collection and novel. I cannot say with conviction that it is a novel, but neither is it simply a collection of linked short stories. There is some common plot, but not all of the stories advance what common plot there is. The book sometimes comes close to a novel about George Willard, the town’s sole newspaper reporter, but it is not that. Each story focuses on a townsperson or two. Sometimes the narrator explicitly identifies the character to whom a given section belongs.
For instance, after beginning “The Untold Lie” with the tale of Windpeter Winters’ ignominious (or glorious, depending on perspective) death, the narrator intrudes:
But this is not the story of Windpeter Winters nor yet of his son Hal who worked on the Wills farm with Ray Pearson. It is Ray’s story. It will, however, be necessary to talk a little of young Hal so that you will get into the spirit of it.
George Willard does not appear at all in Ray’s story. The story in no way advances the plot with respect to George Willard. And yet the story is essential to the book.
The primary theme of the book, as the narrator has it in the introductory section entitled “The Book of the Grotesque”, is the “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.” In a separate, retrospective introduction, Malcolm Cowley suggests the true focus is on loneliness and isolation, particularly as a result of an inability to communicate. He says the narrator of “The Book of the Grotesque” has it wrong. On finishing the book, and before reading Cowley’s introduction, I thought the same thing. However, after ruminating on the matter, I think perhaps the deeper message is that of the narrator.
As a book about small town life, many of the characters long to leave for the big city and its excitement. Some do. Some return. But the impetus for wanting to leave is nearly always a loneliness and disconnectedness from their neighbors and peers. The characters are misfits. They all feel isolated in some way and have a catastrophic inability to communicate either their loneliness or the cause of it.
The brilliance of the book, I think, comes from the fact that this loneliness and inability to communicate leads the various characters to fixate on a single truth, to become defined in some way by it, and, as a result, to be rendered grotesque. But the grotesques are not ugly or disgusting. As we are told: “Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness.”
Cowley misses part of the point, I think, in suggesting merely that the inability to communicate has rendered them emotionally crippled and therefore grotesque. The inability to communicate does emotionally cripple many, if not all of the characters. But the crippling is not caused directly by the lack of communication, rather the characters’ inability to connect with others in some essential way causes the character to fixate on one truth. For Wing Biddlebaum, it is his belief that his hands caused his troubles, rather than a “half-wit’s” perverted dreams. The truth does become a falsehood. The character, trying to live his life by that one truth, now a falsehood, becomes grotesque.
The narrator, perhaps an older George Willard, is able to give voice to ideas and thoughts that the characters never can. The characters cling to those ideas precisely because they do not know how to communicate or, more often, lack the courage to expose themselves. By giving these characters a voice they otherwise lack, the narrator liberates them and makes them beautiful or amusing or simply painful. In the telling of the characters’ stories, each of their lives resonates with a fullness it could never achieve on its own. It takes a narrator to reveal the richness of each character’s life. We are able to see past the gnarled exteriors to the essence of the character.
I have probably gone on too long about what the book is about in some literary or philosophical sense. Anderson is able to reveal the emotional truth of his characters in a way that few authors do. His prose is not always polished, but he invests his stories with both emotion and depth. Mainly, though, the book is full of poignant moments, amusing situations, and thought-provoking passages. It is an easy and enjoyable read despite its depth. I highly recommend this work. The town of Winesburg, Ohio is a wonderful place to visit.