Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio (1919) is a moving and brilliant short story cycle of small town American life. It drips with semi-autobiography and youth turned into myth. Every character is a living wound in search of a realization they cannot quite grasp.

Anderson writes in a kind of prose poetry with dashes of authorial intrusion mixed with a simplicity and understatement. He creates a world here where stars of one story make cameo appearances in another. Throughout, the central figure George Willard, young newspaperman, the implicit collector of these tales and witness to these struggles, comes of age.

The book resides in a grand tradition of small town literature between the micro realism of Spoon River Anthology and the magic nostalgia of Ray Bradbury. Simultaneously, we have the author surrogate grow up, the rewritten life, as seen in Look Homeward, Angel or even Kerouac.

And it’s truly amazing. One of the best books I’ve ever read. One that touched me deep in my small town soul, even though, unlike George Willard, I didn’t leave my hometown until my late 20s, and haven’t moved far at that.

Highlights include:

“Hands” – A moving and empathetic character study of a former teacher who moved to Winesburg after he was accused of pedophilia in the town he used to teach in.

“Mother” – In which George Willard’s mother Elizabeth, very sickly and near death, is moved into a passion by her husband’s pushing her son into respectability and normalcy instead of towards his dreams.

The four-part Bentley Saga consisting of “Godliness Pt. 1 & 2”, “Surrender” and “Terror” – The small epic of a religious fanatic with greed for expansion of his farm, the unstable and unloved daughter he was given as he prayed for a son, and the grandson he views as a form of a divine gift. A terrifying reconstruction of Abraham and Isaac. The best in the book.

“Adventure” – A young woman who, while waiting for a man to come back to town who told her he loved her, has slid into “spinsterhood”. Now, unsatisfied, half-depressed, she passes her time with a secret burning sensation for a different life – a less lonely existence.

“The Strength of God” & “The Teacher” – A two-part tale of a tempted preacher who has fallen into voyeurism and the spied upon schoolteacher whose confused affection and artistic aspirations grow for her former student George Willard.

“”Queer”” – A dark tale of growing resentment and alienation as the son of a failing shopkeeper strikes out with rage against his family’s oddness and lack of place in their community.

“Death” – An absolutely heartbreaking emotional climax as two characters we’ve met before are revealed to share a secret backstory. Of friendship and love and chances not taken.

There are many more stories in the book and they’re all good, even if some of them are more character studies than full-blooded tales. God, this book is great.

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