24. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Year Published: 1919
Pages: 303
First Sentence: The writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed.
Rating: 1/3 (don’t bother)

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson | Two Hectobooks

I hardly know where to begin. I suppose we should start with the fact that Winesburg, Ohio is not a novel. It's not like Finnegans Wake, which is the only other book on The List that I've made this accusation against. Winesburg, Ohio is in fact not a novel because it is a collection of short stories, aka "A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life," which is the subtitle. I don't know how to review a short story collection in the format I usually use, so strap in for a bunch of rambling.

Let's kill time with a list of the stories, I guess? I will append some thoughts that I noted as a I finished reading each of them.
  • "The Book of the Grotesque"
    (I didn't make any notes about this. It acts as a sort of introduction, in which an elderly writer pictures his "grotesques," and we're given to understand that the following stories are the resulting illustrations of those grotesques.)
  • "Hands"
    Wing Biddlebaum, falsely or perhaps not falsely accused of molesting his former students, certainly betrayed by his hands and now hiding out in Winesburg.
  • "Paper Pills"
    Uhhhhh strange doctor marries vulnerable young girl, keeps slips of paper with thoughts written on them in his pockets until they disintegrate (not really sure about this story).
  • "Mother"
    Elizabeth Willard decides to kill her husband for trying to tell their son what to do with his life then doesn't (???).
  • "The Philosopher"
    Dr Parcival, who seems to be independently wealthy but lives like a slob, tells George Willard a story or two from his past.
  • "Nobody Knows"
    George Willard leaves work at the newspaper and sneaks to Louise Trunnion's house. This in response to a letter she sends saying, "I'm yours if you want me." They presumably have sex and because he sees her as beneath him, he reassures himself that nobody knows what has happened.
  • "Godliness"
    We begin by hearing about Jesse Bentley, owner of a farm, driven, who inherits it when all his brothers die in the Civil War. In the second section, Jesse's grandson David goes to live with him. Jesse's daughter is abusive and David brings life to the household. Jesse is still a religious fanatic.
  • "Surrender"
    Contrasts Louise (Jesse's daughter)'s desire to have a daughter with her father's desire to have a son. The harms of a lack of love (she is searching for affection and is destroyed by it). Louise's story about being sent into town to live with a different family, not fitting in, seducing the son, and then having an unnecessary shotgun wedding and finally a son.
  • "Terror"
    The story of how Jessie's religious fanaticism drives his grandson away, I guess? Didn't like this much.
  • "A Man of Ideas"
    Joe Welling talks a lot, talks so much he disarms the frightening father and brother of the woman he's courting.
  • "Adventure"
    Oof, this hits a bit too close to home. A story about Alice, who loves a man when she's young. He moves to the city and abandons her, and then she ends up alone. One wonders what all the title symbolizes.
  • "Respectability"
    Do I have any idea what's going on here either? No. The telegraph operator hates work because in his past, his wife cheated on him and then her mother pulled a crazy stunt. The ending is quite ambiguous.
  • "The Thinker"
    Seth Richmond is a young man with a lot of thoughts who struggles to articulate or take action on any of them. I think.
  • "Tandy"
    Again, I don't get it. There's good stuff with the father who's so obsessed with agnosticism and the young drunk who can't find the woman he's supposed to love, but I don't get it.
  • "The Strength of God"
    The Presbyterian reverend goes through a struggle with lust over a woman's body... Don't get it.
  • "The Teacher"
    Maybe a story about the loneliness of being a spinster with a lot of potential? I don't know.
  • "Loneliness"
    The impossibility of human connection.
  • "An Awakening"
  • "'Queer'"
    A story that might be about a young man's struggle and inability to overcome his bizarre parents or alternately, his struggle and inability to overcome his affection for George Willard. The quotation marks around "Queer" are definitely significant.
  • "The Untold Lie"
    The grass is always greener or some shit.
  • "Drink"
    Tom foster gets v. drunk and I read this while very sleepy, so no clue beyond that.
  • "Death"
    About the folly of living for death instead of for life.
  • "Sophistication"
    There's some really good stuff in this one but again it lacks the beginning/middle/end of a story? I do like the reflections here of small town life and of being enveloped by familiar faces and places, for better or worse.
  • "Departure"
    Great last line, whatever else I may say.

Ok, now I'm going to try a bit harder.

So the unifying factor between all of these stories is that they're about the people in a small fictional town called Winesburg, Ohio, and also there's a young man named George Willard who tends to pop in and out of the various stories. George works for the local paper.

Before I tell you how frustrated I was by the whole operation, I will say that Sherwood Anderson has a gift for getting to the heart of things every now and then. I had to read this as an ebook because I couldn't get it from the library fast enough, and I found myself highlighting quite a few passages (some of which are copied below as usual). Generally what he gets to the heart of is hypocrisy, and how people deceive themselves. So I appreciated that.

What I didn't appreciate was the format of his stories, which often seem to begin and end at random. I did like a few better than others, but I can't really say which ones those were because thanks to the plotlessness of them all, there's not much to remember about them. In my notes above you can perhaps tell that around halfway through the book I got worn down trying to figure out what was going on in each story and just gave up. Analysis of all of these stories that I didn't enjoy reading in the first place is above my pay grade.

If you're interested in reading some pretty good character studies of random people in a small town a hundred years ago, this is a book you might enjoy. I have a hard time with short stories anyway, so I bounced right off of this. I'm amazed at how high up on The List it is. Main Street was way better.

- - - - -
It seemed to the boy that the man had but one object in view, to make everyone seem despicable. "I want to fill you with hatred and contempt so that you will be a superior being," he declared.
- - - - -
For a year she worked every day from sunrise until late at night and then after giving birth to a child she died.
- - - - -
Like a thousand other strong men who have come into the world here in America in these later times, Jesse was but half strong. He could master others but he could not master himself.
- - - - -
Her father gave her but little attention and her mother was dead. The father spent his time talking and thinking of religion. He proclaimed himself an agnostic and was so absorbed in destroying the ideas of God that had crept into the minds of his neighbors that he never saw God manifesting himself in the little child that, half forgotten, lived here and there on the bounty of her dead mother's relatives.
- - - - -

NB: This book is one of the entries on my Classics Club list! -M.R.

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