Every so often, I’ll start reading a book that I’ll have no idea what to expect from, not even a basic blueprint provided by the back or inside cover.
This is a good way, I’ve found, to counter my snobbish tendencies, and it also means I’ve discovered some great reads without having prejudgments about them that might’ve derailed my reading experience.
Such was the case I had with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a work that blends short stories into a novel form, an achievement I’ve failed many times to replicate with my own writing. I just picked up the book one day out of boredom and began reading. I did make a tiny assumption about the work based on its title—that it would be about a small town—but that was as far as I let myself go without reading what lay beyond the title.
Winesburg, Ohio, which was published in 1919, details a man called George Willard and his episodic interactions with the denizens of Winesburg, Ohio. Just like Ray Bradbury would do decades later in Dandelion Wine, Anderson presents a realistic view of small town life free of nostalgia.
Many of the figures of Winesburg appear to be in a quiet internal crisis. They’re stuck in their lives and their ways. Their pasts are troubled and their present times—as the nation at large seems to be rushing by them on its way to become an industrial superpower—are frustrating. There’s a profound psychology at work here, and it astonished me when I read this book last fall to see how much depth Anderson could give his characters in a form, the short story, that I had mistakenly thought of as shallow.
George Willard anchors the book as his repeated appearances string the stories together. It sounds weird, but George isn’t an intrusive main character. He doesn’t try to twist the narrative around to fit his own story. This lets Anderson show how vivid the huge “supporting” cast of characters is, while still making George, who comes with his own set of psychological baggage from his parents and struggles with romantic relationships, quite interesting. He isn’t a backseat figure so much as he’s more than willing to let many others sit up front with him and tell their own life stories.
Of course, George’s career as a journalist dovetails well with listening to these townspeople and crafting narratives out of their lives. We learn just as much about George from those surrounding him and the town the isolated town they inhabit as we would if George was a more typical front-and-center protagonist.
Another aspect I appreciate about Winesburg, Ohio might sound strange as well: it’s quiet story. There’s nothing flashy about Winesburg or any of its citizens, George least of all. As for drama, most of it doesn’t come from action but, rather, diving into the beautifully realistic minds of the characters. The novel’s structure, too, adds a great twist to the story. Without a definite beginning, middle, and end in Winesburg, a reader can enjoy each episode in the narrative without worrying about a plot getting in the way.
Sherwood Anderson’s novel is a different sort of read, especially compared to the many plot-driven works I’ve discussed in this blog. But its outstanding structure (or lack thereof) could change how you think of a novel the next time you dust one off.
Read what others have to say about this book on Goodreads.com here.