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An Analysis of Sherwood Anderson's 'Winesburg, Ohio'

Sherwood Anderson's 'Winesburg, Ohio' (1919)
commentary by Karen Bernardo

Winesburg, Ohio, commonly assumed to be a novel, is in fact a collection of connected short stories about life in a small Midwestern town at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was certainly not the first book to deal with the intertwining stories of individuals in one location. But most such sagas are, in some sense at least, paeans to the virtues and joys of communal living, and Winesburg, Ohio is anything but that. Anderson's book is about ships passing in the night, aware of each other's presence but unable to decode each other's signals or do anything about them. His writing is wonderful, but his message is very, very sad.

In this story is embodied the theme of Winesburg, Ohio: intimacy is dangerous, but to live without it consigns us to a hollow existence. Just because people see each other every day, and even when they go to bed together at night, they are bound by a web of constrictions -- social, psychological, and emotional -- that prevent them from connecting and making a real difference in the fabric of one another's lives. In 'Mother,' for instance, we are introduced to the parent of George Willard, the character who forms the thread linking the disparate stories together. George's mother Elizabeth has been so beaten down by life that she fears to even attempt an emotional connection with her only son, who lives in her own house. In 'Hands,' we are introduced to one of the town's misfits, a fruit picker known as Wing Biddlebaum, whose fluttering hands try to reach out and touch someone -- with disasterous results. And in 'The Untold Lie,' we meet a middle-aged farmworker who struggles to share even the most basic truth about his life with a young co-worker.

The residents of Winesburg are emotional cripples -- grotesques, as Anderson calls them -- not because they do not want to reach out to others but because they can't. Sherwood Anderson's stories tell us something very significant about community life in America, true as much in our own day as in his own.

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