Saturday, August 8, 2015


Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941)
From Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories

Alone (1911), oil on cardboard by American artist Frank Coburn (1862–1938). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In many of the interrelated stories collected in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the word “adventure” is used to indicate (in the words of literary scholar Ray Lewis White) “the one brief moment, the one epiphany, the one telling instant, that captures and communicates the essence of that character’s personality, leaving nothing more to be said or learned about him or her.” Among the stories featuring such epiphanies, Anderson placed the story titled “Adventure” in the middle. In his study of famous story cycles, Forrest L. Ingram points out that there are five tales before and five after in which Anderson makes explicit this motif, often caused by an “attempt to establish contact with another Winesburger, to transcend one’s self-containment and isolation.” Or as the best-selling novelist Tom Perrotta adds, “Winesburg, Ohio feels like a village full of eccentric strangers desperate for a moment of connection,” and reading the book reminds him of “wandering the quiet night-time streets of my hometown, slowly coming to realize that the people I knew were more complicated and interesting than they appeared.”

Biographers have often pointed out that Winesburg resembles in essential ways the town of Clyde, where Anderson spent most of his childhood in the late 1800s; critical editions of the stories often identity various landmarks and events with their fictional counterparts. Because some residents felt they or their neighbors were depicted in unflattering or indelicate ways, the inhabitants of Clyde ignored the book for many years and disdained any comparison to Anderson’s fictional town. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area now proudly hypes its connection to their native son and has even set aside his birthday, September 13, as Sherwood Anderson Day.

Soon after the book was published in 1919, Anderson discovered—to his dismay—that there was a real town in Ohio with the name of Winesburg. “It was no doubt stupid of me,” he later admitted to the local Methodist minister, Arthur H. Smith, who privately printed a thin book called An Authentic History of Winesburg, Holmes County, Ohio in 1930 and sent a copy to Anderson. Smith understood that the stories were not in any way about his own municipality—and said as much in his study. Anderson appreciated receiving the book and appears to have read it in its entirety, but he took exception to Smith’s use of the word “burlesque” to describe his story collection:
The book is, of course, in no sense a burlesque, but it is an effort to treat the lives of simple ordinary people in an American middle western town with sympathy and understanding. . . . Certainly, I did not write to make fun of these people or to make them ridiculous or ugly, but instead to show by their example what happens to simple, ordinary people—particularly the unsuccessful ones—what life does to us here in America in our times—and on the whole how decent and real we nevertheless are.
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Note: The Epworth League (mentioned on page 78) was organized in 1889 by the Methodist Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Ohio, to encourage and train young people in churchmanship and religious life.

Free audio: This selection is accompanied by a streaming audio version, read by the award-winning short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg.

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Alice Hindman, a woman of twenty-seven when George Willard was a mere boy, had lived in Winesburg all her life. She clerked in Winney’s Dry Goods Store and lived with her mother who had married a second husband. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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