Winesburg and the Whys of Life
Joel Kurz

When I first read Sherwood Anderson’s story cycle Winesburg, Ohio as a high school student, I was struck by its magnificence but also troubled by what I saw as its heresy. When I read it again in my thirties, I was convinced that every ministerial student needed to read it in order to gain a better grasp on the individual variables present in human community. When I read it again last year, toward the end of my forties, I was simply broken in the presence of truth.

WinesburgPublished in May of 1919 and dedicated to the memory of his mother, “whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives,” Anderson’s masterwork met mostly with praise but didn’t escape a share of derision. Its unvarnished candor inaugurated a significant turn in American literature, yet toward the end of his life when Anderson looked back at Winesburg’s initial reception, he recalled that it was “widely condemned, called nasty and dirty” (Howe, 111).  On its publication, some of the reading public balked at what they saw as a negative depiction of small-town life, along with its candid acknowledgement of sexuality. An unnamed critic in the New York Sun panned it as a “disgusting” imitation of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, but the celebrated critic H.L. Mencken saw it as “so full of insight, so shiningly life-like and glowing” that it was unlike anything that “has ever been done in America” (Olson, xii). John Updike lauded Winesburg as “a democratic plea for the failed, the neglected, and the stuck,” while Malcolm Cowley perceived it as “a work of love, an attempt to break down the walls that divide one person from another.” Hart Crane declared most boldly that “America should read this book on her knees. It constitutes an important chapter in the Bible of her consciousness.” Given the hostile tone of the past three years and the threat of continued polarization during the leadup to the next election, the novel’s centennial offers the prime opportunity to look at the beauty and brutality that define life in this country. Winesburg summons uncomfortable introspection that forces the dismissal of cursory assumptions.

Written while Anderson was in his early forties and perfecting his voice, the story cycle of separate and sometimes overlapping portraits opens with the image of a white-haired and wizened, yet youthful man. This unnamed character, whom Anderson introduces as the author of the unpublished “Book of the Grotesque,” has come to understand much that previously had been beyond his comprehension concerning people and life. The old man’s revelation exposes him to the reality that in the beginning “there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts,” yet it was “the truths that made the people grotesques” and the truth so “embraced became a falsehood.” The old man’s youthfulness saves him, and he realizes that the grotesques were in a way “understandable and lovable.” The exploration of emotionally-charged truths that distort and define is central to Anderson’s work and has much to commend to our grotesqueries—like the few gnarled and twisted apples rejected by the orchard pickers of which “only the few know the sweetness.”

Following an array of jobs and intermittent schooling, Anderson graduated from an Ohio high school in 1900 at the age of twenty-three. He moved to Chicago to became an advertising copywriter. He married in 1904 and left the Chicago advertising firm in 1906—because, as he put it, he was afraid he “would begin to believe the lies I wrote”—to become the president of a mail-order company in Cleveland. The next year, Anderson moved to Elyria, Ohio, with his wife and child, where he established his own paint production business.  After a major breakdown in November of 1912, which had him missing for four days until found and hospitalized in Cleveland, Anderson returned to the Chicago firm he had left six years earlier. This time though, he poured his personal time into the craft of story-writing and the revelatory power it offered, even as he grew more distant from his family (he and his wife divorced in August of 1915). Out of this crucible, Winesburg, Ohio began to emerge in the fall of that year.

The literary critic Irving Howe described Anderson’s vision of the small town (in his first published novel, Windy McPherson’s Son) as “a place where people haphazardly enter into relationships that can yield no personal values…they have no principle about which to order their lives, they are scattered human units” (76). Anderson hones that insight in Winesburg, Ohio. Based on the author’s boyhood home of Clyde, Ohio, Winesburg is a place of belonging and bewilderment—marked by rural rooting and industrial dislocation, generational ties and aching alienation. The novel opens in a field of mustard weeds outside of Winesburg, with a wagon of laughing berry pickers in the summer. This scene gives way to the sad beauty of autumn as “the low hills are splashed with yellows and reds,” even as “[i]t was the beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world…when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions.” Torn within that ravishing and rending fabric, “[o]ne shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes’’—beholding both with a sort of reverence. Even in the worlds-apart section of town where the day laborers live, protagonist George Willard, the town’s common link, feels “that all of the people in the little street must be brothers and sisters to him,” making him wish that “he had the courage to call them out of their houses and to shake their hands.”

George, a young newspaper reporter, holds together the kaleidoscope of fragmented yet somewhat ordered lives of Winesburg’s residents. Clearly patterned on Anderson himself, George is Anderson’s lens for viewing life in all of its particularities and complexities. He is a boy becoming an everyman. In a lengthy and luminous paragraph in the story “Sophistication,” George is described as an eighteen-year-old whose life seems “a breathing space in the long march of humanity”—one who vacillates between self-surety and uncertainty, one who longs with all his heart “to come close to some other human” and find understanding. The opening story tells of one alienated resident, Wing Biddlebaum, who rails against at George for “his tendency to be too much influenced by the people around him” even as George has the inclination to be alone and dream but avoids doing that out of fear. While George often feels that he is a lonely and dejected outside observer, just about everyone else seems to envy what they view as his deep sense of belonging and his personification of the town’s essence. His identity is indeed tangled up with the people and place of his life, but it is his mother’s death that eventually frees him to follow his dreams and board a train, watching Winesburg disappear as he speeds toward the city: “his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.”

George’s life, most of all, is bound up with his mother. Elizabeth Willard is a weathered forty-five-year-old woman emptied of vibrancy who tries to navigate existence with a soured husband, while doing the necessary tasks to keep up the moldering hotel that is their livelihood. George is her bright star and emotional strength, the one she hoped would resurrect what she let die in herself. As a young woman, Elizabeth was fascinated by the traveling men who stayed in her father’s hotel and told of life in the city; she grew restless in her small town and desired a life on the stage that would enable her to see the world and give “something out of herself to all people.” “She laments that her ambitions never reached fruition and she remains stuck within the confines of small-town life. Now, she prays for God to keep George from becoming personally compromised by success—if only he would be allowed to express something that would be for both of them. Discontent with her squandered past and withering present, Elizabeth ekes her way through life until one day she becomes paralyzed—“only her mind and her eyes alive” as she thinks of her son and struggles to say something about her hopes for his future. Upon her death six days later, her husband’s resentment washes away with his tears, and George has “but little sense” of the meaning wrapped up in her loss; “only time could give him that.”

Reading Winesburg for the third time in three decades and learning more about Anderson’s life and work allowed me to see his own experiences in the grotesques he so deftly and emotively presents. The personal, marital, financial, and artistic struggles that culminated in Anderson’s 1912 breakdown are there in Alice, the jilted store-clerk feebly trying “to get a new hold upon life,” whose “mad desire to run naked through the streets” on a rain-soaked night gives her renewed courage to face “the fact that many people must live and die alone.” Those struggles are in Elmer, the distraught business-owner, who tries to leave it all and finds himself alone, muddy, and cold—“miserable in body and in mind”—while trying to build a fire in the dark of night. Those struggles are in Ray, the fifty-year-old farmhand, who feels tricked and made a fool of by his existence, yet is so in awe of the countryside’s beauty that he runs across the field shouting “a protest against his life, against all life, against everything that makes life ugly.” They are in Tom, the gentle yet soul-scarred young loafer and workman who “could not hate anything,” who drinks to feel, who wants to be hurt and suffer with others but detests doing wrong and hurting someone to suffer. Anderson’s own struggles are in Elizabeth, George’s mother, who in a moment of fevered despair “wanted to get out of town, out of my clothes, out of my marriage, out of my body, out of everything”—who wants to run away from everything but “towards something too.”

There’s a brutality and beauty, a sort of misanthropy that leads toward mercy, flowing through the pages of Winesburg. Those who appear outwardly despicable can have an unseen goodness, and those who seem respectable and astute can be plagued with destructive darkness. Social proprieties can hide the raging undercurrents of lust, rage, and repressed anguish, which often manifest themselves in excessive drinking, sexual indulgence, and emotional violence. Anderson describes this as two forces fighting in people, wherein “a placid exterior” masks the “continual ferment” underneath. Evidence abounds in the lives of George and Elizabeth Willard, the lust-tormented minister Curtis Hartman, the sex-starved teacher Kate Swift, the quiet but angrily despairing hatmaker Belle Carpenter, the vocally misogynistic telegraph operator Wash Williams, and just about everyone else in one way or another. At the start of “Respectability,” Anderson offers the image of a huge monkey caged up in a city park—“a creature with ugly, sagging, hairless skin below his eyes and a bright purple underbody”—and describes him as a “true monster” yet is quick to add: “In the completeness of his ugliness he achieved a kind of perverted beauty.” This distorted yet diaphanous duality is perhaps best seen in the philosopher, Dr. Parcival, who seemed to have “but one object in view, to make everyone seem despicable”—yet who also expressed to George Willard what he saw as a foundational truth: “that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.”

The answer as to why each person is contorted in suffering yet in some way part of a wider narrative which speaks of survival, if not specifically redemption, is in the reading, so I will leave the patchwork of discovery to you.

Nevertheless, the four-part generational tale consisting of “Godliness” (Parts One and Two), “Surrender,” and “Terror” are of special mention here because of the interplay between a family history that reads like something out of the Bible and perceived corollaries, the American Dream and the nightmare it can become. “Godliness” tells of the Bentleys, a long-rooted farm family who mostly kept silent because they found talking difficult. They knew the inner and outer aspects of life to be “coarse and brutal.”

Jesse, the youngest of five sons and the only one not killed in the Civil War, left home at eighteen to become a scholar and returned home a Presbyterian minister at twenty-two—along with a delicate wife who devoted herself to hard work. Although he is of a slight build, Jesse possesses an indomitable and fanatical spirit; he masters the souls of everyone on the farm even as he strikes fear into their hearts and robs their work of joy. Jesse is obsessed with making the farm produce more than any other in the state and sets his ambition on claiming as much land as possible. He begins to think of himself as “an extraordinary man, one set apart” from others and wants “to make his life a thing of great importance.” Jesse begins to see his success as divinely sanctioned, and he desires to be as “the men of Old Testament days who had also owned lands and herds” and with whom God spoke as specially chosen servants of his will.

Industrialism had revolutionized life for American farm-folk and city dweller alike, and Jesse senses the promise of the present as one who is preoccupied with a divine plan for his life while simultaneously becoming increasingly impatient and avaricious. He despises the fact that his farm is only six hundred acres, and becomes convinced that “all of the Ohio farmers who owned land in the valley of Wine Creek were Philistines and enemies of God.” He prays for a son to be called David “who shall help me to pluck at last all these lands out of the hands of the Philistines and turn them to Thy service and to the building of Thy kingdom on earth.” What Jesse anxiously seeks is not the divinely peaceable kingdom, however, but a personal empire built on ruthless ambition. The child born of Jesse’s wife is not the anticipated son but a disappointing daughter; his wife dies in childbirth. Hope finally returns to Jesse decades later when that disappointing daughter, Louise, gives birth to a son named David. Unlike his troubled and disparaged mother, David finds contentment on his grandfather’s farm and it eventually becomes his home.

What unfolds is a tale of Jesse’s renewed enthusiasm for God’s evident favor and an examination of where his expectations get him. Before David’s birth, Jesse was a “bitterly disappointed man,” even though he owned most of the farms in the valley. When a major crop gamble turns wildly profitable and it appears God is truly blessing him again, Jesse “went among his men with a smiling face” for the first time. Jesse’s fervent zeal for the Lord’s blessing and his desire to express deep gratitude leads him to the conviction that he should make an actual blood sacrifice of thanksgiving. While he is convinced that such an act would endear him even more to the Lord, he does not forsee that it would terrify fifteen-year-old David and cause him to flee Winesburg—never to be heard from or seen again. Jesse lives the remainder of his days under a black cloud of God’s disfavor, convinced that David was taken from him because he was “too greedy for glory.” There’s much to ponder in that narrative that serves as a parable for the twisted prosperity-reading of Scripture that abounds in the American context, and Anderson exposes the dark underside of success while capturing the greater complexity of the biblical telling of life.

In the 1918 foreword to his book of verse, Mid-American Chants (which Irving Howe called “the substance of Winesburg”), Anderson wrote: “There is unworldly beauty in the song of him who sings out the souls of peoples of old times and places…. But in our town and fields there are few memory haunted places.” In the contrasting shadow of the cities’ towering and roaring factories, where the workers’ lips are cracked by the dust and heat of furnaces, he lamented and longed: “We do not sing but mutter in the darkness … and feel our way toward the promise of song” (7-8). He acknowledged in “Mid-American Prayer” that the men and women among whom he lived “destroyed my ability to pray … destroyed the faith in me that came out of the ground” by the books and sayings of elsewhere; he and those like him stood up but “grew fat”—lived in the cities and “forgot the fields and the praying” borne of “the lurking sounds, sights, smells, of old things” (69-70). Anderson was writing, after all, out of the experience of massive personal and cultural dislocation; he was reaching out for grounding of place, illumining truth and belonging for battered, disparate souls. It is little surprise that Anderson influenced the twentieth-century writers who wrestled fervidly with wringing truth out of the human condition: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Miller, Faulkner, Saroyan, and Wolfe.

We never fully know what bedevils or breaks another person, even those whom we know well. It is all too easy to accept or dismiss others based on their color, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation—or a host of other categories—while being blind to the traumas and experiences that also shape individuals. Inner struggles and burdens twist, contort, shape, and strengthen our personal constitutions. One hundred years after its publication, Winesburg still powerfully and humanely invites us to enter the lives of others—to feel their anguish, to exult in their hopes. Much of what we see will trouble us, but more so, it has the capacity to tenderize us, too.  Winesburg confronts us with humbling grace in the presence of the grotesque.

Emblematic of that is the book’s opening story, “Hands,” which tells of the town mystery, Wing Biddlebaum. Wing’s hands are celebrated in Winesburg because he can pick more berries in a day than anyone. They are also the source of his guilt and anxiety—fluttering as they often do “like the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird”—what drive him, fearing for his life, from his Pennsylvania town to Winesburg, where he can live a life of relative anonymity. While Wing in no way thinks of himself as a part of Winesburg, “submerged in a sea of doubts” and beset with timidity as he is, George Willard has the presence to bring him out of himself while also seeing his true character, which Anderson describes like this: “He was one of those rare, little-understood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness…. And yet that is but crudely stated. It needs the poet there.”

Sherwood Anderson invites his reader to be that poet—to wrestle with the scarred and sacred, the profane and praiseworthy, so that by caring about everything one arrives at a hard-earned and awe-filled knowledge that transforms every detail of living. That is what the poet asks of God in Psalm 90, verse 12: “Teach us to number our days / that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Winesburg, Ohio, I would suggest, is a wise mentor—breaking us open in life, not only to God but to one another.


Joel Kurz resides in Warrensburg, Missouri. He serves as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. 


Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Mid-American Chants. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1923.

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life (with an      introduction by Ted Olson).  New York: Barnes & Noble, 2010.

Howe, Irving. Sherwood Anderson: A Biographical and Critical Study. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951.

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