Winesburg, Ohio

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Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Sherwood Anderson


Winesburg, Ohio was Sherwood Anderson's break-through work, the one that first gained widespread attention for him as an artist, although it was years before he would produce a best seller. He was fortytwo when it was published, with two novels published previously that had received little interest from the reading public.

According to the story that Anderson would later relate in his Memoirs, the book started one night when he was living by himself in a run-down rooming house in Chicago, in 1915: it was a place full of would-be artists, and Anderson, who was supporting himself by writing advertising copy, sat down one December evening and, almost miraculously, produced the story "Hands" in one sitting. In the version he often told, the story came out exactly as he wanted it and he never changed a word, although researchers have since turned up drafts that show substantial differences.

Having found his style in this one inspired flash, he went on to develop the other stories that make up Winesburg, Ohio over the next few years. When the book was published in 1919, it did not sell very well, but the critical response marked the author as a man of talent and artistic integrity. Some critics lambasted it for being immoral because of its sexual themes, both hidden and blatant, such as the child molestation charge in "Hands" or the implied impotency in "Respectability."

For each critic put off by the buried subjects, though, there were two or three who appreciated Anderson's courage in examining areas previously untouched by mainstream writers. Anderson's greatest influence on American literature has been indirect, in the ways that Winesburg, Ohio inspired the following generation of post-World War I writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and John Steinbeck. It was when these writers began speaking of the debt they owed to Sherwood Anderson that the book stopped being just a favorite of writers and gathered mass attention from the public.

Author Biography

Sherwood Anderson was born in 1876 in Camden, Ohio. In 1884 his family moved to Clyde, the small Ohio town that Winesburg is patterned after. After his mother's death in 1896, he moved to Chicago. He hoped to find better opportunities in the big city, but was unable to find any employment except menial, back-breaking labor; discouraged, he joined the army two years later, serving in the Spanish-American War.

After the war he finished his high school degree in Ohio and, invigorated by travel and education, he moved to Chicago again in 1900. He found employment working in the new field of advertising. In 1907, after marrying a wealthy manufacturer's daughter, he moved to Elyria, Ohio, as president of the Anderson Manufacturing Company. For five years he struggled to keep his business afloat, writing a few poems and some short stories that were of no interest to anyone until later, when he became famous.

What followed has become one of the great legends of American literature. According to Anderson's version, he simply realized, sitting at his desk one afternoon, that the business life was vapid and shallow, and so he stood up, walked out of the door, and kept on walking. According to the Cleveland hospital he checked into four days later, he had suffered a nervous breakdown. Either way, his career in business was over, and in early 1913, at age thirty-seven, he left his wife and family and returned to Chicago again. He worked for an advertising firm by day, wrote by night, and associated with other aspiring writers in the lively Chicago artistic scene whenever he had the time.

The short stories he wrote were traditional, and he was dissatisfied with his output until one day late in 1915, when, in a flash of inspiration, he sat down and wrote "Hands." After that, the other stories that comprise Winesburg, Ohio followed slowly. He published the stories in magazines as they appeared, and at the same time published his first two novels, Windy MacPherson's Son and Marching Men.

Winesburg, Ohio was not a commercial success when it was published in 1919, but it was well received among writers. Anderson traveled and met European and American writers in Europe, who began mentioning him in interviews as an influence on their work. He was not financially comfortable enough to quit his advertising job until 1922, and did not have financial success with a novel until 1925, with Dark Laughter.

With his reputation established, Anderson continued to be sought as a writer up to his death in 1941, producing three volumes of autobiography, some memorable short stories (especially those in Death In the Woods, which some critics argue rivals Winesburg). Most of his time in his later years was spent writing social essays, which are seldom read anymore.

Plot Summary

Rather a single, well-defined plot, Winesburg, Ohio has a loosely interconnected set of stories with overlapping time frame and characters. Only when the town itself is considered the "main character" can one speak of an overall plot. In this macro-plot, the traditional small town life of nineteenth-century America comes to an end; its hard but stable community is broken into the dynamic but impersonal atoms of twentieth-century American society

The historical macro-plot is composed of twenty-four micro-plots centered on individual characters, the inhabitants of Winesburg. Some characters appear as supporting players in more than one story, and one figure appears in several: George Willard, a youth working as a reporter in Winesburg's newspaper office. Many characters are connected to George, and his departure at the end brings the whole phase of Winesburg's history to a close.

Anderson prefaces his stories with a list of the tales and a chapter entitled "The Book of the Grotesque." This chapter suggests that a grotesque character comes into being when a man or woman takes one of the many truths of life and pursues it obsessively. Anderson's stories illustrate, often in a few terse pages, how a character becomes trapped by his or her obsession with freedom, lost love, sex, innocence, age, power, money, or indecency.

The first story, "Hands," focuses on an odd-ball named Wing Biddlebaum, whose hands are always in motion. A friend of George Willard, he is about to tell the youth about his past when he breaks off in fright. Anderson's narrator, however, fills in the story. Once named Adolph Myer, Wing was a teacher in a Pennsylvania town. Much beloved by his boys, he was tender with them in turn. One boy, however, fell in love with Adolph and recounted his fantasies as if they were facts. Branded a pervert, Adolph was beaten and chased away, barely escaping being lynched. He took the name Biddlebaum from a box in a railway station and ended up in Winesburg, tormented by his hands, which in his trauma he blamed for his undeserved suffering.

"Paper Pills" sketches Doctor Reefy, who fills his pockets with bits of paper on which he jots down ideas and inspirations. The narrator connects this peculiarity to the Doctor's courtship of his wife, who visited his office with an illegitimate pregnancy and died less than a year after their marriage. He did not condemn her, and his strange thoughtful nature, represented by the wads of paper, made her love him.

"Mother" reveals the family background of George Willard. His mother Elizabeth, disappointed with her life, has come to despise her husband Tom. Her love for her son is mixed with an anxious hope to be fulfilled through him. George tells his mother that he wants to leave Winesburg, a wish he will eventually carry out after her death.

"The Philosopher" presents the shabby, idle doctor, Doctor Parcival. The doctor tells young George about his family. The doctor's father was insane and died in an asylum; his brother was run over by a train when drunk. At the end of the story, the doctor refuses to come down from his office to look at a child who has been thrown from a buggy and killed. He visits George Willard in panic, convinced that the town will be enraged at his callousness about the child. He whispers his obsessive idea to George:

everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified. That's what I want to say.

"Nobody Knows" narrates George Willard's sexual adventure with Louise Trunnion, who offers herself to him in a note. When she later hesitates, he coaxes her by telling her that no one will know. Later, after he has left her, he repeats the thought, but with a different sense: she has nothing on him, no one knows.

The four-part story "Godliness" focuses on the patriarchal head of the Bentley Farm, Jesse. The first part depicts Jesse's background and his tough management of the farm after the Civil War. It introduces his biblical obsession: he imagines himself the only godly man among "Philistines." He prays to God for a son called David to help him overcome his enemies. In the second part, the ironic thwarting of his prayer is revealed: his wife had died in childbirth, giving birth to a girl, Louise. Louise is unhappily married to the banker John Hardy; their child is named David. Jesse takes the grandchild to the farm. Still biblically obsessed, however, Jesse frightens the boy with an intense prayer, and the child flees.

Part three narrates the youth of Louise, passed in the Hardy household. Mistreated by her foster sisters, she seeks to become the lover of John, her future husband. David's birth disappoints her hopes for a daughter, just as she had foiled Jesse's desire for a son. In part four, David abandons Jesse, who has tried to realize his religious designs by sacrificing a lamb. Boy and lamb flee from the knife-wielding grandfather, and when David knocks Jesse unconscious with a stone, he thinks he has killed the old man and runs away forever. Coming to in despair, Jesse believes God has cursed him for his pride.

The next three stories, "A Man of Ideas," "Adventure," and "Respectability" offer character-sketches. In the first, Joe Welling, a generally quiet man, is seized with fits of obsessive thinking, poured out in a torrent of words. In the second, Alice Hindman goes out walking naked, driven by solitude to a desperate, half-mad desire for adventure. The third, "Respectability," focuses on the gross, dirty, and misogynistic telegraph operator Wash Williams.

"The Thinker" introduces Seth Richmond, George Willard's friend and a failed candidate for the love of Helen White, who figures in several stories. Seth cannot shake his feeling of not belonging in Winesburg. This sense inhibits him from trying to win Helen's love. He leaves her to George Willard, considered the typical Winesburg insider.

In "Tandy," a drunken stranger perceives in a little girl an image of a love he will never possess. The qualities of this love he calls "Tandy," which the girl takes as her name.

"The Strength of God" depicts the Reverend Curtis Hartman, who peers through a hole in the bell-tower window at the schoolteacher Kate Smith, whose bedroom is opposite the church. Torn with guilt, the minister continues peeping until one night he sees Kate naked, beating her bed with her fists, then kneeling to pray. Believing this sight a message from God, the minister breaks the glass with his fists, destroying his post of forbidden observation.

The next story, "The Teacher," returns to these same events from another angle. The mature and experienced teacher detects something special in young George Willard, and she seeks him out to advise him about his pursuit of writing. She initiates an erotic encounter but breaks it off, beating at him with her fists, and fleeing to weep and pray in her room.

"Loneliness" portrays the aging child-man Enoch Robinson, who earlier lived in a world of make-believe in the art world of New York. In order to preserve his imaginary life, he drove off the woman who loved him, destroying his dreams as well.

In "An Awakening," George Willard is seduced by Belle Carpenter to make her real love, Ed Handby, jealous. Ed deflates George's pride by breaking in on them, knocking George around, and leaving with Belle. In the story "'Queer,'"George also gets a surprise beating. Elmer Cowley, the misfit son of a shopowner, thinks George, like all of Winesburg's inhabitants, laughs at him and thinks him "queer." Before fleeing Winesburg on the train, Elmer calls George to the platform, tries to speak his mind, and when unable, beats George half-unconscious.

In "The Untold Lie," a middle-aged farm worker, Ray Pearson, is asked by his younger friend Hal Winters what to do about a woman Hal has made pregnant. Ray wants to advise him not to throw away his freedom, as he himself did in marrying. But he holds his tongue, realizing that anything he said would only be a lie.

A quiet boy, Tom Foster, is the central figure of "Drink." One night the boy gets drunk and visits George. Tom tells George that he drank to understand something and that he has learned from it, comparing it to how he imagines making love must be.

The last three stories conclude George's life in Winesburg. "Death" describes the circumstances of George's mother's death, including her passionate encounter with Doctor Reefy late in her life and the stash of money that will allow George to escape the town that made her suffer. "Sophistication" depicts a brief moment of silent understanding between Helen White, back from college, and George, who will soon leave for good. "Departure" presents the town's send-off of George. Winesburg fades from view as the train pulls away, changed to nothing more than "a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood."


Jesse Bentley

He is the main character of the four-part story in the middle of the book, "Godliness." A reluctant farmer, who studied to be a minister but took over the family farm when his brothers died in the Civil War, his farm grew huge over the course of several decades. Jesse believes that the growth of his farm was God's will, and in his old age, he wants to sacrifice a lamb to God, as Abraham did in the Bible. His grandson David Bentley, who he takes along to the sacrifice, fears that the old man intends to kill him with the knife instead, and he shoots Jesse in the head with a slingshot, just as David did to Goliath in the Bible.

Wing Biddlebaum

In "Hands," the story of Wing Biddlebaum is revealed: the citizens of Winesburg know nothing of his past before he came to town because he was run out of his former town, were he was a school-teacher accused of touching one of his male students inappropriately.

Belle Carpenter

She spends time with George Willard, dating him casually. Her true love is Ed Handby, a bartender at the saloon, but he is too embarrassed to ask her out until he has enough money to date her in style. In "An Awakening," Ed does approach her while she is on a date with George, shoving George aside repeatedly while the lovers discuss their mutual affection.

Curtis Hartman

In "The Strength of God," Reverend Hartman, who has been finding his sermons uninspired lately, notices that he can see into the bedroom of the woman next door from his office in the bell tower, and he becomes obsessed with looking at her.

Dr. Parcival

Dr. Parcival is not really a doctor at all, but a drifter who came to town calling himself a doctor. He relishes the fact that he has had several identities in different towns and that nobody knows the true story of his past. In "The Philosopher," his delight in fooling the citizenry turns to paranoia: when he refuses to see a child who has been killed in a horse accident, he is certain that the people of Winesburg will come to lynch him, even though they have simply gone to another doctor and forgotten him.

Dr. Reefy

The doctor is one of the few citizens of Winesburg to figure prominently in two of the stories in the book, "Paper Pills" and "Death." In "Paper Pills," the second story, he is an old man, described in the first line as having "a white beard and huge nose," while the other story, which appears near the end of the book, he is a middle-aged man: "The gray beard he later wore had not yet appeared, but on his upper lip grew a brown moustache."

"Death" concerns his relationship with Elizabeth Willard, George's mother. She was a very sick woman and therefore a frequent patient, but as she talked during her office visits, he fell in love with her. Once, they embraced, but were interrupted by a clerk from the store downstairs emptying the garbage. He did not see her again after that. "Paper Pills" tells of his marriage to a much younger woman whose name is never given. She comes to him with an illness and a relationship develops, during which she appreciates the eccentric ideas that he writes on scratch paper sheets and stuffs in wads in his pockets. Within a year of their wedding, she dies, and he is alone again.

Seth Richmond

In the story that features him, "The Thinker," Seth Richmond is presented as George Willard's friend, and of all of the citizens of Winesburg, he seems like the one that George feels most comfortable with. In many ways, Seth is similar to George in disposition, but he is a little more reserved. His father died a scandalous death when Seth was young, killed during an argument with a newspaper editor when an article alleged that the older Richmond was having an affair. After his death his family discovered he had lost all of his money in investments, showing him to be a bad husband and worse businessman, like George's father (who is seen in "The Thinker" arguing politics with his hotel guests).

Like George, Seth is an intellectual, but, he is too emotionally insecure to pursue the girl he has a crush on, perhaps made timid by the family scandal. In "Respectability" George has a conversation with Helen White where he is as awkward as Seth is in "The Thinker," but George does not leave her until he has said what he wants to tell her.

Enoch Robinson

Enoch is a member of a family that moved to Winesburg from the country and opened a small, eclectic odds-and-ends store. He is very self-conscious of how he and his family appear to the other citizens, and in the story "Queer" he confronts George Willard, who he thinks is one of the main people in town laughing at him.

Kate Swift

Kate Swift appears in "The Strength of God," as the woman that Reverend Hartman looks at and fantasizes about in his tower room, and in the following story, "The Teacher," she is George Willard's former teacher. In her excitement over teaching and expressing herself to him, she kisses him on the lips.

Louise Trunion

In "Nobody Knows," George Willard has sex with Louise after receiving a letter from her that says, "I'm yours if you want me." Rather than feel triumphant, he immediately becomes afraid that she will hold this over him, even though she gives no indication of wishing to do so.

Joe Welling

Joe Welling is an agent for the Standard Oil Company. His mind is continuously running, almost tripping over itself as he thinks up new things. "A Man of Ideas" tells the story of his falling in love with Sarah King, which could be trouble because her father and brother are violent bullies. Rather than assault Joe, they fall under the spell of his jittery enthusiasm and walk off down the street with him, engrossed in what he has to say.

Helen White

Helen White is a girl, about George Willard's age, who has the distinction of being the banker's only child and therefore coming from one of Winesburg's wealthiest families. In "The Thinker," George Willard expresses a romantic interest in Helen to his friend Seth Richmond, but he does so casually, claiming that he is working on a story about love and would like to practice being in love with her. Helen is briefly attracted to Seth when he conveys the message, but her attraction is based in part on the fact that he has claimed to be saying his final goodbye at that moment.

Media Adaptations

  • There are three different versions of a "Winesburg, Ohio" audio cassette available: from the Audio Bookshelf, 1995; from Recorded Books, 1995; and as an audio cassette or phonographic album from Caedmon, 1983.
  • A 1977 video, "Sherwood Anderson's I'm a Fool," is available from Perspective Films, 1977.

The other story that concerns Helen prominently is "Sophistication." In this story, George Willard's thoughts turn to her as he reaches a moment of emotional maturity. Despite the fact that she is only in town briefly, having come home from college on break with a young instructor, her thoughts are on him also: "What George felt, she in her young woman's way felt also." What they both feel is not lust, even though they temporarily confuse it for something sexual.

Anderson uses Helen's privileged background to highlight George's moment of feeling a sense of responsibility, as he sees beyond the temporary distractions of his day-to-day life in the same way that she can see the town objectively, because she is an outsider now. Although the story is about adolescent confusion and is therefore a jumble of confused emotions, the narrative sums up the feelings that both George and Helen feel: "'I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,' was the substance of the thing felt." They find out that what they want is not a physical encounter, but just a chance to act child-like again, and they chase each other down the hill, running and laughing. Helen White is not the love of George Willard's life, but she is more like him than any other character in Winesburg.

Elizabeth Willard

George's mother is featured in two of the stories in this book, the third from the beginning and the third from the end. Her existence is marked by depression and bitterness, symbolized by the unspecified illness that keeps her shut up in the boarding house and under the doctor's care. She is disappointed that her life has not had more excitement and she has a vague hope that her son's life will turn out better than hers.

"Mother" explains that she grew up in the boarding house and dated, or "walked with," the traveling men who stopped there briefly, and that when she was young she enjoyed drawing attention to herself: "Once she startled the town by putting on men's clothes and riding a bicycle down Main Street." As an adult she slinks along in the shadows of the boarding house, dreading the idea that one of the boarders will see her because her former vibrancy is gone, leaving her now ghostly and worn out.

There is a great deal of empathy between Elizabeth Willard and her son, as she recalls what it was like to grow up being aware of the world's wide greatness but having that sense of wonder held in check by narrow-minded men like the boy's father, Tom Willard. In "Mother," she braces herself to confront her husband in the boy's defense, to insist that George must be free to leave Winesburg and discover the world for himself. When George comes to her and reports that a talk with his father has convinced him to do just that, she finds herself taking a position just opposite the one she had intended, mocking his ambitions when she had meant to be encouraging.

"Death" tells of a somewhat romantic relationship at the end of her life with her doctor. In his grim, dusty office, she talks freely about her life and is finally able to discuss her father's disgust with the man she chose to marry, and his warnings that the marriage would turn out miserably, which it did. Being open with Dr. Reefy leads to the closest thing she has to intimacy in her married life; for one moment, they find themselves in each other's arms, but they are interrupted and the moment never presents itself again. Elizabeth Willard has a stroke and lingers for a week before dying, never able to tell George that she has hidden eight hundred dollars for him to live his life in freedom.

George Willard

The central character in the book, it sometimes seems as if George Willard is the central character in the town: because he is the son of rooming-house owners, Anderson has put him in a position to meet travelers passing through town, while his job as a reporter for the Winesburg Eagle makes him known to all of the town's citizens.

Only a few of the stories in this book are explicitly concerned with events in George's life—"Mother," "Nobody Knows," "The Thinker," "The Teacher," "An Awakening," "Sophistication," and "Departure." In the other stories, the main characters generally find some reason to relate their stories to George, or he has some other connection to the action, such as when "The Untold Lie" explains to readers, "Boys like George Willard and Seth Richmond will remember the incident quite vividly.…" Other examples are when Dr. Reefy of "Paper Pills" later develops a secret relationship with George's mother, or the folktale tone of "Godliness," that makes it seem as if everyone in town is familiar with what has happened. It is through the use of this structure that Anderson reveals influences that mold the young man into who he will become by the time of his departure from the town.

From the start, George is the son of an unhappy marriage, whose parents have conflicting expectations for his future. As related in "Mother," his father is an unsuccessful businessman, transferring his own ambitions to hopes for his son's future success. His mother also copes with her disappointment by living vicariously through George, but her hopes are conflicted within themselves: "Even though I die I will in some way keep defeat from you," she promises George in a prayer. Soon after that she asks God to "not let him become smart and successful either."

With his father's encouragement to be practical and his mother's hopes that he transcend his meager upbringing, George could grow up in any direction, and it is his encounters with other people in town that define his growing personality. From Wing Biddelbaum he learns the danger of being too familiar with others. Dr. Parcival's story is a warning against being too cerebral, but he also sees Joe Welling survive by staying true to his dreams. From Belle Carpenter he learns not to be too free with his sexuality, while Kate Swift's behavior shows him what happens if he suppresses it too thoroughly. There is a lesson for his life in each story, and, even if George does not seem to learn the lesson each time, the reader can absorb it as something he should learn.

In the book's climax, "Sophistication," George and his female counterpart, Helen, not only learn how to act maturely, but they also learn that behaving immaturely once in a while is necessary: after running down a hill and rolling in the grass like children, "they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible."

Tom Willard

George Willard's father was a clerk at the boarding house in Winesburg, hoping to become a successful businessman some day. He married the daughter of the boarding-house owner, possibly because she was pregnant. In "Death," it is revealed that her father was so against her marrying Tom that he gave her eight hundred dollars cash to leave town, but she married to spite her father. Tom Willard is an unsuccessful businessman, and in his hands the boarding house is becoming shabby and decrepit. He is interested in local politics, and enjoys arguing with customers about political issues.

Wash Williams

A friend of George's, the name is considered ironic, bestowed on him because of his poor hygiene. In "Respectability," he explains to George Willard that he was once married, but that his wife was unfaithful.


Rite of Passage

The overall arc of this book is George Willard's maturation; the climax is when he finally leaves town. Unlike a novel that is driven along by external events and situations, this book has no specific occurrence that prompts him to leave. As a matter of fact, George appears to be the ideal citizen for Winesburg: as much as the various citizens seem to rely upon him as someone that they can tell their stories to, he seems to need them equally, to feed his curiosity.

Topics for Further Study

  • The characters in Winesburg, Ohio are very specific to their place and time. Write a short story that brings one of these characters forward to your town. Would they be better adjusted than they are presented in the book? Would the added burden of fast-paced modern life be too much for them? Would they find help for their problems that was not available in Winesburg?
  • Research the Chicago renaissance of the 1910s and 1920s. Report on one of the writers that Anderson was acquainted with: Edgar Lee Masters, Harriet Monroe, Margaret Anderson, Francis Hackett, Ben Hecht, or Floyd Dell. Try to focus your biographical report on where the writer lived before coming to Chicago, and how moving to a major metropolitan area affected her or his writing.
  • In the twentieth century, America had gone from being a principally rural country to being overwhelmingly urban and suburban. Explore the social elements that changed society during Anderson's time, when towns like Winesburg were already becoming old fashioned.
  • One of the few things that is learned about George Willard's father, Tom Willard, is that he is a staunch Democrat. In "The Thinker," Tom Willard argues with a travelling salesman about the relationship between President William McKinley and Mark Hanna, the U.S. Senator from Ohio. Explore the situation that is referred to in this story and report on what it tells readers about the two men holding the argument.

The way that he outgrows the town is developed indirectly, through the positive and negative responses that readers have toward each character. "Hands," for instance, might be about Wing's determination to outrun his past, but a sub-theme is the small-mindedness and anger that can boil up in a small town. When George has a sexual encounter in "Nobody Knows," his main concern is that no one finds out about it. The King bullies accept Joe Welling in "A Man of Ideas" exactly because he is oblivious to the dangers that surround him in Winesburg. "The Untold Lie," which does not mention George, still raises the reader's awareness that the miseries suffered by Ray Pearson are unavoidable in a town like Winesburg.

Even as the town seems more and more like a trap for someone like George, the decision to leave does not become comfortable to him until the moment in "Sophistication" when he turns the clock back on his maturation process and for once, instead of trying to act older, he breaks from a kiss with Helen White and they both laugh, becoming "not man and woman, not boy and girl, but excited little animals." The drive toward experience and understanding leaves them, and as they run down the hill they have climbed "they played like two splendid young things in a young world." The struggle with "the young thing within" that has pulled at George in every story, through his association with disappointed older Winesburg citizens who had or had not won the struggle, is settled for him, and then it becomes time for him to leave.

Loneliness and Alienation

The main source of dramatic tension in this book is that Winesburg is a small town. This means that the citizens are familiar with one another and hold each other to certain standards of behavior, but, within this frame of familiarity, all of the people who make up the group feel that they do not belong to it. Of all of these, the most blatantly alienated might be Elizabeth Willard, the mother of the novel's central character. "Mother," the first story concerning her, establishes the fact that she had, at one time in her youth, felt a bond to the travelling men who had stayed at the Willard house and had romanced her. The story says that "They seemed to understand and sympathize with her." In maturity, though, she has no such bond with anyone, not even her husband or her son, and she hides upstairs, hoping to not be seen.

In the last years of her life, related in "Death," her alienation is pierced by the relationship she forms with Dr. Reefy, meeting him in his secluded office that is adjacent to a dusty storage room. The climax and destruction of their relationship occurs when they embrace for the first time and are interrupted by a clerk throwing an old box onto a pile of rubbish in the hall: "Doctor Reefy did not see the woman he had held in his arms again until after her death." Elizabeth Willard is so alienated that she does not get the chance to pass on the secret that she had been saving for her son—eight hundred dollars in cash, hidden within a wall.

The other glaring example of the loneliness that permeates the characters in this book is, of course, Enoch Robinson, in the story titled "Loneliness." Interestingly, the story explains that it was in New York City that Robinson withdrew from life with fellow human beings to live with the people of his imagination, and in New York that he lost his imaginary people to the girl he was involved with. Robinson is lonely in Winesburg, but the town itself has not made him that way, indicating that the alienation felt by each of Winesburg's citizens is more a condition of human experience than a result of small-town life.

Doubt and Ambiguity

Most of the characters in this book suffer from their efforts to keep their true natures hidden from other people and themselves. In cases like those of Wing Biddlebaum, Wash Williams or Dr. Parcival, the effort is to obscure shameful deeds in their past. Others, such as Reverend Hartman, Jesse Bentley, Kate Swift and Seth Richmond, feel that they have a reputation in the community that must be upheld at all costs, and so they do not allow themselves to become introspective enough to wonder what it is they really want.

In most cases, the citizens of Winesburg want desperately to be someone they are not, but their personalities are too strong to be changed, which leaves them in an ambiguous state where truth and lie mingle together freely. The problem is that they have doubts about what is real, and this often turns out to be devastating in the end, leaving the characters torn apart when they are forced to face the bare, unvarnished truth.



Winesburg, Ohio is most noticeably a series of short stories, each one capable of making sense if read by itself. Reading the book as a novel requires some imagination and a willingness to be loose with one's definition of just what a novel is.

There is a main character, George Willard, but his significance is based mainly on the fact that he appears in almost all of the stories. Often, he is not central to the story's action, but is just mentioned as someone that a central character has spoken with. If the reader accepts the fact that George's appearances must be more than a coincidence, then it would follow that the whole book is one continuous piece, with each independent story defining George and moving him forward toward some final resolution. The fact that George leaves town in the last story supports this reading. It seems to provide a climax to the book in general.

There is a continuing character who comes to a resolute change at the end. Readers who are willing to agree that this is enough evidence that the book is indeed a novel will look for signs within the stories, even those with little or no mention of George, that he is growing throughout the book to be the person he is in "Departure." They will find enough evidence to see a novel's structure running throughout the collected stories.


Sherwood Anderson despised stories that existed in order to serve their plot, usually with the actions occurring one upon the next in order to lead readers in one direction, with no more purpose than to sting them with a surprise at the end. An example of such a story might run like this: a man decides to make enough money to marry the girl he loves; he works hard for years and uses inferior materials in his construction business, in order to amass his fortune; the very day that he is on his way to propose to her, he finds out that she has been killed in the collapse of one of the shabby buildings he put together. Anderson called such stories "poison-plot" stories because they were built upon coincidences, not character. When he was writing Winesburg, Ohio, poison-plot stories were practically all that mainstream magazines published—today we still have the stories of O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) as examples of the types of heavily plotted stories published at the turn of the century.

The stories in Winesburg, Ohio often fail to capture the interest of novice readers of literature because they are structured around character, not plot. These stories introduce readers to their central characters, show how these characters see the world, and then, at the climax, their external circumstances do not change much, even though their personalities may be changed forever.


The events of this book could happen nowhere else but in a small Ohio town. In part, this is due to definition, because the author has defined this book as happening in or around the town of Winesburg. In addition, the stories all stay close to Winesburg because they just would not make sense anywhere else. In a larger town, in another part of the country or in a different country, there would not be the social pressure toward conformity that is unique to the American Midwest. That pressure is integral to the stories, squeezing any artificial sense of comfort out of the characters, which pushes them to act, which develops their stories.

The map of downtown Winesburg in the front of the book helps to orient readers to where specific actions take place in relation to others, but Anderson could have explained such relationships within the text if they were important. More significantly, the map makes the town seem real, as if offering proof of Winesburg's existence, beyond what the fiction writer says.


The one story that is written in a distinctly different style from the others is "The Book of the Grotesque," which mentions neither George Willard nor the town of Winesburg and uses a different narrative style, with a narrator who exists within the story. "The Book of the Grotesque" helps introduce readers to the story that follows by placing the incidents in Winesburg within the memories of a tired, disturbed old man, which helps to explain why the stories have such an indistinct, dreamy feel about them. It also introduces the idea of the grotesque, asserting that each of the characters to follow has one thing exaggerated, which helps readers of Winesburg, Ohio understand what makes the characters behave as they do.

Historical Context

The First World War

World War I was the first of two conflicts in this century to draw most of what is referred to as Western Civilization (generally speaking, Europe, North America and Russia) into battle. It was the first war to use submarines, aerial bombings and chemical warfare, which added a new dimension of impersonality to the usual carnage of war.

It began in Europe, where the battles between ethnic groups in the Balkan nations at the end of the nineteenth century led to a balance of power between two rival military alliances: The Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France and Russia. Most of the smaller countries were affiliated with one of these or the other. On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian. When the Austrian government blamed Serbia, obligations to existing treaties pulled most of the nations into war, one at a time.

Originally, Americans were reluctant to become involved: President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 with the campaign slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War." In early 1917, though, Germany started using submarines against ships travelling to Great Britain, and the United States, which had warned against such action, was drawn into participating. When peace was declared in 1918, thirtytwo nations had been involved in the fighting, with 37 million casualties and 10 million civilian deaths.

The veterans who returned to the United States in 1918 were angry and disillusioned, having participated in destruction on a greater scale, with deadlier weapons, than the world had ever known before. Of the one million Americans drafted and sent overseas, many came from small rural towns like Winesburg, and may never have gone beyond the county limits, much less traveled to Europe and killed people, if not for the war. The returning veterans brought back stories of their experiences, cracking the shell that secluded farm towns from the outside world. Winesburg, Ohio was published the year after the war ended.

The Rise of the Soviet Union

Russia's weak economy, coupled with the strain of a great number of military defeats in World War I and the subsequent high casualties, forced Russian Tsar Nicholas to abdicate his throne in March of 1917. A liberal government took control of the country briefly, but protests and riots quickly forced them from power; the moderate government that followed did no better to restore order. In October of 1917 the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, staged a revolution and re-organized the country under principles of Marxist socialism.

To American artists and intellectuals, the Russian Revolution stood as a symbol of hope that social progress toward equality was possible and that the market forces that disfavored creativity could be overthrown one day. Journalist John Reed, whose 1919 book Ten Days That Shook The World gave his eyewitness account of the Revolution and who founded the American Communist Labor Party, became a sought-after speaker for social events.

To American politicians, the threat of a revolution was justification for continuing the wartime censorship that had been established to protect military secrets. Charges were brought against writers and publishers who were branded as "radicals" and "freethinkers." Ordinary citizens were split: more identified themselves as "communists" or "socialists" than at any time since (their affiliation with leftist politics would come back to haunt them thirty years later, during the blacklisting that made many lose their jobs in the 1950s), but those who supported capitalism feared leftists as being not just different political parties, but as a threat.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1919: Soldiers coming back from World War I had experienced massive destruction in the age of airplanes and automation. Because American manufacturing facilities were not damaged the way those in Europe had been, the U.S. economy prospered in the 1920s.

    Today: After the military build-up of the 1980s created an economic crisis, running up unprecedented trade deficits, the American economy has stabilized and is enjoying prosperity without war.

  • 1919: F. W. Woolworth died at age 67. The Woolworth chain of five-and-dime stores started in 1879 and had over 1000 stores in small American towns by the time it was incorporated in 1911, becoming the first franchise in many rural centers like Winesburg.

    Today: The Woolworth chain closed its last stores in 1997, run out of business by huge discount stores, particularly the Wal-Mart chain, which has over 1700 stores built on the outskirts of American downtown areas.

  • 1920: The 18th Amendment, prohibiting sale and consumption of alcohol, was passed by Congress, to go into effect on January 20, 1920.
  • 1933: Prohibition was considered a failure because it did not greatly reduce alcohol consumption and it encouraged gang violence. The 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition, became effective December 5, 1933.

    Today: Many states are lowering the amount of alcohol that the law will tolerate in the blood of a person who has been operating a motor vehicle; at the same time, a growing percentage of the population, discouraged by the feeble results of strict drug policies, is calling for legalization of drugs.

  • 1919: The 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote in the United States, was adopted by Congress and was ratified by the states the following year.
  • 1972: The Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed that women would be treated equally with men, but it failed to be ratified by two-thirds of the states in the next ten years and therefore did not become law.

    Today: Social groups monitor discrimination against women and offer legal support to those who have been mistreated due to gender.

  • 1921: The pogo stick was invented. Throughout the 1920s, children kept themselves amused bouncing on a spring-powered stick.

    Today: The most sought-after games for children are those with computer graphics.

  • 1921: The first nonstop transatlantic airplane flight went from Newfoundland to Ireland in 16 hours, 12 minutes.

    Today: The Concorde can fly from New York to Paris in less than four hours.

The Chicago Renaissance

When Sherwood Anderson moved to Chicago in 1913, he found a blossoming literary environment. Among the writers that he became acquainted with, some famous and some yet-to-be, were Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Harriet Monroe, Ben Hecht, and Floyd Dell. Literary magazines of lasting cultural significance, such as Poetry, Little Review, and Seven Arts were new and eager to publish works by writers who were just starting to build their reputations.

Enthusiasm was high among this group for the experimental art of the post-Impressionist painters, such as Cezanne, van Gogh, and Gaugin, who stopped trying to reproduce visual images and worked instead to record their internal impressions of what they saw, reducing physical forms to abstract structures. The art exhibit at the 69th Regimented Armory in New York City from February 17 to March 15, 1913, made history as the first modern art showing in the United States. To this day, the Armory Show is referred to as a defining moment in American art. In 1914 the show traveled to Chicago, where angry students of the Art Institute were so offended that they burned an effigy of painter Henri Matisse. Anderson and his friends spent nights discussing artistic theory and determining how they could apply theories about paint to their work with words.

Critical Overview

As is the case with any groundbreaking work of art, there is a tendency to view the early critical responses to Winesburg, Ohio as being shortsighted and prudish, reflecting a world that was both unable to appreciate Anderson's accomplishment and much less sexually sophisticated than our own. There is some truth to this view, but much of it can be traced to the fact that the original reviewers did not, for obvious reasons, have the benefit of studying the book for eighty years, and so their analyses seem to be much simpler than those written today.

Adjusting for the modern critic's advantage of accumulated Anderson studies, the critics who commented on Winesburg when it was first published appear to have been quite astute in what they had to say. Only a few critics took Anderson to task for examining subjects like shame and lust in his work, like the writer for the New York Sun who announced to the world that the book dealt with "nauseous acts" in a review called "A Gutter Would Be Spoon River" (the title refers to Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 poetry collection, also about inhabitants of a small town). A few other reviewers proclaimed disgust, but they were published mostly in family papers where the main interest was not literature but sales.

Their influence was exaggerated by several sources, including Sherwood Anderson himself, who seemed to allow each negative comment to strike with ten times the impact that he allowed to praise. In his Memoirs, he complained that he had been portrayed "almost universally, in public prints, as a filthy-minded man and that after the book was published, for weeks and months, my mail was loaded with letters calling me 'filthy,' 'an opener of sewers,' etc." It may have been convenient for him to remember himself being martyred like this, for, as he says in the following paragraph, "We men of the time had a certain pioneering job to do … "

A more typical response of the time would have been H. W. Boynton's generally favorable review in the August 1919 edition of The Bookman. Boynton recognized the depiction of life in Winesburg as being "a life of vivid feeling and ardent impulse doomed, for the most part, to be suppressed or misdirected … ". He did not ignore the sexual content of the book, but correctly and quietly assumed that Anderson was caught up in the excitement about Sigmund Freud that was sweeping the intellectual community: "At worst he seems in this book like a man who has too freely imbibed the doctrine of psychoanalysis.… At best he seems without consciousness of self or of theory to be getting to the root of the matter—one root, at least—for all of us."

Throughout the decades, it is this lack of self-consciousness that has made Winesburg, Ohio a favorite among writers. The writers of the "Lost Generation," those who had been through World War I and started making their mark in the literary world in the late twenties, looked upon Anderson as a sort of father figure in a way that they never looked up to his peers, probably because his success without being too obvious appealed to their artistic senses.

The book's appeal to artists was captured by Rebecca West, whose 1922 review for New Statesman called Winesburg, Ohio an "extraordinarily good book." She went on to explain that "it is not fiction, it is poetry. It is unreasonable; it delights in places where those who are not poets could not delight… it stands in front of things that are of no importance, infatuated with their quality, and hymns them with obstinate ecstasy.…"

Waldo Frank, who in the 1910s edited Seven Arts, a Chicago magazine that originally published several of the Winesburg stories, remembered in a later essay that he had been thrilled with the intuitiveness of the stories. For that reason he had feared revisiting them after twenty years, not knowing if they would have the impact they had in his youth. To his delight, the stories that he had remembered as being held together by the writer's instincts actually turned out to be examples of "technical perfection."

Because Anderson was so popular with writers, he drew the attention of critics, who could not accept the strange elements of Winesburg with a sense of mysticism: it was their job, after all, to explain it. In 1960, Malcolm Cowley's famous essay that introduced the Viking Press edition of Winesburg, Ohio, identified the root of the book's intangible greatness in the way that Anderson worked. "He knew instinctively whether one of his stories was right or wrong, but he didn't always know why," Cowley wrote. "[Ilf he wanted to improve the story he had to wait for a return of the mood that had produced it, then write it over from beginning to end … ".

As the world has become more logical and accountable, so literary criticism also has been able to accept a successful mystery, and as Winesburg, Ohio has continued to hold public attention, critics have sought to identify what creates the book's unique mood. Tony Tanner's essay in his book The Reign of Wonder: Naivete and Reality in American Literature identified the unnamed element as "the constant inclusion of seemingly gratuitous details." James M. Mellard explained in 1968 that other critics had overlooked the fact that there was not just one structure to the stories, but many. Sam Bluefarb identified a pattern of escape that he found common in American literary works in his 1972 book The Escape Motif in the American Novel. A. Carl Bredahl found the book to be held together by the twin urges of sex and art in his 1986 essay "The Young Thing Within: Divided Narrative and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio."

As these examples show, recent critical trends have pushed toward more complex explanations of the book, but admiration for Anderson's artistry have stayed fairly constant throughout the book's long history.


Tyrus Miller

Miller is an assistant professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University. In the following essay, he discusses the thematic and formal significance of storytelling in Winesburg, Ohio.

From the time of its original publication as a complete book in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio has posed readers, reviewers, and critics with a puzzle: is it a short story collection or a novel? Already in 1916, Anderson had published sections of it as stories in the "little magazines" of the Chicago Renaissance and modernist literary movements: in Floyd Dell's The Masses, Margaret Anderson's Little Review, and Waldo Frank's Seven Arts. By their author's own admission, then, the individual chapters appeared to stand on their own, and early readers generally followed this lead, seeing in Winesburg a short story collection. Only later, after greater critical scrutiny and further experimentation in prose by innovators such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and William Faulkner, did Anderson's readers seriously consider the possible unity of Winesburg as a novel.

Much of the later critical discussion of Winesburg, Ohio, however, has been constrained by this problem of identifying its proper genre. Much ink, argument, and intelligence has been dedicated to discovering the hidden thread, narrative or thematic, binding its apparently disconnected stories. Equal effort has been spent in denying that this missing link really exists.

Winesburg's admirers praise the book's disjoined structure as poetical, lyrical, even mystical, and have valued its flashes of psychological and spiritual insight over any mere realism to be found in more conventional novels. Its detractors, cool and skeptical about "lyrical form," have found Winesburg too slack and intellectually murky to be a good novel, yet also lacking the compactness of incident, the quick narrative punch of a well-wrought short story.

These debates have gone round and round, largely on the same terrain, for three-quarters of a century. And the very grounds of the argument—novel or not, good one or bad one—have led to this stalemate. Without a shift of the question no satisfactory resolution is likely to be forthcoming.

Winesburg, it must be said, is a mixed work and can only be approached with finer instruments than the crude tool kit of genre categories. The question of its nature and, eventually, its quality cannot be answered without more careful attention to its subtler design. Its patterns are not set down by a generic stamp, but rather come faintly into view in the knots of a complex weave: the multiple dimensions of storytelling employed by Anderson, ranging from narratives told or withheld by characters within individual stories, the narrational modes of the individual chapters, the explicit and implicit joins and intersections between stories, and the narrative implied by the work as a whole.

Anderson sets Winesburg in a transitional period in American history, the years between the Civil War and the turn of the century, when small town communities were just starting to be affected by the consolidation of wealth and the sharpening of class divisions; the shift from small farming towards banking and manufacturing; the spread of newspaper reading and the rise of a consumer culture; the flight of the young to the large cities and the stagnation of towns by-passed by new developments.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 collection of freeverse poems, Spoon River Anthology, was one of the most direct influences on Winesburg, Ohio. Published the year that Anderson started the book, each poem tells the story of a different citizen of a fictional town, Spoon River.
  • When Anderson was writing this book, between 1915 and 1919, Chicago was experiencing a literary renaissance. Among the writers of Anderson's circle of friends in those days, Floyd Dell is considered one of the most innovative. His 1920 novel, Moon Calf, is like Winesburg, Ohio in that it draws heavily on the author's past in a farm community, applying urban sensibilities and a sense of pity that comes from sophistication.
  • Although Winesburg, Ohio is considered Anderson's finest, most haunting work, he wrote many other novels, poems and short stories. His 1925 novel Dark Laughter is the most highly-regarded work of long fiction and was the most financially successful during his lifetime.
  • Ernest Hemingway considered Anderson to be a friend and mentor—it was Anderson who introduced Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and other European writers who were to become part of the Hemingway legend. Hemingway's 1925 collection of stories, In Our Times, shows the influence of Winesburg, Ohio in the way that the separate stories all refer back to one main character and theme.
  • Anderson wrote several autobiographies, but the one he had been working on for nine years before he died is considered the most important one. When it was first published, it was dramatically cut, but as Anderson's reputation as a literary figure grew, his original writing was added back in. The revised, restored version was published in 1943 as Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs.
  • Irving Howe, one of the most respected literary critics of our century, published Sherwood Anderson: A Biographical and Critical Study in 1951, adding a new introduction to the 1966 edition. His explanation of Anderson and his works is not the only one, but he does give a brief, intelligent, comprehensive explanation that students can follow and understand.

Storytelling, for Anderson, is the key index of these large-scale social tendencies, for in the changing nature and value of stories one can grasp the effects of these trends in the lives of individuals and particular communities. In an earlier epoch, stories had served as the social glue for small communities such as Winesburg, articulating a shared experience and rendering it transmissible to new candidates for membership, whether they came from outside or from the younger generations of the town. The correspondence of the story to factual truth was less important than the recognition of itself accorded by the community to a given story: a story became truth by being transmitted among its members and down to its children.

But Anderson presents a new phase in this history, a turning point at which this glue of shared experience has ceased to hold. His storytellers, by and large, fail at their craft, unable to furnish myths to the community that might become its truth. The stock of transmissible experience has been tapped down to dregs, and the community can only perceive individual eccentricities in the stories its members tell rather than recognizing its collective identity in each of them.

Stories themselves have become poorer in form and sense, less able to offer guidance to the lives of the listeners. Thus dramatizing this impoverishment of the communal economy of stories, Anderson does not simply "use" the story as a literary form. He makes it a central theme, an object of scrutiny to be held up to the reader's gaze, revolved, and interrogated. In his handling of stories as thematic matter, Anderson registers the rising skepticism about the cognitive worth of narrative itself; he depicts the loss of faith in stories, their diminished capacity to connect modern Americans.

In many cases, Anderson's concern with narrative and its ability to inform the lives of people remains implicit, though crucial. His four-part story, "Godliness," for example, seems to be primarily a set of character-sketches of the farmerpatriarch Jesse Bentley and his family. Yet two of the parts, Part II and Part IV (subtitled "Terror"), hinge on a pathological translation into real life of stories from the bible: Jesse destroys his relation to his beloved grandson David by trying to reenact the Old Testament stories through which he interprets his experience.

The other two parts, dealing with Jesse's troubled daughter Louise, are more subtly connected to the same sort of twisted reading. Her life has been tainted at its source, it is suggested, by Jesse's desire to live out the biblical succession of patriarchs and their sons. In his pursuit of this terrible dream, Jesse drives his delicate wife to exhaustion, and at the birth of Louise, she dies. As a girl-child, Louise can never fit into Jesse's story. Substituting for any more intimate human bond, his inner narrative has no place for a girl despite her bothersome presence in his outer life. Nor can she look to her mother for the tenderness she can never receive from her father. At her very birth, the child was sacrificed to her father's destructive story.

Winesburg, Ohio is full of storytellers of different sorts. Its opening and closing stories present the most formal sort: professional writers, artists of the word. The prefacing chapter, "The Book of the Grotesque," thus depicts an old writer composing a book out of the many "grotesque" characters who populate his memory. The concluding story "Departure," a mirror-image of the opening tale seen across time, tracks the young reporter George Willard as he leaves Winesburg to become a writer.

The old writer, lying in his bed, watches "a long procession of figures" pass through his mind, while on the train taking him to the big city, George consigns his life in Winesburg to "a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood." Though Anderson does not explicitly identify the youth and the old man, he does suggest that George may be destined to become like the old writer, while the old man seems to account for his "book of the grotesque" by including a story like "Departure," in which a younger version of himself gets free of the town that gave him his stock of memories.

Both the old writer and young George picture their life as a broad interior tableau, a novel-like prospect of the mind that differs greatly from the damaged braggarts, compulsive confessors, and tongue-tied sputterers of their old town. Their sort of storytelling is uniquely whole, able to encompass all the other forms, although it never reduces the other storytellers to mere puppets of their literary design

Of the figures of the town, Doctor Reefy in "Paper Pills" and Doctor Parcival in "The Philosopher" together offer a distorted mirror-image of these two successful writers. Reefy is a writer, but only of scraps and fragments. His words congeal into unreadable wads, rather than coalescing into an artistic whole. Parcival is also a writer, but a debilitated one. The doctor claims to have come Winesburg to write a book, and George visits him to listen to the doctor read from his manuscript. Anderson, however, clearly suggests that the doctor's book will never be completed. He is too much the traditional storyteller to limit his book to a rounded, novel-like design:

The tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere. Sometimes the boy thought they must all be inventions, a pack of lies. And then again he was convinced that they contained the very essence of truth.

Moreover, even the doctor's exchange of stories with George is marked by an ambiguity. When he reads to George from his manuscript, their relation is that of author to reader; at the same time, however, the author and reader sit face-to-face, an overlay from the older relation of storyteller to listener. In this ambiguity, Anderson subtly suggests the grounds of the doctor's failure as a writer. He has not made the break from the already obsolete world of Winesburg into the modern urban life of the city, the precondition of being a "real" writer. The writer must accept the tragic distance between the author and his anonymous readers, a distance spanned only by a silent book. One does not come to Winesburg to become a writer, one escapes from it. The doctor headed the wrong way on the train, and his book will never be written. He is doomed to be, at best, a storyteller in a town that no longer believes in stories.

Opposed to the synthetic vision of the old man and George and distinct from the failed doctor-writers are such town figures Joe Welling in "A Man of Ideas," Reverend Curtis Hartman in "The Strength of God," and Tom Foster in "Drink." These characters, unlike all the writers, are bound to speech. Yet each of the three founders as storyteller when he tries to capture his inner, personal experience in communicable form. Though Joe Welling tries to use narratives to illustrate his ideas, the churning motor of his overactive brain makes futile his attempt to give them narrative order. The result is stories that skirt the edge of sense, leaving his listeners baffled and dazed:

Suppose this—suppose all of the wheat, the corn, the oats, the peas, the potatoes, were all by some miracle swept away.… There is a high fence built all around us. We'll suppose that. No one can get over the fence and all the fruits of the earth are destroyed, nothing left but these wild things, these grasses. Would we be done for?

The Reverend, similarly, bursts in one night on George to announce that he has seen God in the naked body of the schoolteacher. The reader, filled in by Anderson's narrator about the background to this strange declaration, understands it as meaningful; George, however, lacking all context, takes it as nonsense if not insanity. Tom Foster, finally, does manage to tell a story about his (imagined) love-making to Helen White, but he fails to convey to George that it is a fantasy, a metaphor seized upon to capture his inner experience of being drunk for the first time. George, who has seen Helen that same night, becomes angry, misunderstanding Tom's flight of fancy as a slur on Helen's good character.

One final type of storytelling demands special mention: the story not told. This "negative storytelling," implying the existence of a story while refusing to tell it, is characteristic of the loneliest and most disappointed figures of the town: Wing Biddlebaum in "Hands," Alice Hindman in "Adventure," Seth Richmond in "The Thinker," and Elmer Cowley in "'Queer'."

Seth Richmond reveals that his refusal of words is not simply a lack of something to say, but a rejection of contact with those who know how to use words superficially, with the community bound by stories. His shortcoming points beyond itself toward an unconventional and more genuine form of community—akin to the silent understanding achieved by George and Helen in the late story "Sophistication." Explaining to himself his failure to express his love to Helen White, Seth concludes, "She'll be embarrassed and feel strange when I'm around.… When it comes to loving someone, it won't never be me. It'll be someone else—some fool—someone who talks a lot—someone like that George Willard."

Wing Biddlebaum, whose all-encompassing tenderness earned him the fear and hatred of the Pennsylvania town from which he fled, a community that saw perversion in a love that went beyond its narrow bounds, likewise keeps his story to himself. In all these cases of withheld storytelling, however, Anderson's narrator, implicitly a professional writer like the old man or George, steps in to allow their silence to have its word, to take its place among the stories actually pronounced.

Storytelling in Winesburg is not simply a formal or generic issue, a choice Anderson made before a stack of paper about whether to tell little stories about many characters or one big story about a few characters. The generic uncertainty of the work—story collection or novel?—was not the result of indecision or literary incompetence, but rather the complex outcome of Anderson's concern with the crisis of storytelling itself.

Storytelling is an invisible actor throughout the book. A character's telling a story or holding it back can itself be the crucial "plot" event in a given chapter. More than outward incident or even psychological detail, the different forms and rhythms of storytelling are the reader's main clues to the book's inner design, the primary facts calling for further thought and explanation.

Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Sally Adair Rigsby

In the following excerpt, Rigsby argues that Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio is concerned with the meaning of the feminine and the "relationships between the men and women of Winesburg."

The meaning Sherwood Anderson gives to the characters of women and to the qualities of the feminine is an important source of unity in Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson identifies the feminine with a pervasive presence of a fragile, hidden "something" that corresponds both to the lost potential of each of the grotesques and to the secret knowledge that each story is structured to reveal. The themes most frequently identified as the unifying forces of Winesburg, Ohio, the failure of communication and the development of the artist, are closely related to Anderson's focus on the meaning of the feminine. In Winesburg, Ohio communication is blocked because of the devaluation of the feminine qualities of vulnerability and tenderness even though the artist's creativity springs from deep feelings of vitality which Anderson associates with the feminine.

Through one of Enoch Robinson's paintings in "Loneliness," Anderson creates an image that reveals his vision of a woman's condition in Winesburg and of her potential power. The painting is of a man driving down a road to Winesburg. The look on the man's face indicates that he is vaguely aware of "something hidden" behind "a clump of elders" beside the road. Enoch longs for his critics to see this hidden subject, an essence so beautiful and precious that it could not be rendered directly:

"It's a woman and, oh, she is lovely! She is hurt and is suffering but she makes no sound. Don't you see how it is? She lies quite still, white and still, and the beauty comes out from her and spreads over everything. It is in the sky back there and all around everywhere. I didn't try to paint the woman, of course. She is too beautiful to be painted."

Enoch's painting portrays precisely the condition of the female characters who inhabit Winesburg. The women are "invisible" because their real identities are eclipsed by their social roles. The relationships between the men and women of Winesburg are corrupted and uncreative, for their acceptance of conventional sexual roles prevents them from experiencing the genuine communication that comes when relationships are equal and reciprocal. The neediness, frustration, and failure that encompass the lives of Louise Bentley, Alice Hindman, Elizabeth Willard, and Kate Swift are the result of the discrepancy between their own capacity for intimacy, affection, and creativity and the inability of others, especially the men in their lives, to "see" or to relate to who they really are. In Enoch's painting, as in Anderson's stories, the beauty and suffering of woman become visible only through art that brings to a level of conscious awareness what is unrecognized by conventional society.

It is in his characterization of Louise Bentley that Anderson shows best the suffering of women that results from the devaluation of feminine needs and aspirations. Louise is completely rejected by her father because, as a female, she is an unacceptable heir. She is ignored and unloved as a child, and her vulnerability is heightened by her instinct to value relationships intensely. As a young girl, Louise has a remarkably intelligent and mature vision of what is necessary for human intimacy. She imagines that Winesburg is a place where relationships are natural, spontaneous, and reciprocal: "… Men and women must live happily and freely, giving and taking friendship and affection as one takes the feel of a wind on the cheek." Louise turns to John Hardy in search of a friend who will understand her dream. She seeks from her husband an intimate exchange of feelings and thoughts. Hardy seems kind and patient; however, his vision of Louise's humanity is limited to his own very inadequate concept of "wife".…

To Hardy, Louise is a sexual object whose human voice he suppresses by kisses which are not a mark of affection but an unconscious means of ignoring and belittling his wife's desperate effort to be her deepest self. Louise's complete defeat in the denial of her personhood by her father and her husband is expressed in her rejection of her child: " 'It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway.… Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it.'" Anderson's point is that in her surrender to marriage Louise surrenders all hope that her gift for friendship and affection will be realized.

Through the story of Alice Hindman, Anderson shows how the conventional sexual morality of Winesburg works against the fulfillment of women's needs. Alice is clearly morally superior to her lover, Ned Currie, and is capable of a much finer quality of relationship than he is. Just as Ned is contemplating inviting her to become his mistress, Alice proposes that she go to the city to live and work with him until they are sufficiently established to marry. Unable to comprehend the spirit of independence and equality Alice envisions, Ned demands that she wait for him in Winesburg, forcing her into a passive dependency which denies her the sustained relationship she needs. Their brief sexual intimacy is so sacred to Alice that she feels bound to Ned in a spiritual marriage even when years of waiting prove he has abandoned her. Despite her economic and legal independence, Alice Hindman is as much imprisoned by marriage as Louise Bentley is, for she has no understanding of Anderson's concept of "the growing modern idea of a woman's owning herself and giving and taking for her own ends in life."

The tragic loss which characterizes the lives of Louise Bentley and Alice Hindman and the accompanying shriveling of their sexuality and their capacity for affection suggest that Anderson regarded the failure to find fulfillment in love as a crucial issue of female identity. The natural, reciprocal relationships which Louise Bentley and Alice Hindman envision are a reasonable expectation; however, Anderson shows that the patriarchal marriages of Winesburg preclude the possibility of achieving the intimacy of equal relationships. When they are not related to as persons, and no emotional or spiritual dimension emerges in the marriage relationship, all possibility for sexual satisfaction is completely lost to the women. The marriages of Louise Bentley and Elizabeth Willard are in no sense real to them except as a legal duty. Furthermore, the social pressure to limit feelings of intimacy to monogamous marriage denies the women of Winesburg any legitimate way of establishing the kind of relationships they need. When women are subordinates, the institution of marriage becomes a social means of controlling their natural instincts for love and self-actualization.…

Once the theme of the suffering of women is identified, it becomes obvious that an emphasis on the crippled feminine dimension of life permeates Winesburg, Ohio. The image of Elizabeth Willard, "tall and gaunt" with her face "marked with smallpox scars," is repeated in the wounded bodies of other overworked and suffering women who hover in the background: Dr. Parcival's mother with her "red, sad-looking eyes," Joe Welling's mother, "a grey, silent woman with a peculiar ashy complexion," Tom Foster's grandmother whose worn hands look like "the dried stems of an old creeping vine." The general abuse of women is captured most vividly in "Paper Pills" when a young girl is so frightened of the lust of her suitor that she dreams "he had bitten into her body and that his jaws were dripping."…

Through the character of Elizabeth Willard, Anderson shows that the urge for creative self-expression is an extension of the basic feminine instinct for intimacy. Restless and energetic, Elizabeth dreams of becoming an actress in a big city. Her fantasy is a symbolic expression of her need to develop the full range of her personality and to achieve the artistic expression that would bring her into intimate communion with the world. Like Louise Bentley and Alice Hindman, Elizabeth's openness to life makes her open to sexual relationships. Her lovers, the traveling men who stay in her father's hotel, are her only means of touching the larger and more vital life of the cities. When she turns to marriage as the conventional solution to her restlessness, Elizabeth quickly discovers that the "secret something" growing within her is killed by her insensitive husband. Unable to extend the boundaries of her life, Elizabeth creates dramatic roles for herself in an effort to be the person she can only vaguely imagine. In "Mother," when she is determined to protect the creativity of her son from her husband's materialistic ambitions, Elizabeth uses theatrical make-up to transform herself into the powerful woman who can kill the "evil voice" of Tom Willard.

Just as Elizabeth Willard imagines, women can transform themselves through their own creative powers. In fact, Anderson suggests that the creativity of the feminine is such an energized force in these sensitive women that a moment of crisis can release deep feelings that have been suppressed for years. In these "adventures," the bodies of the women are transformed to reveal their hidden power. When Louise Bentley fears her son is lost, all of her capacities for motherly care flow out to embrace him. To David Hardy, the voice of his mother is "like rain falling on trees," and her face becomes "the most peaceful and lovely thing he had ever seen." In Alice Hindman's "adventure," the rain releases her suppressed spontaneity; the imagery of falling rain and of leaping and running reveals the potential of Alice's sexual passion and creative vitality. Kate Swift's scarred face is transformed when she walks the winter streets of Winesburg: "… Her features were as the features of a tiny goddess on a pedestal in a garden in the dim light of a summer evening." Elizabeth Willard's wild drive into the country, which she describes to Dr. Reefy in "Death," expresses the mounting tension of her desire to transcend the limitations of her life. The black clouds, the green trees, and the falling rain (symbols of the natural, reproductive processes of the earth) represent the vital, spontaneous, and creative life Elizabeth is seeking but cannot quite comprehend.

The language that describes these "adventures" links the moments of feminine self-actualization to the rich beauty of nature and to the spiritual transformation associated with creative inspiration and mystical religion. The "something" which Elizabeth Willard is seeking is a more humane life in which her sexuality, her need for intimacy, her creativity, and her spirituality, can be fully realized, harmonized, and expressed: a life in which the wholeness of her selfhood might be recognized and appreciated by some other human being. Years later, in her encounter with Dr. Reefy, Elizabeth glimpses momentarily the magnitude and significance of the emotions she has experienced. In the excitement of describing her "adventure" to her friend, she transforms herself into the gifted actress who can miraculously "project herself out of the husk" of an old, tired body into the image of "a lovely and innocent girl." Dr. Reefy is entranced by the beauty and rhythm of Elizabeth's body, the symbolic expression of her hidden capacity to move with life and to express her creative vitality. This moment of communion in "Death" is the experience of liberating, intimate understanding which all of the Winesburg characters are seeking. The intimacy is achieved because Dr. Reefy possesses the sensitivity and wisdom that enable him to see and appreciate the hidden identity of a woman: "'You dear! You lovely dear! Oh you lovely dear!'" When the moment is broken by their fear of an intruder, Elizabeth turns to death as the only lover who can receive her full identity.

Elizabeth Willard hopes that her creative drives will be expressed through her son; however, not until her death does George acquire the quality of feeling necessary for the artist. The progress of his development toward that goal is revealed by the nature of his relationships with women. Early in Winesburg, Ohio in "Nobody Knows," George takes advantage of the subordinate position of Louise Trunnion, impersonally using her for sexual adventure. Proud, satisfied, and egotistical, George divorces himself completely from any possible affiliation with Louise, for he sees women only as objects to be used to expand his own sense of personal power. In "The Thinker," a story at the midpoint of the collection, George brags that he plans to fall in love with Helen White to get material for a story. Yet, beneath his nonchalance there is the hint of a deeper self in George which gradually emerges through a series of encounters with Kate Swift, Belle Carpenter, his mother, and Helen White.

Kate Swift is eager to share with George her love of art and her understanding of life. However, George understands Kate's earnest seriousness as evidence that she is in love with him, and his mind becomes filled with "lustful thoughts" about her. Thus, in "Teacher," when Kate comes to him ablaze with the intensity of her desire "to open the door of life," his sexual desire kindles her own, and she loses touch with the intellectual, spiritual, and creative potentials of her emotion. At last, however, George begins to perceive that there is something more to be communicated between men and women than physical encounter; he knows that he is missing something important that Kate Swift is trying to tell him.

Gradually his boyish superficiality fades, and in "An Awakening" George consciously begins his search for those truths that will give order and meaning to his life. However, the moment the thrill of a new insight comes to him, he is eager to share it with a woman, not in order to enrich a relationship but to have the pleasure of releasing physically his new surge of energy. George's spiritual experience merely heightens his grandiose egocentricity, and he plans to use his new self-confidence to win sexual mastery over a potent and challenging woman. As George walks with Belle Carpenter, unaware that they are pursued by her lover, he becomes "half drunk with the sense of masculine power." However, when he is duped by the older couple, George's sudden loss of power becomes precisely the reversal of fortunes his character needs.

Although the Winesburg stories are loosely connected and do not generally follow any logical sequence, the stories that show George Willard's growing understanding of the meaning of the feminine do progress sequentially. In the last third of the collection, George's increasing sensitivity to women is extended through his initiation into suffering. In "An Awakening" George is tricked and humiliated; in the following story, "Queer," he is knocked "half unconscious" by the force of Elmer Cowley's undirected efforts to express himself. In "Drink" George tries to defend Helen White's good name from Tom Foster's drunken fantasies but, instead, becomes deeply moved by the young man's sincere effort to understand and experience suffering. The story is a humorous, indirect, and understated preparation for "Death.…"

The sensitivity that comes to George as a result of his mother's death and his vision of her spiritual beauty prepare him for his experience with Helen White in "Sophistication." "Sophistication" is a very slight story, actually a denouement of the two climactic moments in "Death " when Elizabeth Willard's true identity is recognized. However, the story is profoundly meaningful when it is read with an awareness of the thematic significance of Anderson's portrayal of the devaluation of the feminine throughout Winesburg, Ohio. At the end of the story Anderson describes the satisfaction Helen White and George Willard have achieved through their relationship:

For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.

The tone and placement of this passage make it clearly a key thematic statement; yet, there is very little clarity in the passage itself or even in the story about exactly what the "thing" is that Helen and George have experienced. The various interpretations of the passage which focus on the theme of communication are accurate enough, but the episode itself as well as Anderson's emphasis on "the mature life of men and women" certainly indicate that the focus of his concern is not just human relationships generally but the special problems of communication between men and women. It is against the background of Anderson's presentation throughout Winesburg, Ohio of the suffering of women and their unfulfilled relationships with men that the encounter of these two young people can best be appreciated.

The positive nature of the experience which George and Helen share is a product of their mutual treasuring of those tender, vital feelings that Anderson associates with the feminine. Both are aware of a fragile, new self that is alive in each of them; their silent communion gives these sensitive feelings the nurturing that is needed. Despite their youth and inexperience, they momentarily share a relationship that is trusting and reciprocal, for in George and Helen, Anderson creates characters who are free of sexual role expectations. It is appropriate that Helen and George should recapture the joyful, natural spirit of childhood when males and females meet in relationships that are equal. Their release of emotions in spontaneous playfulness is integrated with their mature, brooding reflection on the transience of life. George's awareness of the reality of death and of his own finitude is his "sophistication," but he has also learned that he needs to share this new knowledge with a woman, for "he believes that a woman will be gentle, that she will understand." His acceptance of Helen as a spiritual mediator indicates that George's masculinity is balanced by the feminine qualities of tenderness and gentleness, an integration that Anderson suggests is necessary for the artist.

The conclusion of "Sophistication" suggests that Winesburg, Ohio is intended to be a prophetic statement about the quality of the relationships of men and women in the modern world. That prophetic tone is even more direct in "Tandy," a story that seems to have been created primarily as an invocation of the woman of the future. The drunken man who defines the meaning of Tandy expresses the view of the feminine that pervades Winesburg, Ohio:

"There is a woman coming.… Perhaps of all men I alone understand.… I know about her struggles and her defeats. It is because of her defeats that she is to me the lovely one. Out of her defeats has been born a new quality in woman.… It is the quality of being strong to be loved.… Be brave enough to dare to be loved. Be something more than man or woman. Be Tandy."

The suffering of women, Anderson argues, will lead to the evolution of a new kind of woman who will insist that sexual roles be transcended and that she be loved as a human being, an event that Anderson suggests is as much needed by men as it is by women.…

Throughout Winesburg, Ohio Anderson associates the feminine with a quality of feeling that is delicate and intangible; it is a tender nuance, a transient moment of intimacy, a creative, secret something growing within the self, a slight quiver of insight that seems to hold great promise. Anderson's mode of presentation of the feminine is as appropriate as the invisibility of the woman in Enoch Robinson's painting, for Winesburg, Ohio presents a microcosm of the modern world in which the potential of the feminine has not yet been realized.

Source: Sally Adair Rigsby, "The Feminine in Winesburg, Ohio," in Studies in American Fiction. Vol. 9, No. 2, autumn, 1981, pp. 233–44.

George D. Murphy

In the following essay, Murphy categorizes characters according to their "responses to sexual emotion" and follows this theme throughout the entire novel.

One of the bits of learning which students of modern literature treasure up against their examinations is the notion that Sherwood Anderson was an American equivalent of D. H. Lawrence.… Indeed, Irving Howe, the critic who has been most insistent upon Anderson's debt to Lawrence, has pointed out that even Anderson's most "sex-centered" work reveals that "for the man who wrote those novels sex was a source of deep anxiety."

Nowhere is the weight and tenor of the evidence for this anxiety quite so impressive as in Winesburg, Ohio, the early work on which Anderson's greatly depleted reputation now almost entirely depends. In that work he displays an extremely hesitant, almost puritanical attitude toward physical sexuality which seems to have been considerably more Platonic than Lawrencian or Freudian in its complexion. In fact, most of the major characters in Winesburg "may be seen as illustrating this markedly cautious attitude toward sex on the part of their creator, and … [that] attitude exerts a controlling influence upon the form and theme of the book.…"

The majority of Winesburg's grotesques can be classified into four distinct types on the basis of their responses to sexual emotion: the first type consists of those who are repelled by their sexual feelings and desperately seek to avoid the fact of sex altogether. The second is devoted to those who complacently accept sex and cannot see beyond it, while the third group embraces those who, though they wistfully apprehend a state of feeling which transcends the merely sexual, are compelled by circumstance to settle for sex. Finally, there is that very important group of initiates who perceive the role of sexuality in Anderson's own terms and experience it as a prelude—a material reflection of a kind of Platonic perfection of the soul.

Familiar examples of the first type—the characters whose grotesqueness derives from their inability to accept the gross fact of sex—are Wash Williams ("Respectability"), the telegrapher who went berserk when brusquely confronted with his naked wife, and Enoch Robinson ("Loneliness"), the childlike, schizoid artist who, to his pain, kept "bumping against things, against actualities like money and sex and opinion" and whose precious fantasy life was destroyed by contact with an actual woman. Another of this company is Wings Biddlebaum ("Hands"), the inspired teacher whose hands were vital to his communication and who had been accused of homosexuality on the basis of the fantasies of a half-witted student. Wings is very often cited as a victim of the low-brow's intolerance of the life of the spirit, but his real tragedy seems to me to lie in his own demoralizing recognition of the essential truth of the embattled farmers' charges. For Wings is of the homosexual persuasion, or, as Anderson puts it, "In their feelings for the boys under their charge such men are not unlike the finer sort of women in their love of men."…

Very few of the grotesques in Winesburg fall into [the] second classification—that is, the frankly and uncomplicatedly sexual. One of them, however, is Will Henderson, the newspaper owner and George Willard's employer, who is, as Anderson styles him, "a sensualist," and who, at the beginning of "The Philosopher," figures in as explicit a bit of moral allegory as ever Hawthorne created: one of Will's cronies is the bartender Tom Willy, whose hands are blotched by crimson birthmarks, and, as he and the newspaper owner talked of womanizing, "he grew more and more excited" and the red of his fingers deepened. "It was as though the hands had been dipped in blood that had dried and faded." This scene, which is so evocative of bloody, violent sexuality, is juxtaposed with George Willard's philosophical conversations with Parcival. Art Wilson, the butcher's son of "Awakening," is another of the sensualists whose chief use is to be employed in one of these contrapuntal tableaux, for as he sits in the pool room, spitting and talking of whores, George Willard is portrayed as wandering through the moonlit night entertaining a vision of cosmic love and order. Belle Carpenter and Ed Handby are a pair of full sublunary lovers who figure in the same story. Their love is depicted as restricted to the sensual order, condemned to sexuality for its expression, and, when George Willard unwittingly intrudes into their relationship, to violence.

Throughout Winesburg Anderson seems to have been establishing a connection between sexual ardor and violence. Certainly Dr. Reefy's young wife ("Paper Pills") made that connection subconsciously when, before her marriage, she was haunted by a nightmare in which one of her suitors "had bitten into her body and … his jaws were dripping." She married Dr. Reefy—who figures as a kind of wise mystical guru to his young wife and to Elizabeth Willard—after she watched him pull a tooth from a patient, thereby exorcising, or, if you will, symbolically castrating, the ravenous sexual monster of her dreams.

George Willard's mother, Elizabeth, is the most pathetic representative of the third category of grotesques to be discovered in Winesburg. These are the sexually injured and insulted, those who, though they are tantalizingly aware of the possibility of a more satisfying mode of communication, confuse it at a critical time in their lives with sexuality and are condemned to an existence of dreary frustration as a consequence. In her youth George's mother had been visited by a great restlessness and a yearning for "some big definite movement to her life," and had sought relief in the specious glamour of sex with the travelling men who frequented her father's hotel and with her husband-to-be, Tom Willard. In sexuality "she felt for a time released and happy," but the satisfaction was ephemeral and, when we first encounter her in "Mother," she is broken and despondent, hoping only that her son will somehow manage to achieve the freedom of expression that she had once glimpsed.…

[These] three categories of grotesques may be regarded as constituting a paradigm of the clue to the thematic unity of Winesburg which Anderson himself supplied in the gnomic "Book of the Grotesque" with which he prefaced the volume. There he put it forward that spiritual deformity must result from the kind of obsessive rigidity which selects only one "truth" from the multitude which make up reality. The Wash Williamses of the world can only comprehend the "truth" that sex can be gross, violent and repulsive. The Will Hendersons can only see the "truth" that sex is a powerful, absorbing and attractive force, while the Elizabeth Willards … dimly descry another "truth" about life but, to their cost, confuse it with sex. Although the Elizabeth Willards come close, none of these characters appreciates the point that Anderson seemed to be trying to establish, and that is that there can be many "truths" about sex, just as there can be many "truths" about life, and that the most comprehensive of these truths is that while sex can be gross, violent, and degrading, it can, when sublimated, be tremendously inspiring, lifting the personality into a higher stage of consciousness.

The Winesburg characters who attain to this last view of sexuality fall into the fourth and most thematically significant category… and, on the internal evidence, Anderson appears to have regarded them as constituting a sort of spiritual elite. They are Love's Elect, those who have approached the final stages of that mystical mode of comnmunication Anderson so highly prized. Their company numbers Dr. Reefy, the Reverend Curtis Hartman ("The Strength of God"), Kate Swift ("The Teacher"), Tom Foster ("Drink"), and George Willard. In every case they are presented as being in the grip of a strong physical passion which, for one reason or another, they do not consummate. Rather, they sublimate their desire and, by avoiding the trap of a merely sensual mode of communication, are admitted to a plane of consciousness where communication operates in terms of an imaginative, mystical sympathy. These folk, at least, manage to grasp two of the paradoxical truths which Anderson sets forth in "The Book of the Grotesque"—"the truth of virginity and the truth of passion."

"You must not try to make love definite," says Dr. Reefy to Elizabeth Willard. He had loved her chastely for years, and he goes on to say, "If you try to be definite and sure about it … the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly.…" Gentle Tom Foster of "Drink" had had an early experience of the more definite and violent aspects of love as a youngster in Cincinnati and had determined "that he would put sex altogether out of his own life." But he was human and young, and one spring he fell in love with Helen White, the banker's daughter with whom all the youth of Winesburg dallied in their fantasies. He resolved his emotional dilemma in a most peculiar and deliberate way: he neither repressed nor physically indulged his emotion, but allowed himself to "think of Helen White whenever her figure came into his mind and only concerned himself with the manner of his thoughts." The manner of his thoughts took a mystical turn, and one night, with the aid of a little alcohol, he conceived of her in terms of images of flame and wind. It was all over in one night, and, as Anderson pointedly remarks, "no one in Winesburg was any the worse for Tom's outbreak." And Tom himself was all the better for his expansion of consciousness, for, as he said to George Willard later, "I want to learn things, you see. That's why I did it."

The Reverend Curtis Hartman ("The Strength of God") had felt his life become stale and empty; he had come to dread delivering his weekly sermon and "dreamed of the day when a strong sweet new current of power would come like a great wind into his voice and his soul and the people would tremble before the spirit of God made manifest in him." Instead he is visited by an awesome lust for the teacher Kate Swift. In a bit of strenuous allegory, Anderson depicts him as seeing her in her bedroom through a chink in the stained-glass window of his church. Night after night he watched her, racked by his conscience, yet unable to repress his passion. He had almost determined to throw over his cure of souls and become a "creature of carnal lusts," declaring that man "has no right to forget he is an animal," when he noticed that Kate, who is now naked, has begun to weep and to pray. Instantly his lust is quite sublimated away, and his desire for her as a woman is replaced by a sympathy and concern for her as a person. As he tells the baffled George Willard later that night, "After ten years in this town, God has manifested himself to me in the body of a woman.…"

Earlier on the same night that the Reverend Hartman was to undergo his revelation, Kate, who was "the most eagerly passionate soul" among the inhabitants of Winesburg, sets out in search of George Willard, an ex-pupil in whom "she had recognized the spark of genius." On another occasion she had been filled with a "passionate desire to have him understand the import of life," and their interview had closed with a kiss from which she broke away, declaring angrily that "it will be ten years before you begin to understand what I mean when I talk to you." But on this fateful evening she became again possessed by the impulse to communicate with George, to try again "to open the door of life" for the boy whose potential for communication she had divined, and once again the attempted moment of epiphany was obscured by sexual excitement. "So strong was her passion that it became something physical," and she allowed George to take her into his arms, only to break away, leaving him alone, confused and "swearing furiously." It is Kate's frustration at being unable to communicate with George which precipitates the moment of despair in her bedroom. And, ironically, it is the sight of that despair that brings about the dramatic enlargement of the Reverend Hartman's understanding of humanity. George Willard, however, had managed to confuse the Reverend's exaltation with madness and Kate's compassionate concern with garden-variety lubricity, and he goes to bed that night mattering, "I have missed something." He has indeed something, but he will not have to wait ten years until he begins to understand what it is.

Several years ago, Edwin Fussell [in "Winesburg, Ohio: Art and Isolation," Modern Fiction Studies, VI (summer, 1960), pp. 106–14] addressed himself to the popular critical exercise of attempting to isolate the unifying elements which make Winesburg something more than a series of loosely articulated short stories. Wondering whether the simple themes of "loneliness and isolation" were really enough to account for the work's cumulative effect, Fussell argued persuasively that the real unity of the work is not to be found among the grotesques themselves, but rather in their relation to George Willard. Winesburg, he felt, is in the tradition of the Bildungsroman, and in it we may observe at work the theme of George Willard's maturation as an artist. My reading of Winesburg has brought it home to me that Fussell is essentially correct in his appreciation of the fact that George Willard's development as an artist is central to the meaning of the work, but it has also suggested that the Bildungsroman view of Winesburg may be enlarged to include the complementary theme of George's development from a merely passionate, dull sublunary lover to the stage of becoming an initiate of the more Platonic aspects of human love. At the book's end George too seems to have grasped the simultaneous and arcane truths of virginity and passion.

In the early episode called "Nobody Knows," we observe George Willard's conduct of his first amorous affair in concert with the obliging Louise Trunnion. His approach to Louise is marked by adolescent awe and shy terror, but, once he has had her, he comports himself like any other coarse, rustic roaring-boy, desiring to boast of his conquest while at the same time meanly assuring himself that "she hasn't got anything on me." The incident is entirely physical and egotistical with none of the expansion of consciousness and the quality of communion which Anderson so valued. A little later in the book—in the twin episodes of "The Strength of God" and "The Teacher"—we see that George still takes a most mundane view of the nature of human passion as he utterly fails to appreciate the quality of the emotions animating the Reverend Hartman and Kate Swift. It is, in fact, not until we reach the adventure which is aptly called "An Awakening" that we see any notable tendency in George to view love on any but the most basic terms. Here we discover George in the toils of a frustrated physical passion for Belle Carpenter which becomes converted into a mystical yearning for self-expression of a more abstract nature than the merely sexual. Some little time after this, George's encounter with the gentle, mystical Tom Foster is described in "Drink," and the stage is set for George's initiation into the company of Love's Elect in "Death" and "Sophistication."

A remarkable experience overtakes George at the death-bed of his mother. He has come there unwillingly, for he has had to break an appointment with Helen White to do so and, even as he stands by his mother's corpse, he is preoccupied by persistent sexual fantasies: "He closed his eyes and imagined that the red young lips of Helen White touched his own lips." So absorbing were these imaginings that his "body trembled" and "his hands shook," and then, as Anderson simply puts it, "something happened." George became convinced that it was not the corpse of his mother before him, but rather the "unspeakably lovely" body of a young and graceful living girl. Running out of the room, and "urged by some impulse outside himself," George exclaimed, "The dear, the dear, oh the lovely dear," thereby unconsciously echoing the words uttered years before by Dr. Reefy when, for a moment, he held the living Elizabeth Willard in his arms.

Although the symbolism here cannot be subjected to any very precise analysis in terms of conventional discourse, I believe that the conversion of George's sexual impulses into a vision of his mother as a young and desirable girl is more than simply Oedipal, and emphasizes instead the subtle connection which Anderson discerned between eros and agapé—between a specific, egocentric sexual desire and a generalized love and sympathy for humanity.

In any event, George's attitude toward Helen White has changed considerably in "Sophistication," Winesburg's penultimate episode. Here Anderson shows us George Willard as he and Helen walk out together one evening to the deserted fair ground. This is a tender interlude, and he and Helen hold hands and kiss, but Anderson takes especial care to indicate that the nature of their relationship is now more than simply sexual, and indeed, that the physical aspect of love would constitute a profanation of the feeling that had taken hold of them, the feeling that "makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible." There is a sense of communion between them, but there is also the sad knowledge of the essential and inviolate loneliness that must tinge all mature affection. In describing the state of George's mind as this bittersweet emotion replaces his earlier desire, Anderson employs an almost Manichaean imagery: "In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against … the more sophisticated thing [that] had possession of George Willard."

Standing in the deserted fairground, George felt a "reverence for Helen. He wanted to love and to be loved by her but he did not want at the moment to be confused by her womanhood." On this note, one which is reminiscent of the arcane code of Courtly Love, George Willard may be said to have completed, in Anderson's terms, his novitiate in art, in life, and in love. An ardent candidate for experience, he has sublimated his passion and achieved, for the moment at least, the delicate equipoise between "the truth of virginity and the truth of passion."

Source: George D. Murphy, "The Theme of Sublimation in Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2, summer, 1967, pp. 237–46.


Sherwood Anderson, Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs, edited by Ray Lewis White, The University of North Carolina Press, 1942.

Sam Bluefarb, "George Willard: Death and Resurrection," in The Escape Motif in the American Novel: Mark Twain to Richard Wright, Ohio State University Press, 1972, pp. 42-58.

H. W. Boynton, "All Over The Lot," in The Bookman, Volume XLIX, No. 6, August, 1919, pp. 728-34.

Carl Bredahl, "'The Young Thing Within': Divided Narrative and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio," in TheMidwest Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, summer, 1986, pp. 422-37.

Malcolm Cowley, "An Introduction to Winesburg, Ohio," The Viking Press, 1960, pp. 1-15.

Waldo Frank, "Winesburg, Ohio After Twenty Years," in Story, Vol. XIX, No. 91, September-October, 1941, pp. 29-33.

James M. Mellard, "Narrative Forms in Winesburg, Ohio," in PMLS, Vol. 83, No. 5, October, 1968, pp. 1304-312.

"A Gutter Would Be Spoon River," in New York Sun, June 1, 1919, p. 3.

Tony Tanner, "Sherwood Anderson's Little Things," in The Reign of Wonder: Naivete and Reality in American Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 205-27.

Rebecca West, "Winesburg, Ohio," in New Statesman, Vol. XIX, No. 484, July 22, 1922, pp. 443-44.

For Further Study

David D. Anderson, "Moments of Insight" in Sherwood Anderson: An Introduction and Interpretation, Barnes and Noble, 1967, pp. 37-54.

Views Winesburg, Ohio as a "collection of short stories and sketches" and emphasizes Anderson's focus on problems of communication. Describes Anderson's narrative mode as "character-plotting," in which changes in the character's state are more important than outward incident.

Maxwell Anderson, "A Country Town," in Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson, edited by David D. Anderson, G. K. Hall & Co., 1981, pp. 32-4.

This review of Winesburg, Ohio, originally published in The New Republic in June of 1919, shows that at least some of the reviewers of the book's time "got" the ideas that Sherwood Anderson was presenting.

Sherwood Anderson, The Writer at His Craft, edited by Jack Salzman, David D. Anderson, and Kichinosuke Ohashi, Paul P. Appel Publisher, 1979.

A collection of Anderson's minor texts, including reviews, tributes to other writers, travel sketches, and notes on writing. A good source of background to Anderson's writing career.

Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller," in Illuminations, edited by Harry Zohn, Schocken, 1968, pp. 83-109.

A brilliant essay, focused on the 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov. Benjamin establishes important distinctions between novels and storytelling in their handling of time, their relation to readers, the nature of experience, and the place of death. He sees in Leskov the remnants of a storytelling culture about to disappear definitively with industrialization and the rise of information.

Peter Brooks, "The Storyteller," in Psychoanalysis and Storytelling, Blackwell, 1994, pp. 76-103.

Though not specifically about Anderson, Brooks provides ways of thinking about the meaning of storytelling in Winesburg, Ohio.

Irving Howe, "The Book of the Grotesque," in Sherwood Anderson, William Sloane Associates, 1951, pp. 91-109.

Interprets Anderson's use of the grotesque as ethically motivated. The grotesques are those who have sought the truth and been misled; grotesqueness is not merely deformity, but also the trace of deeper feeling that has been damaged or estranged.

Clarence Lindsay, "The Community in Winesburg, Ohio: The Rhetoric of Selfhood," in Midamerica, No. 15, 1988, pp. 39-47.

Challenges "romantic" readings of Anderson's characters that pit the good individual against the bad, narrow-minded community. Anderson uses subtle irony to unsettle this opposition, showing how characters use it rhetorically to justify isolating themselves and defining themselves as different.

William L. Phillips, "How Sherwood Anderson Wrote Winesburg, Ohio," in Winesburg, Ohio: Text and Criticism, edited by John H. Ferres, Penguin, 1996, pp. 267-90.

An important study, based on manuscripts discovered in the 1940s, of the genesis of Winesburg, Ohio. The manuscripts reveal that Anderson had a large-scale work in mind in composing the individual chapters and that the book versions of the chapters published separately in magazines were often closer to the original drafts.

David Stouck, "Anderson's Expressionist Art," in New Essays on Winesburg, Ohio, edited by John W. Crowley, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 27-51.

Discusses Anderson's connections with modernist painting and writing.

Wellford Dunaway Taylor, "Anderson and the Problem of Belonging," in Sherwood Anderson: Dimensions of His Literary Art, edited by David D. Anderson, Michigan State University Press, 1976, pp. 63-75.

Examines Anderson's status as an "outsider" in the world of literature, speculating on how that may have helped form the prevailing mood of Winesburg, Ohio.

Ray Lewis White, Winesburg, Ohio: An Exploration, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1990.

White is one of the foremost scholars on Anderson's works, having edited all three volumes of the author's autobiography and written numerous books and articles about him. This one explores three themes: "The Youth," "The Grotesques," and "The Town and the Time."