I’ve always been attracted to the works of the American Realist and Modernism periods. In fiction, that meant Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser, and moving into Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner, among others. In poetry, that meant Edgar Lee Masters, Sara Teadsale, Vachel Lindsay, and T.S. Eliot, among quite a few others.
This attraction likely relates to my middle school and high school English teachers, almost all of whom graduated from college in the 1940s and 1950s. They would have defined the Realist and early Modernism writers as the ones they were most influenced by, and they tended to wax eloquent on these particular writers and poets in particular. As a high school junior, taking American literature, I read Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Cather’s My Antonia, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and The Waste Land, and Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. It was a challenging year for all my subjects, but what I read in English was wonderful.
What I don’t recall reading at all was anything by Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), not even a short story. And yet Anderson, during the period itself, was considered a major figure in literature. He had a significant influence on both Hemingway and Faulkner, and especially Hemingway, who would eventually write an “anti-Anderson” novel to prove he had broken free and become his own writer.
I recently read Winesburg, Ohio and reviewed it over at Faith, Fiction, Friends. I knew little about it, other than it was a collection of connected short stories that had established Anderson as a significant writer. This edition has an introduction by the writer and literary critic Irving Howe, and it was Howe who helped me understand what had happened to Anderson and even perhaps why he was little mentioned by my English teachers.
What happened was that, in 1941, the year Anderson died, critic Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) wrote an essay that became hugely influential. It was an essay about Anderson and Winesburg, Ohio, and it dismissed the work as something less than great. Howe wrote that the Trilling essay relegated Anderson to something less than the first rank of American writers. It’s not a surprise that my teachers, in college during the period when Trilling’s essay was making its waves, might possibly have discounted Anderson in general and Winesburg, Ohio in particular and instead focused on more lauded writers.
The collection was published in 1919. As I read it, I was surprised by how contemporary it sounded. It’s a clean, simple prose, very straightforward and matter of fact. It’s also almost entirely devoid of dialogue. Its ease of reading is deceptive; you have to read carefully and closely to understand all of what’s going on in the stories.
The characters are all what Anderson called “grotesques,” what Flannery O’Connor in a later generation might have labeled “misfits.” In fact, I wondered if O’Connor must have read Winesburg, Ohio, just like Anderson himself must have read Spoon River Anthology, published four years earlier than Anderson’s collection. I could see how Anderson had influenced Faulkner, and how Hemingway adopted and adapted at least some of Anderson’s bare bones writing style.
The fictional Winesburg is loosely based on the small town of Clyde, Ohio, southeast of Toledo. The stories are all set in the late 1890s, or around the turn of the century, about the time Anderson enlisted in the army and fought in the Spanish-American War. It’s a town still experiencing the lingering effects of the American Civil War and the burgeoning influence of the Industrial Revolution. Many of the stories are about farmers and their family members, storekeepers, bankers, the newspaper reporter, and other community pillars. While the characters are generally drawn in an unflattering portrait, you do come to known them and even like them, flaws and all.
To this day, Clyde proudly proclaims itself as the Winesburg of Anderson’s stories. The author put the small town on the literary map, and the town never forgot it. I suspect the town also didn’t think much of Trilling’s assessment of its most famous son.
Top photograph: Sherwood Anderson in 1898, about the time in which Winesburg, Ohio, is set.