13 May 2008

24. Sherwood Anderson, WINESBURG, OHIO

If the residents of this small Midwestern town were alive 60 years later, we would know them from the work of B. Springsteen instead of S. Anderson. A man with a passion for teaching gets his dream job ripped away from him with one misinterpreted gesture; a minister loses his faith when he catches sight of a beautiful congregant through a window; a hired hand decides to give his friend real advice for once, only to chicken out at the point of speech. These are the residents of Winesburg and with one exception they are a sad, defeated lot. That one is George Willard, an 18-year-old who works for the Winesburg Eagle and who often hears or witnesses moments in the lives of these unhappy people, old and young, as told through Sherwood Anderson's short stories.

I had a hell of a time getting into this book. Maybe it's because I was reading it on Dailylit and thus getting its fragmented stories in further fragments, but I searched in vain for someone I knew to "explain" it to me -- to give me a reason (other than this Modern Library project) to continue with the book when I felt so confused by it.

Eventually, though, I hit upon my own method of appreciating Anderson's pitiable people: My seventh-grade geography teacher used to read us a Zen quote of the day (off one of those page-a-day calendars) and afterwards encourage us to let out a meditational, "Ahhh." Once I got the rhythm and the tone of Anderson's stories down, I felt like that after finishing each episode -- taking a moment to reflect, and then going on. Some of them I found tremendously poignant, while others just puzzled me, but the last five or six stories were extremely powerful.

Those, more than others, dealt with George's own romantic interest in the town and with the life of his mother, who in herself is a tragic figure. The third-to-last story is called "Death," but even without that parallel it would have reminded me of the ultimate story in James Joyce's DUBLINERS. Here's an example of the elegiac quality which captivated me so much in those last few pages, from a passage about George walking with a girl from the town near the fairgrounds:
There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified.

One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.
A Whole Lot Of Stuff About WINESBURG, OHIO
Progress of LNVSML: 46 read, 54 unread.

Next up on Dailylit and in LN VS. the Modern Library: #30, Ford Madox Ford's THE GOOD SOLDIER.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Oh, man. I'd totally forgotten about Mr. L's zen quote of the day.