(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
By Sherwood Anderson
Book #34 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Sherwood Anderson's 1919 Winesburg, Ohio was the very first of what we now think of as the modern "story cycle" -- not quite a novel, not quite a random collection of shorts, they are instead interrelated tales designed to be read as a group and in a certain order. As such, then, the book has no real plot to speak of, but is rather a collection of character sketches, a dark and piercing look at the residents of this small Midwestern town during the turn of the 20th century (when so many of these places converted from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial-based one), held together thematically through town reporter George Willard, who both knows everyone's secrets and has some secrets of his own. And in fact this is what you could call the entire book in general, a dark and piercing look at secrets, with the city of Winesburg turning out to be a real hotbed of despair -- there's nary a person there, it seems, who isn't some post-Civil-War sad sack whose spirit was crushed long ago, living desperate lives full of deceit and marked mainly by broken dreams and broken promises. But of course, this after all was written in the middle of World War One, not exactly the rosiest time ever for either the arts or society in general.
The argument for it being a classic:
Like so many other books published during the "Interregnum" of 1900 to 1920 (or the two decades between the end of Romanticism and the beginning of Modernism, marked by the death of Queen Victoria on one end and the conclusion of WWI on the other), the main argument for Winesburg, Ohio being a classic seems to be based not on the quality of the book itself but rather how influential it's been to generations after -- it was a huge self-professed inspiration, for example, among such early Modernists as John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, HP Lovecraft and others, one of the first books to teach these young artists that it was even possible to write smart, complex, dark books about crumbling rural America. Let's not forget, after all, that even though we mostly associate Ohio anymore with bland suburbs and the manufacturing North, until the Industrial Revolution this was actually mostly a farming state, and very Appalachian (i.e. hillbilly) in nature. Anderson very deliberately set Winesburg when he did so that he could look at the sociological transition that happened in much of the Midwest at that time, showcasing a kind of "noble ugliness" that existed in these environs and that still marks the theme of most academic story cycles to this day. Superlative in quality although only moderately successful in his own lifetime, this "writer's writer" proved to the generation after him that such deep, dark looks at such usually bland, drab subjects is not only appropriate but can be handily pulled off, essentially laying the blueprint for the Modernist movement as we know it.
The argument against:
But of course, his critics argue, don't forget that Anderson was in some ways a product of his time as well, and that Winesburg, Ohio suffers from some of the same problems seen in much of the "Genteel" literature that mostly made up the mainstream in these years -- it's a bit overwritten, a bit moralistic, and Anderson definitely had issues with women (after all, he was married four freaking times in real life). But mainly, his critics argue, it's simply not important enough to be considered a timeless classic that every person should read before they die; there's a reason that the people who were influenced by him have become household names while Anderson himself is more obscure these days than ever, and that's because he simply isn't as good a writer, a trailblazer to be sure but just not a person who outputted the best that literature has to offer. Although he should rightly be acknowledged and appreciated for the ways he changed the American Canon, say his critics, unfortunately Winesburg should not necessarily be considered within the Canon itself.
So first, let me confess how surprised I was at how dark and rural this book turned out to be, and how valid the argument is that we would not have people like Steinbeck or Sam Shepard in the first place without Anderson paving the way; but then this definitely brings up as well the question his critics raise, a question that's been tackled here many times already concerning books from the experimental "Interregnum" years, of whether the cutting-edge experiments in the arts that inspire the masterpieces that come after them deserve to be revered like masterpieces themselves. After all, Winesburg is almost comical sometimes in its pure glee over human misery, an uneven book that sometimes feels like a chore to get through, weaknesses in Modernist writing that were overcome by the authors who came later; but the only reason they were able to identify and overcome these weaknesses to begin with was by Anderson being the first to point them out, so is it really fair to penalize him simply for being a trailblazer? Or in other words, no doubt that I would recommend Winesburg for any serious literary fan, any heavy reader who purposely makes time in their life for influential, well-done smaller titles; but the question becomes whether I would recommend it to a casual reader, one who might only tackle a few dozen classics in their entire life, or whether a simple recap like today's is enough for most, in order to help them better understand its significance on the worthier books that came after.
Many times I argue that these smaller titles aren't worth casual readers tackling, so it's a bit surprising even to me to see myself arguing the opposite today, that Winesburg, Ohio is worth everyone reading simply for the influence it had on literary history in general. Because seriously, it's difficult to overstate just how radically different in both tone and style a book like this is over what made up popular literature back in its day; as I've been learning while doing this essay series, although Victorianism fell out of style within intellectual circles during the first few decades of the 20th century, it was still the predominant creative model among society at large, and not just Victorianism but rather the most flowery, conservative, nostalgic, moralistic aspects of Victorianism, this so-called "Genteel Literature" I mentioned before, which I suppose could also be described as "the soccer-mom version of transcendentalism." Writers such as Anderson (and his peer Theodore Dreiser for that matter) were like a shot of adrenalin within this environment, and I really do believe that we might not have had the birth of Modernism when we did in the first place if not for books like Winesburg, titles these nihilistic young artists returning from the war were picking up and saying, "Hey, I could write something like this too." Although for sure containing the problems its critics mention, when it comes to the Interregnum I always think such problems should be weighed against the pure newness of what these artists were trying to accomplish; when you do, you'll find in this case a strikingly original and haunting book, one that deserves to still be read just to understand what kind of America the early masters of Modernism were inheriting in the 1920s, and why their eventual titles were so eagerly snatched up by a postwar public now weary of flowery forced cheeriness. It comes highly recommended today.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Castle, by Franz Kafka
The Ambassadors, by Henry James
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
(And don't forget, by the way, that the first third of the CCLaP 100 essay series is now available in book form!)