A few weeks ago I spoke at my church about my Greenville book and how it was a series of linked short stories. One of the audience members was a lit professor and afterwards he told me that I was working in what was a long tradition called a short story cycle. He suggested I read Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” which is just such a short story cycle. I finished the book a few days ago and here are my impressions.
Upon reading the first story, which is called “Hands,” a sense of familiarity struck me. The form, the linked short stories, each ostensibly about a particular character, but also following a common character throughout, was exactly what I tried to achieve in Greenville. “Hands” features a character named Wing Biddlebaum who, if he forgets himself, has hands that flap out of control. His hands caused him considerable trouble in his previous locale, so he works hard to keep them tucked in pockets and contained. In the story, not only are we introduced to Wing (great name!), but we meet George Willard, who appears in almost every story. George is a late teen who is working his way toward manhood and all the responsibilities that implies. He works as a reporter for the Winesburg Eagle.
The entire book takes place in the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio, although there is a real Winesburg, Ohio, that the author admits in a compiled preface that he had no knowledge of when he wrote the book. “Winesburg, Ohio” was first published in 1919 and those who read it – especially those from the real Winesburg, Ohio – thought it was scandolous. A town library board even burned copies of the book. As I read, I kept thinking, Where’s the titillating spot? What’s so scandolous about this? I found it to be staid, at least in comparison to what I’ve read from the current day. Sherwood admits that the mere mention of sex at the time of the original publication was enough to cause the uproar. He says, “The book was widely condemned, called nasty and dirty by most of its critics.” (pg. 17) Because people thought that the author was perverted for having written about sex as a normal part of everyday lives, Sherwood said that this judgement caused “a kind of sickness [to come over] me, a sickness that lasted for months.” (pg. 17) Eventually, the book came to be considered a classic.
I noted a number of similarities in the stories, in addition to the fact that George Willard appears in all but one. (I wasn’t sure what that was about. The story, called “Godliness,” could have been left out of the book, except that it was set in Winesburg.) Sherwood often described his characters as tall and thin. Many of his characters had names that started with W’s, including Wing, White, Willard, Welling, and Wash Williams. Each of the characters was sure that he or she was the oddest person in town, that he or she didn’t truly fit in Winesburg. Finally, the stories all ended on an unsettled note, leaving me quietly jangled. It’s worth the read if you don’t require nice, neat conclusions.
You can find the entire book online at bartleby.com.
The edition I read was from The Viking Critical Library and was edited by John H. Ferres. It included criticism with the text and was published in 1966.