Monday, November 11, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“WINESBURG, OHIO” by Sherwood Anderson (first published in 1919)

            A number of times before on this blog, I have mentioned how difficult I find it to assess fairly a well-known book, when I have already heard many opinions expressed about it before I have actually read it.

For me, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is the supreme example of this problem.

Before reading Winesburg, Ohio, I already knew that Anderson (1876-1941) was regarded as a faded early American Modernist, a small town “life’s enormous trivialities” man, and a stylistic precursor to Ernest Hemingway and others, who did the deadpan style better than Anderson himself did. I knew (because at one stage I read nearly all of Hemingway’s work) that Hemingway was at first influenced by Anderson, but then turned against him. Indeed, I’d read young Hemingway’s piss-take The Torrents of Spring, which is a kick in the pants to the man he once admired and a parody of Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter. Dark Laughter (which I have not read) was the only bestseller Anderson produced in his lifetime; but it is now out-of-print and scorned for its dated racial epithets and naïve attitudes to sex. Further, I knew that despite its modest reputation, Winesburg, Ohio continued and continues to have its devotees (in Sarah Shieff’s collection of Frank Sargeson’s letters, you will find a drafted fan letter the youthful Sargeson intended to send to Anderson). It is often re-published and studied on college courses, and is the only work of Anderson’s that has survived.

There now. All this I knew before I sat down six years ago and for the first time read Winesburg, Ohio. So quite a lot was jangling in my head as I read. And, to put it very bluntly, the book basically confirmed all the negative things I had heard.

Published in 1919, but largely written in 1915-16 when Anderson was about 40, Winesburg, Ohio is a short-story cycle. Its subtitle is “A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life”. Despite its date of publication, the stories clearly spring from Anderson’s youth and seem to be set in the 1890s. Buggies, railways, horses and lamplighters feature in the stories – not automobiles, electric lighting etc.

Some of the collection’s twenty-one stories concern George Willard, a young reporter on the local Winesburg newspaper. He is clearly Anderson’s alter ego, the equivalent of Hemingway’s Nick Adams. An early story tells us of George Willard’s mother Elizabeth, who had an unsettled and unhappy series of love affairs before marrying George’s father. George is witness to the actions of a number of other characters in the stories, and confidant to some of them. The final two stories in the collection have him farewelling the young woman whom he thought he loved, and heading off to the big city.

In one sense, then, the framing idea of the collection is the young man’s growing up, and out-growing the restricted Midwestern small town that the collection depicts. But, despite this, the collection does not really hang together as an account of a young man’s growth, which is what it may have been intended to be.

The chief impact is the impact of the individual stories. They are accounts of lonely, eccentric, isolated or emotionally-thwarted individuals trapped in small-town life. The homosexual schoolteacher (in the story “Hands”) escaping charges of child-molestation. The farmer who becomes a religious fanatic and sees himself as an Old Testament patriarch (“Terror”). The Peeping Tom parson (“The Strength of God”). The frustrated and ageing spinster who runs naked in the rain (“Adventure”); and any number of young men disgruntled by their limited horizons and the littleness of things.

In 1919, some of the sexual references (though very tame now) must have seemed very frank. Whether influenced by them or not (and I know nothing of Anderson’s working methods or inspiration), Anderson was in line of descent with Chekhov, Joyce and Mansfield in attempting to present psychological character studies in terms of focused events, rather than in terms of ingenious and developed plot. And yet he lacks the stylistic concentration that those other writers have. While on the verge of the type of clipped understatement that Hemingway and others developed, Anderson can’t hold back from passages of romantic dithyramb and sheer purple prose. Worse, he has the habit of explaining things that should be implicit; of spelling out in so many words things that we should be able to deduce from action and dialogue. Much of the book therefore seems very clumsy.

Or am I unfairly judging this collection because I am more used to the spare, allusive style that has become the norm in short stories since the time Anderson was writing?

A similar problem is presented by Anderson’s subject matter. The cold wind of loneliness now whistles through numerous books about small town life from many parts of the globe (reading Winesburg, Ohio, I couldn’t help having images of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s Taranaki eccentrics). The subject matter has become a cliché.

Again, this is an unfair judgement. People confined and (literally) maddened by dull small towns may be a cliché now, but wasn’t in 1919.

How would I recommend this book, then? I would recommend it as an historical artefact – something to remind us what was advanced writing a century ago. And if that sounds too patronising and backhanded, I would add that it would be excellent to put into the hands of the right sort of adolescent. There’s never anything wrong in showing them that everyday life is worth writing about, and that extreme feelings can exist in the most mundane setting.

As I remarked of Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae [see blog comments thereon via index at right], I’m sorry I didn’t read this one when I was 16 or 17. At that age, Winesburg, Ohio would probably have bowled me over.

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