Winesburg, Ohio is one of the most influential twentieth-century works of fiction by an American author. Most of the major American fiction writers who emerged in the 1920s and 1930s—including Nobel Prize for Literature recipients William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck—confessed publicly that Sherwood Anderson and Winesburg, Ohio had inspired their own work. Published in 1919 on the vanguard of the Modernist movement in American literature, Anderson’s book is an innovative cycle of interconnected short-stories that together form a complex larger work; hence, Winesburg, Ohio is generally referred to as a novel rather than as a short-story collection.
Depicting the epiphanies of citizens residing in a vividly imagined American town at the dawn of the twentieth century, Winesburg, Ohio unsentimentally yet empathetically portrays small-town Midwesterners, their way of life, and their values (often conflicted between conservative social propriety and modern notions of individual freedom). The novel ignores the superficial interactions between Winesburg’s citizens and instead focuses on their deeper struggles—their inner conflicts as well as their often strained negotiations with others within their community. At first, Anderson’s prose appears to be direct and luminously simple. Closer inspection reveals, though, that Anderson artfully constructed the twenty-five fictional sketches to be interrelated yet freestanding. A master storyteller, he approximates American vernacular with spare, rhythmic language, as he tells complex stories. Readers of this book will find that the novel remains deeply relevant because it explores the myriad struggles that individuals confront in modern-day society. Winesburg, Ohio illustrates the dangers of suppressing one’s emotions in an effort to conform to mainstream social values.
Born September 13, 1876, in Camden, Ohio, to Irwin McLain Anderson and Emma Smith Anderson, Sherwood Anderson grew up in Clyde, Ohio, in the northern part of the state. Clyde was Anderson’s model for the fictional community of Winesburg, Ohio, and not the actual unincorporated community known as Winesburg, which is situated in east-central Ohio. Anderson, nicknamed “Jobby” because of his youthful enthusiasm for doing odd jobs, assisted in his father’s harness shop and, intermittently, attended the local public school. After short stints as a laborer in a Chicago warehouse and as a soldier during the Spanish-American War, Anderson attended Wittenberg Academy in Springfield, Ohio, concluding his final year of high school in June 1900 at the age of twenty-three. Despite receiving excellent grades that year, he did not attend college but opted to return to Chicago to work as an advertising copywriter. In 1903, Anderson made his first foray into publishing when he wrote the first of numerous articles he would submit to Agricultural Advertising, a trade periodical.
In 1904, he married Cornelia Lane, a well-educated woman from a middle-class background; the couple went on to have three children. Anderson briefly managed a mail-order company in Cleveland, Ohio, then moved with his family to Elyria, Ohio, where for five years he headed Anderson Manufacturing Company, a paint distribution company. Spending his spare time writing, he suffered a nervous breakdown in November 1912, at which time he abandoned his business and left Elyria for Chicago; there, resuming his former job in advertising, he devoted himself to learning the craft of fiction writing.
After he became a well-known and much-discussed writer, Anderson encouraged the proliferation of the notion that he had self-consciously staged his nervous breakdown in order to convince others he was mentally unstable so that he could escape the confines of his life as businessman, husband, and father. Considering the evidence, Anderson’s nervous breakdown was likely not intentionally enacted but instead was the outcome of his inability to handle the many roles expected of him at the time.
In Chicago, Anderson’s relationship with Cornelia became strained as he associated primarily with that city’s artistic community. He soon met visual artist Tennessee Mitchell, whom he married in 1916 after divorcing Cornelia (this second marriage would end in divorce in 1924). During this period, Anderson read the books that would influence his own writing style: George Borrow’s novels Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857), Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Edgar Lee Master’s poetry collection Spoon River Anthology (1915). Borrow’s influence was less literary than inspirational, as the Victorian-era English author symbolized to Anderson the power of the writing life in a conformist society. Turgenev, one of the leading Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, wrote the classic novel Fathers and Sons, but it was his lesser-known fictional work A Sportsman’s Sketches that likely served as a stylistic model for Winesburg, Ohio--both works are episodic, strongly lyrical, and structured to conclude with understated irony. From Twain, Anderson learned to employ a vernacular, distinctively American language. While the author of Winesburg, Ohio at times refused to admit publicly that he had read Spoon River Anthology, substantial evidence suggests that he did, and it is likely that Masters’ book provided Anderson a template for writing a text that explored numerous related narratives as opposed to a single, unified narrative.
Anderson’s first published work of fiction, a story called “The Rabbit-Pen,” appeared in Harper’s in June 1914, though it dates from 1912, during his final months in Elyria. His first two published books were the novels Windy McPherson’s Son and Marching Men, published in 1916 and 1917, respectively, by the John Lane Company; they were likewise written in Elyria. (There, he also produced two never-published novels: Mary Cochran and Talbot Whittingham.) While receiving some positive reviews in national periodicals, Windy McPherson’s Son and Marching Men were artistically uneven and commercially unsuccessful. Expected to publish one additional title for the John Lane Company to fulfill his contract, Anderson selected a manuscript of poetry, Mid-American Chants (1918). While his third book failed to garner serious responses from reviewers and critics, Anderson’s awkward effort at composing poetry ultimately had the effect of loosening up his prose style, yielding the more rhythmic, more confident approach to phrasing that characterized his writing style in Winesburg, Ohio.
In late 1915 and early 1916, Anderson wrote many of the stories later incorporated into Winesburg, Ohio, most of which were loosely based on his experiences growing up in Clyde, Ohio. While the book was first published in May 1919 by B. W. Huebsch, Inc., several of the stories initially appeared in such nationally distributed literary periodicals as the Little Review, Masses, and Seven Arts. It is significant that several of the stories later incorporated into Winesburg, Ohio were initially published separately, as it underscores the fact that Anderson’s best-known book defies easy categorization in terms of form. While several of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio make powerful aesthetic statements if read separately, all of the stories are most effective when interpreted in the context of the larger work.
A marked artistic improvement over Windy McPherson’s Son, Marching Men, and Mid-American Chants, Winesburg, Ohio was not only Anderson’s literary breakthrough but it also launched his career as an author, ultimately allowing him to leave the advertising business. Subsequent books by Anderson—especially his novel Poor White (1920) and his short story collections The Triumph of the Egg (1921) and Horses and Men (1923)—were lauded by fellow writers and critics as further displays of Anderson’s skill in the composition of a new type of American fiction. Through the mid-1920s, Anderson was widely considered a major American author, as his short stories and nonfiction pieces appeared in leading U.S.-based periodicals, and he could claim a readership in Great Britain. Although his books were selling only nominally in the U.S., readers internationally were developing an interest in Anderson, and his books were soon translated into French, German, Russian, and Swedish. Just when his work was reaching larger audiences, however, Anderson was beginning to show signs of creative exhaustion. Two of his more recent books—the novel Many Marriages (1923) and memoir A Story Teller’s Story (1924)—attempted to expand his artistic range in terms of style and theme, but they were widely viewed as unsuccessful.
The general critical assessment of Anderson’s career is that his literary work declined markedly after 1925 when he left B. W. Huebsch, Inc., to sign a more lucrative, long-term book contract with the publisher Boni and Liveright. Anderson’s subsequent books were increasingly ignored by reviewers and spurned by other writers; for example, Anderson’s Dark Laughter (Boni and Liveright, 1925) may have been the best-selling book of his career, but that novel was viciously parodied in Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Torrents of Spring.
After Winesburg, Ohio had established his literary reputation, Anderson visited Paris and lived in Alabama, Chicago, Nevada, and New Orleans, and he also lectured extensively across the United States. That period of restlessness ended when he settled into Ripshin, the house he and his third wife, Elizabeth Prall (whom he married in 1924), had built in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Anderson purchased and managed two Marion, Virginia-based newspapers, and also wrote occasional short stories and novels set in his adopted Appalachian home. Upon his divorce from Prall in 1932, Anderson married Eleanor Copenhaver, a native of Marion, who was a social worker then living in New York City. Influenced by Copenhaver’s social concerns, Anderson’s writings during the early years of the Great Depression attempted to draw attention to the plight of economically distressed Americans. Anderson’s final years—which coincided with the Great Depression—were comparatively calm, in part because of the contentedness of his fourth marriage, and in part because his creative decline was now largely overlooked and he was generally considered an elder statesman of American letters. Anderson, having just embarked on a good-will trip to South America, died on March 8, 1941, in Colon, Panama; he was buried in Marion, Virginia’s Round Hill cemetery.
A template for the sketches Anderson later incorporated into Winesburg, Ohio is the often-anthologized story “Hands.” Written by Anderson during fall 1915, “Hands” concerns Wing Biddlebaum, an old man residing in a small Ohio town who when working as a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania was accused of improperly touching boys; the accusation originated from “a half-witted boy” who “became enamored of the young master.” Possessing considerable symbolic importance to the larger narrative, Biddlebaum’s hands in Anderson’s portrayal are presented as a character separate from the human being to whom they belong. Upon realizing the power of this story, Anderson felt compelled to write additional fictional sketches exploring conflicts between the inner impulses and the societal roles of other small-town citizens. Many of the characters in Winesburg, Ohio are unable to resolve such conflicts in their lives, and, in Anderson’s view, they become “grotesques.” To make his point emphatic, Anderson opens Winesburg, Ohio with the story “The Book of the Grotesque,” which concerns an unpublished book manuscript of that same title written by an old man about the people he has known. Reflecting Anderson’s thematic motivation for writing Winesburg, Ohio, that story posits that “All of the men and women the writer [i.e., the old man] had ever known had become grotesques.” Accordingly, the town of Winesburg, Ohio, is home to a number of memorable “grotesques” including, in the story “Adventure,” Alice Hindman, a woman in her late twenties who, lovelorn for a long-lost boyfriend, experiences sexual excitement and then shame after running naked outside her house on a rainy night; in “The Strength of God,” the Reverend Curtis Hartman, a Presbyterian minister who succumbs to his lust when he spies from the window in his church’s bell tower a woman lying in her bed in an adjacent house; and in “The Untold Lie,” Ray Pearson, a middle-aged, unhappily married farm worker who yearns to advise a younger man not to get married but who decides against it since “Whatever I told him would have been a lie.” What is the common link between all the “grotesques” in Winesburg? They have all been deprived of love, and in trying to survive in their repressed community they have suppressed much of their natural human feeling. In fact, only one character in the novel avoids becoming a “grotesque”: the central consciousness of Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard, the young reporter for the town newspaper who interacts with many other Winesburg citizens in approximately half the stories in the novel and who ultimately avoids their fate by leaving his hometown for the city.
Upon its publication in 1919, Anderson’s book proved controversial among some readers for its unflattering representation of small-town life and for its frank treatment of human sexuality. Critical response to Winesburg, Ohio, nonetheless, was mostly positive; of the more than twenty reviews that appeared in major American periodicals shortly after the book’s May 1919 publication, only four were negative. One of the latter reviews, written by an anonymous critic and printed in the New York Sun, referred to Winesburg, Ohio as a “disgusting” imitation of Edgar Lee Master’s poetry collection Spoon River Anthology. In a more sympathetic review published in the Chicago Tribune, critic Burton Rascoe not only contended that Winesburg, Ohio was a significantly better effort than Spoon River Anthology, but also asserted that the former book’s literary accomplishment resulted from the fact that Anderson, “one of the most personal and subjective of writers, has in these stories achieved a fine effect of impersonality.”1 Without directly saying so, Rascoe had observed that Winesburg, Ohio was the first American prose work to successfully incorporate the Modernist aesthetic of minimalism—of suggesting rather than overtly depicting the emotional meanings of his stories. In essence, Anderson’s approach was the prose equivalent to Imagism, the avant garde movement in English-language poetry (begun several years earlier by such poets as Ezra Pound and H. D. [Hilda Doolittle]) that championed simplicity, freedom of subject matter, vernacular speech, and non-traditional poetic forms.
H. L. Mencken’s review of Winesburg, Ohio, more than any other contemporary critique of the book, helped establish Anderson’s reputation among the literati across the U.S. One of the leading American critics of the first third of the twentieth century, Mencken in Smart Set maintained that Anderson’s book was not only “vastly better” than Spoon River Anthology but was also a marked improvement over Anderson’s earlier books:
The national vice of ethical purpose corrupted [Anderson’s earlier works]. . . . Now, in Winesburg, Ohio, he throws off that
handicap. What remains is pure representation—and it is
representation so vivid, so full of insight, so shiningly life-like and glowing, that the book is lifted into a category all its own.
Nothing quite like it has ever been done in America.2
Critical accolades did not translate to large-scale initial sales (a total of 3,068 copies of Winesburg, Ohio sold during the first two years after its publication). Reissued in 1922 as part of the popular Modern Library series, Winesburg, Ohio experienced increased sales, and it was soon widely viewed as a classic American novel. Even as Anderson’s overall literary reputation waned after 1925, Winesburg, Ohio remained solidly in the American literary canon. The book’s canonization, at least in part, was due to the fact that other influential writers and critics continued to praise Winesburg, Ohio long after Anderson’s death. In a 1953 reminiscence published in the Atlantic, William Faulkner recalled the last time he saw Anderson, at a late-1930s literary gathering in New York City: “I remembered Winesburg, Ohio and The Triumph of the Egg and some of the pieces in Horses and Men, and I knew that I had seen, was looking at, a giant in an earth populated to a great—too great—extent by pygmies, even if he did make but the two or perhaps three gestures commensurate with gianthood.”3 Novelist John Updike, in a 1984 Harper’s article lauding Anderson’s major work, called Winesburg, Ohio “a democratic plea for the failed, the neglected, and the stuck.”4 In 1960, influential critic Malcolm Cowley, exhibiting a balanced perspective possible from decades of reflection upon the full sweep of American literary history, observed:
Anderson made a great noise when he published Winesburg,
Ohio in 1919. The older critics scolded him, the younger ones
praised him, as a man of the changing hour, yet he managed in
that early work and others to be relatively timeless. . . .5
Winesburg, Ohio is timeless because it portrays a human community from a profoundly universal perspective. Although set in a Midwestern town at the dawn of the twentieth century, the novel remains relevant in the early twenty-first century because the world is still populated with “grotesques”—people whose lives have become distorted because they have been founded upon unattainable, often inhumane absolutes (“truths,” as Anderson called them). This, the overarching philosophical position within Winesburg, Ohio, was memorably articulated in the book’s opening story, by the old man in “The Book of the Grotesque”:
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man
had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his
notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to
himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became
a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
If in writing Winesburg, Ohio Anderson had been solely interested in confronting the grotesque nature of people living in an insular small-town community, the novel would most likely have been crafted as a satire. Yet, Winesburg, Ohio is anything but satirical, and it is perhaps instructive to compare that novel with a bestselling novel by Sinclair Lewis, Anderson’s contemporary and a Nobel Prize for Literature recipient. Lewis’ Main Street (1920) was principally a satire of small town Midwestern values, whereas Winesburg, Ohio—though conscious that the value system of early twentieth-century small-town America was corrupted by hypocrisy and emotional suppression—does not seek to directly castigate that value system. Anderson is much more interested in understanding the complexity of the human behavior that corrupts a community’s value system. Whereas Main Street is a brilliant satire of a world no longer in existence, Winesburg, Ohio is unconcerned with ephemeral social commentary; instead, the latter novel explores universal human concerns.
Winesburg, Ohio, then, is ultimately not about the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio, or the actual town of Clyde, Ohio; the novel is concerned with the people of any community in any place at any time. In this sense, Winesburg, Ohio, is your community, and the town’s characters are, very possibly, your neighbors; and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio may help you to better understand those neighbors, to more fully empathize with their hopes and their fears.
 White, Ray Lewis, ed. The Merrill Studies in Winesburg, Ohio. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1971. p. 29.
 Ibid. pp. 39–40.
 White, Ray Lewis, ed. The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson: Essays in Criticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.
 Updike, John. Harper’s 268 (March 1984): 97.
 Quoted in Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio. New York City: Random House [1995 Modern Library Edition], 1995. p. vi.
Ted Olson teaches at East Tennessee State University and is the author of Breathing in Darkness: Poems (Wind Publications, 2006) and Blue Ridge Folklife (University Press of Mississippi, 1998) as well as the editor of several volumes of CrossRoads: A Southern Culture Annual (Mercer University Press, 2004–2009) and two scholarly books on author James Still.