When Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout was announced as the 2009 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner last week, I immediately googled for online reviews to decide whether it should be ordered. To no surprise, I found a number of very positive reviews. What was a surprise was that more than a few of them said Strout’s book reminded them of Winesburg, Ohio (published in 1919) and most of these described Sherwood Anderson’s book as one of their favorites. (Here is a link to a particularly precise and perceptive review at Nonsuch. And here is another to Trevor’s review of Olive Kitteridge so you can make your own “review” comparison.)
While I had to await the arrival of Olive Kitteridge, a copy of Winesburg, Ohio was close at hand, the result of another literary google excursion a few months back. That one began when John Fante in the final volume of the Saga of Arturo Bandini had his hero (by then a successful writer) musing about relocating to Winesburg. Since Philip Roth had earlier last year in Indignation dispatched Marcus Messner from Newark to Winesburg College in Ohio, I figured there must be something to this Mid-Western town. In no time, I discovered that Fante and Roth were merely joining William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, Tom Wolfe and John Steinbeck in paying homage to Anderson’s book.
Faulkner, Hemmingway, Wolfe, Steinback, Fante, Strout (and while I haven’t gone searching, I think as you read this review you can’t help but think Marilynne Robinson joins that bunch) — that’s pretty impressive writerly company for a 90-year-old book.
Winesburg, Ohio consists of 21 vignettes/short stories (all 12 pages or less in the edition I read) and one 40-page story, Godliness, sub-divided into four parts. In the opening vignette entitled The Book of the Grotesques (which I regard as a prologue), Anderson offers a “central thought” that served me well as a unifying theme for the 22 parts:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.
Calling his characters “grotesques” seems brutally unfair at first glance — all but one or two suffer no more abnormality than most of us possess. Anderson admits that not all were horrible (“some were amusing, some almost beautiful”) and expands his central thought to justify the term:
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concern 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.
The characters are all “damaged”, mainly emotionally, and that is how Anderson develops his stories. Most have experienced an “adventure” (a term Anderson uses frequently — most of us would say “mis-adventure”) in the form of a set-back previously in their life. Rather than trying to bounce back, they have retreated from the world, choosing the role of observer rather than participant. When they are forced — or decide — to participate, it inevitably produces more mis-fortune. What the Winesburg characters share (outside of their inability to communicate their woes to each other) is a need to communicate what produced their current state. In most of the vignettes, they do that by finding a way to tell their story to George Willard, the young (and hence yet unscathed) reporter of the Winesburg Eagle. (As a former newspaper reporter, I can assure you people are doing that to this day.)
Consider the opening story, Hands, about Wing Biddlebaum. (I am about to spoil this eight-page story, so if you hate spoilers, skip this paragraph and the next one — I promise to leave the other 21 unspoiled.) He is a “fat little old man” who prowls his “half decayed veranda” and watches the Winesburg world go by. He feels he is no part of the town, except that he has formed “something like a friendship” with George and can talk to him. As his name suggests, he talks with his hands as much as his mouth, beating on nearby surfaces to underline his point.
Wing has always used his hands — as a 20-year-old, then called Adolph Myers, he was a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania, who used to “caress the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads”. A “half-witted” boy becomes enamored with him, has unspeakable dreams and turns them into truth (was Anderson ever ahead of his time on this front). Adolph is run out of town, turns himself into Wing and effectively retreats from the world. It is a good example of the kind of fate that effects many of Anderson’s characters.
Here is the opening to the second story, Paper Pills:
He was an old man with a white beard and huge nose and hands. Long before the time during which we know him, he was a doctor and drove a jaded white horse from house to house through the streets of Winesburg. Later he married a girl who had money. She had been left a large fertile farm when her father died. The girl was quiet, tall, and dark, and to many people she seemed very beautiful. Everyone in Winesburg wondered why she married the doctor. Within a year after the marriage she died.
That concise paragraph says a lot about Anderson. He writes short, direct sentences. Every vignette has a history. Pathos (and sometimes it does borderr on sentimentality) is introduced right up front.
It is in the long story, Godliness, that the reader discovers some of over-arching factors that influence this exceptional book. It is located about one-third of the way through, almost as though Anderson needed to put some questions in the reader’s mind before hinting at possible answers.
The central character here is Jesse Bentley, the youngest and frailest of five sons. He had left the farm at eighteen to become a scholar and eventually minister of the Presbyterian Church (here comes the Marilynne Robinson). His four older brothers are all killed in the Civil War and Jesse’s father calls him home to look after the farm. Jesse is convinced that God will speak to him, that his neighbors are Phillistines and that it is the Lord’s will that he own as much land as possible in the valley.
That religious faith, bordering on fanaticism, is offset by reality:
In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the interurban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people in Mid-America.
Anderson makes few other references to that clash between the old, comfortable beliefs and the harsh new material reality, the thoughts that got turned into truths but are now seeming to be falsehoods. Yet they are present throughout the book and become more pressing as it moves to a close.
The structure of Winesburg, Ohio suggests that it could be regarded either as a short story collection or a novel. This reader definitely opts for the latter conclusion — the two concluding vignettes, the immensely powerful Death and beautifully structured Sophistication, effectively pull the many threads of the book together.
If Olive Kitteridge reminds readers of Winesburg, Ohio, there is a good reason why some of we Canadian readers have missed this book. While our American neighbors were being introduced to Anderson, we in Canada were being taught two similiar classics of our own literature, Who Has Seen The Wind by W.O. Mitchell and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock. They aren’t the same — Mitchell’s central character is younger, Leacock’s characters are more amusing than pathetic — but all three books very effectively explore the tensions, conflicts and dynamics of small town North America in the first half of the twentieth century. If you liked one, I think you would like all three.
And now I understand why Faulkner, Hemmingway, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Fante, Roth and Strout were so impressed. I am too.