Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book did not conform to my expectations, and this is often a cause of bitterness with me. I opened Winesburg, Ohio thinking that it would be a series of carefully-plotted, intersecting short stories illustrating the reality of small-town life in America. And I was excited for this hypothetical book, since it seemed like a wonderful concept. But Anderson had quite different ideas, and his were far less to my taste.

For one, the stories in Winesburg, Ohio have very little in the way of plot, and so they can hardly weave an intricate tapestry. The effect is not that of a carefully worked-out machine, but if a simple accumulation. What is more, this is hardly a work of realism in any meaningful sense. Anderson is not one for sensory details, nor for social analysis; his world is composed of individual souls residing in a shadowy world. The stories could have taken place just as easily in Winesburg as in Warsaw, since Anderson’s fundamental concern is something much more universal.

The insistent message of these stories is that people are bound up within themselves, their inner passions shut off from the world, and they have little idea how to rectify their situation. Thus, the stories follow a characteristic pattern: The protagonist’s frustrated dreams and desires are narrated, and then a crisis follows in which the character tries, unsuccessfully, to disburden herself of this frustration. This usually takes the form of a frantic encounter with George Willard, the young town reporter. The story ends as soon as the crisis is shown to be unsuccessful.

I have many criticisms of these stories. Anderson is as guilty as any author can be of telling and not showing. His stories consist almost entirely of narration. What is worse, I often found the narration unsuccessful, as Anderson seems allergic to the use of vivid, concrete details. We are never in the moment with a character, never able to watch a scene unfold in our mind’s eye. Someone extremely sympathetic to Anderson’s style may argue that this creatures a distance between the reader and the story which mirrors the emotional distance between Anderson’s characters. In my case, however, the result was often apathy or bemusement.

As an example of his style, consider this passage:

There was something biting and forbidding in the character of Kate Swift. Everyone felt it. In the schoolroom she was silent, cold, and stern, and yet in an odd way very close to her pupils. Once in a long while something seemed to have come over her and she was happy. All of the children in the schoolroom felt the effect of her happiness. For a time they did not work but sat back in their chairs and looked at her.

This passage is characteristic in its almost total lack of sensory information. Indeed it seems intentionally vague: “in an odd way,” “something came over her,” “felt the effect”—these phrases suggest that Anderson himself was not interested in really picturing to himself how this strange scene could actually play out. It also shows a kind of curious anti-realism when it comes to describing human behavior. As somebody who has worked as a teacher, I can scarcely imagine the reaction of young pupils to a mysteriously happy teacher being to simply look at her. Has Anderson ever been around a child?

Of course, an author is under no obligation to describe people as behaving realistically. Nevertheless, I think that this oddity is symptomatic of one of the paradoxes in these short stories: though they are about the innermost struggles of different individuals, Anderson seems rather uninterested in his characters as individuals. The persons in this book can hardly be called individuals, in fact, but are mere points of tension. They have problems but no personalities, and once their crisis is over they have no further interest. The way that Anderson writes dialogue is particularly infelicitous—unnatural to the point that it must have been intentional, but which nevertheless struck me as jarring. Luckily, there is not much of it.

What perhaps struck me most about these stories is how strongly they reminded me of a lot of contemporary writing. The idea that we are all silently suffering, or that, in Anderson’s own words, “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified”—and, most importantly, that emotional expression will fix this problem—this strikes me as a profoundly limited worldview. For my part, I do not think that emotional connection alone is enough to solve any problem, unless it is supplemented by a thoughtful empathy—the ability to see humans in the round and not as simply balls of frustrated passions.

Indeed, as Lionel Trilling argues in his excellent essay on Anderson, the paradox of this philosophy is that it can lead to a world just as cold and brutal as one of repressed desires. And yet, this is an idea that I encounter again and again: that all we need is emotional expression. Expression is easy, however, while understanding is infinitely more difficult.

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Review: The Prussian Officer

Review: The Prussian Officer
The Prussian Officer

The Prussian Officer by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first book by Lawrence, and I am greatly impressed. These short stories were published near the beginning of his writing career; yet they show a mature writer with a fully developed voice. Several qualities are immediately apparent. The first is Lawrence’s exquisite sensitivity to nature. The best prose in this volume is to be found in the many passages of natural description:

The air was too scented, it gave no breath. All the lush green-stuff seemed to be issuing its sap, till the air was deathly, sickly with the smell of greenness. There was the perfume of clover, like pure honey and bees. Then there grew a faint acrid tang—they were near the beeches; and then a queer clattering noise, and a suffocating, hideous smell: they were passing a flock of sheep, a shepherd in a black smock, holding his hook.

Lawrence’s primary subject is the rural poor. He is totally convincing in his depiction of the harried mother waiting for her drunkard husband to stumble home, or the sick widow trying to take care of her adult son. Unlike Hemingway, Lawrence has the rare talent of being able to write about people entirely unlike himself. His most memorable characters are consistently women, who normally show themselves to be superior in personality and intelligence to their male counterparts.

Insofar as these stories contain the germ of a philosophy, it is that passionate, sexual relationships allow people to be truly themselves. Thus, in “The Thorn in the Flesh,” the consummation of a relationship gives the couple a strange superiority over their circumstances; and in “Daughters of the Vicar,” the unhappy daughter who settled for a loveless marriage is contrasted with the self-assured daughter who marries for love.

But it would be wrong to call Lawrence a didactic writer, at least in this volume. The stories, for the most part, have no moral. They are concerned with the basic stuff of all prose literature: relationships—with oneself, with others, or with the rest of society. And as Melvyn Bragg says in the introduction, the stories are free of the traditional plot mechanics that are used to propel stories to pre-determined ends; instead Lawrence’s stories develop seamlessly, organically, without any noticeable push from the writer. I am looking forward to reading Lawrence’s novels.

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