“It seemed to her that between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up and that she was living just on the edge of some warm inner circle of life that must be quite open and understandable to others.”
In Sherwood Anderson's novel, Winesburg, Ohio, Alice Hindman, an unmarried 27-year-old living with her widowed mother and working at a dry goods store, is leading a lonely life. It has been ten years since she “gave” herself to Ned Currie, who'd gone to the “city” for work, promising to return for her one day. He never came back and his letters had tapered off a long time before. She knows he's not returning for her, but does not know how to move on, to get along with others: “If I am not careful I will grow unaccustomed to being with people.” She dwells on her alienation until one night she can't take it anymore and rushes into the yard during a thunderstorm. She is naked and in a “wild, desperate mood,” she yells to a passing farmhand. When he stops she hides in the bushes and then flees into her room. Weeping at her careless mistaking of foolhardiness for courage, she begins to “force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”
Alice is not the protagonist of Winesburg, Ohio-- she is just one of its lonely citizens. The book is and is not a novel, closer to a collection of short stories, each “concerning” a different character, all more or less unified around the poignancy of distinct alienation. Nearly all these troubled persons are tangentially connected to George Willard, whose parents run the town's inn. George is a nineteen year old reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, the local gazette. The townsfolk confide in him, though some loathe George, since he has some get-up-and-go, that he does not seem so disconnected as they are, and might even emigrate from Winesburg to the city.
George dreams of being a writer. A schoolteacher, Kate Swift, more moll than marm and the object of local gossip, a woman who once lived in New York and had even traveled to Europe, tells George not to dwell on “mere words,” that if he is to write well, “the thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.” In Winesburg, almost no one says exactly what they mean. They live quiet lives, punctured by a significant, usually detrimental outburst catalyzed by a breaking point when loneliness has become too unbearable. Alice, the character mentioned earlier, is physically unremarkable, her “shoulders were a little stooped and her hair and eyes brown,” but this belies her swarming emotions: “She was very quiet but beneath a placid exterior a continual ferment went on.”
“Death,” George mutters, out for a walk, “night, the sea, fear, loveliness.” George is finally grasping Kate Swift's admonition-- that these aren't mere words, but poignant feelings everyone endures, the words themselves just sounds signifying a much bigger picture. He has this epiphany on a clear night in a destitute neighborhood of ramshackle claptraps. George needs to share this euphoria with a woman, Belle Carpenter, but his sense of glorious inevitability is ruined when he is humiliated by her beau. Passing the same neighborhood on his way home the laborers' houses now appeared “utterly squalid and commonplace.”
In spite of the unpretentious, utterly Midwestern prose style, Winesburg, Ohio is not light reading. It's a sad book about sad souls and though it concerns a rural small town published nearly a hundred years ago (in 1919), the book feels extraordinarily relevant; it seems then that the old folks are right, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The reader is reminded of his own coming of age experiences, how it seemed no one understood him, how he never imagined he would be able to break through his adolescent rut into something more profound and occasionally meaningful. In George, I saw a bit of myself, as I was, compensating for an inarticulate nature, when George tells Helen White, the best girl in town, “I'm going to be a big man, the biggest that ever lived here in Winesburg.”
George's cocky disclosure comes in the penultimate story, “Sophistication.” His “big man” speech is remembered by George on the evening of the town fair. Helen is visiting from college and is being escorted by a pompous university instructor whom she finds exasperating. At this point, George has decided to leave Winesburg, and wants a moment with Helen. His mother has recently died, partially from an unfulfilled life, and he no longer feels so entitled with destiny; he has become “sophisticated,” learning that “he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun.” Helen does manage to escape her date and when she and George find each other they share a nearly wordless, magically compatible night at the top of the fairgrounds after the blithe villagers have gone home to their farms, the hum of parties on Main Street drifting to them from town. Going downhill, they have a childish moment where breaking into a trot, George slips and Helen laughs at his fall. Their comfort in each other's presence fortifies the both of them for the divergent roads they will both take upon leaving Winesburg: “Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.”
Such a sentiment richly deserving to all of us, so obvious and yet so elusive, has rarely been so gorgeously put down in words. Here is literature in its truest, most fundamental form, an indispensable reminder that we are not alone. And George does leave Winesburg. In the last story, “Departure,” he is off to a big city, worrying about being taken for a greenhorn by cityslickers. He imagines he should be contemplating big ideas on such a momentous occasion. Instead he ruminates over little things, everyday moments in Winesburg life, "Butch Wheeler the lamp lighter, hurrying through the streets on a summer evening... Helen White standing by a window in the Winesburg post office and putting a stamp on an envelop." George drifts into sleep running through these sundry details. When he stirs, his hometown “had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.” Such is the journey that so many of us have to make. Hopefully, we can make something out of the adventure, or at the very least, find a storytelling language that gilts our best efforts.