Closer Readings Commentary

Sherwood Anderson’s Grotesques in “Winesburg, Ohio”

Though Winesburg accumulates external facts—streets, stores, town personalities—as it gropes along, its burden is a spiritual essence, a certain tart sweet taste to life as it passes in America’s lonely lamp lit homes. A nagging beauty lives amid this tame desolation; Anderson’s parade of yearning wraiths constitutes in sum a democratic plea for the failed, the neglected, and the stuck. John Updike, “Twisted Apples,” Harpers Magazine, March 1984

Since its publication in 1919, the name “Winesburg” has become synonymous with small town life in the American Heartland. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a classic cycle of short stories set at the turn of the century, depicts a variety of residents, past and present, and centers on George Willard, a young newspaper writer coming of age in the first decade of the 20th century.

The scenes and people in the short story cycle were drawn from Anderson's formative years in his boyhood town of Clyde, Ohio. His experiences there left an indelible mark on his consciousness—only to re-emerge many years later in this fictional narrative.    

The grotesque in Winesburg, Ohio

EDSITEment’s new curriculum unit of three lessons, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life, introduces students to this masterful writer and his use of the "grotesque", while focusing their analysis on the central character George and his relationships with family members and town residents. Anderson’s grotesque characters have personalities distorted by life experiences, but to use Anderson’s own metaphor, they possess a “sweetness of the twisted apples” that evokes readers understanding and empathy rather than distaste.

Lesson 1 begins by having students read the opening vignette of Winesburg Ohio, “The Book of the Grotesque,” which was the original title Anderson gave to the book. This first story serves as a prologue and lays out Anderson’s central insight concerning human relationship where each man or woman lives according to his or her own “truth.” Students then consider the story, "Responsibility," as an example of a grotesque. (Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin a story) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

In Lesson 2, students gain an understanding of Anderson's central character George and his relationships with the town folk who have become grotesque due to life circumstances. Unlike other characters, George seems curiously undamaged by his family background. He knows very little about love, but he demonstrates a willingness to learn about people and possesses a capacity for self-growth. (Aligns with with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3: Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story.)

Lesson 3 undertakes an analysis of the story, "Adventure,” which depicts the character Alice Hindman, and her progress (or regression) from “normal” to grotesque. Students then work independently through other stories in the cycle to analyze examples of the grotesque among Anderson’s more minor characters. (Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.)

In Anderson’s cosmos, no one can fully appreciate or understand the truth of anyone else—ultimately everyone is alone. The grotesques that inhabit these pages are pathetic and isolated, yes, but they are also engrossing and relatable. As students continue through the story cycle, their initial repulsion is replaced with compassion, as the “otherness” of each grotesque figure is transcended, a commonality surfaces. Readers’ empathy is evoked by paying witness to these characters as they conduct their lives of quiet desperation.

Anderson’s influence on modern America literature

It is often forgotten that Sherwood Anderson was a major influence on many of the giants of modern American literature. Among the most prominent were William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, who were personally mentored by him at the beginning of their careers. After Anderson’s death in 1956, Faulkner called him “the father of my generation of American writers and the tradition of American writing which our successors will carry on.”

Indeed, Anderson’s simple narrative tone, precise, unsentimental style, and Midwestern colloquial settings inspired and shaped the work of many celebrated American authors—Thomas Wolfe, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg, Edmund Wilson, Norman Mailer, among many others.

Winesburg, Ohio was a favorite of John Steinbeck, who believed, “Sherwood Anderson made the modern novel and it has not gone much beyond him.” Ray Bradbury ascribed his success to Anderson, as he acknowledged in a later edition of The Martian Chronicles, “It was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohiothat set me free.” Countless short story cycles that have become contemporary classics trace their lineage back to Winesburg including Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

Anderson has the potential to serve as a model of excellence for 21st-century student writers, according to writer and literary critic Alan Cheuse, “Among the Americans, Sherwood Anderson and Faulkner teach you how good writing can be and how good it must be, and that it’s possible for Americans to write in American English, to make art in America.”