‘Some obscure poet of the town’: Winesburg, Ohio and the Small Town as Modernist

Will Carroll, University of Birmingham

Open any edition of Sherwood Anderson’s short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and you’ll be greeted by a print of a hand-drawn local map. Studying it, it becomes clear that Winesburg is an archetypal Midwestern small town. It is bisected by ‘Main Street’, a central thoroughfare of both commercial and social importance, around which sit traditional, timeless institutions that remain firmly impressed on the contemporary small-town blueprint. ‘Hern’s Grocery’ and ‘Sinning’s hardware’, easily located courtesy of the map’s legend, sit opposite one another on Main Street, whilst the town’s fairgrounds are reached by turning left off the main drag onto Buckeye Street. These buildings connote an unassuming rural life of conservative values, much like they do in thousands of other small towns in America. Although merely a black-and-white sketch, the map presents an idyllic hub of provincial American life that is easily navigable, inviting, and uncomplicated. All of this, and yet Winesburg, Ohio doesn’t exist.

Considered a landmark in American literature, Winesburg, Ohio is a study of the quiet tragedies of everyday life, presented in a cycle of stories and vignettes that draw out the malaise and repressed desires of provincial life. Loosely following the story of George Willard, a young native of Winesburg who eventually leaves it behind in favour of the city and its presumed riches, Winesburg, Ohio is an elegiac portrait of quotidian life that anchors its private individual stories to the universal public space of the small town.

Raymond Wilson, in his study of ‘rhythm’ in Winesburg, Ohio, helps, perhaps unintentionally, to illuminate the centrality of Anderson’s setting to the definition of his characters:

‘Winesburg’s multiple-story form requires Anderson to master the quick sketch. Like pen-and-ink artists, Anderson must evoke character with a few, concise strokes’ [1]

Much like the aforementioned map, Anderson’s style relies on abstraction and ‘quick sketch’ to define his characters and their environment rather than specific sensory detail. As such, spatiality in Winesburg, Ohio becomes its most significant modernist feature. Anderson’s narrative meanders much like Winesburg’s side streets and entryways, passing people and their stories like an automobile cruising down Main Street. Fragments of conversations abound, all defined by the physicality of the town, and Anderson’s descriptions occasionally border on the modernist ideal of collage. William L. Phillips affirms this close relationship between person and place in Anderson’s collection: ‘As the streets led to each other, and all branched from Main Street, so one scrap of action [leads] to another.’ [2] Take, for example, George Willard’s interaction with Shorty Crandall, the clerk of the town’s cigar store.

‘Three times he walked up and down the length of Main Street. Sylvester West’s drug store was still open and he went in and bought a cigar. When Shorty Crandall the clerk game out at the door with him he was pleased. For five minutes, the two stood in the shelter of the store awning and talked’ [3]

The importance of the ‘awning’, the prototypical referent of the American ‘Main Street’, in enabling a conversation both private and public is crucial to this scene. The idiomatic communal architecture of the small-town presents itself here as a liminal threshold, a temporary shelter, where conversation can happen freely. Similar domestic thresholds are visible later in the text, such as the Bentley’s porch:

There were always three or four old people sitting on the front porch of the house or puttering about the garden of the Bentley farm’ [4]

Like Zora Neale Hurston, a writer who similarly privileges the small-town voice, Anderson makes use of the porch space as a conduit of small-town speech and gossip. Sally Bayley, in her revealing study Home on the Horizon: America’s Search for Space, from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan, notes that ‘the porch calls the homebound into a larger sense of self […] it is a place in which to see and hear more.’ [5] This significant use of the porch space, associated with provincial American living, is demonstrative of Anderson’s reliance on small-town America as an enabler of community speech and expression. Winesburg has a voice, Anderson suggests, and the minutiae of its environment – its awnings, porches, alleyways, sidewalks – render it audible.

Redefining Winesburg, Ohio with Nicholas Entrikin’s idea of the ‘betweenness of place feels particularly apt: ‘To understand place requires that we have access to both an objective and subjective reality […] Place is best viewed from points in between.’ [6] Winesburg, Ohio and its use of place hybridizes these two ideals; the fictional town, its map and inhabitants, are the subjective representation of small-town America yet the familiar referents – Main Street, general stores, domestic spaces – are objectively part of the small-town model; they are the nation writ small.

The small-town is an extolled symbol in the American consciousness, a universal space that occupies the beating heart of the so-called American Dream. Writers such as Anderson mark the privileging of the small-town beyond mere setting, and into narrative device, a noteworthy characteristic when one considers the dominance of urban narratives during the modernist period. Published during a time of migration to metropolitan areas, and the birth of the ‘city-novel’, Winesburg, Ohio represents a telling invocation of American place, and an influential study of home. The small-town ideal is enmeshed within the fabric of American thought, and Anderson’s early study presents it as a space alive with the thrum of the human condition. If the helical matter of American DNA were unspooled and laid flat, a map of Winesburg might just be discernible among the neat junctions and patterns.

Source

[1] Wilson, Raymond, ‘Rhythmn in “Winesburg, Ohio”’, The Great Lakes Review, 8 (Spring, 1982), pp. 31-43

[2]  Phillips, William L., ‘How Sherwood Anderson Wrote Winesburg, Ohio,’ American Literature, 23 (March, 1951), pp. 7-30, (p. 18).

[3] Anderson, Sherwood, Winesburg, Ohio, ebook: (Digireads.com Publishing, 2014), p. 17.

[4] Anderson, Sherwood, Winesburg, Ohio, ebook: (Digireads.com Publishing, 2014), p. 17.

[5] Bayley, Sally, Home on the Horizon: America’s Search for Space, from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan, (United Kingdom: Peter Lang Ltd, 2010), p. 19.

[6] Entrikin, Nicholas, The Betweenness of Place: Towards a Geography of Modernity, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 5.

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