The Classics Spin #13: “Cold Sassy Tree”

It’s time to report back on The Classics Spin #13, as explained in my post.

Burns, Olive Ann. Cold Sassy Tree
Dell, 1984; rpt. 1994
ISBN: 0–385–31258-X

On July 5, 1906, Grandpa Blakeslee instructs his grandson, 14-year-old Will Tweedy, to summon relatives to a family meeting. Grandpa then informs the family that he intends to marry Miss Love Simpson. The announcement causes a scandal in the town of Cold Sassy, Georgia, since Grandma Blakeslee has been dead only three weeks and Miss Simpson is half Grandpa’s age, and a Yankee. In Cold Sassy Tree Will narrates how the scandal played out in this small town. Along the way he paints a vivid picture of what life was like in rural Georgia at the turn of the twentieth century, with highlights such as the arrival of automobiles and the social tension between the “lintheads” who work in the cotton mills and the merchants and professionals who live on their own side of the tracks.

Will lets us know on the opening page that he’s telling the story eight years after the fact. Given Will’s age at the time of the events (14) and his first-person narration, I expected Cold Sassy Tree would be a typical coming-of-age story. The point of this type of story is to let readers know what the narrator has learned from the experience. The novel does eventually turn in that direction, although it starts out with maddening slowness. I almost gave up on the book early because all the goofy humor quickly wore thin.

In coming-of-age stories there are two set topics young characters must learn about: death and sex. Will learns about death early, not only because of his grandmother’s death but also because of the precariousness of life in a time before antibiotics. He slowly comes face-to-face with the fact of sexuality in the undercurrents of all the scandalous talk of the town’s residents. (It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Grandpa Blakeslee is only 59 when his first wife dies.) Will also begins to realize his own sexuality in the attraction he feels but cannot initially explain to one of the young mill workers at school.

By the end of the novel Will has matured enough to know that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in Cold Sassy managing the family’s general store, despite Grandpa’s entreaties: “Well, in the matter of my future, I meant to have mine” (p. 390). On the novel’s last page he lets us know that, even though he went off to college, he still keeps a treasure box holding his journal and several tokens representing his early life in Cold Sassy.

I rate this book three stars out of five.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #13

The Classics Spin #13

I love these Classics Spins because they get me reading the books on my list when I might otherwise avoid them.

Here’s how it works: I list 20 books here that I have yet to read from my original list of 50+ classics. Tomorrow, June 6, the Classics Club will announce a number, and I have to read whatever book on my list has that number.

So here’s my list:

  1. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  2. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  3. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
  4. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  5. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  6. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle (1948)
  7. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice
  8. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  9. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
  10. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit
  11. Styron, William. Darkness Visible (1990)
  12. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  13. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  14. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
  15. Burns, Olive. Cold Sassy Tree
  16. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  17. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  18. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway

And the Winner Is . . .

#15. So I will be reading Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Burns by August 1.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “A Canticle for Leibowitz”

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
© 1959

leibowitzThis book was popular when I was in college back in the late 1960s. I never got around to reading it back then, and the same mass market paperback has been kicking around on my bookshelves ever since then. It won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel that deals with the themes of recurrent history and of the conflicts between church and state, and between faith in science. It comprises three sections:

Part I: Fiat Homo (“let there be man”)
Part II: Fiat Lux (“let there be light”)
Part III: Fiat Voluntas Tua (“let thy will be done”)

Part I opens 600 years after nuclear devastation, known as the Flame Deluge, destroyed 20th century civilization. Isaac Leibowitz, who had been a scientific engineer with the U.S. military, started a monastic order to preserve as much knowledge as possible by hiding books, memorizing books, and writing out new copies. The order’s abbey in the Utah desert is the repository for the Memorabilia, the remaining documents of the earlier civilization. We learn that after the nuclear devastation, there had been a backlash against the science and technology that had produced it, a period known as the Simplification, when learning, even the ability to read, became a cause for execution. For 600 years the Order of Leibowitz had been keeping safe the Memorabilia for a time when the world was once again ready for it. Part I ends with the canonization of Leibowitz as Saint Leibowitz.

As Part II opens, 600 years after Part I, civilization is beginning to emerge from the previous dark age. While scientists study the Memorabilia at the abbey and begin to make crude instruments from the preserved descriptions, political unrest and manipulation heat up.

After another 600 years, in Part III, mankind once again has nuclear weapons along with spaceships and extraterrestrial colonies. Members of the Order of Saint Leibowitz load the Memorabilia onto a ship and head off toward another planet just as the people of earth once again destroy themselves through nuclear attack.

Through its three sections this novel examines the themes of the cyclical recurrence of history and the eternal conflicts between darkness and light, knowledge and ignorance, truth and deception, religion and science, and power and subjugation. A Canticle for Leibowitz has remained in print since its original publication and is generally considered one of the outstanding works of science fiction. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #12: “Darkness at Noon”

Related Post:

darkness at noon

Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
Translated by Daphne Hardy
Original publication date: 1940
Rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1966
ISBN 0–553–26595–4

 

Originally written in German and translated into English by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy, Darkness at Noon was first published in 1940. Set in an unnamed country, the book is an allegory for the USSR’s 1938 purges during which Stalin worked to cement his position as dictator by eliminating potential rivals.

In an opening note Koestler wrote:

The characters in this book are fictitious. The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real. The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials. Several of them were personally known to the author. This book is dedicated to their memory.

The Classics ClubThe main character, Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, is imprisoned and tried for treason against the government that he helped to create. As he contemplates his life, Rubashov realizes the Party, which has been in power for 20 years, is no closer than it originally was to accomplishing its goal of creating a socialist utopia. He remembers, with some shame and guilt, his own earlier actions of betrayal that promoted the Party’s purposes.

As he is interrogated, Rubashov initially refuses to admit to the trumped-up charges. Afterwards, the two interrogators, Gletkin and Ivanov, discuss Rubashov’s fate. Ivanov, the more intellectual of the two, is basically humane and disturbed by the suffering he causes. Ivanov represents the original Party supporters. Gletkin represents the younger generation of the Party elite moving to take over from the older generation. He favors more ruthless means of torture such as sleep deprivation and doesn’t care how he gets the confession he needs to establish his own position.

Eventually Rubashov admits to the false charges. The novel ends with his execution.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #12

It’s time for The Classics Spin #12.

Here are the directions:

At your blog, by next Monday, March 7, list your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list — in a separate post.

Next Monday, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by May 2, 2016.

Here’s my list, awaiting the announcement of the lucky number:

  1. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
  2. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  3. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  4. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  5. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  6. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle (1948)
  7. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  8. Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
  9. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  10. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
  11. Styron, William. Darkness Visible (1990)
  12. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  13. Burns, Olive. Cold Sassy Tree
  14. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  15. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  16. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
  17. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit
  18. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway
  19. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955)
  20. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin

Update

The lucky number is 8! So I’ll be reading Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler by May 2. Fortunately, it’s relatively short.

Final Update

My review is here.

The Classics Spin #9: “Cannery Row”

Back in March I won the opportunity to read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for The Classics Spin #9. And I mistakenly thought the completion date was May 15. In fact, it was May 5. Not that it really matters, since I’m a bit late either way. But I did finally finish reading the book on the plane flight to Europe.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
Original publication date: 1945
Rpt. New York: Penguin, 2002
ISBN 978–1–101–65979–3

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chopped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

This opening paragraph introduces readers to Cannery Row, where, when the “cannery whistles scream … men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work.” But at day’s end, after these workers “straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town … Cannery Row becomes itself again—quiet and magical. Its normal life returns.”

The book’s narrator asks, “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?” He decides that the way to write this book is “to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

And so, in the manner of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Cannery Row tells the story of this place through the intertwining stories of its inhabitants. Set during the Great Depression, the book portrays a time when work was hard and life was even harder.

The main characters include Doc, a marine biologist based on Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, to whom the book is dedicated; Lee Chong, a local Chinese grocer; Mack, the leader of a group of unemployed men; and Dora, owner of the local brothel. The book acknowledges the characters’ many faults—drunkenness, malingering, craftiness—while at the same time portraying their good qualities—kindness, charity, friendship. After all, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches” are the same as “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.”

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Rereading “Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink

caddie woodlawnBrink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
Original publication date: 1935
rpt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007
eISBN 978–1–4424–6858–0

Part of the charm of rereading, as an adult, books that I read as a child is understanding and appreciating how I must have reacted to the books back then. I didn’t remember much about Caddie Woodlawn when I put it on my Classics Club reading list except that I enjoyed it. Now I see why.

Carol Ryrie Brink based the book, and the character of Caddie, on her grandmother’s stories about her own childhood. The book opens in 1864 with a description of 11-year-old Caddie Woodlawn, “as wild a little tomboy as ever ran the woods of western Wisconsin.” Caddie and her sister Mary had both been frail and sickly when the family first came to Wisconsin from Boston seven years earlier. After Mary died, Mr. Woodlawn told his wife, “I want you to let Caddie run wild with the boys. Don’t keep her in the house learning to be a lady. I would rather see her learn to plow than make samplers, if she can get her health by doing so. I believe it is worth trying.” So Caddie was allowed to run free with her brothers, Tom and Warren, all over the area surrounding their farm.

Their adventures would have appealed to me because, as a young child, I also spent much of my time exploring the world around me in a small, rural New England town. I didn’t have siblings to accompany me, but some of my happiest memories are of sitting in the crotch of an apple tree below my house during apple blossom time and watching the bees buzz among the flowers. I also often tried to catch field mice in the unmown meadow with a coffee can, but I never succeeded. My parents had a troubled marriage, and I learned to take refuge outdoors.

Another feature of this book that would have appealed to me was the strong family life it portrays. I did not share that experience with Caddie’s family, and throughout my childhood I was drawn to books and television shows that offered alternate visions of what family life could be like.

Rereading the book now, I wonder how I reacted to the gender message that it carries. Although Caddie’s adventures appealed to me, I probably simply glossed over the gender issues. Children’s books entertain while at the same time imparting the message of what one’s society considers proper behavior, especially which behaviors are proper for boys and which for girls. Other members of society question Mr. Woodlawn’s approach to raising Caddie along with the boys. Early in the book the visiting circuit preacher asks, “When are you going to begin making a young lady out of this wild Indian, Mrs. Woodlawn?”

Significantly, Caddie turns 12 during the year of the book’s narrative, the traditional age of puberty that marks the progression into adulthood. After her birthday the gender message intensifies. Near the end of the book, Caddie’s mother punishes her for treating a visiting cousin badly, while the boys, who also participated, go free. Later Mr. Woodlawn “thrashes” the boys because he thinks it only fair that they share in the punishment, since he has raised Caddie, Tom, and Warren the same way.

Then father explains to Caddie:

It’s a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls than of boys. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman’s task is to reach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It’s a big task, too, Caddie—harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as ich as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well.”

You will not find a better description than this of the Victorian notion of separate spheres of life for men and women. This notion prescribed that business, finance, and politics were men’s world, while home and church constituted women’s world. There could be no overlap in these spheres of distinction. This concept also gave rise to the view of woman as a tender flower who had to be protected from the unsavory aspects of the world. This view conveniently kept women in their place and kept men in charge.

Like other young girls, I would have unconsciously and unquestioningly absorbed this vision of reality as truth. Caddie certainly does. After her father’s talk, she falls asleep.

When she awoke she knew that she need not be afraid of growing up. It was not just sewing and weaving and wearing stays. It was something more thrilling than that. It was a responsibility, but, as Father spoke of it, it was a beautiful and precious one, and Caddie was ready to go and meet it.

Thank you, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for shattering the notion of that view of life as a “thrilling responsibility, beautiful and precious,” that all girls should rush forward to meet as they grow up.

The Classics Spin #9

It’s time for The Classics Spin #9.

For this exercise, Classics Club readers are to make a numbered list of 20 unread books on their original reading list. Then next Monday, April 6, the club will announce a number between 1 and 20, and by May 15 we are to read the book with that number on the spin list we created .

The assignment suggests that we pick books from several categories for the spin list to challenge ourselves:

For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

However, I know that the next three months (April-June) are going to be very busy for me. Not wanting to set myself up for failure, I’m choosing from among the shorter books and the easiest to read on my original list.

So here’s my list of 20 for the upcoming spin:

  1. Faulkner, William. Sanctuary
  2. Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
  3. Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
  4. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  5. Morley, Christopher. Kitty Foyle
  6. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  7. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire
  8. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  9. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories
  10. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  11. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology
  12. Wilder, Thornton. Our Town
  13. Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
  14. Styron, William. Darkness Visible
  15. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  16. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five
  17. James, Henry. What Maisie Knew
  18. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from the Underground

Update

We have a winner! It’s #2.

So I’ll be reading Steinbeck’s Cannery Row by May 15. Excited! Believe it or not, I’ve never read this book before.

On Reading

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

A constant topic of literary criticism (in both senses of criticism) is that the Western canon is populated by an over-abundance of dead White guys and that we don’t read or even hear about enough authors from the margins of society (e.g., women, people—especially women—of color, LGBT people, non-Western people). Here Dallas Taylor talks about his year (from November 2013 to the end of 2014) of reading books only by women (with a couple of exceptions for which you can check his footnote): “for a solid year I read almost exclusively women, from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Taylor says he undertook this project as a writer, because he was working on a novel with three female characters and he wanted to make them as realistic as possible. Yet his year of reading women authors affected him most as a reader and as, well, a human being:

So, how did it change me as a reader? It’s subtle, but it’s there. I find myself more attuned to characters now, whether they feel like real people or just vessels caught in a narrative tide. I’m more interested in narratives whose conflicts don’t revolve around violence. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for the rule of cool. To some extent this is just a natural extension of my evolution as a reader and writer, but I can definitely feel the influence of my year of reading women.

And while Taylor is quick to say that you don’t have to change your reading habits if you don’t want to, he advises you to examine your motivations if the thought of reading only women authors for a while makes you angry. He hits the nail on the head when he says that what makes us the angriest is probably the very thing we fear most.

But if you do decide to devote some time to reading books by women, he’s got you covered with quite a substantial list of recommendations.

Male Science-Fiction Authors Discuss The Women Writers Who Influenced Them

“The most important political problem in the modern world is the position of women. I think all of the other oppressions, whether it be homophobia, whether it be racism, or what have you, are all modeled on the oppression of women.”

That’s acclaimed author Samuel R. Delany, speaking about the role women have played in the genres of science-fiction and fantasy

Rafi Schwartz introduces a video created by HeForShe, a project of the United Nations’ UN Women division, which focuses on engaging men and boys around issues of gender inequality. Schwartz writes:

With its frequent bent toward the aspirational— by describing worlds that should be rather than the one that is (in this case, the one that is inherently biased against women)–the genres of science-fiction and fantasy make a natural home for authors whose voices might otherwise be marginalized.

He concludes that highlighting the foundational roles of women in science fiction and fantasy can provide a beginning toward addressing issues of gender equality that continue to affect society.

What Not to Worry About in Teaching Young Children to Read

We’ve all heard about the importance of reading to young children, but are there other approaches we should be taking to raise eager readers? Here Jessica Lahey talks with Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, about his new book Raising Kids Who Read.

Here are some of Willingham’s key points:

  • For young children, learning speech sounds is more important than learning to recognize letters. Books that use a lot of alliteration and rhyme, such as Dr. Suess and Mother Goose, are good for this.
  • Starting to read at early doesn’t give a child a later advantage in reading comprehension.
  • As children grow, make sure they know that leisure reading is different from reading for school.
  • Most important, parents should model good reading habits for their children.

At the end of the article is a link to a free excerpt of Dr. Willingham’s book.

War of words sidelines Seattle’s ‘City of Literature’ bid

What a sad story this is. The city of Seattle, WA, had applied for designation as a City of Literature. “The UNESCO City of Literature program is an international designation awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression.”

Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot has lead the effort as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature. But Boudinot recently published an opinion piece titled Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. In that piece he made several controversial remarks:

  • “Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.”
  • “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
  • “If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”

But the remark that got Boudinot into the most trouble was this one:

“For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”

Attacking graduate writing programs is one of those topics among writers and critics that just won’t go away. Boudinot should have expected the ****storm that has descended upon him because of his remarks.

But the saddest result is that the rest of the Seattle City of Literature board has resigned, leaving the city’s application for City of Literature designation hanging. If you’re dying to know how this whole situation worked itself out, follow the links in this article.

The Perils of Re-Reading

Whenever I get to feeling a bit down on humanity, I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and get my faith in my fellow man restored.

In this article on BookRiot, Susie Rodarme explains that she used to reread her favorite books a lot, until a few years ago when she started to notice flaws on rereading her favorite series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Then the same thing happened with Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Here’s what she’s learned from all this:

I’m happy to report that my re-read of All the Pretty Horses went swimmingly, while a re-read of Prodigal Summer left me a bit wanting. What I’ve learned is that re-reading comes with responsibility if you want to continue enjoying your favorite books. You can overdo it. You can see them in a less flattering light.

I guess I probably don’t reread as much as Rodarme does. The only book I’ve read lots and lots of times is the aforementioned Mockingbird. Recently I joined The Classics Club  not only to fill in the gaps in my lifelong reading list, but also to reread some of the books from my earlier years, such as “Anne of Green Gables”. For me, the key to enjoying a reread is to allow enough time between reads that I remember the general outlines of the story but not the details of how it was written. In this way I get to experience the local pleasures of how the book is written while at the same time noticing new clues that contribute to the overall story.

What about you? Do you reread books, or does rereading spoil them for you?

Review: “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Original publication date: 1919
Rpt. New York: Random House, 1947

Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio, is a collection of 23 interrelated sketches—Anderson calls them “tales”—that portray life in a Midwestern town in the early years of the twentieth century. The unifying thread throughout is the coming-of-age story of George Willard, an 18-year-old news reporter who dreams of leaving the confines of his home town and making his way in the larger world as a writer.

The book is significant historically for its use of common speech to portray its characters, the common people of Winesburg. Stylistically, Anderson influenced Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

The book is also significant historically for its place in the development of American realism and naturalism. Realism, which developed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, emphasized the influence of social environment on characters. As realism developed, it shifted into naturalism, with an emphasis on impersonal social, economic, and biological forces on individuals. With its focus on the psychological and biological impulses of its characters, Anderson’s book illustrates the beginning of this shift. Here, for example, is the narrator’s description of Kate Swift in “The Teacher”:

Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. (p. 191)

Most of the tales recount characters who have internal hungers and desires—ranging from pedophilia and God’s approval to fame, wealth, and human companionship—that they struggle to submerge in the belief that no one else harbors such secrets. For example, in “Queer” Elmer Cowley, unable to make friends after moving to Winesburg, feels that he’s always strange or abnormal, somehow different from other people:

George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of thee town. Elmer Cowley could not have believed that George Willard had also his days of unhappiness, that vague hungers and secret unnamable desires visited also his mind. (p. 234)

Anderson’s use of such subject matter is more subdued than other authors of the same time period such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.

Winesburg, Ohio opens with “The Book of the Grotesque,” which defines the term grotesque. 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” (p. 4). All these truths were beautiful. Then people came along and snatched up the truths. “It was the truths that made the people grotesques… . 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” (p. 5).

In this tale an old writer contemplates “something inside him [that] was altogether young” (p. 2). “He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes… . They were all grotesques” (p. 3). The old writer wrote a book about the grotesques but never published it. “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man” (p. 5).

“Sophistication,” the second-to-last story in the collection, describes George Willard’s coming of age in similar terms:

In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers, and the older, the more sophisticated thing had possession of George Willard. (p. 294)

Earlier, in “The Teacher,” Kate Swift, who had once been George Willard’s teacher, tries to explain to George “the difficulties he would have to face as a writer”:

“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words … You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say” (p. 192)

Like the old writer whose tale opens the book, George must grow up while at the same time keeping the young thing inside him alive. To become a writer, he must learn to look beneath the surface of what people say to understand their inner thoughts and desires.

The tales throughout this book tell stories of human desires thwarted and human connections unrealized. The last thing that George Willard must learn as he leaves Winesburg to embark on his life as a writer is how to exist in such a world. In “Sophistication” George meets up with Helen White, a young woman he feels attracted to:

George Willard sat beside Helen White and felt very keenly his own insignificance in the scheme of existence… . the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt. (pp. 295–296)

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown