Sunday, March 15, 2009

Last Train to Winesburg

Back in the cafe on a cloudy afternoon. Even more laptops today than last time...in fact, every frickin' table in the place, save two, has someone clicking away on a laptop. And my table, clearly, is no exception. And except for the music playing in the background, no one in here is talking. Everyone is locked away inside their own little cyberworld. Is this what technology has brought to us: a better way to be isolated and lonely, while maintaining the illusion of connectedness through Facebook, and MySpace, and e-mail, and, yes, blogs? Are people now more isolated and remote than ever? Possibly, for otherwise they'd come to cafes to chat and socialize, rather than stare into the shallow glow of their laptop screen. But then again, "Winesburg, Ohio" makes a good argument for the case that loneliness and isolation is endemic to the human condition, with or without technology.

This is one of the most depressing books I've read in quite awhile, maybe ever. All the characters, save for one or two, are lonely, isolated, odd, misunderstood, unhappy...or, more usually, a combination of two or more from this list. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The writing is very realistic, thoughtful, beautiful. I've never read any Sherwood Anderson before, but I'd like to read some more. He really gets inside the characters, yet continually leaves them understated. And the sparseness of his writing style lends itself beautifully to the sense of isolation and alienation that envelopes the characters. Its sad and poignant, but in a subtle understated way, never even remotely over the top.

It's interesting to think about "Winesburg, Ohio" in relation to two other books I've read for this project so far: Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" and Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel". "Main Street" also deals with the isolation of living in a small, rural town in the early 1900s, but here the loneliness is most prominent in the town's newcomer...the townspeople themselves don't have the solitude of the characters in Winesburg. And in "Winesburg, Ohio" we observe the one character that returns in most of the stories, George Willard, grow up and become a man, and eventually leave the confines of the town for the larger world, with a sense that he will not be returning. This is similar to Eugene Gant's story in "Look Homeward, Angel", although the latter book has more of a southern gothic twinge running through it.

Would the characters in Winesburg exist in today's world? Would they all be online, but as isolated as ever? Or would they all be on Prozac, in therapy, and surrounded by self-help books? And if so, would any of that help? Or is it all just wallpaper, thinly applied to cover up the barren walls of the human condition. "We live as we dream, alone" wrote the Gang of Four. Sherwood Anderson would agree.

Read this book. It's great!

8 comments:

R. T. said...

You ask, "Would the characters in Winesburg exist in today's world?" Although I presume your question to be ironic, we should all recognize ourselves among the grotesques in Anderson's book. Their isolation is our isolation. Their peculiarities are ours. If we ridicule, scorn, or feel sorry for Anderson's characters, we do so at our own peril because--in my humble opinion--Winesburg, Ohio has always been a mirror. And it makes us uncomfortable. That, I think, is the strength of Anderson's novelized collection of stories.
By the way, I am impressed with your reading goals and your blog. I hope to visit often and read about your book reading odyssey.

R. T. said...

Postscript: What is next on your reading schedule? Your reading of Winesburg, Ohio and your comments motivate me to re-read it again (returning to after more than a decade). Well, at any rate, I look forward to hearing about your next title.

Robby Virus said...

Well, yes, I was being ironic...as usual. But I agree...the reader cannot and should not scorn the characters in Winesburg, for there are parts of some of them in all of us. We're all grotesques in some way or another. That's what I loved about the book - the characters, while odd, are all quite human and familiar.

Thanks for your comments! And you should definitely reread Winesburg...I'll come back to it myself some day.

estelle said...

Hi! What a good idea. I think lots of people have a mental list of books or authors that they 'should' read, but I always think it's a good idea to document that stuff, because who can remember everything? I've only read about 11 of the 105 you've listed, and it's nice to be reminded of what's left to sample.

Anonymous said...

Hi middle-aged man, I greet you, one aging bloke to another.

Typically I'm reluctant to recommend books because they're personal affairs. But Winesburg, Ohio is so beautifully written and has such a charming tempo that I've been gushing about it for weeks with book lovers in my little part of the world.

Anderson has a natural feel for the loneliness that hides behind the surface of things, behind our customs and manners, behind our speech and fashion, our jobs and family life, and prompts us to do the things we do.

Like savoring books, talking about them and recommending them to others.

So next time you're blogging at a coffee shop, channel your inner Willard. Hazard a conversation with someone, assuming of course she's an attractive 28-year old woman.

No better way to break through the surface of things!

Best,
Kevin

DreamQueen said...

Thanks for the reminder that I need to read this book!

C. B. James said...

Interesting post and interesting blog. I think Winesburg, Ohio is still a very under-rated book. The Word for Word theatre company in San Francisco staged several of their stories a few years ago; the audience found they still hit home.

The most recent Pulitzer winner, Olive Kitteridge reminded me of Winesburg, Ohio. It's set in contemporary small town Maine but many of the characters in the book would be right at home in Winesburg, Ohio.

Anonymous said...

Hi reader of Winesburg Ohio, I have enjoyed your comment on this book - I'm reading it for a University Course.... I notice in your list there is no Joseph Conrad 'Heart of Darkness' if so you would maybe know it's in there you will find the phrase 'we live as we dream, alone'. I was not aware the gang of Four had used it. That's called intertextuality they say - if we students do it thou it's called plagiarism...Anyway, keep up the good readings.. best, Margherita Muller (Glasgow)