Living in Winesburg
Garrison Keillor does not like Sherwood Anderson.
Or, rather, he doesn’t like Winesburg, Ohio, which was written by Anderson. He once said the book “is pretty dreadful, and it inspired a whole lot of bad books about sensitive adolescent males needing to flee the philistines in their hometowns.”
I’ve been entertained by Garrison and his A Prairie Home Companion many times over. I’m grateful for the wry and original shows he put on, week after week, year after year.
However, I think he’s wrong about that book.
Winesburg, Ohio, in case you haven’t read it, is a series of linked short stories about life in a small town in Ohio with a recurring character, a young man named George Willard, a stand-in for Anderson. It was published in 1919.
You can make a case for Garrison’s point about the book. Sometimes the writing is naive and simplistic. But his comment is a bit suspect when you consider that his show’s humor seems right out of the small town worries, insecurities and eccentricities that populate Winesburg.
Beyond that, though, is something true embodied in the book and, most dramatically, in one of the stories, “Adventure.” The story is about a lonely woman, in a small town, whose hopes are dashed. A woman whose story, save for Anderson, would be swallowed by much bigger stories that vie, always, for our attention. These are the intimate, intense tragedies in life that everyone knows about and many of us have experienced. Anderson casts his eye on them knowingly and with concern.
“Adventure” is about Alice Hindman who, at sixteen, falls in love with a boy named Ned Currie. She, “betrayed by her desire to have something beautiful come into her rather narrow life,” sleeps with Ned. She imagines they will get married and move away from Winesburg and live happily together. Ned moves to Cleveland without her, then to Chicago, promising, in letters to Alice, he will send for her soon. He never does. His letters become less frequent, and, eventually, stop.
Alice, however, never loses hope. She rejects all offers from other men. She holds onto the belief that Ned will send for her. As the years go on, her hope turns into delusion. Her thinking veers from reality. She no longer thinks about Ned but holds a vague notion of being rescued from her lonely life in this small town.
One night, during a rainstorm, she takes off all her clothes and runs naked into the street. “She thought,” Anderson writes, “that the rain would have some creative and wonderful effect on her body. Not for years had she felt so full of youth and courage. She wanted to leap and run, to cry out, to find some other lonely human and embrace him.”
Suddenly, she realizes what she’s done. Horrified, falling to the ground, not daring to stand up, she crawls back to her house.
Here, I want to ask Garrison to have a close look at this woman, at her life and what she’s come to. I want to ask him if he knows anyone like Alice who has kept the agony of being alone inside her for years and who has reached the point that Alice has reached and, in her bed at night, as Anderson describes it, “turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”
I can’t speak for you, Garrison, but I know I’ve turned my face to the wall in tears more than once.