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Amber Paulen

A photograph of Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson next to the cat, Brinquedo.

Sherwood Anderson

Winesburg, Ohio

3 October 2008


This past summer, someone told me that if I ever wrote about the small town wherein I spent the bulk of my years so far, I would be writing about all towns and cities, all people and odd events that no doubt occur everywhere on a much larger scale. I did not know at the time that that book had already been written; that it was written in poetic fervor; that it encapsulated a time only to be regained through words. Though that time has passed so much has remained the same.

If I ever do write of Howard City, Michigan I will be much the shyer for have read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, than I would have been without it. For the first thing, each story in this book is intimidating. Sherwood Anderson has woven beauty out of everyday tragedy, he has stitched those intricate block patterns together, he has written a book of one long and many short ecstasies. Each story may stand on its own but the great strength of this book is the whole impression it makes, like a thick and hardy quilt draped over lovingly and purposefully.

While I read this book in bed with the warmth pulled up over me, I found myself in Howard City as if not one hundred years had passed. Sometimes I met there with Dostoevsky under the yellow flood of a lit streetlamp, by the glow of a character’s perfect precision. Other times it was John Cowper Powys I encountered, skipping through hedges in the form of George Willard hustling behind farmyards and down country roads. It was certainly Sherwood Anderson whose voice did the telling. I have found yet another fine author to revere and adore.

There are certain books I elongate for fear of coming to the end too soon. Winesburg, Ohio was one of them. Each vignette unrolled a new character, each new character was another poignant illustration: Mother, Adventure, The Teacher, Loneliness, Sophistication, to name a few. When I began the first “grotesque”, Hands, about Wing Biddlebaum and his “ghostly band of doubts,” I was swept by the sure feeling I was reading something absolutely new and that the book I was about to read was one to awe me.

The first sentence: Upon the half decayed veranda of a small framed house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down.

I don’t know what it is about that sentence. That sentence holds a mysterious power over me. It is simplicity and it is divine.

I became especially enamored with the “grotesque” entitled, The Teacher. Maybe because Kate Swift was one of the few women who did not get possessed in marriage—woe to those free minded women who were tied to hearth and home!—but mostly for such revolutions around writing, freely given.

“You will have to know life,” she declared… “If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words… It would be better to give up the notion of writing until you are better prepared. Now it’s time to be living. I don’t want to frighten you, but I would like to make you understand the import of what you think of attempting. You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking and not what they say.”

“A mere peddler of words…” Reading that sentence was more gold to me and I put the book down to better taste it. It tasted like truth, sweet and succulent, it looked like the insides of an easter lily and it smelled like the lilacs of early summer. I swore then and there, on my quaint copy of Winesburg, Ohio, I swore on the life of Sherwood Anderson, I swore on his descendants, mostly on Henry Miller, and I swore on my self, “I will not become a mere peddler of words.” And it tasted like my insides; as if I had eaten my own guts.

In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men.

The words of men and women, the unspoken rules, the fire-shot opinions and political drool crowd us. How do you know that what you are thinking is your own? To what lengths would you verify that? We no longer stand by the stove in our village for the villages have been clear-cut like the forests and those who once lived there have been murdered. Our firesides are chat forums and the faces of other men and women are their photos. Our minds are filled to overflowing with the words of other men. How do you know the words you speak and write are your own?

If the words you write and speak are your own you are not a “mere peddler of words.” If you do not know, if you can not feel the things that you say or want to say shoot down to the great bowels of the earth, do not reverberate your own soul, do not sound like truth even to yourself, then you have much work to do. While we all have been given the ability to speak only few speak well. The potential sparks large within us—All hail the blog!—but most of our developments fall short. We have not given ourselves the privilege of listening to our own words, of enlightening our own thoughts. Just sit for a bit; sit quiet and still.

This point should not be lightly taken; this point should make you question every damned thing you have ever convinced yourself to believe. The universe is shot with chaos and not one thing matters in lieu of interstellar explosions but our connectedness within ourselves, with others, with the stars.

Sherwood Anderson wanted to call Winesburg, Ohio, “The Book of the Grotesque.” The common grain within each “grotesque” is the moment wherein each character comes into a realization of himself or herself through a conversation, through action, through the emotions garnered with others. Their lives are outwardly simple and dull, but they glow with a starlit effect in that moment Sherwood Anderson has pinned on paper; an illumination which shines light upon us all.

It has been said that this book lacks a plot, in the traditional sense it surely does. Though if one is still convinced of this after a reading, one has not read near enough. What has been substituted for plot is the thread of our common grotesque nature, our lousy little problems, our highs and lows of emotional dregs, our puttering around in indecision, our turmoil of physical want, our boredom; these “issues” that we face or choose not to face, everyday may be our highest cumulations. By the force of Anderson’s poetics, he has convinced me that it is our grotesque natures which makes us most human.

Upon finishing most stories I enjoyed a smile. The outcome or lack of outcome was so simple and sometimes so moving, with a twist or do not twist, lie flat and watch them, the citizens of Winesburg, as they find themselves among their days. If the name of Sherwood Anderson slipped through literature posthumously, I wonder if it is not without reason. There are some books written in such a way so that the beauty of their prose sits like flowers on a grave; no one goes peeping inside, for fear of what they may find.

Bracciano Italy
October 2008



Commentary for Winesburg, Ohio


1 On Thursday 16 October 2008 mathias freese wrote:

Dear Ms. Paulen:
Magnificent assessment of the book which I just recommended to a reviewer of my book of short stories, “Down to a Sunless Sea.” I told her to study the craft by which this book creates epiphanies. It is a wonderful Bildungsroman. No wonder, in a narrow way, Hemingway kept it to himself that he had devoured Winesburg, Ohio. I was surfing for reviews of my book. If so inclined, would you be interested in perusing my query about it.
Kind Regards,
Matt Freese

2 On Saturday 18 October 2008 Amber wrote:

Thanks so much for the gracious comment. I looked at your site and it is a great refreshment from the land-o-blogs. It’s what I thought writer’s websites read like. That said, I would be interested in your book. Thanks for finding my writing!


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