Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson- You Can Check Out Anytime You Like But You Can Never Leave

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories by Sherwood Anderson. Published in 1919, all the stories are set in the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio, based apparently on Clyde, Ohio where Andersen grew up. Although the stories feature a range of characters – farmhands, troubled school teachers, clergymen tortured by guilty lust, for example – the book as a whole is loosely centred on George Willard, a young journalist.

This is an unusual book, especially for its time. The writing is economical and straight-forward, when most authors were taking a wordier approach. There is very little plot, more the describing of atmospheres and psychological states, corresponding with periods of crisis or turning points in people’s lives. The linked short story structure was innovative.

The whole book seems to be about transitions rather than neat and tidy endings or beginnings. Winesburg stands part way between a rural past and an urban future. People look for definite things to believe in, but always end up with partial truths. The stories tend to peter out rather than concluding with some definite point. The railway is mentioned constantly. People go somewhere else before coming back again. And yet for all this sense of transition, Winesburg seems to be a place that is very difficult to leave.

The book culminates with George Willard, the young journalist, deciding to escape. He gets on a train at the station, determined to start a new life elsewhere. But as he does so there are indications that escape will be more difficult than he imagines. George may think he is leaving, but from the point of view of Tom Little, conductor on George’s train, Winesburg’s physical borders are fuzzy to say the least. Tom spends his working life in a kind of elongated ‘town’ which, starting with Winesburg, is made up of all the places along the track.

He knows the people in the towns along his railroad better than a city man knows the people in his apartment building.’

Unlikely as it may seem, I found myself thinking of the surreal 1960s TV show The Prisoner, where a British secret agent finds himself trapped in a mysterious seaside village. Big white balloons keep thwarting his escape attempts. Winesburg is tiny, but somehow, no matter how far you go, you can’t seem to get away from it. Some of the stories show Winesburg as beautiful, others as ugly, cold and bleak. There was the same ambivalent feeling in The Prisoner, where the mysterious village is deeply unsettling and also charmingly picturesque. Recalling the series, I can imagine that instead of getting stressed out trying to escape, I might settle down in one of the colourful apartments with a word processor and a pile of good books, one of which could be Winesburg, Ohio. Anyhow, I digress. The fact that I digress about a 1960s sci-fi television show, indicates the strangely modern nature of this selection of stories.

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