Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio by George Willard is a snapshot of  small town rural America at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The book was first published in 1919, a year after the end of the First World War. For many returning war veterans the book was nostalgic. These youths left the cities, small towns, and farms of America to travel to a decidedly different Europe and experience in one short year the death and destruction that Europeans had endured for four long years. For a few veterans who enlisted before finishing high school, at seventeen like my grandfather, it was perhaps something simpler. Perhaps it was filling in a few missing pages in their life story. What they had missed by enlisting before the end of high school.

The book remains relevant today. It is the story of the awakening of a young mind.

The book begins with the writer, an old man with a white mustache, who has difficulty getting into and out of bed. But once this feeling of nostalgia is created, the story shifts in time to when the writer, George Willard was a young man living in the small mid-western town of Winesburg, Ohio. There are two points in our lives when we discover the essential truth to the meaning of life. One point is high school, just before we begin our life's journey, and the other is when we are near the end of the long road of life. 

And the truth is like this:

That 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. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.


And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques....

Rereading Winesburg, Ohio after many years, I am struck by the how time and age act on the writer's words. Then, I was like George Willard, the central character of the book. George was a high school adolescent, the writer for the local paper of Winesburg. As such he was both an observer of people. His descriptions of  of the people who populate his hometown make up the stories that became the book. Then it was fresh in his mind, later the characters and their impressions grew and took on a particular color and meaning.

Grotesques, he calls them, not because they are necessarily horrible, but rather because many of them had been shaped into caricatures.Some might be beautiful or amusing, but all were shaped by life and forced to wear of face that was not of their own choosing. Each caricature a mask of an exaggerated emotion. Each character a one-dimensional image of life. Each character the revelation of a truth or not even that, a half truth.

 "Oh, you Wingbiddlebaum, comb your hair, it's falling into your eyes," commanded the voice to the man, who was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks.

Words can convey meanings that are not always understood. And so an off-hand remark to Wing Biddlebaum in Hands, the first story in the book has a special meaning unto itself.It is important to note that the reader of these words does not at first blush understand their significance to Wing Biddlebaum.Only as the story unfolds do we realize that these simple words set forth a cascade of memories that frame the telling of this story.

Grotesques as a word seems a little harsh to describe the characters of Winesburg, Ohio. And even Sherwood Andersen in his introduction admits that the word is use only to describe how in time the characters of the book  became big in the author's mind. Understanding this nuance, grotesque seems the correct word choice. Each individual reveals an important truth in the life of George Willard. Bing represents on one level the admonition to youth that one must try to "forget all that you have learned. You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices [of others]." The story of the Hands is also an admonition. Failing to heed Bing's warning, life can become a retreat into darkness in which one repents daily of a weakness in not choosing individuality.

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