Sherwood Anderson’s book of short stories begins with an old writer thinking of the people he has known throughout his life. Particularly ingrained in his mind are the ‘grotesques’ of Winesburg, the small fictional town in Ohio that serves as the setting for each story. The writer is George Willard, who as a young man worked as a reporter for the Winesburg Eagle.
Winesburg, Ohio contains an array of interesting and unusual characters who all suffer from loneliness. Each person longs for meaningful human contact, whether from a friend or lover, to fill the aching gap in their lives. They all struggle from an inability to adequately voice this burning desire, and, as is the case in ‘Hands’, the story about the tragic life of the misunderstood former schoolteacher, Wing Biddlebaum, physical expression takes on great significance.
The position of George Willard is a fascinating one. As Winesburg’s only reporter, he is a close observer who tries to record the affairs of the townspeople, and his occupation gives him an air of eminence that leads many of them to confide in him. This character brings to mind the figure of John Singer in Carson McCullers’ 1940 novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, whose muteness elevates him as a kind of all-knowing being in the eyes of those he meets. However, what is clear in both texts is that neither men have life’s answers. Although undetected by others, both John and George are just as vulnerable to human weaknesses and regularly experience feelings of loneliness and doubt.
There are many other parallels between Winesburg, Ohio and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, especially the theme of loneliness and the absence of God. In Sherwood Anderson’s stories, many characters in their search for something to lift them above the monotony of everyday life pray in vain to a silent God. As small, quiet towns isolated from the hustle and bustle of the city, the novels’ respective settings are also particularly effective in emphasising the internal lives of characters who often have nothing else to do but think.
Anderson and McCullers also deploy simple writing styles that fit perfectly with the unpretentious tone of each text, and in doing so make both more powerful. McCullers even mirrors him by portraying hands as an important communicative and emotional link with one’s fellow man, as seen in John Singer’s backstory when he passionately communicates through sign language with his fellow silent friend, Spiros Antonapoulos.
Winesburg, Ohio is an extremely impressive achievement, and it should be read chronologically like a novel to feel the full impact of the short stories. Anderson’s depiction of loneliness may often be sad, but it also has its touching moments. In this small town he beautifully shows that pain, longing, and uncertainty are unavoidable aspects of what it means to be human, and that we must love and cherish life because it is the only one we have.