Places: Winesburg, Ohio

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1919

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Places DiscussedWinesburg

Winesburg. Winesburg, OhioOhio village of some one thousand inhabitants. All two dozen stories in Winesburg, Ohio are set in Winesburg, a small town probably based on Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson lived as a young boy. One of the qualities that makes Winesburg a novel rather than a simple collection of stories is that the village setting is constant, and the same characters (especially the central character, George Willard) wander through it in different stories. In most editions of the novel, a map of the town’s layout faces the title page and shows its two main roads, Main and Buckeye Streets, the railroad tracks, and the eight most important structures in the town, including the railroad station, the New Willard House hotel, the office of the Winesburg Eagle, and the fairground. Winesburg is like any small midwestern village: Surrounded by farms, it is the regional center of commercial and social life.

The stories concern several of the prominent citizens of the town, including two doctors (Reefy and Parcival), the Presbyterian minister (Reverend Curtis Hartman), and a schoolteacher (Kate Swift). Most of the characters in the stories are lonely, estranged from their fellow townspeople, and incapable of expressing their inner, often neurotic longings. Part of the “revolt from the village” movement in American letters at the beginning of the twentieth century–a literary movement which included poet Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology, 1915) and novelist Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, 1920)–Anderson showed the isolation and frustration of small-town life. “I told the stories of repressed lives,” Anderson later said about Winesburg, Ohio. Attacking one of the dominant myths of American culture, Anderson demonstrated that village life, far from being supportive and joyous, was marked by alienation and restlessness, the legacy of American puritanism and commercialism.

New Willard House

New Willard House. Winesburg hotel run by Tom and Elizabeth Willard. Shabby and disorderly, the New Willard House reflects the lives of its inhabitants. Elizabeth Willard has inherited the hotel from her father, but it is an unprofitable venture. She and her husband are estranged, but both pin their hopes on their young son George, the reporter for the Winesburg Eagle who wanders the village gathering stories for his paper. As a young girl in her father’s hotel, Elizabeth had dreamed of escaping Winesburg and becoming an actress. In one of the last stories of Winesburg, Ohio, “Death,” Elizabeth Willard has a brief affair with Dr. Reefy, but then she dies. Her death helps to free her son from this unhappy town.

<i>Winesburg Eagle</i>

Winesburg Eagle. Offices of the local newspaper. Located (according to the frontispiece map) at the main intersection of town, the newspaper office is the site of much traffic. People wander in to talk to George Willard, especially late at night, for George is often there, if not working, then thinking about his encounters with the various “grotesques” who inhabit his village. No one story is set in the office, but several end here. At the conclusion of “The Strength of God,” for example, the Reverend Hartman spills out his religious epiphany to George “half incoherently”; at the end of “The Teacher,” Kate Swift lets George Willard take her in his arms in this office–and then starts to beat on his face with her “sharp little fists.”

Fairground

Fairground. “At the upper end of the Fair Ground, in Winesburg,” Anderson writes in the penultimate story, “Sophistication,” “there is a half decayed old grand-stand,” and here George Willard and Helen White go late one fall evening. With Helen, George no longer feels the loneliness and isolation he has felt in town, and her presence renews him. “They kissed but that impulse did not last.” Instead, mutual respect for each other grows; “they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.” Several months later–and in the next, last story–George Willard leaves Winesburg, alone.

BibliographyBurbank, Rex. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Twayne, 1964. This accessible study of Anderson’s life and work provides a fine introduction to his first novel.Crowley, John W., ed. New Essays on Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Presents a variety of critical points of view and provides a forum of interpretative methods about Winesburg, Ohio.Dewey, Joseph. “No God in the Sky and No God in Myself: ‘Godliness’ and Anderson’s Winesburg.” Modern Fiction Studies 35, no. 2 (Summer, 1989): 251-259. Dewey’s essay searches the novel for its religious implications by focusing on the character of Jessie Bentley and shows how George Willard, as an artist, reshapes her search for spiritual communion.Reist, John S., Jr. “An Ellipse Becomes a Circle: The Developing Unity of Winesburg, Ohio.” CEA Critic 55, No. 3 (Spring-Summer, 1993): 26-38. This general study highlights the way the reader’s experience can grow through a close examination of the text.Rigsbee, Sally Adair. “The Feminine in Winesburg, Ohio.” Studies in American Fiction 9, no. 2 (Autumn, 1981): 233-244. Argues that the meaning given to the women characters in Winesburg, Ohio provides the novel with an important source of its artistic unity.White, Ray Lewis. Winesburg, Ohio: An Exploration. Boston: Twayne, 1990. This book-length study examines the novel’s historical context, the general importance of the work, and its critical reception. Provides a close reading of the text and a selected bibliography.
Categories: Places