Monday, August 6, 2012

Sherwood Anderson: Beneath the Surface of Lives

Buoyed by the recommendations of several professors, friends, and the fact that it was an inspiration to Ray Bradbury and his book, The Martian Chronicles, I finally read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It was first published in 1919, and the stories appear to take place around the 1880s in the United States, but that is not to say they are dated. We can be refreshed to find couples taking long evening walks together as their primary form of courtship and entertainment (embracing and kissing are optional). While we might notice the lack of automobiles, telephones, and computers, the emotional resonances—the fears, insecurities, loves, lusts, and discomforts—are spot on. The result is, at times, melancholy.

In this collection, Anderson wrote a series of interconnected heart-catching stories that are less concerned with plot than with capturing an emotional moment in time. The dedication is a clue to the contents:
To the Memory of My Mother, Emma Smith Anderson, whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives, this book is dedicated. 
Anderson wove his mother's words into the story "The Teacher" at paragraph 19, "The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say." All of the stories show people doing or saying one thing, but thinking about or wishing they were doing something else. This paralleled his own life: he had a breakdown and left his first marriage, his three young children, and his business to pursue his writing, much to the pain of his family, but delighting and inspiring a later generation of writers.

Beneath the surface of the sentences, style is also important in Anderson's writing. If you have read much Gertrude Stein, particularly aloud, you might begin to hear her cadences in his work. I could hear her reading many of Anderson's stories in my head. Malcolm Cowley, the 1960 editor of Winesburg, writes that Stein's 1909,  Three Lives: Stories of the Good Anna, Melanctha, and the Gentle Lena "…pointed the way toward a simpler and more repetitive style, closer to the rhythms of American speech…" I would stress that he echoed her rhythms without the incomprehensibility of some of her work. You can read Stein's book onlineStein's repetitions show immediately. Here is a sample of the first paragraph of "The Good Anna:"
Anna Federner, this good Anna, was of solid lower middle-class south german stock. When she was seventeen years old she went to service in a bourgeois family, in the large city near her native town, but she did not stay there long. One day her mistress offered her maid—that was Anna—to a friend, to see her home. Anna felt herself to be a servant, not a maid, and so she promptly left the place.
Similar musical sounds occur in Anderson's "An Awakening." It begins with pairs of adjective/nouns that have consonance ("k" in "dark skin"), and assonance (long "a" sound of "grey" and "eyes," short "i" of "thick lips"). Then: angry and man (internal rhyme), fight and fists (alliteration), shop and kept and Kate and Mc (consonance), sat and hats (internal rhyme), rear and store (assonance) and others:
Belle Carpenter had a dark skin, grey eyes, and thick lips. She was tall and strong. When black thoughts visited her she grew angry and wished she were a man and could fight someone with her fists. She worked in the millinery shop kept by Mrs. Kate McHugh and during the day sat trimming hats by a window at the rear of the store.
If you compare these two stories further, you will likely find that Stein is a fine craftswoman, but that the attention to language often does not allow the reader to get too close to the characters. Anderson's sentence sounds ebb and flow more loosely. He was somewhat grammatically challenged, but he made up for it by diving into his characters' hearts. Belle's frustration, for example, is made even more tangible with the addition of "fists" to the description.

Of all of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio (and they are available to read online, although a paper book is always nice), I think that "The Untold Lie" is one of the strongest and most satisfying. It is also the one that is highlighted and summarized in the introduction by Malcolm Cowley. Two men, at different stages in their lives, have a conversation about women. One asks for advice and the other is torn and twisted, completely in anguish about which answer to give since both are true and both are lies: the answers conflict. (But that's a bit of a simple summary.) Many of the stories wilt, droop, or drift away at the end, and do not have—according to Cowley, and the first I've ever heard this term—the "snapper*," sense or relief, or surprise ending that American folk tales usually had. Instead, each of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, in its own way, grips the reader and gets under the surface of skin.

*anybody ever heard this word to describe the ending? I've heard of twist or turn, but not snapper.

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