The Fancy Times

Fine Slop for the Discerning Tastemaker

Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson, 1919

In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt.

A composite novel whose stories play out in the fictional small town of Winesburg. Although there exists a real life Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson’s Winesburg is modeled off his childhood home of Clyde, Ohio. Uncommon for his time and genre, Anderson did a bit of world-building, releasing a map of his made up town in the book’s first edition.

My copy is a cheap Signet Classic. I’ve had it for fifteen years and it falls apart a little more every time I read it. The first time I read it I wanted to steal it. Not the story, or the setting, but the style, the directness of language, the absolute lack of plot. I never write stories with a main character that I follow around like a curious puppy. I want population, human capital, plots that join and crash and splinter. All penned in third-person omniscient. Not that I’m special, but if I am ever were, I’d want it to be known that this book was the first that made me eager to write.  

The book’s timelessness may be credited to the book’s unconventional structure, or the rough romance of pre-industrial Americana. When you read a synopsis it sounds common, boring. It sounds like Edith Wharton and John Cheever. But from the first page it reads different, strange and clever. Reminiscent of Mark Twain or Tom Robbins. Naturalist, Modernist, New Realism; all have been used to diagnose this book. All current, the right parts are all there, but the most apt conceptualizing of it I’ve seen is Expressionist. Like those ghastly color works of Jazz Berlin, the book is a parading of small people writ large. Slightly wild, slightly tense, slightly repulsive, and very neurotic. Like the small town Midwest of today, nearly every character is drowning in loneliness and isolation. It is a ghost story with no ghosts. The people haunt themselves all on their own. 

There is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes the backward view of life. Perhaps that is the moment when he crosses the line into manhood. The boy is walking through the street of his town. He is thinking of the future and of the figure he will cut in the world. Ambitions and regrets awake within him. Suddenly something happens; he stops under a tree and waits as for a voice calling his name. Ghosts of old things creep into his consciousness; the voices outside of himself whisper a message concerning the limitations of life. From being quite sure of himself and his future he becomes not at all sure. If he be an imaginative boy a door is torn open and for the first time he looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness. The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun.

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