Small Town News
This book byte includes quotations and information from the Norton Critical Edition of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, edited by Charles Modlin and Ray Lewis White (1996) and from the first volume of Walter Rideout’s 2006 biography Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America.
Hello, Radio Readers, and welcome to conversation about our Fall 2022 series “Rural Life, Revisited.” I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, and our first book is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Published in 1919, this notable book depicts small town rural life. A sequence of short stories about various people of the village of Winesburg is linked through George Willard, a journalist in training, whose family maintains the local and charmingly derelict hotel. A reporter for the local newspaper, George Willard fills irregular hours roaming, wandering, and hanging about, absorbing the stories of the locals, stories which range from weird and disturbing to touchingly romantic, detailing careers derailed by gossip and gambling, lives diverted by desire and disappointment, lust mistaken for love.
What? What? I can hear you, Radio Readers…. No, no. George Willard wasn’t writing for the yellow press, what we might today call “shock news.” No. He wrote for a small rural newspaper, likely with a weekly run, with accounts of gatherings, family reunions, local accomplishments, such as new jobs, weddings, births, and obituaries. Before it was bought up by a corporate interest, my own hometown weekly was much the same, but informed readers also of visits to esteemed locals of relatives from elsewhere and featured photos of local folks holding a copy of the local paper while vacationing at notable destinations. Sometimes names of those hospitalized, deployed, or retiring were listed. Most memorable are columns written by a chatty woman from an even smaller nearby town who buried criticism of local businesses and city officials amidst gardening tips and seasonal recipes. Additional regular features included minutes from meetings of women’s clubs, 4-H chapters, and veteran organizations. Here is the kind of news for which the fledgling reporter George Willard looks for on his perambulations about Winesburg, Ohio, right?
One of Anderson’s biographies includes snippets from the newspaper of the small Ohio town where Anderson lived until he was about 19 with his family. The Anderson family had some hard times, mostly attributable to Mr. Anderson’s downward mobility. He has been recalled as “an accommodating neighbor but a poor provider.” His tall tales of his soldiering during the Civil War did help him drum up work as a laborer but also led to reports in the local paper of “Major Anderson” – he had never been an officer—“displaying his artistic taste with the brush…this week upon Pickett’s new…house” and later his inability to work due to injuries sustained from falling into a ditch. A story which hinted at Mr. Anderson’s not infrequent enjoyment of strong drink. Unknown are the reactions of the Anderson family to these reports, but we might imagine some embarrassment for these public insults; we might even expect some hard feelings. Sherwood Anderson said he remembered this Ohio town as “fair and sweet.” He said he liked the town, that he “saw it the way that it was and…put it down the way it was.”
That small rural town, described as it was, is the basis for the fictional town of Winesburg, with a grocery, a hardware store, hotel, café, a saloon, a church, and offices for the newspaper, doctor, a minister, and nearby a fairground. Throughout his life, Sherwood Anderson publicly spoke and wrote fondly of the people of what had been his hometown for 12 formative years of his life. They were “simple and good,” “ordinary;” “sweet” if “hurt and twisted” by life yet “decent and real people” he would “be glad to spend [his] life with.” Yet. He didn’t. And the Winesburg he created is populated with doctors who don’t, sons who refuse the family business, women who act on desire, and a voyeuristic minister. What is with this “Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life”?
Before I go, did you know that prior to his career as a writer of fiction, Sherwood Anderson, a high school drop-out, veteran of the Spanish-American war, a late graduate of a college-prep business curriculum, found success as one of the first American spin-doctors in the then newly emerging arena of advertising?
For HPPR Radio Readers, I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas.
Happy reading, everyone!