Winesburg, Elsewhere: George Willard and the Literary Formalization of Obsession in Small-Town America and Abroad
Daniel Davis Wood
Chapter Two, “Winesburg, Elsewhere: George Willard and the Literary Formalization of Obsession in Small-Town America and Abroad,” considers the significance of the movement from story to story in Anderson’s fiction and finds that the stories are obsessively reiterative: each story emerges from the narrator’s efforts to develop an intimacy with a particular character but ends when that intimacy becomes too overwhelming to sustain, leaving him all but compelled to retreat to a different character with whom he enters a fresh cycle of intimacy and retreat—inevitably, repeatedly, and therefore obsessively. From this reading of the work as a reiterative text, the essay discusses how Winesburg essentially stands as the unlikely descendent of Poe’s tales of paranoia and madness and of Kafka’s accounts of bewildered oppression, both of which likewise consist of a fragmented cycle of intimacy, intimacy and retreat elsewhere; and, as such, it may well also stand as the progenitor of a global tradition of equally obsessive, fragmented, and cyclical explorations of small-town existence, ranging from Midwestern America to locales like suburban Dublin, rural Ontario, and coastal Australia.
By now, the names have been invoked so frequently as to seem almost fixed in place. Among those who produced work that paved the way for Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio: Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Hamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, and Gertrude Stein (Jacobson 55; Papinchak 3; Phillips 52; Stouck 150; White 10). Among those whose work has since contributed to and burnished the quality of the literary tradition now exemplified by Winesburg: “Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, William Saroyan, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter” (White 10), not to mention J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, John Updike, 24 Daniel Davis Wood
Shirley Jackson, Bernard Malamud, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Alice Adams, Robert Coover, and Joyce Carol Oates (Papinchak ix). In short, almost anyone who ever assembled a naturalistic depiction of small-town life and its attendant anxieties is either credited for having influenced Winesburg if they published before it appeared or otherwise held in debt to Winesburg if they published in its wake. Of course, to locate Winesburg at the forefront of American literary naturalism is an inclination so justifiable that it would be foolish to contest it, and so I want to be clear up-front that I intend to do no such thing. Rather, I intend to argue that while Winesburg justifiably belongs to the small-town naturalist tradition, it belongs equally, albeit less recognizably, to an alternative and quite different tradition: not instead of small-town naturalism, but in addition to it. However, I see Winesburg as part of this tradition less by virtue of authorial intention or the exertion of influence upon subsequent texts than by the presuppositions about its literary heritage that are customarily brought to it. In other words, my sense is that when we as readers locate Winesburg within the naturalist tradition on the basis of its style and its choice of subject, we approach the text in a way that circumscribes our reading of it. We assume a position from which our attention is inevitably drawn to those textual features that either justify or challenge (but in any case underscore) its placement within that tradition, and so we occlude—and indeed divert our attention from—an entirely different set of textual features whose foregrounding would locate Winesburg elsewhere. Think of it as peering through a sort of critical kaleidoscope. At present, the kaleidoscopic focus is set to direct our attention to the naturalism of Winesburg so that the text at the kaleidoscopic center is surrounded by a dazzling array of literary kin. But if an adjustment to the focus were to instead direct our attention to something other than the naturalism of Winesburg, the shapes surrounding the text would shift aside and splinter apart and a different set of kinships would coalesce around it. In this essay, I want to adjust the focus to see what those kinships might be. Looking beyond the naturalism of Winesburg, I begin by probing one of its most remarked-upon but under-examined textual features: its form. Calling its form into question, I attempt to determine its formal particularities in order to advance a reading of the text that