Small-Town 'Winesburg' Reminds Writer of Home

Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta is the author of five previous works of fiction: Bad Haircut, The Wishbones, Election, Joe College, Little Children, and The Abstinence Teacher. He received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for the screenplay of the movie version of Little Children, which he co-wrote with director Todd Field. Courtesy of Tom Perrotta hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Tom Perrotta

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I grew up in a small, blue-collar town in New Jersey, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else. In the mid-70s, it was statistically determined to be "The Average American Town" by one of the morning TV news shows. What made it average at that point was that a lot of male breadwinners had lost their factory jobs, and their wives had been forced to go back to work. It didn't matter, though — it was exhilarating to see our town, our whole world, right there on network TV. We felt more real, somehow, now that our existence had been confirmed by millions of strangers.

Around the same time — I was a sophomore in high school — I decided that I would be a writer. I used to wander around the empty suburban streets late at night, past Cape Cods and split levels, and dream of one day writing a book that would tell the stories of my town and the people who lived there. Not just the funny stories, but the sad and mysterious ones too, the ones that conveyed the strange melancholy of small-town life.

What I didn't realize at the time was that that book had already been written. Sherwood Anderson wrote Winesburg, Ohio almost one hundred years ago and it's still startling to read it today. Anderson's book is a collection of snapshots of the lonely souls and thwarted dreamers who populate Winesburg, a seemingly quaint Midwestern town. People like Wing Biddlebaum, a man alarmed by his own hands, or Dr. Reefy, who stuffs his pockets with scraps of paper on which he's scribbled his thoughts, and then dumps them out when they become "little hard balls."

Or Kate Swift, a 30-year-old schoolteacher with a turbulent inner life and an unorthodox teaching style: "Once," Anderson writes, "she talked to the children of Charles Lamb and made up strange, intimate little stories concerning the life of the dead writer. The stories were told with the air of one who had lived in a house with Charles Lamb and knew all the secrets of his private life. The children were somewhat confused, thinking Charles Lamb was someone who had once lived in Winesburg."

In the American imagination, small-town life provides an antidote to the cold anonymity of the city, but Winesburg, Ohio feels like a village full of eccentric strangers desperate for a moment of connection. In a story called "Adventure," a heartbroken woman named Alice Hindman runs naked through the rain and calls out to the first person she sees: "Wait... don't go away. Whoever you are, you must wait." But then she loses her nerve and returns home, where, Anderson tells us, she "began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg."

I re-read Winesburg, Ohio last month, and it made me remember what it felt like to be a high-school sophomore, wandering the quiet night-time streets of my hometown, slowly coming to realize that the people I knew were more complicated and interesting than they appeared. Sherwood Anderson's strange and beautiful book made me remember why I'd wanted to be a writer in the first place.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Winesburg, Ohio'

Winesburg, Ohio Cover

The writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed. The windows of the house in which he lived were high and he wanted to look at the trees when he awoke in the morning. A carpenter came to fix the bed so that it would be on a level with the window.

Quite a fuss was made about the matter. The carpenter, who had been a soldier in the Civil War, came into the writer's room and sat down to talk of building a platform for the purpose of raising the bed. The writer had cigars lying about and the carpenter smoked.

For a time the two men talked of the raising of the bed and then they talked of other things. The soldier got on the subject of the war. The writer, in fact, led him to that subject. The carpenter had once been a prisoner in Andersonville prison and had lost a brother. The brother had died of starvation, and whenever the carpenter got upon that subject he cried. He, like the old writer, had a white mustache, and when he cried he puckered up his lips and the mustache bobbed up and down. The weeping old man with the cigar in his mouth was ludicrous. The plan the writer had for the raising of his bed was forgotten and later the carpenter did it in his own way and the writer, who was past sixty, had to help himself with a chair when he went to bed at night.

In his bed the writer rolled over on his side and lay quite still. For years he had been beset with notions concerning his heart. He was a hard smoker and his heart fluttered. The idea had got into his mind that he would some time die unexpectedly and always when he got into bed he thought of that. It did not alarm him. The effect in fact was quite a special thing and not easily explained. It made him more alive, there in bed, than at any other time. Perfectly still he lay and his body was old and not of much use any more, but something inside him was altogether young. He was like a pregnant woman, only that the thing inside him was not a baby but a youth. No, it wasn't a youth, it was a woman, young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight. It is absurd, you see, to try to tell what was inside the old writer as he lay on his high bed and listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was thinking about.

The old writer, like all of the people in the world, had got, during his long life, a great many notions in his head. He had once been quite handsome and a number of women had been in love with him. And then, of course, he had known people, many people, known them in a peculiarly intimate way that was different from the way in which you and I know people. At least that is what the writer thought and the thought pleased him. Why quarrel with an old man concerning his thoughts?

In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream. As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes.

You see the interest in all this lies in the figures that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.

The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering. Had you come into the room you might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams or perhaps indigestion.

For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.

At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called 'The Book of the Grotesque.' It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

You can see for yourself how the old man, who had spent all of his life writing and was filled with words, would write hundreds of pages concerning this matter. The subject would become so big in his mind that he himself would be in danger of becoming a grotesque. He didn't, I suppose, for the same reason that he never published the book. It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man.

Concerning the old carpenter who fixed the bed for the writer, I only mentioned him because he, like many of what are called very common people, became the nearest thing to what is understandable and lovable of all the grotesques in the writer's book.

Excerpted from Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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