Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Morning Thanks--Sherwood Anderson, 1876-1941

Maybe it was Wing Biddlebaum, the old schoolteacher who loved his students too tenderly, a man whose temperment simply didn't grant him the emotional strength he should have had, strength sufficient to keep his hands off the children in his classroom.  I had no doubt back then, when I first read that story, that Wing was a fine man who'd simply crossed a line, helpless as an animal, he shouldn't have. 

More likely, however, it was George Willard, the protagonist of Sherwood Anderson's series of tales, Winesburg, Ohio.  Years and years ago, when I was nineteen or twenty, I was George Willard, watching things, trying to figure them out, confused, blinded by all kinds of desires and forces I was too young to understand but somehow oddly conscious of owning.  Maybe it was "Sophistication," the last story in the cycle, where George Willard and Helen White stumble along sweetly together into adulthood, barely conscious of what's happening inside them, but yet in awe of the new strength and mutual compassion of which they are both somehow capable.

It was so they went down the hill.  In the darkness they played like two splendid young things in a young world.  Once, running swiftly forward, Helen tripped George and he fell.  He squirmed and shouted.  Shaking with laughter, he rolled down the hill.  Helen ran after him.  For just a moment she stopped in the darkness.  There was no way of knowing what woman's thoughts went through her mind but, when the bottom of the hill was reached and she camp up to the boy, she took his arm and walked beside him in dignified silence.  For some reason they could not have explained them had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed.  Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible. 

When I was a kid, I had no better sense of what was going on in me than did they, but somehow I felt sure that Anderson understood--and he made it clear.  And when he did, I knew that I was not alone. 

Winesburg, Ohio is among the very first books I ever read that never left me.  The style, even here in the segment I've just quoted, bears the earmarks of the fashionable literary naturalism of the time--the author, as faux-scientist, recording the ambling behavior of his characters, as if they were laboratory mice. 

No matter. What Anderson the scientist saw was beautiful.  He was not Frank Norris or Stephen Crane or even Theodore Dreiser.  What he saw in the laboratory of his mind, what he recorded in the "grotesques" he loved, was sweetness, not sadness.  Maybe that's what drew me to him too.

There are, famously, two kinds of writers in the American canon--the Sherwood Andersons (whose family line includes Twain, Hemingway, and Raymond Carver) and the Henry Jameses.  I remember a Henry James' novel I liked--The Ambassadors, I think--but, for the most part, I know what Twain meant when he said that he'd rather be damned to hell than read a Henry James novel. 

I'm with Anderson, for better or for worse, and I have been since the day I first read Winesburg.  I'm with him because he's with me.

Today's his birthday, and I just thought I'd mention that he's my morning thanks, a man who did as much as just about anyone to make me want to write stories, to think I could.  After all, when he brought me into Winesburg, I knew it by a different name, Oostburg, the town in which I was born and reared. 

I'm in that book.  I've never left.

1 comment:

Hannah G said...

Well, well. I remember hearing you mention this book way back in my freshman English class, and it had been somewhere on my to-read list ever since. So, here we are 15 years later, and I finally checked it out from the library this year and read it for the first time. Twice. (And you should know that for someone with five small kids running circles around her all day, this simply never happens.) So a extremely belated thanks for the recommendation.

And, incidentally, I tried a Henry James novel a few years back and finished, oh, three chapters or so before setting it down. I never picked it up again. Says more about me, I suppose, than James, but it's reassuring to have Twain to back me up on that one. Makes me feel like less of a Philistine for failing to appreciate one of the acknowledged greats.

But speaking of Winesburg, I just started reading Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner this week, and from the first few pages on the protagonist has seemed vaguely like someone I've met before. And then I realized the person I've been reminded of is you. The connection is, I suppose, that it's the reminiscence of a 60-something midwestern Lit prof with a writing career. Stranger yet, he mentions Winesburg in passing at some point in the bit of narrative I read yesterday. And then today I check your blog for the first time in a long while (because I feel like I've been reading your fictional autobiography all week), and lo and behold, there's this post by you about Winesburg, Ohio, which seems to tie these loose ends together.

Just thought you might like to know. That, and I'm now very curious what you think of Stegner's book (assuming you've read it).