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.
I'm in that book. I've never left.