In his Memoirs published in 1942, a year after his death, Anderson remarked that Winesburg "has become a kind of American classic and has been said by many critics to have started a kind of revolution in American short-story writing." Anderson must have written those words with pleasure for he was a man who liked to be revolutionary, and he was quite accurate when he stated that Winesburg deserved such praise.
Anderson's book was the first work of fiction to expose the hypocrisy, frustration, and inhibition behind the typical small town's facade of gentility. Earlier realists, like Hamlin Garland in Main Traveled Roads (especially the story "Under the Lion's Paw"), had shown the harshness and brutalizing monotony of a small farm. Naturalists like Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris had shown the ugliness of such cities as Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. But, generally, Americans still had a rather romantic conception of the charm, warmth, and innocence of small-town life. Anderson, however, showed the people of Winesburg, Ohio, population 1800, as agonizingly lonely, alienated from one another, and unable to communicate their need for love and understanding. Longing to escape inhibiting customs and conventions, his villagers are imprisoned by society's demands and their own inability to distinguish between appearance and reality.
The typical villagers, therefore, had become what Anderson called grotesques and he intended to name his book The Book of the Grotesque. In his introduction to the book, he defines a grotesque as a person who takes one truth to himself, calls it his truth, and tries to live by it although it becomes thereby a false-hood. What Anderson means becomes clearer as we get acquainted with his grotesques in Winesburg, for each character is in some way deformed, sometimes physically but always psychologically — a caricature of what he might have been. Anderson describes these people compassionately for, as he himself said, he was "a writer whose sympathy went out mostly to the little frame houses, on often mean enough streets in American towns, to defeated people, often with thwarted lives." In "Paper Pills," he compares his grotesques to the gnarled apples left in orchards by the pickers who want the best fruit for shipping, yet Anderson contends that often the gnarled apples are the sweetest. Similarly, his grotesques seem to be unusually human, interesting, even lovable in spite of their oddness.
Another way in which Anderson was revolutionary was in his emphasis on the importance of sexual drives in human actions. He says of the writers in the so-called Chicago literary renaissance, "We had the notion that sex had something to do with people's lives, and it had barely been mentioned in American writing before our time." He wanted, he said, to tell the truth about people, including "the terrible importance of the flesh in human relations." In Winesburg, we meet Wing Biddlebaum who is accused of being a homosexual, Alice Hindman who so longs for a lover that she runs naked down the street, and the Reverend Curtis Hartman who gets his thrills by peeping at a woman lying in bed. The description of such things in fiction seemed revolutionary in 1919.
Winesburg was not only revolutionary in subject matter; it was, as Anderson realized, a new form of fiction. After writing this book Anderson explained, "I have sometimes thought that the novel form does not fit an American writer . . . What's wanted is a new looseness; and in Winesburg I had made my own form." Certainly Winesburg is more loosely constructed than the typical novel; there is no cause-and-effect relationship between parts of the book, no buildup of conflict between a protagonist and antagonist-in fact, there is some question whether there is even a protagonist at all — yet the book is more than just a collection of stories. Anderson himself said, "The stories belonged together. I felt that, taken together, they made something like a novel, a complete story."
Anderson pulls the twenty-one Winesburg tales into some semblance of unity in five ways. First, in the Introduction, he explains the concept of the grotesque and the tales that follow are, by and large, examples of grotesquerie. Second, all of the tales are set, at least partly, in Winesburg, Ohio. Third, the reappearance of certain characters — Doctor Reefy, Elizabeth Willard, George Willard, and Helen White, for example — in several of the stories helps to tie the stories together. Fourth, George Willard, the character who appears most often in the tales, can be seen developing in the book. Fifth and last, the repetition of certain elements helps to hold the book together. For example, most of the incidents take place in darkness, a device which emphasizes the misery of life experienced by most of the grotesques and their inability to see the real world clearly and without distortion. The repetition of emphasis on the hands of various characters joins the stories together and also suggests the grotesques' attempts to reach out, to touch to communicate with other people.
Sherwood Anderson was not the only writer experimenting with looser forms of fiction during this time. James Joyce's The Dubliners (1914) is a group of short stories similar in some ways to Winesburg, but Anderson was probably not familiar with these. (He later met Joyce in Europe and he freely admitted that his Dark Laughter (1925) had been influenced by Joyce's Ulysses.) Following Anderson's lead in Winesburg, Ernest Hemingway published a loosely unified group of stories about Nick Adams (In Our Time, 1924) and William Faulkner in Go Down, Moses (1942) built his stories around the McCaslin family. Nevertheless, at the time Anderson wrote Winesburg, he was bringing a new looseness to American fiction.
This looseness is apparent in each story, as well as in the total structure of the book. Each tale seems somewhat pointless, often including what seem to be irrelevant digressions told in a rambling, artless way. These are, of course, oral story-telling techniques, such as were used so skillfully by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn and similarly by Anderson in one of his most famous short stories, "I'm a Fool." Sherwood Anderson's father, noted as a storyteller, may have used such techniques unconsciously, but the author of Winesburg, Ohio seemed quite aware of what he was doing. "Life," he said, "is a loose flowing thing. There are no plot stories in life." And at another point he said, "The true history of life is but a history of moments. It is only at rare moments that we live." Therefore, if one examines a Winesburg story, he finds that he is given a glimpse of a moment or two in a person's life. Perhaps not much happens in the story — again, words such as plot and conflict do not apply — yet one discovers everything in the story has worked together to bring about what James Joyce called an "epiphany." An epiphany is a moment of revelation, a point at which everything in a story suddenly leads up to a significant perception, sometimes only by the reader, sometimes by one of the fictional characters. The best of Anderson's stories provide such moments of revelation.
Thus, Winesburg is, as its author said, a revolutionary book, revolutionary in subject matter and in form. But it is not an American classic because it introduced hitherto taboo subjects and experimented with new forms of structure in novel and tale. It is a classic because it is a deeply moving book about the loneliness and frustration of ordinary people; it is a classic because it portrays the difficulty of communicating with one another yet clings to the tenuous hope that love and understanding can bridge the moat that isolates each of us; it is a classic because it gives us glimpses of the potential beauty of human life behind the grotesque distortions that normally distract our attention.