Critical Essays Anderson's Writing Style in Winesburg, Ohio


The difference in style between Anderson's first two published works of fiction (Windy McPherson's Son and Marching Men) and Winesburg is rather remarkable. In his first two books, Anderson tried to sound "literary"; instead, he sounded pompous and awkward. In Winesburg, there is still some evidence of this style; in "Loneliness," for example, he says, "The fruition of the year had come." The prose of Winesburg is more often characterized, however, by a colloquial naturalness which Anderson might have learned from such oral story tellers as his father or from Mark Twain, one of his favorite authors. This is a style which he probably could have used in his earlier books, but he thought it not fancy enough. The courage to write in a natural, simple style was perhaps the result of reading Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. His brother Karl lent him this book and Anderson testified afterward that the book was a revelation that he might be able to produce a style of his own. From Stein, he may have learned the repetition of key words and the insistently simple syntax that characterize his prose, but her work was merely one of several influences which he synthesized into a distinct style of his own.

Another important influence was probably the Gideon Bibles which he found in hotel rooms during his traveling salesman days. Anderson admitted that he often tore pages from these books and read them during free moments of his traveling. From these he likely learned the trick of incremental repetition and a biblical diction, both evident in this passage from "Godliness": "Jehovah, send to me this night out of the womb of Katherine, a son. Let Thy grace alight upon me. Send me a son to be called David who shall help me . . . to turn [these lands] to thy service and to the building of Thy kingdom on earth."

Thus, the Bible, like Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein, probably influenced Anderson's prose style. It was another writer, however, who was perhaps responsible for Anderson's structure of Winesburg. Sometime during the years soon after Anderson left Elyria, Max Wald, one of the Chicago literary group, lent Anderson a copy of Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology. Anderson excitedly read it in one night and realized that a prose equivalent would give the freedom yet sustain the unity which he had been wanting. Masters had set his collection of poems in the small town of Spoon River and, in the poems, he had given a glimpse of the repressed and frustrated lives lived by the villagers. This unification by setting, theme, and mood creates a more complex meaning than each individual poem or story could have by itself. Winesburg is not as pessimistic and bitter as Spoon River, but it is obviously indebted in structure to Master's anthology of poems.

Critics have argued about another possible influence on Winesburg. Some called Anderson an "American Freudian" and insisted that he was influenced by Freud because Winesburg deals with frustration and repression, often of normal sexual desires; Anderson, however, denied having read Freud or exploiting him in his writing, and Trigant Burrow, a psychoanalyst and friend of Anderson, has said, "Anderson was a man of amazing intuitive flashes but again, like Freud, the chief source of his material was his own uncanny insight. I can say very definitely that Anderson did not read Freud, nor did he draw any material from what he knew of Freud through others."

Perhaps the controversy over Freud may suggest to us that it is less difficult to identify the influences on Anderson's style than to describe the style itself. In addition to the colloquial quality, the repetition of key words, the simple syntax (most of his sentences are composed of a subject, verb, and object or complement), and the biblical diction, we can notice some other stylistic characteristics. His prose is normally a series of affirmations strung together with "ands"; he accumulates rather than subordinates. Yet his work doesn't actually sound like conversation because he doesn't often use relative and personal pronouns. He seems, as one critic has said, to have learned "the art of leaving out," of suggesting rather than stating explicitly. Often, in fact, his vocabulary is flat and colorless, not the superlatives one might expect of an advertising man. Anderson himself said, "I have had a great fear of phrase making. Words . . . are very tricky things." We have noticed, too, that one thing which George Wilard learns is the inadequacy of words. George wants to get below the surface, and Anderson, too, seems to write impressionistically, attempting to get the delicate quality of an experience. Often a story is not told in logical order but in a rambling way because that is how the mind works. As we have seen in the Winesburg stories, there is little suspense in such a system but the reader often gets a sense of satisfaction at the end of a story because it has provided an epiphany, a psychological revelation. Certainly Anderson succeeded in what he hoped for after reading Gertrude Stein: He did develop a distinctive style of his own.