This book contains many short vignettes, organized as chapters, describing in detail the lives of people living in the fictional midwestern town of Winesburg, Ohio. Although not much happens in this book by way of plot, each short story is detailed with psychological insights, with George Willard being the nucleus.
Midwestern life is a life of the mind, not a life of adventure, and this is not an adventure book. Each character can be defined by their obsessions, insecurities, infatuations, and dreams, and the reader can see reflections of people in their own life (or perhaps themsleves). Despite this book being 100 years old, I found the style to be fresh and enjoyable.
The notes below are simply quotes that I found interesting.
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.
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.
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.
Something new and bold came into the voice that talked. “You must try to forget all you have learned,” said the old man. “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”
Once when she was alone, and after watching a prolonged and ineffectual outburst on the part of the baker, Elizabeth Willard put her head down on her long white hands and wept. After that she did not look along the alleyway any more, but tried to forget the contest between the bearded man and the cat. It seemed like a rehearsal of her own life, terrible in its vividness.
George Willard had a habit of talking aloud to himself and to hear him doing so had always given his mother a peculiar pleasure. The habit in him, she felt, strengthened the secret bond that existed between them. A thousand times she had whispered to herself of the matter. “He is groping about, trying to find himself,” she thought. “He is not a dull clod, all words and smartness. Within him there is a secret something that is striving to grow. It is the thing I let be killed in myself.”
The tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere. Sometimes the boy thought they must all be inventions, a pack of lies. And then again he was convinced that they contained the very essence of truth.
“I want to fill you with hatred and contempt so that you will be a superior being,” he declared.
“You must pay attention to me,” he urged. "If something happens perhaps you will be able to write the book that I may never get written. The idea is very simple, so simple that if you are not careful you will forget it. It is this—that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified. That’s what I want to say. Don’t you forget that. Whatever happens, don’t you dare let yourself forget.
For a long time they, in common with all the other Middle Western people, were very poor.
In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men. The newspapers and the magazines have pumped him full. Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever. The farmer by the stove is brother to the men of the cities, and if you listen you will find him talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all.
In the spring when the rains have passed and before the long hot days of summer have come, the country about Winesburg is delightful.
When she got into bed she buried her face in the pillow and wept brokenheartedly. “What is the matter with me? I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,” she thought, and turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.
“Were you ever married, Mr. Williams?” he began. “I suppose you were and your wife is dead, is that it?” Wash Williams spat forth a succession of vile oaths. “Yes, she is dead,” he agreed. “She is dead as all women are dead. She is a living-dead thing, walking in the sight of men and making the earth foul by her presence.” Staring into the boy’s eyes, the man became purple with rage.
was depressed by the thought that he was not a part of the life in his own town, but the depression did not cut deeply as he did
“That’s how things’ll turn out. She’ll be like the rest. I suppose she’ll begin now to look at me in a funny way.” He looked at the ground and pondered this thought. “She’ll be embarrassed and feel strange when I’m around,” he whispered to himself. “That’s how it’ll be. That’s how everything’ll turn out. When it comes to loving someone, it won’t never be me. It’ll be someone else—some fool—someone who talks a lot—someone like that George Willard.”
He wanted to cure himself of the habit of drink, and thought that by escaping from his city associates and living in a rural community he would have a better chance in the struggle with the appetite that was destroying him. His sojourn in Winesburg was not a success. The dullness of the passing hours led to his drinking harder than ever.
I would like to make you understand the import of what you think of attempting. You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say."
“Things went to smash,” he said quietly and sadly. “Out she went through the door and all the life there had been in the room followed her out. She took all of my people away. They all went out through the door after her. That’s the way it was.” George Willard turned and went out of Enoch Robinson’s room. In the darkness by the window, as he went through the door, he could hear the thin old voice whimpering and complaining. “I’m alone, all alone here,” said the voice. “It was warm and friendly in my room but now I’m all alone.”
Scratching his grey beard with his long dirty fingers, the merchant looked at his son with the same wavering uncertain stare with which he had confronted the traveling man. “I’ll be starched,” he said softly. “Well, well, I’ll be washed and ironed and starched!”
From being quite sure of himself and his future he becomes not at all sure. If he be an imaginative boy a door is torn open and for the first time he looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness. The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. He shivers and looks eagerly about. The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling.
She thought that the months she had spent in the city, the going to theaters and the seeing of great crowds wandering in lighted thoroughfares, had changed her profoundly. She wanted him to feel and be conscious of the change in her nature.