winesburg ohioWhenever I’m not sure what to read next, or, in this case, whenever I need to re-instill my faith in fiction after being shaken to my core by a piece of trash that only resembles a novel in size and weight (I’m looking at you, Alice Sebold), I turn to the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 best novels of the century. I started working on the list the summer after my junior year in college and am a little over halfway though (although I’m not reading them in any particular order).

My pick this time was #24 on the list, Winesburg, Ohio  by Sherwood Anderson. Published in 1919, this collection of connected short stories centers on George Willard, a young newspaper reporter who everyone seems comfortable telling their deep, grotesque secrets to. Each story centers on a different townsperson and plays on themes of loneliness, alienation, rage, and obsession. You know, those normal feelings you get from living in a small midwestern town.

At first I admit that I didn’t see what the big deal was. Anderson’s writing style is awkward at best and even though a lot of scholars say that it’s on purpose to better illustrate the awkwardness of his characters, well, I don’t think that’s an excuse for making me stumble over and reread his sentences. And his themes and story structures seemed pretty run of the mill. Sure, I thought, this is a pretty interesting book, but does it deserve the #24 spot?

Then, about halfway through the stories, I flipped to the front of the book and read the introduction. Now, I bought my copy of the book in a church basement book sale and it’s old — from 1919 (although not a first edition). The introduction, written by forgotten author and critic Ernest Boyd, really cleared things up for me. In it, Boyd raves about Sherwood Anderson’s daring innovation and how good he his at this new thing called “realism” which he seems to have down as far as short stories and Middle America go.

And then it became clear to me: these stories seemed run of the mill because he helped build the mill. It’s like some of those old timey movies that your parents force you to watch – even though they don’t seem so great now, their greatness was in the strides they took forward even though they were quickly overshadowed by emulations and more talented copy cats. I mean, the first plane didn’t exactly have little pillows and drink service – but it was the first plane to successfully fly though the air.

So – after reading more literary criticism about the book and more about the time period, I was able to appreciate the second half of the book much more. Anderson was writing about pedophilia, depression, religious doubts, sex, mental breakdowns, and hypochondria when the only people who felt comfortable doing it were the French. And at the same time he was fine-tuning what turns out to be the general structure and thrust of the contemporary short story.

I’m not saying that I loved this book – only that I learned to appreciate it. There are certainly more than 24 books that I like better. Maybe just not 24 that weren’t somehow aided by the literary ground Anderson broke.