Needs More Tentacles: On ‘Winesburg, Ohio,’ Unique Millennial Snowflakes, and Michael Crabtree
By Ryan Henry Joe
I took a course called “The Writer as Teacher” while enrolled in Columbia University’s writing program. (Though at the time, I missed its underlying message: Thanks for the $50,000 tuition, here’s your job prospect.)
I thought about that class as I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — a book that seems ubiquitous in high school or college classrooms. I apparently missed the syllabi that assigned it, so kudos to an anti-NFL book club for picking up the slack.
Read today, Winesburg, Ohio feels like a primordial short story collection. Maybe it’s unfair to hold a book published in 1919 against modern standards, but then again I have no problem holding the San Francisco 49ers to the standards they established in the 1980s.
Each story has a very basic structure. A noisy narrator — often and suddenly addressing the audience directly — contextualizes an upcoming situation and the character involved. That character then goes on “an adventure” — Anderson’s shorthand for “shit goes down.”
Ultimately the event, whatever it is, either solidifies the character’s status, reveals why the character is the way he or she is, or provides the means for the character to transcend his or her situation.
In “Mother,” a repressed housewife (as if there’s any other kind in Winesburg, Ohio) has a fleeting moment of near-release, when she considers stabbing her husband with a pair of scissors. In “The Untold Lie,” a young man debates whether or not to wed the girl he just knocked up, causing his older friend — unhappily married due to similar circumstances — to reflect on the missed opportunities in his own life.
It’s a structure that James Joyce applied way more elegantly just a few years earlier in his collection Dubliners (At least, I think he does; it’s been a while since I’ve read it).
Because Anderson’s techniques and structure feel a little tired nearly 100 years after the book’s publication, it’s easy to mock Winesburg, Ohio. (Headline from The Onion: Novelist Has Whole Shitty World Planned Out.) Not to mention that each printing would probably win the Most Genteel Cover Of The Decade Award.
H.P. Lovecraft got so bored reading it, he fired back with his own Winesburg-esque short story “Arthur Jermyn.”
“I had nearly fallen asleep over the tame backstairs gossip of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio,” Lovecraft wrote. “The sainted Sherwood, as you know, laid bare the dark area which many whited village lives concealed, and it occurred to me that I, in my weirder medium, could probably devise some secret behind a man’s ancestry which would make the worst of Anderson’s disclosures sound like the annual report of a Sabbath school.”
Translation: Needs more tentacles.
Garrison Keillor, of all people, panned Winesburg, Ohio, calling it “pretty dreadful, and it inspired a whole lot of bad books about sensitive adolescent males needing to flee the philistines in their hometowns.”
I think Keillor’s criticism is a little overstated. It’s not Anderson’s fault that he inspired copycats. And yes, Winesburg, Ohio has its share of “sensitive adolescent males” — but that makes sense since Anderson uses a sensitive adolescent male’s path to adulthood to anchor his intertwining stories.
Country Boy Leaves for the City may not be a unique progression, but Anderson is certainly aware of it. As young adolescent male George Willard departs Winesburg in the final story, Anderson notes how the train conductor “had seen a thousand George Willards go out of their towns to the city. It was a commonplace enough incident with him.”
So even within each story, as much as I grated against Anderson’s clockwork structure, there were moments of insight that continued to echo. When the young Willard is humiliated in front of Belle Carpenter, a woman he’s hoping to impress, he comes out of it “half insane with anger and hate. He hated Belle Carpenter and was sure that all his life he would continue to hate her.”
Welcome, George Willard, budding Men’s Rights activist.
And, as Willard grows up, “he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village.” Biggest adult disillusionment: Realizing that no one — aside from a few friends and family members (Hold those people close!) — really cares about you at all.
I wonder if that’s why social media has become a mainstay in our daily lives. While it’s an efficient way to communicate, it also helps us create the illusion that we are important to more people than we actually are, even providing graphical tokens of that affection: Likes and Retweets and Favorites and Pins.
These observations might not be new, but given today’s population of millennials brandishing their unique identities and tales of personal trauma, it’s a helpful reminder — even if it’s coming from a 100-year-old text — that you are about as special as everybody else.
You’re not the only one who has to deal with life’s bullshit.
So maybe that’s why Winesburg, Ohio is most impressive when its stories act as complements. Consider the way “The Strength of God” and “The Teacher” present different perspectives on the same strange situation. Or how “Mother,” “Paper Pills,” and “Death” round out the sad stories of Elizabeth Willard and Doctor Reefy. Or how the four stories that make up “Godliness” depict the rise and fall of a powerful and ruthless local family.
And eventually, that sense of discovery trumped my frustration with individual stories. (“Okay, who are you introducing now? Uh-huh. And what’s the big event that’s going to cause some poignant bit of self-discovery? Got it.”) It didn’t happen all the time, but when it did, Winesburg, Ohio felt as relevant as if it were written yesterday.
Let me now take a moment to rant about former 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree’s comments about current 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In an interview at SFGate.com, he said: “I needed a quarterback that can deliver the ball, and that was hungry like I was.”
Let’s be clear, Kap is getting paid like a franchise quarterback and it’s unclear-heading-toward-unlikely that he is one. You could read a few chapters of Winesburg, Ohio in the time it takes him to locate an open receiver. [Edit: Though apparently that wasn’t an issue during last night’s game.]
But he always stuck up for Crabtree.
After the 2014 NFC Championship — a loss to the Seattle Seahawks that ended after an intercepted pass attempt to Crabtree — Kaepernick said: “I had a one-on-one matchup with Crab. I’ll take that every time.”
The one-on-one was against cornerback Richard Sherman, who owned Crabtree on other plays and on that one in particular.
So let’s be clear, if Kaepernick is a middling quarterback, then Michael Crabtree is…well, how did Sherman phrase it after the game?
Here’s Crabtree’s sorry-ass statsheet:
In six years, he’s had only a single 1,000 yard season. Afterward, as Crabtree struggled through mediocrity exacerbated by a torn Achilles, 49ers wideout Anquan Boldin posted two consecutive 1,000 yard seasons with Kaepernick under center.
So let’s compare: Last night, the 49ers beat the Vikings 20-3, while the Oakland Raiders, Crabtree’s new team, got mauled on Sunday by the Cincinnati Andy Daltons.
Crabtree’s contribution? He’s a third-string receiver who got five receptions for 37 yards.
Finally, the winner for best live blog of the 49ers-Vikings Monday Night Football game goes to The Guardian.
“It’s all 49ers as Aaron Lynch gives poor Teddy nightmares. Sacked. Couldn’t tell you why it’s called that. But sacked he was, Teddy, sacked like a poor employee.”
“Top stuff from Fabulous Phil Dawson who nails a field goal and heads off for a well earned rest. Ha. Good luck to him. Forty years old, booting the pill between two big sticks for pretty good coin, better than working.”
“There’s Adrian Peterson on the big screen, a fine and shiny bald head, watching on as Carlos Hyde goes nearly all the way.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.