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Small-Town 'Winesburg' Reminds Writer of Home

I grew up in a small, blue-collar town in New Jersey, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else. In the mid-70s, it was statistically determined to be "The Average American Town" by one of the morning TV news shows. What made it average at that point was that a lot of male breadwinners had lost their factory jobs, and their wives had been forced to go back to work. It didn't matter, though — it was exhilarating to see our town, our whole world, right there on network TV. We felt more real, somehow, now that our existence had been confirmed by millions of strangers.

Around the same time — I was a sophomore in high school — I decided that I would be a writer. I used to wander around the empty suburban streets late at night, past Cape Cods and split levels, and dream of one day writing a book that would tell the stories of my town and the people who lived there. Not just the funny stories, but the sad and mysterious ones too, the ones that conveyed the strange melancholy of small-town life.

What I didn't realize at the time was that that book had already been written. Sherwood Anderson wrote Winesburg, Ohio almost one hundred years ago and it's still startling to read it today. Anderson's book is a collection of snapshots of the lonely souls and thwarted dreamers who populate Winesburg, a seemingly quaint Midwestern town. People like Wing Biddlebaum, a man alarmed by his own hands, or Dr. Reefy, who stuffs his pockets with scraps of paper on which he's scribbled his thoughts, and then dumps them out when they become "little hard balls."

Or Kate Swift, a 30-year-old schoolteacher with a turbulent inner life and an unorthodox teaching style: "Once," Anderson writes, "she talked to the children of Charles Lamb and made up strange, intimate little stories concerning the life of the dead writer. The stories were told with the air of one who had lived in a house with Charles Lamb and knew all the secrets of his private life. The children were somewhat confused, thinking Charles Lamb was someone who had once lived in Winesburg."

In the American imagination, small-town life provides an antidote to the cold anonymity of the city, but Winesburg, Ohio feels like a village full of eccentric strangers desperate for a moment of connection. In a story called "Adventure," a heartbroken woman named Alice Hindman runs naked through the rain and calls out to the first person she sees: "Wait... don't go away. Whoever you are, you must wait." But then she loses her nerve and returns home, where, Anderson tells us, she "began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg."

I re-read Winesburg, Ohio last month, and it made me remember what it felt like to be a high-school sophomore, wandering the quiet night-time streets of my hometown, slowly coming to realize that the people I knew were more complicated and interesting than they appeared. Sherwood Anderson's strange and beautiful book made me remember why I'd wanted to be a writer in the first place.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Perrotta