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Book Review: Winesburg, Ohio - #10 In My Modern Library Classics Challenge


Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life by Sherwood Anderson

“In the main street of Winesburg crowds filled the stores and the sidewalks. Night came on, horses whinnied, the clerks in the stores ran madly about, children became lost and cried lustily, an American town worked terribly at the task of amusing itself.” - Sherwood Anderson in "Sophistication", one of the stories in his short story collection Winesburg, Ohio

The Book Review

The author Sherwood Anderson led an interesting life. He was born in 1876, America’s Centennial Year, to a father who was a veteran of the Civil War, and a mother who later took in laundry to make ends meet while her husband drank. After growing up in small town Ohio, he followed his brother to Chicago and began working factory jobs while going to night school to further his education. He left to join the Army for the Spanish American War, and then returned to Chicago to begin a career in advertising and sales. In his spare time he began writing. It wasn’t until his 40s that his first book was published.

He found his first real success with the work that he is mainly remembered today  - the short story collection in Winesburg, Ohio. The publisher of his first two books refused to publish Winesburg, calling it “too gloomy”. It was Ben Heubsch, owner of a small publishing house in New York, who gave the book its title and  published it to effusive critical reception. 

Anderson has been considered by some critics to be more significant for his influence on a younger generation of writers than for any of his own works. Those he influenced include Hemingway, Faulkner, and Sandburg, who he and his third wife entertained at their apartment in New Orleans in the 1920s. He was married four times, taking full advantage of the new sexual freedom of the Roaring Twenties. He died in 1941 of peritonitis while on a cruise in the Caribbean. 

In 1998, Modern Library chose Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio as #24 on their list of 100 Best Novels. It’s in fact not a novel, but a series of interconnecting short stories. Each is a character study focused on a particular individual. Every one of Anderson’s characters has their secrets, every one has their disappointments. Taken together the stories provide a sense of the loneliness and frustration hiding beneath the surface of small town pre-industrial life. The stories are heartbreakingly real, and written in simple, matter-of-fact language that I found distinctly Midwestern. 

In many of the stories young George Willard, an eager newspaper reporter, and stand-in for the author, plays a part. People come to him and unload their tales. George himself is a character in the tales of his mother and himself that finish out the book.

I really enjoyed these stories. I know some find them depressing, but remember when they were written, with World War I raging and America undergoing enormous change - from agriculture to industry and from rural to urban. Stories looking back to small town life between the Civil War and World War I, and seeing it with all its shortcomings, make perfect sense given the times. 

But for me the realness of the stories Anderson captured makes them timeless.

Classics Challenge

This is the tenth book in my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I’m challenging myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics each month this year, and I’m still a month behind - but I WILL catch up! This goal is part of my overall goal to read 100 books for the year. 

I own over 40 Modern Library editions that I collected in my first years out of college. At the time I was buying them, I admired them more as “art” than as books. I just liked the idea of pocket sized hardcovers, which is interesting since at the time most of the books I was buying to read were trade-sized paperbacks. Treated as art on my shelf, I haven’t ever read my Modern Library editions. So, it’s about time to do so now that I’m retired.

Reviews to date:

Book 1: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Book 2: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce

Book 3: The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

Book 4: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Book 5: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan

Book 6: The African Queen by C.S. Forester

Book 7: Disraeli: A Picture of the Victorian Age by AndrΓ© Maurois

Book 8: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Book 9: Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand,  translated by Brian Hooker

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Title: Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life

Author: Sherwood Anderson

Original Publisher: B. W. Huebsch

Original Publication Date: May 8, 1919

My Modern Library edition, which contains an introduction by Ernest Boyd,  was printed sometime between 1929 and 1935, based on the research found at This is narrowed down to somewhere between 1929 and 1930 because the original owner of the book has penned his name, and the date of January 21, 1931 on the inside cover.

Modern Library is now an imprint of Penguin Random House (PRH). The ISBN referenced in my links above are to the current “Modern Library 100 Best Novels” edition of Winesburg by PRH. (As of April 2020, PRH is a subsidiary of the privately held German conglomerate Bertelsmann.)