Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece “Winesburg, Ohio” becomes 100 years old.

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By Jim Glanville, Local Historian

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked “Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life” the 24th best book on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.


Its author Sherwood Anderson moved to Marion, Virginia, in 1926 and lived there for 15 years until his death at the age of 64 in 1941. He is buried in Round Hill Cemetery in Marion. His grave monument (shown in the accompanying 2004 image picturing the columnist at Anderson’s grave site) was designed by Anderson’s longtime friend the sculptor Wharton Esherick. The epitaph, written by Anderson himself, reads “Life not death is the great adventure.”

“Winesburg, Ohio” is a collection of loosely interconnected short stories set in the fictional town of Winesburg. Most of the stories feature the fictional George Willard, a young reporter for the town’s fictional newspaper, the “Winesburg Eagle.” The work derives in large measure from Anderson’s memories of growing up in Clyde, Ohio.

Published  in New York by B. W. Huebsch, in May 1919,  when Anderson was aged 44, “Winesburg, Ohio” has just turned a hundred years old.

Bruce Falconer, the senior editor of “The American Scholar” magazine, the author of a 2017 article titled “On My Obsession with Sherwood Anderson,” wrote a “New York Times” May 5, 2019 centenary reappraisal of “Winesburg” titled “Sherwood Anderson’s Revolutionary Small Town: How ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ changed American literature.”

Welford Taylor, many-year Professor of English at the University of Richmond, founder of the Sherwood Anderson Society, and editor of “The Buck Fever Papers,” wrote a May 10, 2019 “Wall Street Journal” centenary reappraisal of “Winesburg” titled “A Town that Changed Literature: A vibrant cast of characters populates Sherwood Anderson’s unorthodox short story collection ‘Winesburg, Ohio.'”

Falconer’s reappraisal noted that while many literary critics savaged Anderson’s book at the time of its publication, the American journalist, cultural critic, scholar of the English language, and literary king maker H. L. Mencken, lavished it with praise. Commercially, “Winesburg” was a failure in the 1920s and its literary reputation waned in the 1930s. Today, it is widely considered one of the best ever portraits of small town life in pre-industrial America.

Late in life, Anderson moved to Marion in Smyth County in southwest Virginia to become the publisher and editor of two small local newspapers: the “Marion Democrat” and the Republican leaning “Marion News.” In Marion he adopted the role of community reformer and invented a fictional amanuensis named Buck Fever.

Buck Fever was apparently inspired by Anderson’s Smyth County neighbor the bib-overalls-wearing Felix Sullivan. The first Anderson article that wrote under the Buck Fever pseudonym appeared in both papers in November 1927 and was titled “In Darkest Marion.” The power line from Saltville to Marion had recently been knocked out for two hours, and the absence of light prompted Anderson to muse about the former use of oil lamps.

Anderson’s first effort as a community reformer was a beautification campaign that he started with the aid of Buck Fever in the March 1, 1928 issue of the “News.” In addition to being a community beautification campaign, it would incidentally improve his own view from the newspapers’ office window by getting the town’s ugly-looking road repair machinery out of the lot at the rear of the courthouse and planting grass and trees there to create a park.

After Buck Fever and his “boss” Anderson had pushed the campaign for this “Henry Mencken Park” for three months, the Marion town council voted to move its machinery to a distant lot. After the move, Smyth Countians from all over the county brought shrubs and bulbs for the new park.

Eschewing H. L. Mencken, at the end of August 1928 the Marion town council officially and amusedly named the new park Sherwood Forest.

 

 

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of southwest Virginia. He can be reached at jglanvil@blacksburg.net.