USA Lit Unseen: Winesburg, Ohio: Sherwood Anderson

Another unseen for critique and comment. This one was examined in 2017. More information on this collection of short stories can be found here.

The passage in question:



The passage is written in 1922 and set in the heart of the Mid West: Ohio. This is an area settled by immigrants, often from Northern Europe, became an industrial powerhouse  in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries as the railways opened the heart of the continent to ever increasing business.

The passage is concerned with a description of ‘Jesse Bentley’, so named to recall the Old Testament prophet, father of King David and named as the originator of Jesus’ descendants, presumably to suggest this Jesse as the origin of the new type of frontiersman of the 20th Century, burning with ambition for what the sees as his ‘destiny – the ability to make his farm ‘produce as no farm in the state had ever produced’ which marks a significant shift from the idea of Manifest Destiny -the taming of the land to God’s Will. His surname suggests wealth and luxury by recalling the car manufacturer of the same name.  Indeed Jesse is shown as harbouring the sins of Pride and Ambition for glory as Anderson tells us that the sees himself as an ‘extraordinary’ man and one whose life must become a ‘thing of importance’. In the boom times following the First World War, such ambition marks a complete shift from the original ‘pure’ Pioneer farmer, seeking spiritual peace before profit. It opens in medias res and the reader is helped to recognise the societal critique by careful choice of lexis and by interpolations in the voice of the narrator.

This shift is further shown in the first paragraph when Jesse is described as ‘but half strong’. Anderson also compares him to the original settlers by using the temporal marker ‘in these later times’. At once we see that Anderson is highlighting the debasement of the original dream as the new frontiersmen now lack a vital element in their being: a moral or spiritual strength. This is a common trope of writing in the 1920s when societal critique will explore the idea of the selfish and the self-obsessed, the greedy and the morally flawed in works such as The Great Gatsby.

Jesse lives on a farm – the Mid West farm is a potent symbol of the simplicity of life as imagined by the founding fathers, yet his farm is different. The verbs of compulsion and ownership suggest more a slave owner than a farmer – he ‘made’ his workers work and he ‘master[s]’ others, with the word repeated to emphasise the inherent cruelty implied. On his farm there is ‘no joy in the work’ suggesting a further remove from the idea of hard work being its own reward which would have been strong in the original settlers of the area. In Jesse we see a new man – one who thinks and plans ceaselessly with a mind to increasing his own profit.  For other farmers, the physical work is so much that they cannot think, but Jesse, who relies on his workers to do his work, can devote his mind to planning  – or to business. He has returned to the farm from Cleveland – one of the cities to emerge as a major financial powerhouse through industry at this time, and at ‘school’ – a word which can carry the sense of University rather than of secondary education – has learned the ideas of the business man – the new frontier to be conquered: making money.

This has made him ‘hard’ – so hard that he can abuse his wife by working her almost to death. The long final sentence closes with the comment that ‘he did not intend to be unkind’, and in so doing draws the reader’s attention to the cruelty of which he is unconscious. His focus is on his imagined destiny and his wish not to become a ‘clod’ – a rural term for a lump of earth, a son of the soil, if you like, an idea which would not have upset his progenitors from earlier times. However Anderson is clear: in these ‘later times’ men seek fiscal power rather than a righteous life.

On the farm his new house serves as a synecdoche for the American state, beginning to overreach itself as it pursues wealth and moves away from the simplicity of the American Dream of the first settlers. The Wing has windows which look West on to the routes taken by the original settlers but now viewed from a position of luxury and comfort. It is here that he sits ‘hour after hour’. One thing is abundantly clear, he undertakes little physical labour and his small body which is so ‘alive’ is driven by his thoughts of wealth and of grandeur rather than by any thoughts of moral probity. He has a ‘new place in life’: no longer a farmer who works with the land and the frontier, he has become a businessman, exploiting the land and his workers for his own, selfish ends. After all, in his mind he is ‘extraordinary’ – much a Tom Buchanan might imagine himself to be – untouchable and ruled by a different moral code to those who came before him. he isolates himself and feeds the ‘indefinable hunger’ which drives him on, and yet leaves him unable to find ‘peace’.