One hundred years ago, a collection of short stories by a little-known author from Ohio burst onto the literary scene, causing a minor scandal for their sexual frankness. In the years since, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) became more famous for its insightful portrayal of a town filled with friendly but solitary individuals, who wrestle with questions of love and lust, art and ambition, deep frustrations and the desire for spiritual uplift. How well have these stories held up? And how well do they speak to us today? We’ll talk with Alyson Hagy, author of the new novel Scribe, about this often overlooked American masterpiece – and we’ll see how it’s informed her own writing career.
SHERWOOD ANDERSON (1876-1941) grew up in a small town in Ohio before leaving in a state of desperation for Chicago and a literary career. His novels and short stories were often cited by the next generation of American writers (Wolfe, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald) as helping them to develop their own literary voice.
ALYSON HAGY was raised on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She is the author of eight works of fiction, including Scribe and Boleto. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
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A technological accident added some unexpected profundity to Ian Stansel’s heartfelt piece “Finding the Essential in the Literary Midwest.” Here’s how the piece ended, at least when I read it (only the first paragraph was intentional):
So to you folks flying over, I say this: go ahead. Go on to Colorado or New Mexico or California. Go on to Brooklyn and Portland and Austin. Go on to your more glamorous regions, to your fashionable residents and well-spiced food and detectable topography. We’ll be here in the heartland, gnawing on an ear of corn and quietly, patiently making literature.
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Goosebumps. Hard to imagine a better coda.
One question I had. Stansel writes:
Of course the Midwest is more diverse than it gets credit for, and likewise Midwestern literature encompasses a wide array of authors and styles. Look at the moral novels of Theodore Dreiser. Or the intimate psychology of Sherwood Anderson. Look at the gritty worlds of contemporary authors Donald Ray Pollock, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Daniel Woodrell. Hell, look at the sentimental nostalgia of Robert James Waller. There is no one writer we can point to and say, “This is Midwestern writing.”
He points out the positive aspects of this:
I imagine it must be frustrating to be a southern writer, to always have the voices of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner echoing through literary conversations. Or to be a poet in San Francisco, with the ghosts of so many Beats still knocking about. But here in the Midwest, we have less of an overt tradition to which we must answer. We can do whatever we want.
He’s probably right. But I also wondered whether Garrison Keillor might not be as stifling to contemporary Midwestern authors as O’Connor, Faulkner, and the ghost of the Beats. Never underestimate the power of a folksy country bumpkin with ambition.