Fathers and Sons: Winesburg, Ohio and the Revision of Modernism

By Conner, Marc C. | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Fathers and Sons: Winesburg, Ohio and the Revision of Modernism


Conner, Marc C., Studies in American Fiction


The American had finally denied too many fathers to survive except as the fatherless man.

--Leslie Fiedler

One of the strangest relationships in the world is that between father and son.

--Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio opens with the author's famous dedication to the memory of his mother, "whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives." (1) It has become a commonplace of Winesburg criticism to see Anderson's work as the fulfillment of what one critic describes as "the debt Anderson felt toward his mother." (2) As Anderson's biographer Kim Townsend states, in Winesburg, Ohio Anderson "had done what George Willard had set out to do; he had justified his mother's faith." (3) Yet with the exception of George Willard's mother, who plays a prominent role in two of the twenty-two Winesburg tales, the figure of the mother is conspicuously absent from the book: the dominant figure throughout the tales--more dominant even than George Willard himself, the apparent central character--is the figure of the father, and the crucial relationship in Winesburg, Ohio is that of the father and the son. An overarching pattern exists throughout the Winesburg tales: a father-figure places an overwhelming burden on his son; the son is either unable or unwilling to assume this burden; the son then rejects his father and flees Winesburg. The unfolding of this pattern forms the book's primary narrative, for George Willard's response to this pattern determines either the hopefulness or the despair with which we read the conclusion of Winesburg, Ohio.

This pattern mirrors Sherwood Anderson's own life: for years Anderson felt a bitter resentment toward his father, and as he grew older he struggled to come to terms with this relationship. Townsend states that "if Anderson wanted anyone to blame for his having so little sense of family, there was--clearly--his father" (9). According to all accounts Irwin Anderson was a lazy man who preferred telling anecdotes of his Civil War days to providing for his family, and he became the model for Tom Willard in the Winesburg stories, a man who "always thought of himself as a successful man, although nothing he had ever done had turned out successfully," and whose wife "he took as a reproach to himself" (44, 39). The young Sherwood Anderson resented his father not only for his failings as a provider, but also because Irwin "left Anderson to face his mother's pain alone" (Townsend, 5). Sherwood Anderson saw the effect his father's shiftlessness and adultery had on his mother, and, as he explained in his semi-fictional autobiography Tar: A Midwest Childhood, he internalized the pain and guilt himself: "It was as though she had been struck a blow and when you looked at her you felt at once that your hand had delivered the blow." (4) When Anderson's mother died, his father seemed to feel little or no remorse, and this confirmed Anderson's hatred for the man. At the age of nineteen Anderson left his hometown for Chicago and never laid eyes on his father again.

Consequently the struggle between fathers and sons in Winesburg, Ohio, when it has received attention, has been read as a portrayal of Anderson's hatred toward his own father. As Marcia Jacobson asserts, in Winesburg, Ohio Anderson "found a way to dramatize his continuing hostility to his father"; (5) similarly, Townsend speculates that the son who desires to kill his father to avenge his mother's life of hardship in Windy McPherson's Son, the novel that preceded Winesburg, is drawn directly from Anderson's own patricidal fantasies. But more than a son's resentment toward his father is at work here: at the heart of this struggle with the father that so dominates the Winesburg tales is the struggle for expression. The principal burden placed on the son in this book is to express the essence of his father's life, to tell the tale of his father that his father is unable to tell. …

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