Dreams of Manhood: Narrative, Gender, and History in Winesburg, Ohio

By Whalan, Mark | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Dreams of Manhood: Narrative, Gender, and History in Winesburg, Ohio


Whalan, Mark, Studies in American Fiction


Gender--or what he called the "man-woman thing"--was a career-long obsession for Sherwood Anderson. In assessments of his most famous text, Winesburg, Ohio (1919), the failure of heterosexual relationships has often been cited as the reason for the "grotesque" nature of several of Winesburg's inhabitants, and his three novels of the 1920s--Poor White (1920) Many Marriages (1923) and Dark Laughter (1925)--can read as quest narratives, with their male protagonists searching for an elusive heterosexual happiness. Yet what early critics perceived as Anderson's radical sexual politics (one anonymous early reviewer claimed his fiction was "of a character which no man would wish to see in the hands of a daughter or sister") has in the past thirty years more often been seen as a restrictive conventionality. (1) Anderson's frequent insistence on the absolute differentiation between men and women relied on binaries such as activity/passivity, or culture/nature, which feminist criticism has long identified with patriarchal culture, and recent critics have not been slow to remark on this aspect of his work. (2) Yet criticism engaging with the gender politics of Winesburg, Ohio has tended to ignore the fact that it was written during the First World War--a war that provoked a period of what Kaja Silverman has called "historical trauma" that problematized the "dominant fictions" of personal (and specifically gender) identity. (3) It is this "trauma," I shall argue, that was implicated in many of the formal innovations of Winesburg, Ohio, a text that marks a distinctly different approach to the relationship between narrative and gender than is evident in the rest of Anderson's writing. Often celebrated as a timeless text exhibiting universal truths about isolation, small-town life, and male adolescence, Winesburg, Ohio connects with Anderson's often-overlooked sense of unease about the effect of the First World War on white American masculinity.

For much of his writing life Sherwood Anderson was fascinated by history. In his letters, autobiographical writings, and fiction, he often produced accounts of the coming of industrialism, the Civil War, and the expansion of the frontier. He considered writing a biography of Grant, in collaboration with Gertrude Stein; he also discussed writing a history of the Mississippi. This interest was most clear in shaping his thoughts on national identity and Americanness, but was also central to his ideas of gender identity. As he wrote in his Memoirs, in one of his most reductive and starkly binaristic statements about gender difference: "In reality women have no desire to DO. Doing is for them a substitute. Their desire is to BE. There was never a real woman lived who did not hunger to be beautiful. The male desires not to be beautiful but to create beauty." (4) According to such a misogynist logic, which predicates masculinity on agency and action and femininity on passivity and absence, "history" as a narrative of change and development inevitably comes to be gendered as masculine. In Winesburg, Ohio, indeed, the central character George Willard's progress into manhood is dependent on his developing an historical sense, as "there is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes a backward view of life. Perhaps that is the moment when he crosses the line into manhood." (5) The "backward view" of placing the self in an historical perspective and therefore becoming both an inheritor and a progenitor marks the beginning of George's "manhood." Although the category of "manhood" and his identification with this category is always problematic for George, this moment nonetheless marks the empowerment of being inducted into a temporal order and invested with the potential for historical agency.

The simultaneous conferral of manhood and historical agency is evident in several of Anderson's works, yet it was constituted within a specifically martial framework in Anderson's important pre-war novel Marching Men. …

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