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. In the section from Winesburg, Ohio quoted above, the "backward view" fills George with feelings of his own insignificance and provides a reminder to him of his own mortality. Yet in Marching Men, which was composed at some point between 1906 and 1913, Anderson couched the relation between what becomes constituted as history and masculinity in terms that are remarkably self-aggrandizing, aggressive, and militaristic. (6) The storyline focuses on Beaut MacGregor, a miner's son who migrates to Chicago and organizes its workingmen into the "Marching Men," a group somewhere between a labour union and a militia. Yet the "Marching Men" have no overt political or social agenda: MacGregor explains that the movement is about "the thing that can't be put into words," and that "for a time men will cease to be individuals. They will become a mass, a moving all powerful mass." (7) This they do by marching in their thousands through the streets of Chicago, much to the consternation of the city's authorities and industrialists, but not in support of any concrete proposals for labour reform--merely for the experience of marching. Christopher Looby has described such moments of depersonalization and massification as "a kind of fantasy upon which military esprit de corps thrives, a fantasy of selfless absorption into a powerful collective body," yet the objective of this in Anderson's novel seems less about military objectives or class politics than about gender politics. (8) This agenda is implicitly revealed as the collective body of the "Marching Men" becomes aggressively hyper-masculinized to a degree unachievable by an individual--a process that produces a sense of exhilaration in the men involved. Indeed, Anderson's exaltation of the collective male military body often drifts close to an endorsement of a totalitarian and proto-Fascistic politics. It was the following type of extremism that he was to re-assess as the Great War unfolded:
In the heart of all men lies sleeping the love of order. How to achieve order out of our strange jumble of forms, out of democracies and monarchies, dreams and endeavours is the riddle of the Universe and the thing that in the artist is called the passion for form ... The long march, the burning of the throat and the stinging of dust in the nostrils, the touch of shoulder against shoulder, the quick bond of a common, unquestioned, instinctive passion that bursts in the orgasm of battle, the forgetting of words and the doing of the thing, be it winning battles or destroying ugliness, the passionate massing of men for accomplishment--these are the signs, if they ever awake in our land, by which you may know you have come to the days of the making of men. (9)
The imposition of order by masculine force, the links between this epistemology and the act of writing, the analogies among military conquest, creativity, and phallic sexual gratification--all features problematized in Winesburg, Ohio--are put forward with a deeply disturbing sincerity in this passage. Indeed, Anderson's misogyny and stress on war as restorative rather than destructive, as what Fillipo Tomasso Marinetti called the "great health-giver of the world," recall the manifestos of the Italian Futurists that became central to Fascist aesthetics after World War One. (10) As David Forgacs has noted, "the discourse of Fascism is full of imagined acts of violence which heal and restore order where there had been a perceived state of disease and disorder," and commonly the source of disease and disorder was represented as a woman. (11) The kind of imaginary violence that Anderson indulges in here celebrates the fullness of a masculinity established through the wounding of an unnamed and objectified other, a passive victim of a phallic assault. The "Marching Men" of the novel's rifle, established in a homosocial system that crucially obliterates all difference between them, thus become an …
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Publication information: Article title: Dreams of Manhood: Narrative, Gender, and History in Winesburg, Ohio. Contributors: Whalan, Mark - Author. Journal title: Studies in American Fiction. Volume: 30. Issue: 2 Publication date: Autumn 2002. Page number: 229+. © 1998 Northeastern University. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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