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  • Holding on to the Sentimental in Winesburg, Ohio
  • Aaron Ritzenberg (bio)

Mr. Bird hurried her into the carriage, and Mrs. Bird pressed on after her to the carriage steps. Eliza leaned out of her carriage, and put out her hand,—a hand as soft and beautiful as was given in return. She fixed her large, dark eyes, full of earnest meaning, on Mrs. Bird’s face, and seemed going to speak. Her lips moved,—she tried once or twice, but there was no sound,—and pointing upward, with a look never to be forgotten, she fell back in the seat, and covered her face. The door was shut, and the carriage drove on.

—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Pausing in his speech, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.

With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets. Tears came to his eyes. “I must be getting along home. I can talk no more with you,” he said nervously.

—Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio [End Page 496]

In my first epigraph, taken from the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe displays a sentimental touch. Eliza has just escaped across the icy Ohio River with her child in her arms and found brief shelter in the home of Senator and Mrs. Bird. Eliza must be secretly transferred if she is not to be captured by slave hunters. In the midst of life-saving haste, time stops for an instant, just long enough for Eliza and Mrs. Bird to touch hands. Language is not necessary. In fact, speaking is impossible for Eliza. Only hands can convey the deepest sense of gratitude; only touch can confirm the sympathy of two mothers who have lost children. In my second epigraph, Sherwood Anderson depicts a moment of failed sentimentalism in his 1919 short story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio. What seems like it will be a sentimental touch quickly turns antisentimental. Wing Biddlebaum, the berry picker famous for his active hands, stops himself from touching the young reporter George Willard for fear that his silent touch will be misinterpreted. Instead of transcendent human contact we find nervous isolation, even when bodies are close. Instead of deep sympathy we find alienation.

The passage from Winesburg, Ohio exemplifies the way that Anderson sought to elude the sentimental trappings of the nineteenth-century American novel. As he wrote to Arthur Barton, “What I think we want to do is get away from the idea of making the small town ridiculous or too dreary or sentimental” (148). Anderson was obsessed with creating a new literature for a new age.1 Most critics recognize Anderson for his modernist break from the forms of the past—for his important role in pushing the formal boundaries of the short story cycle, for his formulation of an American grotesque, for his concern with technological change, and for his engagement with gender politics.2 Even with the recent resurgence of scholarship on sentimentalism, few critics have investigated Anderson’s complex relationship with sentimental literature. I argue that Anderson’s engagement with sentimentalism is crucial to a full understanding of his modernism. What seems to be at first a full repudiation of sentimentalism becomes an appropriation of sentimental form. As we will see, Winesburg, Ohio persists in using sentimental tropes even as it sets out to be unsentimental. The text is centrally concerned with touching the reader. As in the sentimental novels of the nineteenth century, we readers are touched when characters are touched, and finally, when characters touch. This is not to argue that Anderson is less formally innovative or less socially engaged than previously thought. Rather, Anderson’s use of an atavistic trope marks his vexed relationship with one of the dominant social forces of his age—the pressures of managerial capitalism. Anderson’s response to a new form of capitalism looks to an old form of literary representation. [End Page 497]

Winesburg, Ohio documents the struggle of conveying emotion in a culture where...


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pp. 496-517
Launched on MUSE
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