This is a collection of forty monologues by residents of a fictional Indiana town, and as the title suggests, readers are supposed to see it as a contemporary reflection of, or extension of, Sherwood Anderson’s famous Winesburg, Ohio (1919), published almost a century ago. Indeed, the book opens with a fictional letter from a Winesburg, Ohio, attorney, asking that the community of Winesburg, Indiana, “cease and desist” from use of “the Winesburg trademark.” In short, after most of a hundred years, the writers are daring to do something similar—by presenting selected lives in another fictional midwestern small town.
But it’s often unwise to imitate, reflect, or evoke a famous American literary work, urging a comparison of some kind. Yes, the people of Winesburg, Indiana, have troubled lives, and tend to be isolated from others in the community—like Anderson’s characters—but the book is a collection of writings by twenty-nine authors, of varying talent, so readers will encounter some monologues that seem shallow or undeveloped. “The Cantor Quadruplets,” for example, involves one of the town’s quadruplets speaking for all four of them, reflecting their hard life, but the reader knows little about him, or her, or all four of them, and doesn’t become engaged with their struggle, or experience their view of the town. Likewise, “Inspector 4,” whose name is never even revealed, is in some kind of “quality control” work, and he or she loses psychological control while writing, and can’t make words connect well. Again, the monologue fails to engage the reader. Yet another one, titled “Jacques Derrida Writes Postcards to Himself from a Diner in Winesburg, [End Page 141] Indiana,” does not deal with small-town culture or reflect the experience of a small-town resident at all. And aside from being unrelated to the book’s focus, it’s not engaging either.
Some of the other monologues, such as “Cleaning Lady to the Stars” by Valerie Sayers, “Limberlost” by Kelcey Ervick Parker, “Howard Garfield, Balladeer” by Edward Porter, “‘Manchild’ Morrison: The Best That Almost Was” by Porter Shreve, and “Occupy Winesburg” by Shannon Cain, are more engaging. And they do contribute to the overall impact by reflecting a sense of place—depicting individuals coping in a modern midwestern small town.
Some of the monologues are humorous, and others try too hard to be humorous. “Clyde,” for example, is a weak parody of the whole monologue writing project, which tries to poke fun at the book’s co-editors. In various other monologues small-town folks of various kinds are satirized—as if the much-discussed, often-critiqued “revolt from the village” movement had yet to run its course. Too many of the characters lack comprehension of their cultural context, nor are their self-reflections penetrating. And unlike the situation in Anderson’s classic, there is no George Willard mixing with the troubled ones as he himself copes, grows, and prepares to leave—so this Winesburg lacks a sense of development.
Also, although the book’s cover refers to the authors as “a lively group of Indiana writers,” some have never been residents there. If the idea was really to reflect small-town Indiana characters, using Indiana writers—to hopefully express probing insights into modern people living in such a place—this mixing of writers who have an extensive Indiana background with others who have little or no such experience is an inherently problematic approach.
While depicting the values and struggles of small-town residents in the American heartland (Indiana or elsewhere) today is a worthwhile literary purpose, this effort has shortcomings that are readily apparent. [End Page 142]