For much of my adult life, I have waited for people to say a certain phrase or do a certain act that tells me something important and irrevocable about them and their relationship to me. I usually can’t tell you what I’m waiting for. It is a flash of intuition that tells me that person can be counted on, tells me that person loves me, tells me that person is different than before. However, several times I have felt that my intuition about people has been wrong. I experienced this most violently during the ending of my first marriage, a time in which I thought I learned that words were simply words, easily spoken and easily broken. It is not that I believe that people don’t mean what they say (although, obviously, that is sometimes the case); it is that despite one’s explicit determinations at a particular moment, contexts change and the need to hold firmly to what one once proclaimed becomes less important, less powerful. The words once said—for all we know a true expression of a moment in one’s history and feelings and principles—are no longer true or are at least less true than they once were.
I learned this then and, yet, my tendency to wait for a particular event remains. I am always waiting for a truth that is unmovable and I expect life to build itself on that event. This desire for a logical progression, founded on a perceived certainty, is the root of several decisions in my life, not least of which is my choice to teach math, rather than some other less “clean” discipline.
Sherwood Anderson once wrote that we need people who “at any cost to themselves and others agree to quit working, to loaf, to refuse to be hurried or try to get on in the world.” His own personal version of that was to walk out of his office one day, leaving a family and a business, destination unknown. Anderson was trying to create the kind of certainty for which I have looked. He wanted to base the rest of his life on that moment of walking out of everything, a concrete act that formed the outlines of what came later. In fact, after a short stay in the hospital to recover from exhaustion, he returned to his life, though eventually split with both his wife and job in more formal fashion. That is, life didn’t turn out quite so clear cut.
Yet, he did eventually do what he started on that day—he did leave his business and wife in a much more ordinary process, not a moment of crystalline, extraordinary action. Life, then, becomes much more about what you do over time, day in and day out, and the effects of those actions, than it about what you say or do on any one specific moment or day. It is not a logical progression; it is a progressive build up of claims and actions that lead to effects one cannot always predict. Later we tell stories, more or less logical sequences of events springing from a specific day or moment. The impulse to tell these stories—something Imre Lakatos called “rational reconstruction,” though in a different context—is, in my opinion, post hoc illusion more than actual reflection of the reality of events.
Anderson seems to disagree with me: every story in his Winesburg, Ohio (published originally in 1919), a series of connected stories bunched in and around a small town in northern Ohio, flows toward a moment in one or more lives which defines those lives forever after, an instant of poetic clarity, without the prosaic messiness of real life. The results are frequently striking and poignant and disturbing, and in this way Anderson is a kind of lesser Raymond Carver. Malcolm Cowley, the editor of the 1960 edition of Winesburg, Ohio, sees Anderson’s influence in “Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Caldwell, Saroyan, Henry Miller,” and others. In addition to Carver, would certainly add the misanthropic oeuvres of Edward Abbey, Charles Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson to the mix, though perhaps they were influenced through intermediaries (like those Cowley mentions), Anderson’s literary grandchildren, as it were.
As in the work many of the writers listed above, there is a profoundly sad, lonely solitariness in Anderson’s stories. Each character grasps for meaning and connection and few, if any, succeed. It is a vision of life in America to which I relate and which, on some level, I feel must be true; at the same time, I rebel against it. I do not think it is an accident that all the writers in Anderson’s literary reach are men. The sensibility they express seems tied up with the way that masculinity is constructed in the United States. These writers are both products and constructors of this mythology: lone, lustful, anti-commitment, self-destructive, doomed to unhappiness and poverty of either material goods or spirit or both. There is little in Anderson’s stories that speaks of hope, even as the one character with some apparent possibilities leaves the little town for the city. Rather, there is the sense that he is simply exchanging a slow, boring, lonely death in Winesburg for a faster-paced, boring, lonely death in the city.
Cowley’s introduction claims that the book is “an attempt to break down the walls that divide one person from another”; if so, I believe it fails. The attempt to connect, in tension with the isolated nature of Anderson’s vision, lends the book its dramatic power. The failure leaves us doomed to repeat ourselves in lives of missed connection and squandered opportunity. That we have fleeting moments of joy does little to relieve the inevitability of our destiny.