Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Tales of People and Art

Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio 

by Sherwood Anderson


“Love is like a wind stirring the grass beneath trees on a black night,' he had said. 'You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life. If you try to be definite and sure about it and to live beneath the trees, where soft night winds blow, the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly and the gritty dust from passing wagons gathers upon lips inflamed and made tender by kisses.” ― Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio 

I first read this book when I was in high school and have read it again since. From the beginning it struck me as a serious work of literature but only upon rereading it and reading more extensively authors who were influenced by Anderson have I come to some appreciation for his true greatness. Published in 1919 and sub-titled “A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-town Life,” Winesburg, Ohio exposed the desperation and loneliness of so many of the residents of a small, mid-American town. It was among the first books to take on what would become a central theme in American literature. In these tales you see the strange, secret lives of the inhabitants of a small town. In "Hands," Wing Biddlebaum tries to hide the tale of his banishment from a Pennsylvania town, a tale represented by his hands. In "Adventure," lonely Alice Hindman impulsively walks naked into the night rain. Threaded through the stories is the viewpoint of George Willard, the young newspaper reporter who, like his creator, stands witness to the dark and despairing dealings of a community of isolated people. Here is an example of the beautiful prose of such isolation:
“In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. "I have come to this lonely place and here is this other," was the substance of the thing felt.” 
Each of the tales shines a clear light on the character of an inhabitant and you come to know Winesburg almost as well as your own home town. Growing up in a small Midwestern town I never forgot the feeling this book gave me and the appreciation for the genius of Sherwood Anderson.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Penguin Classics.

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Girl With a Pearl Earring

Girl With a Pearl Earring 




Set in 17th century Delft, Holland, the novel was inspired by Delft school painter Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. Chevalier presents a fictional account of Vermeer, the model, and the painting. It is a beautiful historical novel in which just as Vermeer's paintings are precise evocations of his world the novel is an evocation of another world - that of Vermeer himself. It brings his time alive for the reader and was a joy to read.
Tracy Chevalier's inspiration for Girl with a Pearl Earring was a poster of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. She bought the poster as a nineteen-year-old, and it hung wherever she lived for sixteen years. Chevalier notes that the "ambiguous look" on the girl's face left the "most lasting impression" on her. She describes the girl's expression "to be a mass of contradictions: innocent yet experienced, joyous yet tearful, full of longing and yet full of loss." She began to think that the girl had directed all these emotions at the painter, and began to think of the "story behind that look". Chevalier's research included reading the history of the period, studying the paintings of Vermeer and his peers, and spending several days in Delft. Rather than writing a story of Vermeer having an illicit relationship with the household maid, Chevalier builds tension in the work with the depiction of their restraint. As Time magazine critic Sheppard writes, Chevalier presents "an exquisitely controlled exercise that illustrates how temptation is restrained for the sake of art".

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. Dutton, 2000 (1999)

2 comments:

M. said...

I also read Winesburg in high school, in my case a big city high school. A revelation, to be sure. Downside: two years spent writing stories of small town angst (you can just imagine).

James said...

Thanks for your comment. In my case I grew up in a small town, but one that had less angst than Winesburg. Anderson's writing paid off in other ways as he influenced many fellow writers.