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Essay on Language and Mores in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg

Language and literature lead parallel lives. What changes most often and most dramatically is the language we use to describe events and feelings that are common to all times. Language shifts, stretches, adopts, and absorbs — it drops antiquated terms and picks up a few new ones, and you don’t have to look far to find novels and short stories grown stale from shaky, outdated prose, from too many neo-tropisms, catch-phrases, and slang with a short shelf-life. Literature, though inseparable from language, endures.

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio encapsulates both the changes that have swept up language from 1919 till the present, and the endurance of certain themes. The question concerning language is, at heart, a question of mores: How do you talk about yourself and others? What are we allowed to say, and how? The question posed by literature is moral in nature, but it is phrased differently: What is it about myself and others? The constraints in literature reflect the constraints in language, but the former apply to morality, the latter to mores.

Morality, broadly defined, refers to a sense of decency inherent in everyone. Mores refer to the set of constraints, a sort of value table, that a society has placed on itself and on its members. Morality and literature have hardly changed — their central concerns remain the same (man’s place in the universe, death, love, everything in between). Mores and language have changed — their central concerns have adapted to suit the shifting times.

It’s no surprise that morality often comes into conflict with mores (segregation was never moral, but it was, for a time, a more), and that literature often comes into conflict with language (Ulysses stands as a prime example, but any good book brushes knuckles with language). These are parallel tracks — morality and literature, mores and language — so things get confused sometimes, and literature comes into conflict with mores. And it is very easy to get these two tracks confused. When readers called Winesburg, Ohio a morally offensive book, they meant it.

It would not be fair to say that these readers failed to see that they were confusing mores with morals, that they lacked the necessary semantic tools to tell the difference, because in the real world mores and morals are tightly wrapped together. Our sense of what is right is indistinguishable from what is, in fact, right. Readers carry this sense of right and wrong into literature. Oscar Wilde, in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, said that books were neither moral nor immoral — they were either well written or poorly written.

Vladimir Nabokov, in his Afterword to Lolita, improves on Wilde’s formula by saying that any lasting work of literature is inherently moral. By these aphoristic definitions, Winesburg, Ohio proves both a lasting work of literature and an inherently moral cycle of short stories. The biggest hurdle in proving Winesburg’s morality is, as it was when published, sex. The question is not so much whether the characters are behaving decently or not (though most of them are), but whether the author is being consistent, honest, and fair in his treatment of the sexual lives of his characters.

That his characters are eccentric is a given. That they are not representative of an abstract human condition is also a given. That they are fully fleshed out, wholly three-dimensional, is self-evident. But the real problem is whether these fleshed-out characters ring true, whether their sexual lives are not so much consistent with those of the reader but rather with the sort of hang-ups and tribulations that beset men and women a hundred years ago, two hundred years from now, and however long we have been and will be thinking creatures with natural, primordial impulses.

It seems fair to say that Anderson is true and compassionate to his characters, but it’s worth considering why some people, particularly some of his contemporaries, might think otherwise. John Updike, in an essay titled “Twisted Apples” included in the Norton edition of Winesburg, tallies up the total number of naked women in the story-cycle, about four (p 192). The most remarkable thing about this sort of nudity, tame by today’s standards, is its capacity to shed light on the loneliness, the isolation, and the bittersweet comedy that threads the inhabitants of Winesburg together.

Think of Alice Hindman exposing herself to an elderly stranger in “Adventure”, a moment of daring and desperation that ends up in slapstick. By the time Winesburg was published, Sir Richard Burton’s 1883 translations of various Indian erotic texts, the Kama Sutra and the Thousand and One Nights among them, were both readily available and fairly known in the US. Explicit erotica, along with pornography, may or may not be immoral — it is not, however, the sort of thing found in Winesburg.

And it isn’t what some readers of Anderson’s time had in mind when they called the book immoral. An anonymous reviewer from a 1919 edition of The New York Evening Post, included in the Norton edition of Winesburg (p 164), has “moral objections” against Anderson, and says that “the recurrence of misdemeanors and crimes of sex in the book will be especially irritating to those who… know the partial element of truth”. One wonders what the partial element of truth is—is it only true at certain times?

Does he or she mean to say that this truth (sex) is partial because it is only a part of the human experience? That seems to be the case. The reviewer takes issue with Anderson mentioning sex, calls the book “nasty” and “unedifying”, and calls George Willard, the most sympathetic person in the story-cycle, “a character which no man would wish to see in the hands of a daughter or a sister. ” I agree. But it also seems pretty clear that there are George Willards in the world, with rich inner lives and sporadic instincts.

There’s a little bit of George Willard and Helen White and every other character that resonates, that adds a piece or two to the puzzle of being human. Winesburg seems less threatening now mostly because of its language, its timidity and overuse of euphemisms (particularly the word “adventure,” used throughout to designate a sexual escapade, and Anderson’s proclivity to drawing the blinds on his readers when things get too hot), not because it is any less a work of literature.

Our mores have changed in much the same way. There is a tendency these days to spell everything out, moles and all, the more explicit the confessional the better, and this tendency will most likely pass. Our current mores are consistent enough with morality — they are, in fact, outward signs that we are moral people — but they are not inflexible. It is through the filters of language and mores that we look at literature and morality. And Anderson’s Winesburg seems to be doing fine on both counts. It’s still standing.

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