That would be Winesburg, Ohio, as determined by the board of the Modern Library. It was recommended by my very fine commenter Col, so how could I go wrong? (Also, it’s short!)
Let’s make one obvious point right off the bat: If I were the writer whose novel came in at position 101 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list, I would be lodging a formal complaint with the international governing body of top 100 lists, because Winesburg, Ohio isn’t a novel; it’s a short story cycle. I have nothing against short story cycles — The Martian Chronicles is a good one — but they bypass problems that novels have to solve — like sustaining a narrative arc, like introducing characters at the appropriate time and developing them in sufficient detail to justify their roles. No one is going to admire Winesburg, Ohio for its plot, because it ain’t got any.
What it has are lots of small-town turn-of-the-century characters afflicted with “vague hungers and secret unnamable desires.” People who go for long walks in the dark and the rain pondering the waste of their lives. People who dream of leaving and never leave. People who leave, then return as failures. People who leave and are never heard of again. People who long to make a connection with other people, but never quite manage to do connect. Lots and lots of sexual repression.
What it doesn’t have: Humor. Warmth. Happiness, except in fleeting moments. Did I mention that it doesn’t have a plot? It has recurring characters, especially the young reporter who shows up in most of the stories and (spoiler alert) finally leaves town at the end of the book. But nothing much in the way of character development.
Still, I couldn’t put the book down. Anderson’s descriptions of small-town life and small-town characters are powerful and often moving. The stories are mostly pretty short–they make their point, and then move on–so I never felt bogged down. I have a feeling that some of the stories are going to stay with me.
Ultimately, I think the book gets the high ranking that it does for historical reasons–its themes and style are daring for 1919, and it apparently paved the way for American writers we remember better. Winesburg, Ohio came out early in Anderson’s career, and nothing else he wrote made much of an impression.
So, who should I try next? Theodore Dreiser? Sinclair Lewis? Ford Madox Ford? James T. Farrell? They’re on the Modern Library’s list, but I haven’t read any of them.
So many good books, so little time.