‘Godliness’ by Sherwood Anderson

Godliness by Sherwood Anderson, 1919

The magic trick:

Extending back 30 years beyond its narrative present to provide context

We arrive now at the centerpiece story of Winesburg, Ohio. It’s by far the longest story in the collection, separated into four sections that each could stand as individual Winesburg stories. But more than mere length, “Godliness” serves as an excellent consolidation of the collection’s main themes.

A quick sidenote: it’s remarkable to me the degree to which this story feels like a direct precursor to the work of Flannery O’Connor 30-40 years later. The fourth section, “Terror,” in particular, really captures how religious fervor can mix with generational cultural divide and end in violence in a very Flannery kind of way.

But back to “Godliness.” The story diverges significantly from the others in Winesburg in that it breaks the vacuum seal world found elsewhere in the collection. “Godliness” extends backward to the Civil War and gives more context to the history of the Bentley family and the town. The other stories can give the impression that this town has 15 citizens and three streets. It’s a micro-study. So the extended context found in “Godliness” not only serves the story well; it enhances our understanding of the entire collection.

And that’s quite a trick on Anderson’s part.

The selection:

It will perhaps be somewhat difficult for the men and women of a later day to understand Jesse Bentley. In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the interurban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America. Books, badly imagined and written though they may be in the hurry of our times, are in every household, magazines circulate by the millions of copies, newspapers are everywhere. In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men. The newspapers and the magazines have pumped him full. Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever. The farmer by the stove is brother to the men of the cities, and if you listen you will find him talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all.

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