In French, “collège” means something like a middle school or junior high. My French friends apprised me of this quite early in my Paris years, after a couple of dinner parties where I regaled a shocked table with tales of my ‘college’ exploits.
In truth, my third-level action was quite typical for someone of varsity age: bedsits, booze, parties, the first Velvet Underground album. There by grace of a local authority grant and a student loan, I didn’t have the disposable income for anything more intoxicating than our local supermarket’s special offer on Dutch Gold lager: six cans for a fiver. Luckily, students in 1990s Dublin could also avail of cheap accommodation: for my cold, flimsy bedsit I paid my landlord 120 then-Irish-pounds a month. Today there’s probably a low-paid call-centre worker living in it for far more per day. I even cleared my student loan by winning £1000 in a college newspaper crossword competition; the subsequent front page featuring me holding a giant presentation cheque is one of many photos of me gladly lost in the pre-Internet, pre-smartphone ether.
It took me a while to start enjoying my student life. The whole first two years I was paralysed by self-consciousness and a complete lack of self-confidence. I was a small-town boy up in the big city by myself, far from my family and friends, and the whole heaving hullaballoo of crowded campus and loud bars was simply overwhelming. There were parties where I spent the whole night sat on the floor by the wall, frozen in panic. Amazingly, I still made friends; people in my class actually came up and talked to me, repeatedly. The lesson there is that if you want to approach people they are generally quite friendly and welcoming, and if you don’t feel like approaching people then at least you should know the option is there on the table.
After a false start of taking a business and legal course with an eye on future career prospects, which only worsened my discomfort, I regrouped and found my natural home: an arts degree, majoring in literature. I loved nearly all the course material (with the exception of Thomas Hardy’s relentlessly bleak and spirit-crushing Jude the Obscure) but one book in particular was a touchstone of those years for me and probably many, many others: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.
As a work of early 20th century modernist American fiction whose sparse, symbolic style has influenced everyone from Hemingway to Raymond Carver, it’s still on my university’s literature module reading lists. However, I suspect the real reason for its continued presence on the syllabus is that it’s about a sensitive, observant young male in a small rural town who aspires to escape to the big city and become a writer. This pretty much describes most first-year literature students, of course, or at least the boys, and I’m surprised a copy of Winesburg, Ohio isn’t simply distributed to freshers along with their orientation packs and free Pot Noodle.
Anyway, all these years later I noticed that Winesburg, Ohio is still there on my grown-up non-bedsit bookshelves. If I re-read it, would I still feel as fond of it now? Would it magically transport me back to those early college years, fraught with fear and promise?
Well, no. Time makes ancient good uncouth, as we American literature students say, and at this remove it certainly reads like a book for, by and about unsophisticated young men, though of a type far less toxic than today’s self-proclaimed incels and edgelords. Its hero, George Willard, is a cub reporter and the book is a series of encounters between George and other Winesburghers, each of whom has either an epiphany, a moment of crisis or a notable incident in their personal history. For Anderson these characters are ‘grotesques’ — not as colourful or eccentric as Dickens’ grotesques like Mr Micawber or Uriah Heep (and Winesburg, Ohio is quite Dickensian in its structure of a youthful blank recorder encountering a cast of oddballs) but who in the slightly deceptive words of the narrator have grabbed onto a single “truth” to the point of warping. In fact — take note, students — the deal with Anderson’s characters is that they are simmering with a frustrated love (sometimes suggested to be of the same-sex flavour) or ambition, and they see George as a potential outlet for expressing those repressed emotions. However, George himself is a callow, inexperienced lad who simply doesn’t have the emotional toolkit to be of any practical use to them. The frustration stays on the boil. They could have done with the kindly classmates who reached out to me.
Anderson’s plain prose is occasionally and consciously poetic, most famously in a scene where a young farmhand reveals a secret to his older colleague; suddenly the picture pulls back to show the two men standing in a prairie setting of widescreen heart-stopping beauty. Aside from that, most of the dramatic scenes are quite stagey, like a local amateur theatre group putting on some Ibsen. Also, the town of Winesburg is quaint and pastoral; if you’ve read Shirley Jackson’s dark, menacing stories, by comparison Anderson’s version of small-town Americana feels like listening to the Everly Brothers after your first studenty exposure to the aforementioned Velvet Underground. Maybe you need to catch Winesburg, Ohio at an innocent time of your life, like first-year English lit.
If you live in a university city you’re sure to find Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio in your local bookshop. Perhaps they should also give out copies in small towns too, to set those would-be writers dreaming. And just so you freshers are fully prepared, here’s that other essential college text I mentioned: