Why We Like These Stories: A Personal Essay on Sophistication

This blog post is part of the ‘Why We Like These Stories’ series: a series of personal essays from the staff of Boydell and Brewer and University of Rochester Press on their favourite short stories and why they like them to celebrate Short Story Month. For the full list of essays, click here.

“Sophistication” was first published by B.W. Huebsch in 1919. It was collected in Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life by Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941). 

Some years ago, a friend had given me a book of classic American short stories, which, for one sorry excuse or another, sat unopened on my shelf until last summer. I had been knee-deep in trying to revise (really, revive) a picture book idea of my own and the thought of starting this novel or that novel to read on the side seemed like a colossal and marathon effort and one I did not have the energy for. A short story seemed the perfect length (and in fact, not unlike a picture book in its unique ability to capture a whole world in just a few pages). And so, somehow, in that curious way in which a thing appears right when it is needed, I rediscovered the book, sitting there so patiently for me all this time.  

There is a moment in Sherwood Anderson’s story “Sophistication” that something like this occurs, though in a very different and profound way. We meet Anderson’s young protagonist George Willard on the evening before he is to leave Winesburg. George, caught in that restless and anxious transition period between childhood and adulthood, wanders the streets of his hometown and

for the first time takes the backward view of life … for the first time he looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness. The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun…. The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling. With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another…. He wants, most of all, understanding.

His thoughts turn to the banker’s daughter Helen White, home from college to spend a day at the town Fair, and who at the same time is experiencing a similar transformation. Just as George hurries along to escape the crowds, making up his mind to go to Helen’s house, Helen runs out into a side street to escape a world of “meaningless people saying words,” searching for George. When they at last come together, sitting silently in the dark and deserted grand-stand,

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.

My first thought after reading this story was that I wished I had read it in high school. But I suppose I only say this because I now have had a certain amount of life experiences to look back on. How would I have read it then? And how would my understanding of these characters have changed had I read more of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio cycle? Would that matter? I am not sure. All I can say is that this story, at least for me, is all about feeling and that is why I love it. It touches on so many ideas that fascinate and inspire me: the constancy of change, chance meetings, the fragility and transience of life, and the unspoken connection between two people, which is the final thought Anderson leaves us with regarding George and Helen:

For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.

I hope you will read this rest of this lovely work.

Intrigued to read more about Sherwood Anderson and Winesburg, Ohio?
Richard Kopley writes ‘The Structure of Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands”’ in his book
The Formal Center: Explorations from Poe to the Present. Get The Formal Center for 40% off during our Short Story Month Sale. Use promo code BB741 at check out through May 31st.

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