Language and Mores in winesburg, ohio
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and picks up a few new ones, and you don't have to look far to find novels and short stories grown stale from shaky, outdated prose, from too many neo-tropisms, catch-phrases, and slang with a short shelf-life.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...