Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | A Man of Ideas | Summary



In Winesburg Joe Welling may be a man of small stature, but his head is overflowing with ideas: "He was like a tiny little volcano that lies silent for days and then suddenly spouts fire." Joe admires George Willard, but he makes sure George knows he thinks he would be a better reporter: "Here and there I would run finding out things you'll never see." Joe pins George against the wall of the feed store to tell him to make a note of what he has to say on the subject of decay. After giving George a few tips on how to make a newspaper article "hum," Joe tells George he thinks he should start his own newspaper, concluding, "That's what I should do. I'd be a marvel. Everybody knows that."

Life takes on an adventurous twist for Joe when his mother dies, and he goes to live at the New Willard House owned by George's father. While there, Joe successfully organizes and coaches the Winesburg Baseball Club, mainly by acting so erratically he transfixes and confuses the pitcher of the opposing team. Around the same time, Joe falls in love with Sarah King, a tall, sad-looking young woman whose brutish father and brother are not well liked in Winesburg.

Everyone is expecting this affair to end in complete tragedy up until the moment both father and brother confront Joe. George overhears the encounter between Sarah's suitor and her father and brother, and is certain Joe will be murdered. It isn't long, however, before it is clear to George the flood of words Joe lets loose on the two men has completely overwhelmed them. Out of the window George sees the tiny Joe—his feet on the wings of his impassioned tirade on the potential of growing milkweeds as a cash crop—striding on ahead of the two large men following at his heels.


This story is perhaps one of the rare lighthearted ones in Winesburg, Ohio, all the more so because it has an unexpectedly cheerful ending. It provides a bit of relief from the tragedy of David Hardy's disappearance because of a misunderstanding with his grandfather in the story that precedes it, and the overwhelming loneliness of Alice in the following story "Adventure." Joe simply has so many different kinds of ideas running around in his head he is compelled to collar anyone in his path to tell him about them. Lack of communication is not Joe's problem—quite the opposite. He proves with an overabundance of information even the most physically powerful of men can be defeated by the sheer weight of his speech. However, being overwhelmed with a flood of disconnected ideas about such topics as decay, and why a creek is higher than it should be in a season of no rain, is not the same as making sense or meaning out of it all. Although Joe is quite sure he would make a better newspaper reporter than George, he is unable to grab hold of even one of his many ideas long enough to make something significant out of it, yet he shows the power of speech and words in a rare circumstance of defusing the ordinary demands of men.

Joe in fact may have been far ahead of his time with his idea of growing milkweed for profit. Today, the plant is used as insulation, as a nontoxic pesticide, in cosmetics, and as a biodiesel fuel.

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