Thursday, September 19, 2019

Essay on Language and Mores in Sherwood Andersons Winesburg, Ohio

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and picks up a few new ones, and you don't have to look far to find novels and short stories grown stale from shaky, outdated prose, from too many neo-tropisms, catch-phrases, and slang with a short shelf-life.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 ... ...being human. Winesburg seems less threatening now mostly because of its language, its timidity and overuse of euphemisms (particularly the word "adventure," used throughout to designate a sexual escapade, and Anderson's proclivity to drawing the blinds on his readers when things get too hot), not because it is any less a work of literature. Our mores have changed in much the same way. There is a tendency these days to spell everything out, moles and all, the more explicit the confessional the better, and this tendency will most likely pass. Our current mores are consistent enough with morality -- they are, in fact, outward signs that we are moral people -- but they are not inflexible. It is through the filters of language and mores that we look at literature and morality. And Anderson's Winesburg seems to be doing fine on both counts. It's still standing.

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