Book Of The Grotesque: Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio”
Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) is not read anymore, and that is a significant loss to American letters and anyone interested in great literature. He was a keen observer, like many thoughtful men and women in his generation, of the mass effects rapid industrialization had on modern life. This insight, to be clear, was not unique to Anderson, and had his writing nothing more to offer than a superficial exploration of this general theme, he would more justly deserve his relegation to simply another cymbalist in the grand Faulkner-Hemingway orchestra of the time.
Anderson’s deeper literary contribution, and this is best exemplified in his short story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio (1919), lay not in his ability to depict American life in broad historical or metaphysical strokes, but in the subtlety through which he depicted the dueling forces that rage within the souls of common men. Anderson so captures the interiority of his characters, that the emotions of small-town dwellers are rendered as complex as any bon vivant in the city—often times more so. Anderson’s gift to his readers is, then, an almost undetected training in humanness, and for a lucky few who fall under his charm, a newfound curiosity to look harder at what’s underneath the seemingly mundane.
Winesburg, Ohio, is a series of 22 loosely connected vignettes. The thread tying the tales together is George Willard, a young reporter for the town newspaper. He circulates widely and also acts as a kind of father confessor for the solitaries in town. But “solitaries” does not quite describe the people in Willard’s orbit. Better to term them, as Anderson does, as “grotesques.” The opening chapter, titled “The Book of the Grotesque,” is a tale about an old writer whose unpublished manuscript it appears the narrator once read.
This writer once had a “dream that was not a dream…figures began to appear before his eyes.” These figures, some amusing, some almost beautiful, were a procession of all the men and women he had ever known. But they had, in his mind’s eye, become grotesques.
All about the world were the truths and they were all beautiful…And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them. It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
What follows this opening chapter is a kind of Canterbury Tale of grotesques. We are introduced to the town residents first in chapter headings—“Respectability,” “Sophistication,” “Mother”—and then by name. All, save George Willard, look backward or toward a beyond they cannot describe or achieve. It is tempting to describe Anderson’s tales as sad or isolating. They are that. But they are more, I think, about misunderstanding; what flows from the simplest of accidents—a word unspoken, a gesture overlooked—and the terribleness this confusion wreaks in lives of all people.
Before I leave off, let me introduce you to one such person, Wing Biddlebaum, the subject of the first story. The hands of this nervous, fidgety man were “the piston rods of his machinery of expression.”
Biddlebaum, formerly Adolph Myers, was a school teacher by training.
He was meant by nature to be a teacher of youth. He was one of those rare, little-understood men who rule by a power so great that it passes as loveable weakness. In their feeling for the boys under their charge such men are not unlike the finer sort of women in their love of men.
One day a “half-witted” boy became enamored of the teacher and began to dream. He told his dream to his father and his father told the dream to the town fathers. The boys were called out of bed, assembled together, and asked about Myers and his hands. “He put his arms about me,” one said. “His fingers were always playing in my hair,” spoke another. This was enough for the men, whose “hidden, shadowy doubts…were galvanized into beliefs.” Myers was beaten and then driven from the town.
The tale of Wing Biddlebaum, who was “forever frightened and…did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years,” seems to unlock a special understanding of man and men for Willard, and seems, too, to affect something in Biddlebaum.
Wing Biddlebaum became wholly inspired. For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard’s shoulders. Something new and bold came into that voice that talked. ‘You must try to forget all you have learned,’ said the old man. ‘You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of voices.’
And so George Willard does.