A Book Of Grotesques: The Figures Of Winesburg, Ohio


by Sherwood Anderson
The characters in " A Book of Grotesques: The figures of
Winesburg, Ohio", usually personify a condition of psychic
deformity which is the consequence of some crucial failure
in their lives. Misogyny, inarticulateness, frigidity,
God-infatuation, homosexuality, drunkenness-these are
symptoms of their recoil from the regularities of human
intercourse and sometimes of their substitute
gratifications in inanimate objects, as with the unloved
Alice Hindman who "because it was her own, could not bear
to have anyone touch the furniture of her room." In their
compulsive traits these figures find a kind of dulling
peace, but as a consequence they are deprived of one of the
great blessings of human health: the capacity for a variety
of experience. The world of Winesburg, populated largely by
these back-street grotesques, soon begins to seem like a
buried ruin of a once vigorous society, an atrophied
remnant of the egalitarian moment of 19th-century America.
Though many of the book's sketches are placed outdoors, its
atmosphere is as stifling as a tomb. And the reiteration of
the term "grotesque" is appropriate in a way Anderson could
hardly have been aware of; for it was first used by
Renaissance artists to describe arabesques painted in the
underground ruins, grotte, of Nero's "Golden House." 
The conception of the grotesque, as actually developed in
the stories, is not merely that it is an unwilled
affliction but also that it is a mark of a once sentient
striving. In "The Book of the Grotesque," Anderson writes:
"It was the truths that made the people grotesques...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 a falsehood."
There is a sense, as will be seen later, in which these
sentences are at variance with the book's meaning, but they
do suggest the significant notion that the grotesques are
those who have sought "the truths" that disfigure them. By
contrast the banal creatures who dominate the town's
official life, such as Will Henderson, publisher of the
paper for which George Willard works, are not even
grotesques; they are simply clods. The grotesques are those
whose humanity has been outraged and who to survive in
Winesburg have had to suppress their wish to love. Wash
Williams becomes a misogynist because his mother-in-law,
hoping to reconcile him to his faithless wife, thrusts her
into his presence naked; Wing Biddlebaum becomes a recluse
because his wish to blend learning with affection is
fatally misunderstood. Grotesqueness, then, is not merely
the shield of deformity; it is also a remnant of misshapen
feeling, what Dr. Reefy in "Paper Pills" calls "the
sweetness of the twisted apples." 

As they approach George Willard, the grotesques seek not
merely the individual release of a sudden expressive
outburst, but also a relation with each other that may
restore them to collective harmony. They are distraught
communicants in search of a ceremony, a social value, a
manner of living, a lost ritual that may, by some means,
re-establish a flow and exchange of emotion. Their
estrangement is so extreme that they cannot turn to each
other though it is each other they really need and secretly
want; they turn instead to George Willard who will soon be
out of the orbit of their life. The miracle that the
Reverend Curtis Hartman sees and the message over which
Kate Swift broods could bind one to the other, yet they
both turn to George Willard who, receptive though he may
wish to be, cannot understand them. 

The burden which the grotesques impose on George is beyond
his strength. He is not yet himself a grotesque mainly
because he has not yet experienced very deeply, but for the
role to which they assign him he is too absorbed in his own
ambition and restlessness. The grotesques see in his
difference from them the possibility of saving themselves,
but actually it is the barrier to an ultimate
companionship. George's adolescent receptivity to the
grotesques can only give him the momentary emotional
illumination described in that lovely story,
"Sophistication." On the eve of his departure from
Winesburg, George reaches the point "when he for the first
time takes the backward view of life.... 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.... Already he hears death
calling. With all his heart he wants to come close to some
other human, touch someone with his hands...." For George
this illumination is enough, but it is not for the
grotesques. They are a moment in his education, he a
confirmation of their doom. "I have missed something. I
have missed something Kate Swift was trying to tell me," he
says to himself one night as he falls asleep. He has missed
the meaning of Kate Swift's life: it is not his fault: her
salvation, like the salvation of the other grotesques, is
beyond his capacities. 


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