This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “The Book of the Grotesque” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
Winesburg, Ohio begins with “The Book of the Grotesque,” a short piece about an old writer who wants to be able to wake up in the morning and see the sun coming through the trees, but his bed is too short. He hires a carpenter, another old man and a veteran of the Civil War, to come and raise the bed level with the window.
While they are talking about how best to fix the bed, the old writer leads the old carpenter into a conversation about the war, in which he’d been a prisoner at Andersonville and lost a brother to starvation. The old carpenter begins to cry, which, to the old writer, is “ludicrous.”
That night, on his heightened bed, the old writer cannot sleep. Before him marches a procession of the people he’s known, each with something that might be considered ludicrous, something that makes him think of them as “grotesques.”
The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness.
He jumps out of bed and begins furiously writing their stories in a book that is destined never to be published. The narrator of this story — who is the narrator? — says he once read through the unpublished book. At the end of the story the narrator attempts to say what the old writer meant by grotesque.
So there are at least three big questions: 1) what do the old man and the narrator mean by “grotesque,” 2) who is the narrator, and 3) how does this story fit into the larger work that is Winesburg, Ohio. We probably cannot answer any of these questions in any definitive way — they have puzzled generations of readers.
First, then, what do the old writer and the narrator mean by “grotesque”? For the narrator the central conceit of the grotesque was the key to opening up his understanding: “By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before.” The idea is something like this: there is, out there somewhere, a swath of vague thoughts that become truths; people come along and “snatch up” a truth or two:
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.
One of the problems with Winesburg, Ohio is that this notion is a bit difficult to follow through all of the stories (probably because Anderson’s notion kept changing), though we are safe to assume the idea of the “grotesque” applies to each and every character we read about (even the old writer who wrote The Book of the Grotesque, though the narrator says the old writer didn’t quite fit the bill). For me, it works best to think of these as people who are warped — if not physically, then spiritually and emotionally — by their “truths,” their circumstances, their personality. Their lives, whether deliberately or not, are wrapped grotesquely around some idea, distorting them perhaps, but, like the twisted apples we’ll get to later, leaving a secret pocket of sweetness.
The second question — who is the narrator of the story “The Book of the Grotesque,” the person who comes upon the old man’s unpublished book and tries to contemplate its meaning — is the quickest to dispose of and probably the least relevant. Is it Sherwood Anderson, himself? Is it the young newspaper reporter, George Willard, who recurs so frequently in the rest of the stories (though not as their narrator)? Is it the same person who narrates the remaining stories — not that we know who that is either? The bottom line is that we do not know who is speaking to us, who read that book the old writer got out of bed to compose, who is telling us — not necessarily in the most helpful of terms — what the old writer means by “grotesque.” Is this narrator at all connected to the rest of the stories? It’s an unanswerable question that leads us to the next question.
How does “The Book of the Grotesque” fit in to the rest of the book? This has puzzled generations of readers. Is this a framing story? Certainly it’s possible that each of the stories we are about to read a passages from the old writer’s Book of the Grotesque. Furthermore, The Book of the Grotesque was the title Anderson originally intended for the whole book. In this way, it also functions an introduction to the themes in the remaining stories, each of which deals with some iteration of the grotesque.
But perhaps it’s just another story, the old writer himself being another representation of the grotesque. Though the story is different in tone and there is actually no indication the old writer is even from Winesburg, this is my preferred reading. This reading allows me to side-step the allegory and focus on the lives portrayed. To be sure, my favorite parts of this story are 1) that the old writer wants his bed raised so he can see the sun in the morning when he wakes up and 2) the old carpenter displaying his emotions nearly forty years after Andersonville (Winesburg, Ohio takes place sometime before the twentieth century). These are the personal moments, moments that are the hallmark of Winesburg, Ohio.
In the end, though interested in the idea of the “grotesque,” it seems the narrator himself prefers these moments. The idea of the “grotesque” allows him — and hopefully us — to view these isolated, lonely, strange, twisted people with understanding and, even, love:
Concerning the old carpenter who fixed the bed for the writer, I only mentioned him because he, like many of what are called very common people, became the nearest thing to what is understandable and lovable of all the grotesques in the writer’s book.
I’m excited to stroll the streets of Winesburg and look into more than a few of its darkened windows.
Next up: Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands,” from Winesburg, Ohio.