II. The Reviewers
The New Republic, June 25, 1919: M. A.
The Chicago Evening Post, June 20, 1919: LLEWELLYN JONES
Smart Set, August 1919: H. L. MENCKEN
The Bookman, August 1919: H. W. BOYNTON
The Springfield Republican, July 20, 1919
The New Statesman, July 22, 1922: REBECCA WEST
III. The Critics
WILLIAM L. PHILLIPS, How Sherwood Anderson Wrote Winesburg, Ohio
WALTER B. RIDEOUT, The Simplicity of Winesburg, Ohio
JARVIS A. THURSTON, Technique in Winesburg, Ohio
ROGER ASSELINEAU, Language and Style in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio
MALCOLM COWLEY, Introduction to Winesburg, Ohio
WALDO FRANK, Winesburg, Ohio After Twenty Years
JOHN S. REIST, JR., An Ellipse Becomes a Circle: The Developing Unity of Winesburg, Ohio
EDWIN FUSSELL, Winesburg, Ohio: Art and Isolation
DAVID STOUCK, Winesburg, Ohio as a Dance of Death
IRVING HOWE, The Book of the Grotesque
CHARLES CHILD WALCUTT, Naturalism in Winesburg, Ohio
EILEEN BALDESHWILER, Sherwood Anderson and the Lyric Story
SALLY ADAIR RIGSBEE, The Feminine in Winesburg, Ohio
MARTIN BIDNEY, Anderson and the Androgyne: "Something More Than Man or Woman"
JOHN H. FERRES, The Nostalgia of Winesburg, Ohio
LIONEL TRILLING, Sherwood Anderson
E. SAN JUAN, JR., Vision and Reality: A Reconsideration of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio
JOHN T. FLANAGAN, Hemingway's Debt to Sherwood Anderson
WILLIAM FAULKNER, Sherwood Anderson: An Appreciation
Topics for Discussion and Papers
Born in 1876, SHERWOOD ANDERSON grew up in a small town in Ohio—an experience that was the basis of his greatest achievements as a writer. He served in the Spanish-American War, worked as an advertising man, and managed an Ohio paint factory before abandoning both job and family to embark on a literary career in Chicago. His first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son, was published in 1916; his second, Marching Men, a characteristic study of the individual in conflict with industrial society, appeared in 1917. But it is Winesburg, Ohio (1919), with its disillusioned view of small-town lives, that is generally considered his masterpiece. Later novels—Poor White, Many Marriages, and Dark Laughter—continued to depict the spiritual poverty of the machine age. Anderson died in 1941.
Longtime literary editor of The New Republic, MALCOLM COWLEY (1898–1989) served as president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and was Chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from 1966 to 1976. The author of numerous works of criticism, essays, and poetry, Cowley’s books include Exile’s Return, A Second Flowering, and The Literary Situation.
With an Introduction by
Rereading Sherwood Anderson after many years, one feels again that his work is desperately uneven, but one is gratified to find that the best of it is as new and springlike as ever. There are many authors younger in years—he was born in 1876—who made a great noise in their time, but whose books already belong among the horseless carriages in Henry Ford’s museum at Greenfield Village. Anderson made a great noise too, when he published Winesburg, Ohio in 1919. The older critics scolded him, the younger ones praised him, as a man of the changing hour, yet he managed in that early work and others to be relatively timeless. There are moments in American life to which he gave not only the first but the final expression.
He soon became a writer’s writer, the only story teller of his generation who left his mark on the style and vision of the generation that followed. Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Caldwell, Saroyan, Henry Miller …each of these owes an unmistakable debt to Anderson, and their names might stand for dozens of others. Hemingway was regarded as his disciple in 1920, when both men were living on the Near North Side of Chicago. Faulkner says that he had written very little, “poems and just amateur things,” before meeting Anderson in 1925 and becoming, for a time, his inseparable companion. Looking at Anderson he thought to himself, “Being a writer must be a wonderful life.” He set to work on his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, for which Anderson found a publisher after the two men had ceased to be friends. Thomas Wolfe proclaimed in 1936 that Anderson was “the only man in America who ever taught me anything”; but they quarreled a year later, and Wolfe shouted that Anderson had shot his bolt, that he was done as a writer. All the disciples left him sooner or later, so that his influence was chiefly on their early work; but still it was decisive. He opened doors for all of them and gave them faith in themselves. With Whitman he might have said:
I am the teacher of athletes,
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
As the disciples were doing, most of Anderson’s readers deserted him during the 1930s. He had been a fairly popular writer for a few years after Dark Laughter (1925), but his last stories and sketches, including some of his very best, had to appear in a strange collection of second-line magazines, pamphlets, and Sunday supplements. One marvelous story called “Daughters” remained in manuscript until six years after his death in 1941. I suspect that the public would have liked him better if he had been primarily a novelist, like Dreiser and Lewis. He did publish seven novels, from Windy McPherson’s Son in 1916 to Kit Brandon in 1936, not to mention the others he started and laid aside. Among the seven Dark Laughter was his only best-seller, and Poor White (1920), the best of the lot, is studied in colleges as a picture of the industrial revolution in a small Midwestern town. There is, however, not one of the seven that is truly effective as a novel; not one that has balance and sustained force; not one that doesn’t break apart into episodes or nebulize into a vague emotion.
His three personal narratives—A Story-Teller’s Story (1924), Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926), and Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs (1942)—are entertainingly inaccurate; indeed, they are almost as fictional as the novels, and quite as deficient in structure. They reveal that an element was missing in his mature life, rich as this was in other respects. It does not give us, and I doubt that Anderson himself possessed, the sense of moving ahead in a definite direction. All the drama of growth was confined to his early years. After finding his proper voice at the age of forty, Anderson didn’t change as much as other serious writers; perhaps his steadfastness should make us thankful, considering that most American writers change for the worse. He had achieved a quality of emotional rather than factual truth and he preserved it to the end of his career, while doing little to refine, transform, or even understand it. Some of his last stories—by no means all of them—are richer and subtler than the early ones, but they are otherwise not much different or much better.
He was a writer who depended on inspiration, which is to say that he depended on feelings so deeply embedded in his personality that he was unable to direct them. He couldn’t say to himself, “I shall produce such and such an effect in a book of such and such a length”; the book had to write or rather speak itself while Anderson listened as if to an inner voice. In his business life he showed a surprising talent for planning and manipulation. “One thing I’ve known always, instinctively,” he told Floyd Dell, “—that’s how to handle people, make them do as I please, be what I wanted them to be. I was in business for a long time and the truth is I was a smooth son of a bitch.” He never learned to handle words in that smooth fashion. Writing was an activity he assigned to a different level of himself, the one on which he was emotional and unpractical. To reach that level sometimes required a sustained effort of the will. He might start a story like a man running hard to catch a train, but once it was caught he could settle back and let himself be carried—often to the wrong destination.
He knew instinctively whether one of his stories was right or wrong, but he didn’t always know why. He could do what writers call “pencil work” on his manuscript, changing a word here and there, but he couldn’t tighten the plot, delete weak passages, sharpen the dialogue, give a twist to the ending; if he wanted to improve the story, he had to wait for a return of the mood that had produced it, then write it over from beginning to end. There were stories like “Death in the Woods” that he rewrote a dozen times, at intervals of years, before he found what he thought was the right way of telling them. Sometimes, in different books, he published two or three versions of the same story, so that we can see how it grew in his subconscious mind. One characteristic of the subconscious is a defective sense of time: in dreams the old man sees himself as a boy, and the events of thirty or forty years may be jumbled together. Time as a logical succession of events was Anderson’s greatest difficulty in writing novels or even long stories. He got his tenses confused and carried his heroes ten years forward or back in a single paragraph. His instinct was to present everything together, as in a dream.
When giving a lecture on “A Writer’s Conception of Realism,” he spoke of a half-dream that he had “over and over.” “If I have been working intensely,” he said, “I find myself unable to relax when I go to bed. Often I fall into a half-dream state and when I do, the faces of people begin to appear before me. They seem to snap into place before my eyes, stay there, sometimes for a short period, sometimes longer. There are smiling faces, leering ugly faces, tired faces, hopeful faces…. I have a kind of illusion about this matter,” he continued. “It is, no doubt, due to a story-teller’s point of view. I have the feeling that the faces that appear before me thus at night are those of people who want their stories told and whom I have neglected.”
He would have liked to tell the stories of all the faces he had ever seen. He was essentially a story teller, as he kept insisting, but his art was of a special type, belonging to an oral rather than a written tradition. It used to be the fashion to compare him with Chekhov and say that he had learned his art from the Russians. Anderson insisted that, except for Turgenev, he hadn’t read any Russians when the comparisons were being made. Most of his literary masters were English or American: George Borrow, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain (more than he admitted), and Gertrude Stein. D. H. Lawrence was a less fortunate influence, but only on his later work. His earliest and perhaps his principal teacher was his father, “Irve” Anderson, who used to entertain whole barrooms with tales of his impossible adventures in the Civil War. A great many of the son’s best stories, too, were told first in saloons. Later he would become what he called “an almighty scribbler” and would travel about the country with dozens of pencils and reams of paper, the tools of his trade. “I am one,” he said, “who loves, like a drunkard his drink, the smell of ink, and the sight of a great pile of white paper that may be scrawled upon always gladdens me”; but his earlier impulse had been to speak, not write, his stories. The best of them retain the language, the pace, and one might even say the gestures of a man talking unhurriedly to his friends.
Within the oral tradition, Anderson had his own picture of what a story should be. He was not interested in telling conventional folk tales, those in which events are more important than emotions. American folk tales usually end with a “snapper”—that is, after starting with the plausible, they progress through the barely possible to the flatly incredible, then wait for a laugh. Magazine fiction used to follow—and much of it still does—a pattern leading to a different sort of snapper, one that calls for a gasp of surprise or relief instead of a guffaw. Anderson broke the pattern by writing stories that not only lacked snappers, in most cases, but even had no plots in the usual sense. The tales he told in his Midwestern drawl were not incidents or episodes, they were moments, each complete in itself.
The best of the moments in Winesburg, Ohio is called “The Untold Lie.” The story, which I have to summarize at the risk of spoiling it, is about two farm hands husking corn in a field at dusk. Ray Pearson is small, serious, and middle-aged, the father of half a dozen thin-legged children; Hal Winters is big and young, with the reputation of being a bad one. Suddenly he says to the older man, “I’ve got Nell Gunther in trouble. I’m telling you, but keep your mouth shut.” He puts his two hands on Ray’s shoulders and looks down into his eyes. “Well, old daddy,” he says, “come on, advise me. Perhaps you’ve been in the same fix yourself. I know what everyone would say is the right thing to do, but what do you say?” Then the author steps back to look at his characters. “There they stood,” he tells us, “in the big empty field with the quiet corn shocks standing in rows behind them and the red and yellow hills in the distance, and from being just two indifferent workmen thay had become all alive to each other.”
That single moment of aliveness—that epiphany, as Joyce would have called it, that sudden reaching out of two characters through walls of inarticulateness and misunderstanding—is the effect that Anderson is trying to create for his readers or listeners. There is more to the story, of course, but it is chiefly designed to bring the moment into relief. Ray Pearson thinks of his own marriage, to a girl he got into trouble, and turns away from Hal without being able to say the expected words about duty. Later that evening he is seized by a sudden impulse to warn the younger man against being tricked into bondage. He runs awkwardly across the fields, crying out that children are only the accidents of life. Then he meets Hal and stops, unable to repeat the words that he had shouted into the wind. It is Hal who breaks the silence. “I’ve already made up my mind,” he says, taking Ray by the coat and shaking him. “Nell ain’t no fool…. I want to marry her. I want to settle down and have kids.” Both men laugh, as if they had forgotten what happened in the cornfield. Ray walks away into the darkness, thinking pleasantly now of his children and muttering to himself, “It’s just as well. Whatever I told him would have been a lie.” There has been a moment in the lives of two men. The moment has passed and the briefly established communion has been broken, yet we feel that each man has revealed his essential being. It is as if a gulf had opened in the level Ohio cornfield and as if, for one moment, a light had shone from the depths, illuminating everything that happened or would ever happen to both of them.
That moment of revelation was the story Anderson told over and over, but without exhausting its freshness, for the story had as many variations as there were faces in his dreams. Behind one face was a moment of defiance; behind another, a moment of resignation (as when Alice Hindman forces herself “to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg”); behind a third face was a moment of self-discovery; behind a fourth was a moment of deliberate self-delusion. This fourth might have been the face of the author’s sister, as he describes her in a chapter of Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs. Unlike the other girls she had no beau, and so she went walking with her brother Sherwood, pretending that he was someone else. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it, James?” she said, looking at the wind ripples that passed in the moonlight over a field of ripening wheat. Then she kissed him and whispered, “Do you love me, James?”—and all her loneliness and flight from reality were summed up in those words. Anderson had that gift for summing up, for pouring a lifetime into a moment.
There must have been many such moments of truth in his own life, and there was one in particular that has become an American legend. After serving as a volunteer in the Spanish-American War; after supplementing his one year in high school with a much later year at Wittenberg Academy; and after becoming a locally famous copywriter in a Chicago advertising agency, Anderson had launched into business for himself; by the age of thirty-six he had been for some years the chief owner and general manager of a paint factory in Elyria, Ohio. The factory had prospered for a time, chiefly because of Anderson’s talent for writing persuasive circulars, and he sometimes had visions of becoming a paint baron or a duke of industry. He had other visions too, of being sentenced to serve out his life as a businessman. At the time he was already writing novels—in fact he had four of them under way—and he began to feel that his advertising circulars were insulting to the dignity of words. “The impression got abroad—I perhaps encouraged it,” Anderson says, “—that I was overworking, was on the point of a nervous breakdown…. The thought occurred to me that if men thought me a little insane they would forgive me if I lit out, left the business in which they invested their money on their hands.” Then came the moment to which he would always return in his memoirs and in his fiction. He was dictating a letter: “The goods about which you have inquired are the best of their kind made in the—” when suddenly he stopped without completing the phrase. He looked at his secretary for a long time, and she looked at him until they both grew pale. Then he said with the American laugh that covers all sorts of meanings, “I have been wading in a long river and my feet are wet.” He went out of the office for the last time and started walking eastward toward Cleveland along a railroad track. “There were,” he says, “five or six dollars in my pocket.”
So far I have been paraphrasing Anderson’s account—or two of his many accounts, for he kept changing them—of an incident that his biographers have reconstructed from other sources. Those others give a different picture of what happened at the paint factory on November 27, 1912. Anderson had been struggling under an accumulation of marital, artistic, and business worries. Instead of pretending to be a little crazy so that investors would forgive him for losing their money, he was actually—so the medical records show—on the brink of nervous collapse. Instead of making a conscious decision to abandon his wife, his three children, and his business career, he acted as if in a trance. There was truly a decision, but it was made by something deeper than his conscious will; one feels that his whole being, psyche and soma together, was rejecting the life of a harried businessman. He had made no plans, however, for leading a different life. After four days of aimless wandering, he was recognized in Cleveland and taken to a hospital, where he was found to be suffering from exhaustion and aphasia.
Much later, in telling the story time after time, Anderson forgot or concealed the painful details of his flight and presented it as a pattern of conduct for others to follow. What we need in America, he liked to say, is a new class of individuals who, “at any physical cost to themselves and others”—Anderson must have been thinking of his first wife—will “agree to quit working, to loaf, to refuse to be hurried or try to get on in the world.” In the next generation there would be hundreds of young men, readers of Anderson, who rejected the dream of financial success and tried to live as artists and individuals. For them Anderson’s flight from the paint factory became a heroic exploit, as memorable as the choice made by Ibsen’s Nora when she walked out of her doll’s house and slammed the door. For Anderson himself when writing his memoirs, it was the central moment of his career.
Yet the real effect of the moment on his personal life was less drastic or immediate than one would guess from the compulsive fashion in which he kept writing about it. He didn’t continue wandering from city to city, trading his tales for bread and preaching against success. After being released from the hospital, he went back to Elyria, wound up his business affairs, then took the train for Chicago, where he talked himself into a job with the same advertising agency that had employed him before he went into business for himself. As soon as he had the job, he sent for his wife and children. He continued to write persuasive circulars—corrupting the language, as he said—and worked on his novels and stories chiefly at night, as he had done while running a factory. It would be nearly two years before he separated from his first wife. It would be ten years before he left the advertising business to support himself entirely by writing, and then the change would result from a gradual process of getting published and finding readers, instead of being the sequel to a moment of truth.
Those moments at the center of Anderson’s often marvelous stories were moments, in general, without a sequel; they existed separately and tunelessly. That explains why he couldn’t write novels and why, with a single exception, he never even wrote a book in the strict sense of the word. A book should have a structure and a development, whereas for Anderson there was chiefly the flash of lightning that revealed a life without changing it.
The one exception, of course, is Winesburg, Ohio, and that became a true book for several reasons: because it was conceived as a whole, because Anderson had found a subject that released his buried emotions, and because most of the book was written in what was almost a single burst of inspiration, so that it gathered force as it went along. It was started in the late autumn of 1915, when he was living alone in a rooming house at 735 Cass Street, on the Near North Side of Chicago, and working as always at the Critchfield Agency. Earlier that year he had read two books that set his mind to working. One was Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters, which may have suggested the notion of writing about the secret natures of people in another Midwestern town. The other was Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, which pointed the way toward a simpler and more repetitive style, closer to the rhythms of American speech, than that of Anderson’s first novels, Windy McPherson’s Son and Marching Men. These had recently been accepted by an English publisher, but Anderson was beginning to feel that neither of them expressed his inner self. He searched, brooded, and wrote advertising circulars.
Then came another of his incandescent moments, one that he called “the most absorbingly interesting and exciting moment in any writer’s life …the moment when he, for the first time, knows that he is a real writer.” Twenty years later he described the experience in a letter, probably changing the facts, as he had a weakness for doing, but remembering how he felt:
…I walked along a city street in the snow. I was working at work I hated. Already I had written several long novels. They were not really mine. I was ill, discouraged, broke. I was living in a cheap rooming house. I remember that I went upstairs and into the room. It was very shabby. I had no relatives in the city and few enough friends. I remember how cold the room was. On that afternoon I had heard that I was to lose my job.
…There was some paper on a small kitchen table I had bought and brought up into the room. I turned on a light and began to write. I wrote, without looking up—I never changed a word of it afterwards—a story called “Hands.” It was and is a very beautiful story.
I wrote the story and then got up from the table at which I had been sitting, I do not know how long, and went down into the city street. I thought that the snow had suddenly made the city very beautiful…. It must have been several hours before I got the courage to return to my room and read my own story.
It was all right. It was sound. It was real. I went to sit by my desk. A great many others have had such moments. I wonder what they did. For the moment I thought the world very wonderful, and I thought also that there was a great deal of wonder in me.
“Hands” is still sound and real; as Henry James said of The Scarlet Letter, “it has about it that charm, very hard to express, which we find in an artist’s work the first time he has touched his highest mark.” It was, however, the second of the Winesburg stories to be written, since the first was “The Book of the Grotesque,” which serves as a general prologue. “Paper Pills” was the third, and the others followed in roughly the same order in which they appear in the book. All the stories were written rapidly, with little need for revision, each of them being, as Anderson said, “an idea grasped whole as one would pick an apple in an orchard.” He was dealing with material that was both fresh and familiar. The town of Winesburg was based on his memories of Clyde, Ohio, where he had spent most of his boyhood and where his mother had died at the same age as the hero’s mother. The hero, George Willard, was the author in his late adolescence, and the other characters were either remembered from Clyde or else, in many cases, suggested by faces glimpsed in the Chicago streets. Each face revealed a moment, a mood, or a secret that lay deep in Anderson’s life and for which he was finding the right words at last.
As the book went forward, more and more of the faces—as well as more streets, buildings, trades, and landscapes—were carried from one story to another, with the result that Winesburg itself acquired a physical and corporate life. Counting the four parts of “Godliness,” each complete in itself, there would be twenty-five stories or chapters in all. None of them taken separately—not even “Hands” or “The Untold Lie”—is as effective as the best of Anderson’s later work, but each of them contributes to all the others, as the stories in later volumes are not expected to do. There was a delay of some months before the last three chapters—“Death,” “Sophistication,” and “Departure”—were written with the obvious intention of rounding out the book. First George Willard is released from Winesburg by the death of his mother; then, in “Sophistication,” he learns how it feels to be a grown man; then finally he leaves for the city on the early-morning train, and everything recedes as into a framed picture. “When he aroused himself and looked out of the car window,” Anderson says, “the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.”
In structure the book lies midway between the novel proper and the mere collection of stories. Like several famous books by more recent authors, all early readers of Anderson—like Faulkner’s The Unvanquished and Go Down, Moses, like Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat and The Pastures of Heaven, like Caldwell’s Georgia Boy—it is a cycle of stories with several unifying elements, including a single background, a prevailing tone, and a central character. These elements can be found in all the cycles, but the best of them also have an underlying plot that is advanced or enriched by each of the stories. In Winesburg the underlying plot or fable, though hard to recognize, is unmistakably present, and I think it might be summarized as follows:
George Willard is growing up in a friendly town full of solitary persons; the author calls them “grotesques.” Their lives have been distorted not, as Anderson tells us in his prologue, by their each having seized upon a single truth, but rather by their inability to express themselves. Since they cannot truly communicate with others, they have all become emotional cripples. Most of the grotesques are attracted one by one to George Willard; they feel that he might be able to help them. In those moments of truth that Anderson loves to describe, they try to explain themselves to George, believing that he alone in Winesburg has an instinct for finding the right words and using them honestly. They urge him to preserve and develop his gift. “You must not become a mere peddler of words,” Kate Swift the teacher insists, taking hold of his shoulders. “The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.” Dr. Parcival tells him, “If something happens perhaps you will be able to write the book I may never get written.” All the grotesques hope that George Willard will some day speak what is in their hearts and thus re-establish their connection with mankind. George is too young to understand them at the time, but the book ends with what seems to be the promise that, after leaving Winesburg, he will become the voice of inarticulate men and women in all the forgotten towns.
If the promise is truly implied, and if Anderson felt he was keeping it when writing “Hands” and the stories that followed, then Winesburg, Ohio is far from the pessimistic or destructive or morbidly sexual work it was once attacked for being. Instead it is a work of love, an attempt to break down the walls that divide one person from another, and also, in its own fashion, a celebration of small-town life in the lost days of good will and innocence.
A FOOTNOTE FOR BIBLIOGRAPHERS, 1958
This is a new edition of Winesburg, completely reset and redesigned. It is the first such edition for trade distribution since the book appeared in 1919, all the others having been reproduced page by page from the original plates. There was one change in the second printing; on page 86, line 5, the verb “lay” was corrected to “lie,” but in subsequent printings there were, so far as could be learned, no changes whatever in the text. Nobody seemed to notice discrepancies in the spelling of proper names, as when Aunt Callie the housekeeper, in Part I of “Godliness,” became Aunt Sallie in Part II. Even the typographical errors—of which I found fourteen, not counting scores of broken letters—were preserved for forty years in copper. This new edition has been copyread and proofread by me and by the capable staff of The Viking Press in an effort to establish the standard text of an American classic.
The first printing appeared under the imprint of a courageous publisher, B. W. Huebsch, after the book had been rejected by John Lane, who published Anderson’s first two novels. It was Mr. Huebsch who called it Winesburg, Ohio, with the author’s consent; Anderson’s original title had been The Book of the Grotesque. Ten of the stories had been printed in three magazines, which paid the author, so he said, a total of eighty-five dollars. I found inconsistencies of punctuation between some of these stories and the fifteen that had remained in manuscript; of course I let them stand. I did, however, insert a number of commas—thirty-seven, to be accurate—at points where they were needed to make Anderson’s meaning clear. I changed the tense of two verbs, the mood or number of two others, and the case of one pronoun: “…the boy, who had been her pupil and who [not whom] she thought might possess a talent….”
1976. The text of Winesburg has once again been completely reset for this Penguin edition, but with no further changes and, once again, with special care for accuracy. Moreover, for the convenience of students who may own copies of the Viking Compass edition, the same pagination has been followed.
THE TALES AND THE PERSONS
THE BOOK OF THE GROTESQUE
The writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed. The windows of the house in which he lived were high and he wanted to look at the trees when he awoke in the morning. A carpenter came to fix the bed so that it would be on a level with the window.
Quite a fuss was made about the matter. The carpenter, who had been a soldier in the Civil War, came into the writer’s room and sat down to talk of building a platform for the purpose of raising the bed. The writer had cigars lying about and the carpenter smoked.
For a time the two men talked of the raising of the bed and then they talked of other things. The soldier got on the subject of the war. The writer, in fact, led him to that subject. The carpenter had once been a prisoner in Andersonville prison and had lost a brother. The brother had died of starvation, and whenever the carpenter got upon that subject he cried. He, like the old writer, had a white mustache, and when he cried he puckered up his lips and the mustache bobbed up and down. The weeping old man with the cigar in his mouth was ludicrous. The plan the writer had for the raising of his bed was forgotten and later the carpenter did it in his own way and the writer, who was past sixty, had to help himself with a chair when he went to bed at night.
In his bed the writer rolled over on his side and lay quite still. For years he had been beset with notions concerning his heart. He was a hard smoker and his heart fluttered. The idea had got into his mind that he would some time die unexpectedly and always when he got into bed he thought of that. It did not alarm him. The effect in fact was quite a special thing and not easily explained. It made him more alive, there in bed, than at any other time. Perfectly still he lay and his body was old and not of much use any more, but something inside him was altogether young. He was like a pregnant woman, only that the thing inside him was not a baby but a youth. No, it wasn’t a youth, it was a woman, young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight. It is absurd, you see, to try to tell what was inside the old writer as he lay on his high bed and listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was thinking about.
The old writer, like all of the people in the world, had got, during his long life, a great many notions in his head. He had once been quite handsome and a number of women had been in love with him. And then, of course, he had known people, many people, known them in a peculiarly intimate way that was different from the way in which you and I know people. At least that is what the writer thought and the thought pleased him. Why quarrel with an old man concerning his thoughts?
In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream. As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes.
You see the interest in all this lies in the figures that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become 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. When she passed he made a noise like a small dog whimpering. Had you come into the room you might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams or perhaps indigestion.
For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.
At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called “The Book of the Grotesque.” It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.
The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds 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.
You can see for yourself how the old man, who had spent all of his life writing and was filled with words, would write hundreds of pages concerning this matter. The subject would become so big in his mind that he himself would be in danger of becoming a grotesque. He didn’t, I suppose, for the same reason that he never published the book. It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man.
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.
1 Office, Winesburg Eagle
2 Hern’s Grocery
3 Sinnings’ Hardware Store
4 Biff Carter’s Lunch Room