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Anderson’s Grotesques

A grotesque, National Cathedral, NW Washington
Ron Cogswell, Flidkr/Creative Commons
A grotesque, National Cathedral, NW Washington

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “Winesburg, OH” by Sherwood Anderson.

“Winesburg, OH” was Sherwood Anderson’s third book, the book that made his reputation. It was also a few years after a breakdown. Anderson was stretched between being a manufacturer’s rep, a husband and father and a budding writer.

In late November of 1912 he was apparently disoriented at work in Elyria, Ohio (west of and adjacent to Cleveland). He left work and wasn’t seen for four days. When he showed up at a drug store, he asked for help. Who was he? A member of the Chamber of Commerce knew him and got him to the hospital where they contacted his wife.

A few days later, Anderson, was already spinning the story and claiming that he had placed himself in a trance. Maybe, or, it was suggested that Anderson was in a fugue state, essentially fleeing from his worries. The family moved back to Chicago where he divorced his wife, Cornelia. He would have four marriages total.

This was also a time when psychoanalysis was a new star in the world and a new source of ideas for writers. Anderson’s own self-analysis, from his memoir uses the third person to get an outside view of himself. He writes that he avoids “plot and action,” calling his style, “simple, precise, unsentimental” to “reveal the frustration, loneliness and longing.”

Grotesques at Saint Andrews
Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Grotesques at Saint Andrews

To Anderson, Midwestern small towns are narrow and limited, stunting his characters.

Maybe. Anderson uses his real small town to people his fictional small town. He gets a lot of mileage out of something so “narrow and limited.”

Anderson introduces us to the town through his “grotesques.” These are his imaginings based on some aspects of real people he knew. They decorate his stories much like grotesques in architecture decorate buildings. I was reminded of the Italian stone carvers on the Washington Cathedral, creating “grotesques” and gargoyles.

Often, the faces would be caricatures of their buddies. Now, when I look at grotesques or pictures of them, I wonder who was their model. Not unlike Khufu’s pyramid. Deep inside that ancient pyramid is graffiti from the original workers, nearly 46-hundred years ago, which translates to “Friends of Khufu gang” or his grandson’s pyramid, “Menkaure’s drunkards.” Those ancient workers are still funny today.

Anderson gives us caricatures from his imagination mapped onto faces familiar to him. Like artists’ models depicting characters. None of these people are fully fleshed out. Anderson’s “grotesques” are aspects of stories he is telling, presented as a textual montage, giving us more of an impression of the town than documentation of the town.

There is also the matter of age depiction. Anderson, born in 1876, was in his mid 40’s. He died at 64 of peritonitis on a South American trip, in Panama. I had to wonder whether he thought he was at risk of infirmity.

In “The Book of the Grotesque” chapter, Anderson introduces us to “The writer, an old man with a white mustache, (who) had some difficulty getting into bed.” “His body was old and of not much use anymore.”

He writes that the old man, the writer (talking about himself?) is recalling all the notions collected in his head over the years. He writes, “They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.”

Anderson’s characters, in other words, are aphorisms, observations of slivers of truth.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.

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