Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio: Themes and Effects
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Published: Wed, 13 Jun 2018
Title: Discuss the implications of Sherwood Anderson’s introduction to Winesburg, Ohio: ‘The Book of the Grotesque’.
Sherwood Anderson’s post-war ‘novel’ of America in microcosm, Winesburg, Ohio, was first published in 1919. Undoubtedly, the timing of the collection of linked stories all set in Anderson’s fictional ‘Winesburg’ (like Hardy’s Wessex) influenced the critical approbation it received. It represents a dislocated people torn and shattered by war: a ‘wasteland’ such as T.S. Eliot had created in his 1922 poem of that name. Like Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) the sequence of tales is connected by major themes which Anderson sees as either representative of, or a threat to, modern life. He creates a presence from an absence, a connected representative vision from a fragmented centre. Most of the themes, and their implications, on which Anderson focuses are revealed in the introductory story to the collection, ‘The Book of the Grotesque’ which was the original title of the collection. The fact that Anderson wanted to place such emphasis on the ‘grotesque’ is of primary importance when attempting to locate the author’s themes and their implications.
For Anderson, like the writer in the first story, ‘salvation’ from immersion into the grotesque comes not merely from the experience of moments of vision but also from the ability to incorporate them within life in order to re-vitalise it. Strikingly, theme and method interweave to create the consciousness of the visionary or surreal within the recognition of the espoused impossibility of completion. Anderson was determined that the real and the imagined should remain separate forces but also that both should maintain importance. Again, like the writer in his tale, he is constantly reminded of the intrusion upon each ‘world’ by the other and the implications of this:
The distinction that he is making […] is not between truth and lie, or between fiction and nonfiction, but between separate spheres of reality. Fancy for Anderson suggests imaginative and compassionate understanding of the beauty within the most grotesque of human actions.
The writer in the tale might survive becoming a ‘grotesque’ but he also fails to complete his writing and the immense implication of this is that even when the ‘grotesque’ is avoided, it appears inevitable that the intrusions of reality cause humanity’s plans to fail just as they are continuously altered by social, historical and political events. In a country so recently ravaged by war and about to undergo radical social upheaval, the implications of this are clear. Anderson chooses to make this implicit connection by citing the example of a man whose plans to have a carpenter alter his bed irrevocably change his life:
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. (p. 1).
The full importance of this opening statement, with its beautifully simple syntax, does not strike the reader until much later in the story, perhaps not even until the completion of the reading of the stories as a whole. With the benefit of hindsight, the reader sees that Anderson’s theme is manifest from the first: the ‘old man’, physically impeded, desires to see further, to see ‘the trees when he awoke in the morning’, yet, what the subliminal reading invokes is that the desire to see beyond what we realise is not always present in our intentions; indeed, we may not even be aware of them. The ‘awakening’ comes not with the ‘morning’ but with the recognition of the interiorisation of longings influencing the human directive but being constantly obscured. Thus, though the ‘carpenter’ does indeed come to ‘fix the bed’ he does a lot more besides, in which the old man plays no directive part: ‘for a time the two men talked of the raising of the bed and then they talked of other things’ (p. 1). The ‘other things’, are what initiate the directive of the tale, as, Anderson seems to imply, they do with life, serendipity playing more of a role than we realize in our lives:
Sherwood Anderson […] was and still is a man of his times. His life and his career are a pictorial history of the unique mood of the modern America which produced them and made them possible..
We are told that the carpenter ‘had been a soldier in the Civil War’ (p. 1) and this immediately gifts the narrative with a textual historicity which deepens its resonance (the Civil War is also referred to in another of the tales, ‘Godliness’: Part 1). Many of Anderson’s readers, after all, were within living memory of the war that split the American nation and again, its profound recognition of the nature of war, so fresh in the minds of those of the post World War era, to inflict pain beyond the immediate is recognized as significant:
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. (p. 1)
Again, the simplicity inestimably aids the poignancy of the telling; Anderson has no need to dwell upon the melancholy, it is self-evident. Moreover, the idea that the ‘ordinary man’, which the carpenter represents, has personal experience of the pain of loss in a past which continues to intrude upon the present; he cannot escape. Although Anderson states clearly that ‘the weeping old man with the cigar in his mouth was ludicrous’ (p. 2), avoiding the faux sentimentality of other contemporary writers, nevertheless, the writer’s plans are widely changed by him and the carpenter alters the bed ‘his own way’ (p. 2). The implication is not just that our plans are changed by present and future events but also that the past is never merely a memory but a constantly present inhabitant of life, a ‘reality’ beyond our reach to restrict or deny, and ‘stamped upon much of our contemporary fiction’. Anderson has already laid the foundation of the interchanging but ostensibly rigid boundaries of the actual and the imagined which are to cause perpetual interplay within the stories and in some sense all the characters and events are connected with himself:
Sherwood Anderson is to be grouped among the most subjective of writers. He has created heroes with many different names; but each of them is the same man — a projection in one direction or another of Anderson himself..
Anderson begins now to build on these implications by obscuring life’s most basic and fearful boundary, death, by means of the old man’s imaginative sensibility. The carpenter has been instrumental in this, since he has brought into the narrative a death that is real, remembered and imagined; his memory is the conduit for this mutation of time and of feeling. The irony is that the author is haunted by death, yet: ‘
It did not alarm him’ (p.2 ). Death is inverted as a presence which revitalises the old man as ‘a special thing and not easily explained’ (p.2). Moreover, ‘something inside him was altogether young’ (p.2) and extraordinarily that ‘something’ is a ‘woman, young’. Anderson writes of this as like a pregnancy but what he gives birth to is an idea of the ‘grotesques’ of his previous life and relationships. Significantly, the writer switches subtly to address the reader more directly here, emphasising the idea that:
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. (p. 2)
The ambivalent sexuality of the image is one of many which disturbed careful readers of the time, ‘back in 1919 the book was talked about only in whispers’.. Yet, its implications for authorship are important since an author is perpetually ‘giving birth’ and the idea of being both mother and father of his creations informs not just the sexual imagery of this story but also of others in the sequence, such as ‘Hands’ where the protagonist is accused of molestation: ‘Anderson sensed a mystery in human sexuality that defies an easy reduction’. This represents a significant challenge to contemporary social attitudes towards sexuality, as women were accorded status principally allied to that of their male partners and sexual preferences were predisposed indisputably towards the heterosexual. As is typical of Anderson, he refuses to adopt or adhere to the rigidity of a society so recently war-torn and about to undergo a momentous period in its history from which it would not emerged unscathed or unchanged. By anticipating and pre-empting these changes, Anderson places his writing ahead of its time both in style and socio-political context.
The old man in the tale now proceeds to invite into his consciousness the images of past passions, a theme he also alludes to in another of the stories, ‘Mother’. The reader is told that the old man has known people ‘in a peculiar intimate way […] different from the way in which you and I know people’ (p. 3) and subsequently that ‘the writer had a dream that was not a dream’ (p. 3): this dream is the key to the subliminal implications of the tale as it is the precursor of the writing which does and does not take place:
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. (p. 3).
The introduction of the ‘grotesques’, not ‘all horrible’, is a pivotal moment in the tale, just as all the grotesques’ lives will be turned by such a moment in time, and the old man/writer’s perception of this is, like the reactions of the grotesques, crucial in their lives. In many ways, it is less significant that the book is not published than that it has been ‘seen’ by the author, who is gripped by ‘one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with [him]’, facilitating, we are encouraged to believe, the writing of his own book:
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. (p. 4)
Hence, the imagined and the real feed one another but remain separate, for ‘truths’ are not the same as facts and ‘it was the truths that made the people grotesques’ (p. 5). Moreover, Anderson lays bare, here, the principal informatives of his sequence:
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. (p. 5)
Anderson concludes his tale by making brief reference to the carpenter, one of ‘what are called the very common people’ (p. 5) yet contradicting this description by making him extraordinary as ‘the nearest thing to what is understandable and lovable of all the grotesques in the writer’s book’. (p. 5)
Certainly, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio set in ‘the critical decade which followed the world war’ can be seen as a groundbreaking novel, both in structure and content and ‘the failure of [Anderson’s] heterosexual relationships has often been cited as the reason for the “grotesque” nature of several of Winesburg’s inhabitants’. The stories confront issues that were to inform American writing and the socio-political post-war infrastructure as well as the realization of Modernist and post-Modernist fiction. A writer ahead of his time, Anderson is clearly shaped by the era in which he lived and was thus representative of the past, present and future as is the sequence of stories in his seminal ‘novel’ of ‘the troubled lives of the small-town individuals’.
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