The introductory section to Sherwood Anderson’s book titled Winesburg, Ohio – a section labeled “The Book of the Grotesque” – lays out many of the key assumptions that underlie Anderson’s book as a whole. One passage in this introductory section is particularly relevant to the main theme of Anderson’s text. This passage describes an old writer who has a theory that most human beings are “grotesques” – that is, distorted in some way, so that they never achieve a comprehensive wholeness. The narrator of the chapter reports that
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.
The old writer works on a book that will depict and explain examples of the kinds of “grotesqueness” just described. Anderson’s own book will function in much the same way: it will describe various kinds of grotesque people and various kinds of grotesque behavior. The very idea of “grotesqueness” implies some healthy norm from which a “grotesque” person deviates. A “grotesque” character is limited and narrow-minded in some important way and has thus lost the capacity for a richer, deeper, better-balanced life. A “grotesque,” Anderson believed, is a person who has embraced one limited “truth” to the exclusion of others, thus turning each “truth” into a falsehood (Winesburg, Ohio, edited by Malcolm Cowley. New York: Penguin, 1992, p. 24).
A “grotesque” person need not live an ugly life. As the passage quoted above makes clear, the old writer considered some grotesques “amusing” and some “almost beautiful.” But “almost” is the key word here: a grotesque, almost by definition, cannot achieve true beauty, because true beauty implies harmony and wholeness, and those are precisely the qualities that grotesque persons lack. Winesburg, Ohio is a multifaceted gallery offering the portraits of many different kinds of grotesques. The great Russian novelist Tolstoy once wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This quotation might easily be adapted so that it is applicable to Winesburg, Ohio: whole persons are all alike, but each grotesque person is grostesque in his or her own way.