Sherwood Anderson Short Fiction Analysis
Sherwood Anderson’s best-known and most important work is the American classic, Winesburg, Ohio. It is a collection of associated short stories set in the mythical town of Winesburg in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The stories catalog Anderson’s negative reaction to the transformation of Ohio from a largely agricultural to an industrial society, which culminated about the time he was growing up in the village of Clyde in the 1880’s. Its twenty-five stories are vignettes of the town doctor; the voluble baseball coach; the still attractive but aging-with-loneliness high school teacher; the prosperous and harsh farmer-turned-religious fanatic; the dirt laborer; the hotel keeper, the banker’s daughter, and her adolescent suitors; the Presbyterian minister struggling with temptation; the town drunk; the town rough; the town homosexual; and the town “half-wit.” The comparison to Masters’s Spoon River Anthology is obvious: Both works purport to reveal the secret lives of small-town Americans living in the Middle West, and ironically both owe their popular success to the elegiac recording of this era, which most Americans insist on viewing idyllically. Anderson’s work, however, differs by more directly relating sexuality to the bizarre behavior of many of his characters and by employing a coherent theme.
That theme is an exploration of psychological “grotesques”—the casualties of economic progress—and how these grotesques participate in the maturing of George Willard, the teenage reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, who at the end of the book departs for a bigger city to become a journalist. By then his sometimes callous ambition to get ahead has been tempered by a sense of what Anderson chooses to call “sophistication,” the title of the penultimate story. The achievement of George’s sophistication gives Winesburg, Ohio its artistic movement but makes it problematic for many critics and thoughtful Americans.
“The Book of the Grotesque”
The prefacing story defines grotesques. A dying old writer hires a carpenter to build up his bed so that he can observe the trees outside without getting out of it. (While living in Chicago in 1915 Anderson had his own bed similarly raised so that he could observe the Loop.) After the carpenter leaves, the writer returns to his project—the writing of “The Book of the Grotesque,” which grieves over the notion that in the beginning of the world there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a “truth.” People turned these thoughts into many beautiful truths such as the truth of passion, wealth, poverty, profligacy, carelessness, and others; a person could then appropriate a single one of these truths and try to live by it. It was thus that he or she would become a grotesque—a personality dominated by an overriding concern which in time squeezed out other facets of life.
This epistemological fable, which involves a triple-reduction, raises at least two invalidating questions: First, Can there be “thoughts” without the truth to establish the self-differentiating process which generates thought?, and second, If universals are denied and all truths have equal value (they are all beautiful), then why should a person be condemned for choosing only one of these pluralistic “truths”?
The stories in Winesburg, Ohio nevertheless do grapple with Anderson’s intended theme, and a story such as “Hands” clearly illustrates what he means by a grotesque. The hands belong to Wing Biddlebaum, formerly Adolph Myers, a teacher in a Pennsylvania village who was beaten and run out of town for caressing boys. Anderson is delicately oblique about Wing’s homosexuality, for the story focuses on how a single traumatic event can forever after rule a person’s life—Wing is now a fretful recluse whose only human contact occurs when George Willard visits him occasionally. George puzzles over Wing’s expressive hands but never fathoms the reason for his suffering diffidence. “Hands,” besides giving first flesh to the word grotesque, makes the reader understand that a character’s volition is not necessarily the factor that traps him into such an ideological straightjacket; sympathy can therefore be more readily extended.
“The Philosopher” provides a more subtle illustration of a grotesque and introduces the idea that a grotesque need not be pitiable or tragic; in fact, he can be wildly humorous, as demonstrated at the beginning of the story with the philosopher’s description:Doctor Parcival, the philosopher, was a large man with a drooping mouth covered by a yellow moustache he wore a dirty white waistcoat out of whose pocket protruded a number of black cigars there was something strange about his eyes: the lid of his left eye twitched; it fell down and it snapped up; it was exactly as though the lid of the eye were a window shade and someone stood inside playing with the cord.
It is George Willard’s misfortune that Dr. Parcival likes him and uses him as a sounding board for his wacky pomposity. He wishes to convince the boy of the advisability of adopting a line of conduct that he himself is unable to define but amply illustrates with many “parables” which add up to the belief (as George begins to suspect) that all men are despicable. He tells George that his father died in an insane asylum, and then he continues on about a Dr. Cronin from Chicago who may have been murdered by several men, one of whom could have been yours truly, Dr. Parcival. He announces that he actually arrived in Winesburg to write a book. About to launch on the subject of the book, he is sidetracked into the story of his brother who worked for the railroad as part of a roving paint crew (which painted everything orange); on payday the brother would place his money on the kitchen table—daring any member of the family to touch it. The brother, while drunk, is run over by the rail car housing the other members of his crew.
One day George drops into Dr. Parcival’s office for his customary morning visit and discovers him quaking with fear. Earlier a little girl had been thrown from her buggy, and the doctor had inexplicably refused to heed a passerby’s call (perhaps because he is not a medical doctor). Other...
(The entire section is 2609 words.)