By Sherwood Anderson
Publication Year: 1919
Tags: Short Stories, Classic Literature, Literary
This collection of stories, published a century ago, is often dismissed as having been once considered great but now considered “pedantic” and something to be passed over and not “inflicted” upon high school students any longer. By this logic, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town should not be taught either, since it’s clearly “outdated” by today’s standards. I would agree that this book should not be taught in high school, since such schools in the United States today most likely don’t have teachers who can understand it well enough to explain it to the bored seniors, with their fourth-grade reading levels and disdain for anything that’s not part of a video game or the Marvel Movie Universe. (I’m now old enough to indulge my cynicism; to use an idiom from today’s meme-based culture, “Change my mind.”)
The very first story in the book, “The Book of the Grotesque,” is the key to the rest of the stories. An old writer had “a dream that was not a dream” (p.22, in this edition), in which he sees a parade of all of the people of his town, and “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…
As a writer, I have known this horrible ecstasy for myself. These people, these stories that Anderson tells, are of the truly grotesque (noun, def: “a very ugly or comically distorted figure, creature, or image” [emphasis added]). Without understanding both the origins and literary use of the term “grotesques,” the rest of the stories will bore modern youth, or even contemporary pre-millennials, to babbling. Even with that understanding, modern eyes may not be able to see past the descriptions of the characters of just-pre-war people of the Midwest to discover the even more grotesque parallels to people of our current day. (Note: Although published in 1919, a year after “The Great War” had ended, the stories themselves were imagined for a time closer to the turn of the last century.)
To understand this book, one must settle into the mindset of a century ago, when the word “queer” was used as slang for “poor” (from the British expression of “being thrown onto queer street” to mean penniless), when “making love” referred to courting behavior rather than sexuality, and when the difference between “boy” and “man” was upwards of turning 20 or even 25 years old. One must go back to a time when experience of the world was impossible without physically going into it; there were books and stories, but no Internet to visit the rest of the world and know its people. It was a time when escaping one’s past and childhood home could be considered either progress or cowardice, and returning to that home could mean wanting what was, what used to be, whether or not the dusty streets of that small town were familiar anymore, that the town feels to have grown too much, as one has been away too long. Perhaps one wishes to return because he is retreating from the failure of dealing with that world beyond those dusty small town streets, and the weight of his failure stays with him, oppressive and inescapable. There is, Anderson reveals through his grotesques, great risk in staying, in leaving, in returning. What forms and malforms his characters is the risk itself, and what each character must realize is that nothing truly stays the same.
Each story consists less of a plot and more of an exploration of one or another kind of grotesqueness. Titles such as “Mother”, “Adventure”, “Loneliness”, and “Sophistication” speak to the emotions and circumstances of each brushstroke of the deformed picture that is the person being exposed to himself and others for whatever grotesque thing he might be. The story of “Hands” (first in the book after the exploration of the writer’s dream) is the tale of one man’s downfall by misperception… or perhaps being forced to look at a true perception. The question is not fully answered, and the grotesquery here is the man’s torment of not being sure which idea of himself is the correct one. “The Strength of God” is a tale less about the Rev. Curtis Hartman than it is about the perversion (grotesque description) of faith and the strength of self-deception disguised as religious fervor.
In many ways, all of these stories are now more relevant than ever, in that they peel away the veneer from those “good old days” that hyper-conservatives “remember” with so much fondness that they can’t ever be convinced that they were just as grotesque as these tales. “Not all horrible,” as Anderson tells us, but nowhere near as beautiful and benevolent as they would have us believe. Going back, the old writer shows us, is no less dangerous than having left in the first place; nothing will be as one remembered it.
Ray Bradbury, born a year after this collection was published, said that this book was his inspiration for The Martian Chronicles — his own collection of interconnected stories, set in a “town” (or, ultimately, several towns) that consisted of the first human settlers of the planet Mars. From the perspective of this book, it is easy to see where Bradbury’s own parade of grotesques comes from. It would make an interesting collegiate-level course to compare and contrast the two. It would also help readers of this book to see the richness of Bradbury’s own stories, the better to appreciate the richness of philosophical notion that makes up this collection of tales that are more accurately ideas, emotions, gut-level experience of the grotesques all around us.
This book is a rich collection of emotion, philosophy, psychology, and humanity in all of its grotesqueness (in more than one sense). Don’t read it as light or entertaining stories; read it as if you were the curator of a large group of humans, from the Midwest of the earliest 1900s, patiently uncovering the makeup of romantic memory to see the pentimenti underneath.