I can find nowhere in the Wikipedia entry for “grotesque” a reference to Sherwood Anderson. This is a shame. If I cared enough to become a Wikipedia editor I would add it, but instead I will explain the connection here in my blog.
In his influential book Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919, Anderson frames the story of a little Ohio town using the metafictional device of an old writer who is possessed with a “central thought that is very strange.” This thought is inspired by a dream in which the writer sees a series of grotesque characters parading before his eyes. These grotesques “were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful…”
This aligns perfectly with the Wikipedia definition of a grotesque:
…characters are usually considered grotesque if they induce both empathy and disgust… The reader becomes piqued by the grotesque’s positive side, and continues reading to see if the character can conquer their darker side.
One go-to artist for the visualization of the grotesque is Hieronymus Bosch, even though he was painting in an age before the word grotesque was really in use.
In Anderson’s story, the book that the writer generates as a result of his “central thought that is very strange” is never published. But we can infer through the metafictional device that Winesburg, Ohio, itself is the illustration of Anderson’s theory of the grotesque:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all very beautiful… the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy….
…And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them. It was the truths that made the people grotesque… 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.
It is quite possible that Anderson did not invent this definition of a “grotesque” entirely, but received it from some other writer or essayist. Anyhow, the image is compelling—human beings grasping onto truths, embracing them, and being transformed into tragi-comic figures as a result.
Based on my limited knowledge, this idea of the grotesque is a major theme of the time period. The high-and-mighty ideals of romanticism had clearly run their course by 1919 and modernist writers such as Anderson dedicated themselves to exposing these ideals for the damage they were doing.
This powerful poem—which was written before Winesburg, Ohio, but not published until 1920—is divided into two general parts: a description of a retreat from the trenches of the war followed by a horrific description of a man who is dying from a gas attack. Owen writes:
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
The poem continues to describe the effects of gas on the man, concluding with one of the most devastating moves in all of 20th century poetry.
“If you could see” the man, Owen writes, and “if you could hear” him:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
By Sherwood Anderson’s definition this man is a grotesque—literally but also figuratively.
He has embraced “the old lie” that it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country and this lie (or “truth”) has transformed him into something horrible, something that (as per the Wikipedia entry) induces both our empathy and disgust.
Another place I have encountered this disillusionment recently is in the Hemingway fragment “On Writing” from the mid 1920s. Hemingway wrote:
It was all such a fake. You had this fake ideal planted in you and then you lived your life to it.
Hemingway would have been well familiar with Anderson’s theory of the grotesque. He was friends with Anderson in Chicago, as a matter of fact, and was greatly inspired by Winesburg, Ohio.
Coming upon the theory of the grotesque and putting these ideas together within the context of modernism has been rather exciting for me. Doesn’t it seem that people have forgotten much of this wisdom in today’s black and white, bipolar, with-us-or-against-us society?
Perhaps it’s time to renew a conversation about “the grotesque” in current literature.