Summary and Analysis The Book of the Grotesque


When Sherwood Anderson submitted his manuscript of Winesburg, Ohio to a publisher it had a different title; he had named it The Book of the Grotesque. Although the publisher changed the name of the book, he left the title of the Introduction the same, so Winesburg begins with a sketch that is not about Winesburg or George Willard, but about the concept of the grotesque.

The sketch describes an elderly writer who hires an old carpenter to raise his bed somehow so that as he lies there he can look out the window. The old carpenter tells the writer of his experiences in the Civil War and, as he talks, he begins to cry. The weeping old man is ludicrous, yet he reminds the writer of the many sad people whom he had known during his lifetime. He realizes that all of them are grotesques and he decides to write about them. He explains their grotesqueness by suggesting that each of them seized on one truth and tried to live by it, but the truth which each embraced became a falsehood.

In this introductory sketch, Anderson suggests one of the unifying devices of the book which is to follow — for most of the characters of Winesburg are grotesque, or distorted, in some way. Like the carpenter, each seems eager to tell someone about himself and each of them often chooses young George Willard because he is a writer of sorts (a reporter on the town paper) and he intends to become a fiction writer as soon as possible. This sketch, like many of the stories, takes place in a room, a symbol throughout the book not of security and warmth but of isolation and entrapment. We notice, however, that the old writer is providing his room with a view, perhaps symbolizing the author's ability to escape his own isolation and see more than most humans can see. It is interesting that Anderson himself had his bed raised so that he could look out at the Loop in Chicago.

This sketch, like the stories that follow, is told by the omniscient author, presumably Anderson, who talks occasionally to the reader. Here he says, for example, that he saw the old writer's Book of the Grotesque and he comments, "By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before." Similarly, if we keep in mind this concept of the grotesque we will be able to understand the many unusual characters that Anderson describes in Winesburg, Ohio.