Winesburg, Ohio: a Book of Grotesques

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The figures of Winesburg, Ohio usually personify a condition of psychic deformity which is the consequence of some crucial failure in their lives. Misogyny, inarticulateness, frigidity, God-infatuation, homosexuality, drunkenness—these are symptoms of their recoil from the regularities of human intercourse and sometimes of their substitute gratifications in inanimate objects, as with the unloved Alice Hindman who "because it was her own, could not bear to have anyone touch the furniture of her room." In their compulsive traits these figures find a kind of dulling peace, but as a consequence they are deprived of one of the great blessings of human health: the capacity for a variety of experience.The world of Winesburg, populated largely by these back-street grotesques, soon begins to seem like a buried ruin of a once vigorous society, an atrophied remnant of the egalitarian moment of 19th-century America. Though many of the book's sketches are placed outdoors, its atmosphere is as stifling as a tomb. And the reiteration of the term "grotesque" is appropriate in a way Anderson could hardly have been aware of; for it was first used by Renaissance artists to describe arabesques painted in the underground ruins, grotte, of Nero's "Golden House."The conception of the grotesque, as actually developed in the stories, is not merely that it is an unwilled affliction but also that it is a mark of a once sentient striving. In "The Book of the Grotesque," Anderson writes: "It was the truths that made the people grotesques…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 a falsehood." There is a sense, as will be seen later, in which these sentences are at variance with the book's meaning, but they do suggest the significant notion that the grotesques are those who do suggest the significant notion that the grotesques are those who have sought...
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