You are on page 1of 15

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

From The Book of the Grotesque to The Book of the Grotesque: Winesburg, Ohio as
a Metatextual Novel and a Knstlerroman

I have written four long novels and none of them have been published. I am nearing forty
years of age and the big load of doing a long novel each year also giving eight hours a day
to business is beginning to tell on me. There is a lot of work ahead I want to do and I want
to begin getting publication.
Sherwood Anderson in a letter to Theodore Dreiser

The genre of a textthe type of text we know or think we are readingis much more than
a label given by publishing houses so the book can be placed in the correct shelf at the
bookstore. The generic label attached to a certain text entails a large amount of decisions
made by any of the participants in the texts life (writer, printers, editors, readers, critics,
etc.). These decisions will eventually create a number of different possibilities for the text
to be composed for publication, understood, analyzed, discussed or even sold and
distributed. And, while many texts do not challenge the generic boundaries significantly,
some resist categorization or polarize different groups who dissent in regards to what kind
of text the text is. An example of the latter is Winesburg, Ohio (1919), by the American
author Sherwood Anderson.
Winesburg comprises a series of sketches, each revolving around a different
character that is part of the community in the town that gives the book its title. The sketches
and portraits of each character can be read as short stories in their own right ; at the same
time, the confluence of all of them in the town of Winesburg, Ohio in a certain period of
time can turn the book into a short story cycle or series (given that we read in it a thematic
or stylistic progression that suggests unity and/or development upon a same argument)
instead of just a collection. However, the sketches or portraits in Winesburg, Ohio have one
more recurring element in them: the newspaper reporter, George Willard, an aspiring artist

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

who appears in several episodes of the book as the collector of the characters life stories
and as an active participant in many others. The continuous presence of George Will ard
along with the sketch entitled The Book of the Grotesque, which serves as a prologue for
the rest of the book, can turn readers to think of Winesburg, Ohio as a novel, one long prose
fiction taking a characters journey from point A to point B with several subplots running
throughout.
Understanding this particular text as a novel will, in turn, require the reader to
decide what kind of novel they are dealing with, which will consequently involve a whole
new set of considerations concerning the structure, plot, and stylistic features of the text.
For example, if the reader has decided to see Winesburg as being about George Willards
personal growth amongst the various incidents and characters in Winesburg, then the novel
could be seen as a formation or cultivation novel, a Bildungsroman. Furthermore, if we are
to see Georges development as that of a writer, and the lessons learned from the various
characters in the book as related to the formation of his aesthetic principles and his poetics,
then the text would not only be a Bildungsroman, but one of a specific kind, a
Knstlerroman, a formation novel about the development of an artist. Finally, if the old
writer in the opening sketch is to be read as an older version of George, then the sketches
following The Book of the Grotesque would be The Book of the Grotesque itself as well
as an account of how that text came to be. That, precisely, is the reading I will explore in
this paper, looking at Winesburg, Ohio as a Knstlerroman, a metatexti.e. a selfreferential textand a testament to the creation of the text itself. This means not only
stating that the text is so, but putting forth and analyzing the implications of such a reading.
One of the largest issues related to any effort to set a texts genre in stone is what
Jean-Marie Schaeffer has defined as the problem of the infinite individual characteristics, in

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

which all subjects studied can be a part of any genre depending on the characteristics the
beholder has chosen to pinpoint, whiledeliberately or notleaving behind an infinite
number of elements in the text that could lead them to define it as belonging to some other
genre. The problem with the idea of genre theory, Schaeffer argues, is that it has been
mistakenly understood as a biological or genetic issue: the fact that the term genre stems
from the Latin genus has led critics and theorists to wrongly think that a text is a product of
preceding texts just as a member of a species is the product of two members of that same
species combining their genes, thereby forgetting that a text is the product of human
decisions that can deliberately go against the set notions of any given genre. A persons
parents cannot decide to give their child any physical features that do not belong to the
characteristics of humankind, but authors can decide to make their text take any form or
forms they wish. Thus a lot of the work done on the field of genre theory has forgotten that,
while in biology a species defines the subject, in literature the individual text can modify
the conception of an entire genre. 1 Therefore, it is vital to approach a text from a genre
perspective understanding that texts do not belong specifically and unequivocally to a
single genre, they participate in it at any given point just as they can participate in several
others depending on the focal points of the reading or the study.2 Having this in mind, it is
more than productive to always be reminded that Winesburg, Ohio can be a novel as much
as a cycle or series, or a collection of short stories.
In one of the seminal pieces of criticism on Andersons text, Edwin Fussell
described the kind of reading I here propose in quite simple, if not simplistic, terms:

A clear example can be found in T.S. Eliots essay Ulysses Order and Myth (1923) in which he claims that
Joyces text has abruptly killed the idea of a novel and yet it is called one for lack of a better term.
2
I employ the term participate, i.e. take part, as used in the French and Spanish versions of Schaeffers
texts, but the term might be incorrect in English.

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

If we approach the novel from the direction of George Willard, the young
reporter presumably on the threshold of his career as a writer, instead of
from that of the subjects of the sketches, Winesburg composes as a
Bildungsroman of a rather familiar type the portrait of the artist as a young
man in the period immediately receding his final discovery of mtier.
(108)3
Although this description is accurate enough, with the somewhat obvious reference to one
of the pivotal Knstlerromans in English literatureJames Joyces A Portrait of the Artist
as a Young Manit is surprising that Fussell does not draw another seemingly evident
comparison with Joyces oeuvre; Winesburg is in equal measure A Portrait as it is
Dubliners, a point to which Max Saunders comes closer in his study of self-writing and
autobiografiction:
One distinct category of the imaginary portrait-collection is the topographical
one, consisting of characters associated with a particular locale such as
Gertrude Steins Three Lives or Sherwood Andersons Winesburg, Ohio, or
Dylan Thomass Under Milk Wood It represents a logical extension of the
Knstlerroman: the desire to present not just the artists life, development,
consciousness, but also their experience of creating, and the resulting works.
(248)
If the text is both the story of the writer and of the end product of the writers development,
then the artists subject matter is just as important as the artists personal growth or
experiences. It is no surprise then that George, despite being present in almost every
episode in the text, remains an intangible beinga mass of ideassome consistent and
concrete like his desire to be a writer, but most undeveloped and shifting. His physical
appearance is never made specific, and as a reporter he is, for the most part, a receptacle

My italics.

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

for other people's tales. (Gnadiek 25) As a receiver of stories and knowledge, Georges
role is to interpret and process what he is told and then bring it back in his writing.
If the Bildungsromans main concern, as first described by Whilhelm Dilthey, is
[t]he idea of cultivation (Bildung) through a harmony of aesthetic, moral, rational, and
scientific education (Martini 5), in a Knstlerroman, focused on the development of the
artist andas said beforeon how the artistic creation came to be, the balance between all
the different forms of education becomes less important, and the aesthetic cultivation
becomes the primary element to be narrated in the text. Therefore, Willards growth as a
moral or rational character can be left in the background, so the sources of his poetics and
aesthetics become the predominant force of the text. Furthermore, if we are to follow
Dilthleys description of a Bildungsroman as the history of a young man who enters into
life in a blissful state of ignorance, seeks related souls, experiences friendship and love,
struggles with the hard realities of the world and thus armed with a variety of experiences,
matures, finds himself and his mission in the world (Hardin xiv), we must then also realize
that George Willard comes to the realization of who he is, as a writer at least, and what his
guidelines and subject matter will be through contact with other characters, their stories,
flaws and the knowledge they are able to pass over to him. That is why secondary
characters, their stories and the lessons that they candirectly or indirectlyteach George
are much more thoroughly described than the main character himself.
Such instances of aesthetic learning in the novel could be separated into three
different categories: those presenting the failed or incomplete artists in Winesburg, who
will become Georges parallels or present a contrast with him and from whom he will learn
different aspects of becoming the complete artist they cannot be; those related directly to
the art of storytelling; and those which refer to Georges growth as both writer and man.

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

These realizations, events or characters are found scattered throughout the book; sometimes
a whole sketch is dedicated to one, while at other points several of these aesthetic
revelations or revelators are found in the same sketch. It is the accumulation of these in a
somewhat sequential order that drives the narrative forward, along with Georges
development as an artist; this constitutes the narrative structure. That is the reason the
narrative does not follow a chronological timeline but it is linear insofar as it traces the
development of the artist-to-bes aesthetics; the passage of time is only relevant if there is a
clear connection between it and the events strictly related to Willards aesthetic formation,
which is why the narrator moves so freely in time throughout every narration and is little
concerned with the order of things. As he shares his knowledge with us, he moves freely
back and forth between present and past, understanding that the present is a product of the
past. Nearly every story in Winesburg, in fact, includes a flashback. (Jacobson 62)
With these considerations in mind, Hands is more than an evident choice to be the
first episode of The Book of the Grotesque. Wing Biddlebaums story and his interactions
with George seem to be the best starting point to tell the story of how the writer in The
Book of the Grotesque came to be. Hands presents examples of the three categories of
aesthetic cultivation mentioned above. First off, Wing is merely the first in a succession of
marginalized would-be storytellers. (Solomon 126) Although he is not quite an artist
manqu like Enoch Robinson, Doctor Parcival, Doctor Reefy or Seth Richmondas said
before, they will appear in the correct order needed for Georges developmenthis
inability to express himself does create a parallel with Georges budding quest to put things
in writing that truly say something, a point which the narrator actually dwells on when
looking back: Let us look briefly into the story of the hands. Perhaps our talking of them
will arouse the poet who will tell the hidden wonder story of the influence for which the

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

hands were but fluttering pennants of promise. (Anderson 14) The narrator, the old writer,
is aware that at the beginning of this journey George is unable to process the stories and
information that come his way, so the first part of the process of becoming a narrator is
regardless of how obvious it might soundto start narrating while looking for style or
artistry, instead of waiting for artistry in order to start narrating. And despite the fact that at
this moment George is yet unable to do this, he still looks like a viable receptacle of life
stories to the inhabitants of Winesburg:
They look to him as one who will listenhe is a reporter, after alland one
skilled with words who might be able to translate their inchoate feelings into
something that makes sense. But, typically, they are unable to make
themselves clear to him. The failure is often theirs, for George is a willing
enough listener. But George, too, is often unable to respond. (Jacobson 61)
The grotesques, the characters in the novel, feel a need to express their stories and to be
heard and understood. After all, they are all marginalized and outsiders. They are all Christ
trying to have their gospel written before a world that does not understand them crucifies
them and turns them into pariahs, as Doctor Parcival cryptically tells George, so their
stories and whatever knowledge they are able to impart can be effectively passed along
(Anderson 37). They are quite literally characters in search of an author; at the same time,
they wish to have a stake in the way the stories are going to be told. (Fussell 109-110) All
these characters are incomplete storytellers, but still have stories to share and have a
somewhat clear idea of what they want to be told. So they feel a need to speak about
themselves instead of letting Willard write from assumptions and speculation, no matter
how terrible they are at actually making a case for themselves.
Wings story foreshadows a pattern that will come up several times in Winesburg.
These autobiographical moments for the characters usually end abruptly and exposing a

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

communicational barrier. Several of the stories follow the basic pattern of Hands: a
misfit in the town is telling George something of his story but cannot express himself
completely; he begins to wave his hands about helplessly and breaks into a run. (Stouck
534) The exchanges between George and the characters are, more often than not, maimed
by the linguistic limitations of the reporters interlocutors. George, however, has not yet
developed all his verbal abilities at this point, so he is for the most part unable to respond or
interact properly with his future characters.
George has yet to come to two of his most important realizations during the course
of the text: his verbal epiphany in An Awakening, in which [t]he desire to say words
overcame him and he said words without meaning, rolling them over his tongue and saying
them because they were brave words, full of meaning. Death, he muttered, night, the sea,
fear, loveliness. (150) It is until then that Willard almost literally finds his voice and his
words, which will only become part of his complete poetics after he goes through the
process his Sophistication near the end of the text (192-200). But having the words
express things is just one part of writing, since the artist needs to know what he wants and
needs to say; George needs to learn how to read the people he is talking with to put their
stories on paper. He needs to go around their communicational hurdles just as he has done
with his own. That is what Kate Swift tries to teach the reporter, although he is not able to
grasp the concept until later: You will have to know life. ... If you are to become a writer
... you must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people
are thinking about, not what they say (Anderson 131). With Wing, George starts the
process of understanding non-verbal communication and how it can translate to writing.
Even though he is quite proficient at reading books, as is said a few times in the text, he
still needs to learn that Wings fluttering hands, Elmer Cowleys sudden bursts of violence

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

(164), or Seth Richmonds unrelenting silence (99-112), all say more about them and their
stories than what they can actually put into words. Anderson tells us, sounding a bit like
Thoreau and at the same time echoing both doctrine and metaphor from Winesburg, that
all men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they themselves have built,4
(Fussell 108) and, as an artist, it is George Willards task to find the men hidden behind
such walls and tear them down in his writing.
Nevertheless, having enough words to write with and enough insight to look into his
characters is merely half the battle for Willard in his journey to write The Book of the
Grotesque. The young artist of Winesburg still needs to comprehend all the implications of
his craft. Just as the narrator states in Hands that it is essential to look for the great words
to speak of something, it is also as important to understand the limits of what should be
written.
When he tells the story of Louise Bentley in Godliness, [Surrender, the
third part of this four part sketch, to be specific] he begins, Before such
women as Louise can be understood and their lives made livable, much will
have to be done. Thoughtful books will have to be written (62). Although
the narrator is not ready to write the hidden wonder story or one of the
thoughtful books, he makes a start on both by offering us short sketches
instead.
The old George now understandsfrom his position as a fully developed
storytellerthat not everything needs to be put into writing, and that not everything
is within his reach or scope as an artist; thus the insistence on the idea that a poet is
needed to convey some stories or traits of the characters left out of these sketches. 5

Quoted from Poor White, the other novel by Anderson that could be actually considered successful.
The narrator seems to have come to an understanding of himself and of his craft: he is a storyteller who
works in prose. He appears to have also established a hierarchical order in artistry; though he conceives
5

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

He has also realized that not everything is relevant or pertinent to the present
narration; he has learned to establish the limits of his work in favor of the unity and
consistency of it.
Sometimes he can only appreciate: He mentions at the beginning of Alice
Hindman's story, Adventure, that her stepfather's story is an odd one. It
will be worth telling some day (85). (Jacobson 60)
The old writer understands that not all stories need to be part of the same text.
In contrast, young George has yet to go through the process of coming to terms with
his limits, his subject matter, and what being a writer means in reality. Whereas George
has yet to understand what being a writer really means, the narrator knows the potential of
his craft. (Jacobson 59) Immature as he is, Willard is mostly unable to comprehend all the
lessons he is being taught before he leaves town; he is in a way one of the kids in Kate
Swfits class, Indeed, the youngsters in her care often did not understand her. (Burner
362) The penny will drop when the subject is ready for it.
But Winesburg does not present Georges appreciation of his moments of learning.6
Instead, the text shows the lessons and the teachers in their rawest form and it is up to the
reader to find out what they could mean in the context of the Knstlerroman: he is placed
alongside the Man of Ideas, Joe Welling, who talks endlessly but rarely eloquently (7784), and The Thinker, Seth Richmond, who seems to have much more poignant thoughts
than George, but is incapable of putting them into words, to illustrate his quest for some
middle ground between them, between saying too much of little relevance and keeping
hidden the most important things. He needs to learn to say just enough to make his work

himself as an artist, he has placed his talent or calling below that of a poet, who will indeed be able to grasp
that which escapes his work.
6
At least not in the time that is being narrated; older Georges hindsight will indeed make it clear that he has
taken something from all the moments he is presenting.

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

self-explanatory yet still open to interpretation, as opposed to Enoch Robinson, who is


tongue-tied and cannot get across to his artistic friends what he would like to explain: Its a
woman and, oh, she is lovely! She is hurt and is suffering but she makes no sound. ... I
didnt try to paint the woman, of course. She is too beautiful to be painted (137).
(Jacobson 63) The old writer has skillfully placed George in the middle of all these failed
artistsor storytellersto create a contrast not only between their characters, but also
between their incomplete or inexistent work and the final product of his cultivation, which
is right in front of the reader.
Likewise, Winesburg presentsthough not explicitlythe young artists struggle to
find a suitable subject matter for his work. Once again, he is placed halfway through two
other artistes manqus: Doctor Reefy and Doctor Parcival. While Doctor Reefy was
almost a poet in his old age (Anderson 182) and writes his thoughts as minimalist texts,
now consigned to his pockets to become hard paper pills that no one reads (Jacobson 64),
Doctor Parcival had come up with a great concept for a great book, that everyone in the
world is Christ and they are all crucified (Anderson 37). George stands between the man
lost in unconnected aphorisms that do not seem to transcend the very moment in which they
are written and the one who has thought of a most transcendental narrative but lacks the
talent or determination to look for cohesiveness in his search for grandeur; thus he goes
into long tales concerning himself that began nowhere and ended nowhere (32).
Georges success as a writer depends on him finding once again the middle ground between
these two extremes of artistic (if not philosophical) inefficiency, on finding the
transcendental in the mundane and immediate, and vice versa.
After acquiring the necessary skills to be a writer, the final problem for young
George Willard is ontological: What does it mean to be a writer? The young mans

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

mistaken ideas about being a writer are challenged over and over throughout the text. For
example, even though he has been told by his father that if he wishes to become a writer he
must work really hard at it, George still believes it's the easiest of all lives to live ...
Here and there you go and there is no one to boss you. Though you are in India or in the
South Seas in a boat, you have but to write and there you are. (Anderson 104) In a similar
manner, when he decides he is to write a love story, he foolishly thinks first that he can
actually write it, and secondly that he can grasp and understand love at will; he tells Seth
Richmond:
Ive been trying to write a love story, he explained, laughing nervously.
Lighting a pipe he began walking up and down the room. I know what Im
going to do. Im going to fall in love. Ive been sitting here and thinking it
over and Im going to do it. (Anderson 105)
Not only that; he decides there and then that he will fall in love with Helen White, for
whomon top of it allSeth seems to have genuine feelings. George has yet to face the
big existential truths he will eventually come across (corny as this may sound) with the
death of his mother (191) or his true feelings for Helen (193-95) before his Departure
from Winesburg. This should take us back to Kate Swift scolding George: she reprehends
him for not understanding what being a writer is and urges him to stop being a boy and turn
into a man, a task at which he eventually succeeds: Thomas Yingling, for instance, ends
his very fine discussion of Winesburg, Ohio with the proposal that in the end George
Willard emerges as the very figure of the storyteller that Benjamin sees as being lost in the
modern world (qtd in Solomon 125).
George, indeed, will emerge as the accomplished narrator of Winesburg, Ohio.
Although some critics, like Marcia Jacobson, dispute the idea that the central character and

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

the old writer of the text are the same person because there is no hint in the text whatsoever
that Georges cultivation process will be in any way successful, a closer look to the clues
left everywhere in the textI thinkwill reveal the contrary. There is a clear correlation
between what is narrated and how it is narrated; in other words, what George needs to learn
to become a writer is shown as being processed by his later self in his writing. Despite
maturing, the old man has kept his youth and that has prevented him from turning into
one of his grotesques. That youth is the same something Elizabeth Willard hopes his son
does not lose, as she did, and it is what allows George to see and manage to produce
something out of the same parade of figures and characters that present themselves to
Enoch Robinson. That bakhtinian carnival of grotesques is precisely the opening image of
Winesburg, Ohio and, paradoxically the last significant event in the chronological account
of George Willards life.7
Having attempted to come full circle in proposing a possible reading that could offer
some genre perspective for Winesburg, Ohio (a novel, a Bildungs and Knstlerroman, a
metatext, and a reflection on the creation of the text itself), and trying to provide enough
examples to support it, I wish to come back to my original proposal. This second time, I
would like to sum up the different generic possibilities I mentioned into a single term that
both englobes them all and allows for the more fluid genre perspective that Schaeffer
argues for: Saunders idea of autobiografiction. Saunders points out that the idea of the

I use the term bakhtinian to refer to this image as a reminder of Bakhtins notions of the carnivalesque as a
way to process both the grotesque and transformation. Winesburg, Ohio is, after all, a novel about both. The
grotesques are the characters of the book, while transformation is probably one of the most powerful motifs in
it. The reading I here propose is focused on Georges transformation, but the town is also in the midst of great
change from the rural to the urban and industrial (as exemplified by Elmer Cowley, the rustic, and the always
mentioned but never present Banker White, the symbol of progress, modernity and industry), the move from
country to city by many of the characters, and the changing nature of the text itself.

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

autobiography carries both the notion of genre and of mode of reading.8 Autobiografiction,
then, is a multi-layered concept: it may refer to a fiction read in the autobiographical mode
the fictionalized autobiography of an empirical authoror the autobiographical account
of a fictional character. As it turns out, Winesburg, Ohio is both: much has been written and
said about the parallels between Andersons life and Winesburg (so much so that I have
deliberately not discussed it here), and, as I have tried to make clear in this text, Winesburg
is also George Willards autobiography. Furthermore, Winesburg, Ohio is the
autobiography, of sorts, of The Book of the Grotesques; the novel can be read as an
autobiografiction and, if the neologism is acceptable, even as an autobi(blio)grafiction.

Proof of this is the way in which we use the term autobiographical, what is not an autobiography can still
be read as autobiographical, says Saunders himself.

JOS CARLOS RAMOS M.

AMERICAN MODERNISM

Works cited
Anderson, Sherwood. Sherwood Anderson: Sleceted Letters. Ed. Charles E. Modlin.
Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1984.
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
Bruner, Belinda. "Pedagogy of the Undressed: Sherwood Anderson's Kate Swift". Studies
in Short Fiction 36 (1999): 361-68.
Fussell, Edwin. Winesburg, Ohio: Art and Isolation. Modern Fiction Studies 6.2 (1960):
106-115.
Gniadek, Melissa. The Art of Becoming: Sherwood Anderson, Frank Sargeson and the
Grotesque Aesthetic. Journal of New Zealand Literature 23.2 (2005): 21-35.
Hardin, James ed. Reflection and Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman. Columbia: U of
South Carolina P, 1991.
Jacobson, Marcia. Winesburg, Ohio and the Autobiographical Moment. New Essays on
Winesburg, Ohio. Ed. John Crowley. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 53-73.
Martini, Fritz. Bildungsroman Term and Theory. Hardin, James ed. Reflection and
Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1991.
Saunders, Max. Self Impression. Life-writing, Autobiografiction, & the Forms of Modern
Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.
Schaeffer, Jean-Marie. Qu'est-ce un qu'un genre littraire?. Paris: Le Seuil, 1989.
Solomon, Bill. The Novel in Distress. Novel 43.1 (2009): 124-131
Stouck, David. Winesburg, Ohio as a Dance of Death. American Literature 48 (1977):
525-42.