The book begins with an elderly writer who hires a carpenter to rebuild his bed so that it is level with his window and he can see the trees across the way in the morning. After work is completed, the writer lies in the bed and reflects about death. As sleep approaches, in a hypnogogic hallucination, all the people he has ever met pass slowly before his eyes, seen by him as “grotesques”—some amusing, some terribly sad, and some horrifying. Immediately after this experience, he climbs out of bed and writes down everything that he saw in a book, which he calls “The Book of the Grotesque.” The old man conjectures that the world is full of different truths, all of them beautiful, but when a person seizes on and tries to live by one truth alone, that person’s life becomes distorted. He writes obsessively for hundreds and hundreds of pages, but in the end, he never publishes the book.
The “grotesques” live in a mental jail, detached from others, in a town where communication is impossible. They are, however, able to communicate with the perceptive newspaper reporter of the Winesburg Eagle, George Willard, to whom they tell their stories, hoping he will find meaning in them and perhaps give expression to it in his writing. Dr Parcival hopes that George Willard “will write the book I may never get written,” and for Enoch Robinson, Willard represents “the youthful sadness, young man’s sadness, the sadness of a growing boy in a village at the year’s end [which may open] the lips of the old man.”2
This is problematic for George, who does not know how to interact with or understand them. He is an outsider, and on the continuum between “observer” and “participant,” an observer. As he matures, he becomes more engaged with others in town. Literary critic Irving Howe5 notes that George does not meet the needs of the inhabitants of Winesburg nor they his.
What the grotesques really need is each other, but their estrangement is so extreme they cannot establish direct ties—they can only hope for connection through George Willard. The burden this places on the boy is more than he can bear. He listens to them attentively, he is sympathetic to their complaints, but finally he is too absorbed in his own dreams. The grotesques turn to him because he seems “different”—younger, more open, not yet hardened—but it is precisely this “difference” that keeps him from responding as warmly as they want. It is hardly the boy’s fault; it is simply in the nature of things. For George Willard, the grotesques form a moment in his education; for the grotesques, their encounters with George Willard come to seem like a stamp of hopelessness.5
Ultimately, Sherwood Anderson’s dissociative fugue was a gradual shift in psychological stance from observer to participant-observer to creative participant. In Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson became a creative participant, finally giving voice to the grotesques whom the elderly writer describes in the prologue: “Some [who] 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 . . . All of the men and women the writer had ever known.”2
Dissociative amnesia, subtype psychogenic fugue, is characterized by reversible amnesia for personal identity.4 The state is usually short-lived (ranging from hours to days but can last months or longer); usually involves unplanned travel or wandering; and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity. Fugues are usually precipitated by a stressful episode. Upon recovery, amnesia of the original stressor may occur (dissociative amnesia).
When he had his breakdown, Anderson entered what Campbell6 calls an “abyss”—a psychogenic fugue or other dissociative process that involves the disintegration of the ego and a breakthrough expansion of consciousness. During Anderson’s lifetime, he had 4 wives, 3 children, 2 careers, and 1 masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio. In a dissociative fugue Anderson's unconscious mind closed a trap door and he ventured on the journey of the traumatized hero. His words come to mind:
All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they have themselves built, and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls. Now and then a man, cut off from his fellows by the peculiarities of his nature, becomes absorbed in doing something that is personal, useful and beautiful. Word of his activities is carried over the walls.2
As the dust settles over the literature of past century, Sherwood Anderson, “cut off from his fellows by the peculiarities of his nature”5 (dissociative amnesia), creates a literary masterpiece out of the adversities of his life.
1. Rideout WB. Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America, Volume 1. Madison, Wisc: University of Wisconsin Press; 2006.
2. Anderson, S. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: B.W. Huebsch; 1919.
3. Grohol JM. DSM-5 Changes: Dissociative Disorders. Psych Central. pro.psychcentral.com/2013/dsm-5-changes-dissociative-disorders/004410.html. Accessed June 5, 2013.
4. Spiegel D, Lewis-Fernández R, Lanius R, et al. Dissociative disorders in DSM-5. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2013;9:299-326.
5. Howe I. Sherwood Anderson. New York: William Sloane Associates;1951.
6. Campbell J. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Princeton University Press, 1949.