Prologue: "The Book of the Grotesque" Summary
The prologue to Anderson's book tells us of an old writer, a man with a white mustache, who wishes he could see out of his high windows when in bed. He hires a carpenter to raise his bed so that it would be level with the windows. The carpenter was a soldier in the Civil War and was also old with a white mustache. Crying, he tells the old writer how his brother died of starvation in the Andersonville prison. He looks ridiculous crying with a cigar in his mouth. The carpenter ends up doing the bed his own way and the old writer has to use a chair to get to it.
In bed, the old writer would wonder about having a heart attack since he had always smoked. The thoughts of dying would lead him to feel more alive, almost as if he had a young woman inside of him. He would think pleasantly about the many women who had loved him and about the people he had known more intimately than anyone else. He would dream while half-awake of indescribable figures whom he believed the young thing inside was pushing in front of his eyes. The figures were grotesque versions of all the people he had known, ranging from the nearly beautiful to the painfully misshapen.
The parade of characters in his mind caused the old man to rise and begin to write. His writing coalesced into a book entitled "The Book of the Grotesque." The narrator notes that the book made a distinct impression on him. According to the old writer, the world had been filled by thoughts which man made into truths. The old man listed the truths, such as the truths of virginity and poverty, and decried that all were beautiful. Each of his figures grasped at least one of the truths and made it their mantra. The decision to base all of one's existence on an absolute truth transformed the figure into a grotesque and the truth into a lie. The old writer never published his book but was engrossed by it. He himself would have become a grotesque if it had not been for the youth inside. The carpenter was a perfect example of a common man who mutated into the grotesque but remained lovable.
Anderson originally planned to title his collection "The Book of the Grotesque" until the publisher suggested Winesburg, Ohio to which Anderson agreed. Still, the theme of the grotesque is the focus of his writing. The tone which is set forth in the prologue was established purposely by Anderson in order to lead the reader toward the type of mood he wanted to be adopted. His characters were flawed, all ineffectual and incomplete. His theory that their ruined being came from their collection of truth was an interesting philosophy about which he meant to make no pretenses. Anderson believed that one should keep separate the worlds of realism and fantasy. He did not believe that an author could not write about both or about the collision of these worlds but he feared that authors would become stuck on realism or naturalism and forget about the importance of dreams, idealism, surrealism, and fantasy.
Nevertheless, many have understood Anderson as a naturalistic writer, one of the earliest post World War I avant garde writers, because of his exploration of the grotesque and of the failings of the modern man in modern society. In almost every story in Winesburg, Ohio the protagonist becomes engrossed in a moment. The moment is highly significant and pivotal in the life of the protagonist and appears as if it will spur him on to life changing action. However, it never does. The moment slips away and so does the vivacity of the figure which Anderson has chosen to highlight.
In this manner, we can better understand the character of the old writer established in the prologue, "The Book of the Grotesque." The old writer is inspired one night while thinking about the possibility of his having a heart attack. At this point, he experiences the thing inside of him which feels like a young woman. This image will strike the reader as quite bizarre but it is a rather creative way of describing the type of moments, or even personal quirks, to which Anderson will introduce us with his other characters. A young woman's most identifiable, albeit stereotypical, characteristic would be fertility and to create this image within the body of the old writer gives us a symbol of life within death. This is one of the Anderson's favorite themes. The moment of clarity which the old writer experiences allows him to give birth, in a sense, to the figures which he imagines and then sets to paper.
The following pages of the text, it is implied, document the clarifying moments in the lives of the figures he has conceived. The carpenter is the first example of a grotesque given by the narrator in the prologue, though the old writer comes glaringly close himself. The narrator justifies his escape from this form by pointing to the young thing which remains inside of the writer. We can thus determine that the grotesques will experience a clarifying moment similar to the old writer's which will then be extinguished. This attribute makes them grotesque: they have grasped a truth but cannot sustain it because they view it as an absolute. Similar to Cane, the collection of literature written by Jean Toomer four years after Anderson's text, each character's hope for truth and life goes unfulfilled and works as a commentary on the disillusionment experienced by modern man combating the industrial materiality of society following World War I.