Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Sherwood Anderson and the Gothic tradition

Sherwood Anderson may be the writer most strongly identified with Midwestern literature—his Winesburg, Ohio is a canonical representation of life in the Heartland. Anderson’s stories make a bridge between Southern Gothic and what we identify as Midwest Gothic—in Southern Gothic literature, the grotesque elements are generally extravagant, played up in a Grand Guignol fashion, and the secret scandals and mysteries featured in Southern Gothic stories are often “open” secrets, known to all but spoken of in scandalized whispers behind closed doors or across backyard fences. In Anderson’s story “Hands,” Wing Biddlebaum’s freakishly spastic hands flutter cartoonishly and are the subject of teasing and laughter in the town where he now resides—he tries to keep them hidden, but they are the very model of an open secret, in that everyone already knows his shame. Of course, the bigger secret of his hands is one that Wing has managed to keep hidden, at a great cost to himself. The melodramatic nature of both the physical details and the finally revealed secret in “Hands” places the story closer to Southern Gothic than to the Midwest Gothic tradition that will emerge.

Anderson’s “The Untold Lie,” on the other hand, is a true early example of Midwest Gothic style. In this story, details of the Midwest landscape play a significant role, the vast beauty of the fields coming to symbolize the oppression of a disappointed man in a life he can’t escape. In “The Untold Lie,” nobody knows the secret of Ray’s unhappiness—it’s hidden behind the jovial, monotonous routine of his days. In a brief moment, he’s confronted with the opportunity to make known his true feelings—it’s like a corner of a pretty tapestry being pulled back to reveal something sad, dark, and neglected underneath. And then the moment passes, the curtain drops, and Ray’s veneer of contentment settles back into place. The implication of the story is that all the people of this place may share the same unhappiness (Hal seems to be cultivating a near-exact replica of Ray’s life), but the masks of genial tranquility everyone wears keeps each man alone with his discontent—a discontent that is at once ordinary and unbearably sad.

Read "Hands"
Read "The Untold Lie"

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