Friday, January 27, 2012

Countdown: The 10 Most Grotesque Residents of Winesburg, Ohio--#10

Winesburg, Ohio is the quintessential mid-American small town, but its inhabitants are anything but typical.  A fair share of these folks range far beyond the norm and (in their thoughts, words, looks, and actions) prove to be grotesque figures.

Sherwood Anderson invokes the term "grotesque" himself in the piece that serves as the general prologue to his renowned short story collection.  In "The Book of the Grotesque," though, the author asserts that such a label need not have a negative connotation: "The grotesques were not all horrible.  Some were amusing, some almost beautiful."  Anderson has a unique sense of the grotesque, which he presents here through a writer-character's notion "that the moment one of the people took one of the truths [e.g., 'the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon"] to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood."

In the afterword to the Signet Classic edition of the book, Dean Koontz (yes, that Dean Koontz) complicates matters further by claiming that "the people of Winesburg, Ohio are not true grotesques as much as they are eccentrics, for their differences are less repellent than endearing."  These people are "lost, alienated, but basically decent."   Koontz is not completely off the mark here, yet perhaps takes too roseate a view of Anderson's characters.  To focus on a lovable quirkiness is to overlook the repulsiveness of many of these figures.

So as I begin counting down today the 10 Most Grotesque Residents of Winesburg, Ohio, I want to stress that my conception of the "grotesque" aligns with the use of the term in literary criticism--to denote characters with ugly/abnormal physiques, abnormal mindsets, and bizarre behavioral patterns.

With that in mind, let's meet our first resident on the countdown:

#10.Edward King

This elderly male makes brief but memorable appearance (in the story "A Man of Ideas") in the pages of Winesburg, Ohio.  He is described as a "proud" figure, but the inverse quality of his name suggests that there is nothing royal or elevated about him.  He is marked by a shabbiness of dress that reflects the tattered nature of his psyche: "Old Edward King was small of stature and when he passed people in the street [he] laughed a queer unmirthful laugh.  When he laughed he scratched his left elbow with his right hand.  the sleeve of his coat was almost worn through from the habit."  Other townspeople are alarmed by the sight of this strange man who lives in a house facing the Winesburg Cemetery.  His ominousness is also compounded by his usual traveling companion: his fierce, dog-killing son Tom, who "always carried a heavy, wicked-looking walking stick in his hand."  The low-brow patriarch Edward King is not someone who is considered endearingly offbeat but rather "dangerous"-ly insane.

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