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The Book of the Grotesque

The writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some
difficulty in getting into bed. The windows of the
house in which he lived were high and he wanted to look
at the trees when he awoke in the morning. A carpenter
came to fix the bed so that it would be on a level with
the window.

Quite a fuss was made about the matter. The carpenter,
who had been a soldier in the Civil War, came into the
writer's room and sat down to talk of building a
platform for the purpose of raising the bed. The writer
had cigars lying about and the carpenter smoked.

For a time the two men talked of the raising of the bed
and then they talked of other things. The soldier got
on the subject of the war. The writer, in fact, led him
to that subject. The carpenter had once been a prisoner
in Andersonville prison and had lost a brother. The
brother had died of starvation, and whenever the
carpenter got upon that subject he cried. He, like the
old writer, had a white mustache, and when he cried he
puckered up his lips and the mustache bobbed up and
down. The weeping old man with the cigar in his mouth
was ludicrous. The plan the writer had for the raising
of his bed was forgotten and later the carpenter did it
in his own way and the writer, who was past sixty, had
to help himself with a chair when he went to bed at
night.

In his bed the writer rolled over on his side and lay
quite still. For years he had been beset with notions
concerning his heart. He was a hard smoker and his
heart fluttered. The idea had got into his mind that he
would some time die unexpectedly and always when he got
into bed he thought of that. It did not alarm him. The
effect in fact was quite a special thing and not easily
explained. It made him more alive, there in bed, than
at any other time. Perfectly still he lay and his body
was old and not of much use any more, but something
inside him was altogether young. He was like a pregnant
woman, only that the thing inside him was not a baby
but a youth. No, it wasn't a youth, it was a woman,
young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight. It is
absurd, you see, to try to tell what was inside the old
writer as he lay on his high bed and listened to the
fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what
the writer, or the young thing within the writer, was
thinking about.

The old writer, like all of the people in the world,
had got, during his long life, a great many notions in
his head. He had once been quite handsome and a number
of women had been in love with him. And then, of
course, he had known people, many people, known them in
a peculiarly intimate way that was different from the
way in which you and I know people. At least that is
what the writer thought and the thought pleased him.
Why quarrel with an old man concerning his thoughts?

In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream.
As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious,
figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined
the young indescribable thing within himself was
driving a long procession of figures before his eyes.

You see the interest in all this lies in the figures
that went before the eyes of the writer. They were all
grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had
ever known had become grotesques.

The grotesques were not all horrible. Some 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. Had you come into the room you
might have supposed the old man had unpleasant dreams
or perhaps indigestion.

For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before
the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a
painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to
write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep
impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.

At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end
he wrote a book which he called "The Book of the
Grotesque." It was never published, but I saw it once
and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The
book had one central thought that is very strange and
has always remained with me. By remembering it I have
been able to understand many people and things that I
was never able to understand before. The thought was
involved but a simple statement of it would be
something like this:

That in the beginning when the world was young there
were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a
truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a
composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in
the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his
book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There
was 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. Hundreds and
hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared
snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite
strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The
old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the
matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the
people took one of the truths 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.

You can see for yourself how the old man, who had spent
all of his life writing and was filled with words,
would write hundreds of pages concerning this matter.
The subject would become so big in his mind that he
himself would be in danger of becoming a grotesque. He
didn't, I suppose, for the same reason that he never
published the book. It was the young thing inside him
that saved the old man.

Concerning the old carpenter who fixed the bed for the
writer, I only mentioned him because he, like many of
what are called very common people, became the nearest
thing to what is understandable and lovable of all the
grotesques in the writer's book.

Sherwood Anderson

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