Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
Published in 1919, it's a series of related stories about the oddities and vulnerabilities of human beings. One question which the reader wants to consider is that of realism: this is not a realistic book in the sense that its characters, by and large, are known for their own particular peculiarity and in one story, "Hands", for the body part that symbolizes the character's pecularity for him. In that story, Wing Biddlebaum's hands which are "forever trying to conceal themselves" and are restlessly active "like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird" not only gave him his name but "stood for" a secret he'd kept from people in Winesburg. Many years ago, in another town, under another name, he was a teacher who touched the boys in his class affectionately on the shoulder or hair. Until a "half-wit" dreamed of much more intimate touching and woke to think it was real and Wing was driven from the town.
The narrator of the stories is an old man, a writer, who when he tries to sleep sees a long procession of figures he calls "grotesques" before his eyes and is driven to write about them. The description reminded me of the painting called "Dickens' Dreams" where Dickens is sitting at his desk at Gad's Hill, leaning back in the chair dozing while a cloud around his head contains little scenes from his novels with all the variety of characters he is imagining.
But back to realism. To a contemporary sensibility these are "old-fashioned" stories. First because they are "told" and not "dramatized" as most readers now expect. Second because the characters are not fully rounded characters--we seem to have taken E. M. Forster oh so seriously on rounded characters. They exist by way of their peculiarity--which is why the narrator calls them grotesques.
But in another sense Anderson's purpose is most definitely realism. One imagines him wanting to dig down into the idyllic American small town and paint the soft underbelly, to look more closely at the way Winesburg's citizens lived, to follow the odd ones home, to talk to the loners in the night, to step for a moment into the shoes of the town's "characters" and understand that they too represent real human attitudes and behaviors.
If you haven't read this American classic, you'll find it a worth while venture. Here's a text version for free