Sunday, April 24, 2016

"The Egg" (1920)

Read story by Sherwood Anderson online.

Sherwood Anderson is one of the most singular story writers I know, operating seemingly by his own rules, known only to him. Here he takes what is basically an anecdote, however poignant, and infuses it to bursting with portent and meaning around "the egg." There is not really any one egg in this story, though a single egg is involved in the anecdote, possibly. It's not entirely clear that's what's intended by the title. Instead, Anderson takes the idea of "egg," expands it to chickens, and packs the story full of both. It's a veritable Easter day event. The first-person narrator (we never learn his name) was raised on a chicken farm, where among other things his father kept and preserved in jars the deformed chicks that hatched there, with five legs or two heads and such, "nature's mistakes" let's call them (shown at county fairs in this story, and still seen at state fair sideshows too). He describes his father's bald head in egg-like terms. He mentions a story about Christopher Columbus and eggs. After the farm failed the narrator's family moved to town and opened a restaurant. The restaurant is where we reach the real Sherwood Anderson territory. The narrator's father is a classic Anderson character, possessed of dreams he can't begin to articulate. In this case, his dream is to create a place, the restaurant, where young people want to come and hang out. But he works the nightshift at the restaurant, which largely caters to train travelers from a nearby station. When a young person finally shows up one night, the narrator's father attempts to charm him with barroom magic tricks involving an egg—making it stand on one end (this is where Columbus comes up), and then, when that fails, attempting to steam it with vinegar to enable it to slip into a narrow-necked bottle. The boy doesn't know what to do about this strange restaurant cook, and ends by laughing at him on his way out the door. In that moment, the narrator's father finally has a glimpse of how pathetic he is, and is devastated. Well, it's all primo Anderson, as weird as it is effective in execution. The story comes just the year after his Winesburg, Ohio cycle of stories, where Anderson's unique sense of American pathos snapped into focus. My sense is that he was such a purely intuitive writer he barely knew what he was doing. There's a great sense of searching in "The Egg," searching for the way to express something burning inside him and all of us—a conflagration that goes out of control for the narrator's father in this strange, wonderful story.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

The Egg and Other Stories by Sherwood Anderson

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