Recently I have been reading Richard Brautigan‘s ‘In Watermelon Sugar’ in conjunction with Sherwood Anderson’s ‘Winesburg, Ohio’. I find certain similarities in the two books, the action taking place in dreamlike landscapes and characters often being types, or “grotesques” as Anderson calls them. ‘In Watermelon Sugar’ also reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s ‘Rootabaga Stories’, whimsical stories about the Potato Face Blind Man, Blue Wind Boy and others of their ilk. By way of comparison, here are the opening sections from all three books.
In Watermelon Sugar (Dell Publishing, 1968)
In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I’ll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.
Wherever you are, we must do the best we can. It is so far to travel and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar. I hope this works out.
I live in a shack near iDEATH. I can see iDEATH out the window. It is beautiful. I can also see it with my eyes closed and touch it. Right now it is cold and turns like something in the hand of a child. I do not know what that thing could be.
There is a delicate balance in iDEATH. It suits us.
Winesburg, Ohio (Viking Press, 1972. Original copyright 1919.)
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.
Rootabaga Stories (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. (Original copyright 1922.)
How They Broke Away to Go to the Rootabaga Country
Gimme the Ax lived in a house where everything is the same as it always was.
“The chimney sits on top of the house and lets the smoke out,” said Gimme the Ax. “The doorknobs open the doors. The windows are always either open or shut. We are always either upstairs or downstairs in this house. Everything is the same as it always was.”
So he decided to let his children name themselves.
“The first words they speak as soon as they learn to make words shall be their names,” he said. “They shall name themselves.”
No earthshattering conclusions to draw here. I think there are interesting similarities in tone, rhythm and content in the three books. I think Brautigan probably read Sherwood Anderson and of course he read Hemingway who was influenced by Anderson. I’m not sure if Brautigan read Sandburg or knew of his Rootabaga Stories, but he certainly would have been at home in the Rootabaga Country.