Saturday, August 28, 2010


Sherwood Anderson

An excellent storyteller, Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) seems to be preoccupied by a need to describe the plight of the "grotesque" - the unsuccessful, the deprived, and the inarticulate. He sensitively describes poverty and eccentricity. His simple style, in the oral tradition of storytelling, influenced writers like Hemingway and Faulkner who, in 1956, acknowledged Anderson as "the father of my generation of American writers and the tradition of American writing which our successors will carry on."
(Paul P. Reuben at
Anderson's two first novels were WINDY MCPHERSON'S SON (1916) and MARCHING MEN (1917), both containing the psychological themes of inner lives of Midwestern villages, the pursuit of success and disillusionment. His third novel, Winesburg, Ohio, was "half individual tales, half long novel form", as the author himself described it. It consisted of twenty-three thematically related sketches and stories. Written in a simple, realistic language illuminated by a muted lyricism, Anderson dramatized crucial episodes in the lives of his characters. The narrative is united by the appearance of George Willard, a young reporter, who is in revolt against the narrowness of the small-town life and who acts as a counterpoint to the other people of the town. The individual tales of Winesburg, Ohio, and Anderson's other collections of short stories, THE TRIUMPHS OF THE EGG (1921), HORSES AND MEN (1932), and DEATH IN THE WOODS (1933), directed the American short story away from the neatly plotted tales of O. Henry and his imitators. The stories in these books are characterized by a casual development, complexity of motivation, and an interest in psychological process.

Winesburg, Ohio (Title Page)
Credited to Jonathan Cape of London

In WINESBURG, OHIO, Anderson became one of the first American writers to use modern psychological insights, especially those of the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. Anderson's characters tend to make themselves into what the author called grotesques. Anderson believed that there were once hundreds of truths, all of them beautiful. But people tended to adopt only one truth and call it theirs. According to Anderson, 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."
(Sherwood Anderson by Daniel Mark Fogel, Ph.D., Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, Louisiana State University. at
Anderson's novel DARK LAUGHTER (1925) became a bestseller. In the story the disillusioned protagonist travels down the Mississippi imagining the kind of book Mark Twain might now write. From New Orleans Anderson moved to New York for some time, and from there finally to Marion, Virginia, where he built a country house, and worked as a farmer and journalist. He travelled again in Europe and wrote to his son John, a young painter: "I've a notion that, in America, you will be less bothered with homosexuality inclined men. However the arts have always been a refuge for such men. They are, as I think you have guessed, the less vigorous men. There is some distinct challenge of life they do not want to meet, and can't meet." In 1927 he bought both of Marion's weekly newspapers, one Republican, one Democrat, and edited them for two years. Anderson wrote columns under the pen name Buck Fever. To earn extra income he continued his series of lectures throughout the country. When Anderson separated from Elizabeth Prall in 1929, he gave the edition ship of the newspapers to his son Robert. Commissioned by Today magazine, Anderson studied the labor conditions during the Depression and published his articles in PUZZLED AMERICA (1935). Anderson's newspaper pieces were collected in HELLO TOWNS (1929), RETURN TO WINESBURG (1967) and THE BUCK FEVER PAPERS (1971).
After his death, Anderson's reputation soon declined, but in the 1970s, scholars and critics found a new interest in his work. During his lifetime Anderson wrote two autobiographical works, A STORY-TELLER'S STORY (1924) and semi-fictional TAR: A MIDWEST CHILDHOOD (1926). His MEMOIRS (1942) and LETTERS (1953) were published posthumously, as the more definitive THE MEMOIRS OF SHERWOOD ANDERSON (1969). In A Story-Teller Story the author explained why he disregarded dates in his autobiographies: "I think it was Joseph Conrad who said that a writer only began to live after he began to write. It pleased me to think I was after all but ten years old. Plenty of time ahead for such a one. Time to look about, plenty of time to look about."
Anderson was born in Camden, Ohio, the third of seven children of Erwin M. and Emma S. Anderson. After Erwin's business failed, the family was forced to move frequently, finally settling down at Clyde, Ohio, in 1884.
Partly as a result of these misfortunes, young Sherwood found various odd jobs to help his family, which earned him the nickname "Jobby." He left school at age 14.
Anderson moved to Chicago near his brother Karl's home and worked as a manual laborer until near the turn of the century, when he enlisted in the United States Army. He was called up but did not see action in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After the war, in 1900, he enrolled at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Eventually he secured a job as a copywriter in Chicago and became more successful.
In 1904, he married Cornelia Lane, the daughter of a wealthy Ohio family. He fathered three children while living in Cleveland, Ohio, and later Elyria, Ohio, where he managed a mail-order business and paint manufacturing firms.
In November 1912 he suffered a mental breakdown and disappeared for four days. He was found wandering around in nearby cornfields. Soon after, he left his position as president of the Anderson Manufacturing Co. in Elyria, Ohio, and left his wife and three small children to pursue the writer's life of creativity. Anderson described the entire episode as "escaping from his materialistic existence," which garnered praise from many young writers, who used his "courage" as an example.
Anderson moved back to Chicago, working again for a publishing and advertising company. In 1916, he divorced Lane and married Tennessee Mitchell.
Although his short stories were very successful, Anderson felt the need to write novels. In 1920, he published Poor White, a rather successful novel. He wrote various novels before divorcing Mitchell in 1922 and marrying Elizabeth Prall, two years later.
Anderson's third marriage also failed, and he married Eleanor Copenhaver in the late 1920s. They traveled and often studied together. In the 1930s, Anderson published Death in the Woods, Puzzled America (a book of essays), and Kit Brandon, which was published in 1936.
Anderson dedicated his 1932 novel, Beyond Desire, to Copenhaver. Although he was much less influential in this final writing period, many of his more significant lines of prose were present in these works, which were generally considered sub-par compared to his other works.
"Beyond Desire", set during the 1929 Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, NC, resulted in yet another satirical mention by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway included a minor character in his 1937 novel To Have and Have Not who is an author. This character is working on a novel of Gastonia.
Anderson died in Panama at the age of 64 while on a cruise to South America. An autopsy revealed that he had accidentally swallowed a toothpick (presumably in a martini olive), which had perforated his colon and caused a fatal case of peritonitis. He was buried at Round Hill Cemetery in Marion, Virginia. His epitaph reads, "Life, Not Death, is the Great Adventure."
Anderson's final home, known as Ripshin, still stands in Troutdale, Virginia, and may be toured by appointment.

Photo of author Sherwood Anderson
29 November 1933

Works by Sherwood Anderson:
Windy McPherson's Son. Anderson's autobiographical first novel concerns life in a small Iowa town and a youth's departure to Chicago to make his fortune. The novel sounds many of Anderson's characteristic themes: the mixed nature of small-town American life, the warping power of material success, and the challenge of male-female relationships.
Marching Men. Anderson's second novel is an unfocused, poetic meditation on social improvement, set in the Pennsylvania coal-mining country, where an idealist attempts to organize the miners.
Mid-American Chants. Anderson's collection of rough-hewn verses reflects the author's contention that "I do not believe that we people of Midwestern America, immersed as we are in affairs, hurried and harried through life by the terrible engine-- industrialism--have come to the time of song."
Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson's landmark short story collection provides glimpses of frustrated small-town American life from the perspective of the central consciousness of young reporter George Willard. The stories are linked by their common setting and by Anderson's concept of "grotesques," characters warped by their environment and inwardly divided. The collection's realism, intensity, and criticism of ordinary American life are harbingers of the direction that American fiction would subsequently follow.
Poor White. This story of an Ohio town going through the transition from agriculture to industrialization is regarded by most critics as Anderson's greatest achievement as a novelist.
The Triumph of the Egg. Subtitled "A Book of Impressions from American Life in Tales and Poems," Anderson's glimpses of ordinary life emphasize futility, thwarted instincts, and repressed emotions. The volume includes some of his best stories, such as "The Egg" and "I Want to Know Why."
Horses and Men and Many Marriages. The first is a collection of short and longer stories, mainly about horseracing. The second is a novel about a respectable businessman who breaks out of a deadened, conventional lifestyle.
A Story Teller's Story. Anderson begins a fictionalized autobiography, which he would continue in Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926) and conclude with Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs (1942).
Dark Laughter. Juxtaposing the sterility of white civilization with the unrepressed lives of blacks, the novel follows a Chicago reporter as he travels the Mississippi and returns to his Indiana hometown. It becomes the only commercial success among Anderson's novels but fails to restore his critical reputation and would inspire Ernest Hemingway's parody, The Torrents of Spring (1926). Hemingway later apologized for the attack, stating, "I thought he was going to pot the way he was writing and that I could kid him out of it by showing him how awful it was."
Hello Towns! And Nearer the Grass Roots. The first is a celebration of small-town American life; the second justifies Anderson's retirement to a small Virginia town to become a newspaper editor.
Perhaps Women. The writer's curious amalgam of poetry, narrative, and opinion mounts an attack on modern life and posits that perhaps the solution to modern problems will come when women are in charge.
Beyond Desire. In his first novel in seven years, Anderson shifts his setting from the Midwest to a Southern mill town but continues his exploration of a youth's search for meaning and fulfillment and a community's dislocation due to industrial change.
Death in the Woods and Other Stories. Arguably Anderson's strongest collection, the volume includes the title work, which Anderson considered his best, and the masterful "Brother Death." The bankruptcy of the book's publisher, Liveright, prevents wide distribution, and the volume has never received the attention it deserves.
Puzzled America. The writer surveys the state of the nation in a series of sketches of miners, textile workers, and farmers. Irving Howe would observe that the work "is one of the few books that convey a sense of what it meant to live in depression America."
Kit Brandon. Anderson's final novel concerns a Virginia mountain girl who struggles as a mill worker, shop girl, and finally a moonshine runner. Written in an attempt to be "more objective," the novel is considered the best constructed of any of Anderson's longer works.
Home Town. Anderson publishes a collection of autobiographical essays and portraits in pictures and text of small-town American life. Reviews note a mellowing of the author, and one describes him as a "cheerful Chekhov."

Memoirs. One of the author's most impressive achievements is this blend of fact and fiction that traces the stages of his artistic development.

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