In Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White, Hugh McVey’s life stands as an allegory for a young, war-shocked nation struggling to ride a massive wave of industrialization. Born near the end of the American Civil War, McVey is at the peak of his inventing career in the late 1890’s and early twentieth century. Celebrations of technology were common in those years, as for example when Henry Adams philosophizes about the Gallery of Machines in “The Dynamo and the Virgin” chapter of The Education of Henry Adams (1907). During the late nineteenth century, factory smokestacks could be seen across the Midwest as industrialism came to small towns. By the end of Poor White, Bidwell is an industrial town with factories surrounded by fields of cheap housing. New workers (strangers and recent immigrants) have flooded the town. The tide of industrialization has moved forward.
As Bidwell grows, individuals must shed their preindustrial ways of life and adapt to new roles in society. Hugh, the daydreamer, becomes an inventor; Tom Butterworth, the gentleman farmer, becomes an investor; and young farmhands from across the county become millworkers. Even mentally disabled Allie Mulberry, a woodworker, builds models of McVey’s inventions. Individuals who do not adapt cannot survive. Joe Wainsworth, the local harness maker, who refuses to sell or repair factory-made harnesses, becomes an example when his assistant, Jim Gibson, pushes him around, takes control of the business, and hangs eighteen manufactured harnesses on the shop wall. Joe reacts like an animal struggling to delay his extinction. Pushed to the breaking point by Jim’s bragging, he slits his assistant’s throat and shreds the new harnesses into a pile on the shop floor.
Growth of industry in the Midwest was not an abstract phenomenon for Anderson, who in 1906 served as president (in title only) of United Factories Company, a mail-order business in Cleveland, Ohio. He was fired after only one year when the company lost thousands of dollars in a lawsuit involving faulty incubators. The machines had been contracted for sale before the manufacturer knew whether they would work. A similar situation happens in Poor White when Steve and Tom conspire to market one of Hugh’s pieces of farm machinery that they suspect will never work. In 1907,...
(The entire section is 960 words.)