Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960

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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, Anderson moved to Elyria, Ohio, and became the true president of a company that by 1911 manufactured nearly all conceivable types of roofing and painting materials. Like Steve, Anderson was a businessperson, an entrepreneur who organized and profited from other people’s inventions and resources. Specializing in public relations, Anderson was well acquainted with (and sometimes practiced) less-than-honest advertising tactics and business dealings. These experiences are reflected in Poor White.

The characters in Poor White come alive with intricate, often grotesque detail, such as the extended sketch of a rich lawyer’s widow (Jane Orange), who is caught stealing eggs and has yolk running down her legs after a clerk hits the pocket where the eggs are hidden. Critics often discuss Poor White as a form of American bildungsroman, and Hugh as a post-Civil War Huck Finn.

The hero of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) tells readers at the end of the novel, “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.” With the closing of the American frontier, young men and women across the country began to look to science and technology as the new territory where they could stake a claim and make their mark. Getting “sivilized” is what happens to young Hugh, who has no West to run to, and who until age fourteen has spent his time lazing on the banks of the Mississippi beside his father’s dilapidated shack. Sarah Shepard, like Huck’s Aunt Polly, nurtures Hugh with strong New England values, and the boy resists. The momentum of industrialization drags the indolent young man forward. Although successful in manufacturing, he laments his lowly roots at the end of chapter 14: “By struggle and work he had conquered the dreams but could not conquer his ancestry, nor change the fact that he was at bottom poor white trash.” Entrepreneurs find they must always struggle against such determinism.

The only fully developed character besides Hugh is Clara Butterworth, whose sexual awakening surfaces in flirtations with farmhands and in a brief relationship with a schoolteacher. Concerned about Clara’s virtue and worried that she has been associating too much with lower classes, Tom sends his daughter away to college in Columbus to become a lady and perhaps meet a suitable husband. At college, however, Clara meets Kate Chancellor, a lesbian classmate who rejects the limitations of marriage and plans to become a doctor. Kate teaches Clara to question society’s traditional expectations. Clara, rather than becoming ladylike, acts to control her life and decide with whom, if anyone, she will share it. Industrialization takes families away from the farm and allows women greater options.

As a chronicle of industrialization, Poor White is related to business novels such as William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and Frank Norris’s The Pit (1903). Hugh’s inventions recall the numerous patents filed by Sam Hamilton in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952). With the appearance of a socialist agitator at the end of the novel, Anderson foreshadows another stage of industrial development—in the Progressive Era, workers renewed the fight for fair wages and safe factory conditions. Agitators appear in similar but more prominent roles in political social-protest fiction such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) and John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle (1936). Although not the great American novel, Poor White is a significant literary account of America’s industrial coming-of-age.