Kim Townsend has written what will probably remain the definitive biography of Sherwood Anderson, the only American writer of his generation, Malcolm Cowley has said, “who left his mark on the style and vision of the generation that followed. Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Caldwell, Saroyan, Henry Miller ... each of these owes an unmistakable debt to Anderson. ...” Indeed, Anderson’s importance as a writer is often noted only insofar as he was briefly a mentor to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway at the beginning of their writing careers.
Although he wrote novels, plays, and essays as well, Anderson is best known as the author of the unified collection of short stories entitled Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Townsend’s intricately observant biography makes clear the extent to which Anderson “saved his life both by and in writing,” as well as the extent to which he attempted not only to discover himself as an American man “by and in writing” but also to define and delineate what such a man should be ideally. Thus it is, Townsend writes, that Anderson’s “writings continually direct our attention back to the story of his life.”
This life was fraught with endings or failures which Anderson seemed to impose upon himself and those near to him so that he might begin again and again, indomitably and incessantly, regardless of how great the costs for such deaths and rebirths. Anderson was, Townsend shows, an “indefatigable changeling.” Probably the most dramatic example of Anderson’s ability to “kill” a life he had outgrown is portrayed in “Breakdown,” the third of this biography’s thirteen chapters, for the period described here, 1906 to 1912, proved to be the most crucial—and most famous—regarding Anderson’s writing career.
In November of 1912, in Elyria, Ohio, Anderson was, at thirty-six, president of his own corporation, the American Merchants Company, and by all appearances an American success, a self-made man. It was true that, a year before he took over this firm in 1907, he had failed to pull another firm out of the red during the year he was its president; the American Merchants Company, however, was a different story: When Anderson took it over it was a factory that produced a roofing compound, and he expanded this business by teaming with a paint manufacturer so that, by 1911, his company had grown to the point where it claimed to produce and sell everything relating to the roofing and painting business.
Anderson had traveled far from his beginning as one of six children of a poor family in Clyde, Ohio. He had not studied at any business college; in fact, he barely finished high school, because—from need and ambition—he had spent most of his youthful time and energy working at odd jobs: delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, sweeping out stores, cutting corn, planting cabbages, painting signs, and working in a bicycle factory. In Clyde, he had been known as “Jobby.” In 1900, he had entered the business world formally when he took a job with a firm in Chicago as an advertising solicitor, and, successful at that, he became an adman.
In 1904 he married into a well-to-do family; his wife, Cornelia Platt Lane, was well educated, and her father was president of a wholesale company. Although his father-in-law had opposed the marriage for various reasons, not the least of which was the young man’s lowly position in the business world, in less than three years after the marriage, Anderson became president of a mail-order business. That venture failing, he became president of what was to be the successful American Merchants Company. As if that were not enough to prove Cornelia’s father mistaken in his reservations about the young man’s suitability as husband and provider, by 1912 Anderson and Cornelia had two sons and a daughter.
Sometime between 1907 and 1912, Anderson, when he was not at his office, had begun locking himself in a small room of his large home so he could write; some of what he wrote would become his first two published novels, Windy McPherson’s Son (1916) and Marching Men (1917). By November of 1912 he had begun pushing himself to work at his company during the day and then often writing fiction throughout most of every night. His acquaintances in Elyria had begun to view him as strange, not a joiner. Despite all of this, Anderson appeared to be an American success.
During those five years when he was president of his own company, he became increasingly dissatisfied with his job and his marriage, but he “kept up appearances, went about his business,” Townsend says. “If he talked at all about his marriage, it was only to himself, in his room or on long night walks.” Cornelia knew that something was troubling him, but she believed that “it would pass”; what she did not know was the extent to which she was part of that troubling “something.” “Just because I was married to her when I did not want to be,” Anderson would say in retrospect, “I imagined terrible things about her. It did not seem to me possible to escape out of marriage into life. I pictured her as my jailer and terrible hate woke in me. At night I even dreamed of killing her.”
The revolt he wrote about in Windy McPherson’s Son was welling up inside of him as one “against money-making as an end in life.” As the revolt grew within him, so did the size of the contradiction his life had become: That is, as a businessman he did and said what he had to, as a “smooth son of a bitch,” to make money, but as a writer, Townsend says, “he need not, could not lie. In writing he could talk straight to himself; that was why he was writing.” His writing was “curative,” and when “he succeeded,...