Sherwood Anderson

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Sherwood Anderson Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2609

Sherwood Anderson’s best-known and most important work is the American classic, Winesburg, Ohio. It is a collection of associated short stories set in the mythical town of Winesburg in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The stories catalog Anderson’s negative reaction to the transformation of Ohio from a largely agricultural to an industrial society, which culminated about the time he was growing up in the village of Clyde in the 1880’s. Its twenty-five stories are vignettes of the town doctor; the voluble baseball coach; the still attractive but aging-with-loneliness high school teacher; the prosperous and harsh farmer-turned-religious fanatic; the dirt laborer; the hotel keeper, the banker’s daughter, and her adolescent suitors; the Presbyterian minister struggling with temptation; the town drunk; the town rough; the town homosexual; and the town “half-wit.” The comparison to Masters’s Spoon River Anthology is obvious: Both works purport to reveal the secret lives of small-town Americans living in the Middle West, and ironically both owe their popular success to the elegiac recording of this era, which most Americans insist on viewing idyllically. Anderson’s work, however, differs by more directly relating sexuality to the bizarre behavior of many of his characters and by employing a coherent theme.

That theme is an exploration of psychological “grotesques”—the casualties of economic progress—and how these grotesques participate in the maturing of George Willard, the teenage reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, who at the end of the book departs for a bigger city to become a journalist. By then his sometimes callous ambition to get ahead has been tempered by a sense of what Anderson chooses to call “sophistication,” the title of the penultimate story. The achievement of George’s sophistication gives Winesburg, Ohio its artistic movement but makes it problematic for many critics and thoughtful Americans.

“The Book of the Grotesque”

The prefacing story defines grotesques. A dying old writer hires a carpenter to build up his bed so that he can observe the trees outside without getting out of it. (While living in Chicago in 1915 Anderson had his own bed similarly raised so that he could observe the Loop.) After the carpenter leaves, the writer returns to his project—the writing of “The Book of the Grotesque,” which grieves over the notion that in the beginning of the world there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a “truth.” People turned these thoughts into many beautiful truths such as the truth of passion, wealth, poverty, profligacy, carelessness, and others; a person could then appropriate a single one of these truths and try to live by it. It was thus that he or she would become a grotesque—a personality dominated by an overriding concern which in time squeezed out other facets of life.

This epistemological fable, which involves a triple-reduction, raises at least two invalidating questions: First, Can there be “thoughts” without the truth to establish the self-differentiating process which generates thought?, and second, If universals are denied and all truths have equal value (they are all beautiful), then why should a person be condemned for choosing only one of these pluralistic “truths”?

“Hands”

The stories in Winesburg, Ohio nevertheless do grapple with Anderson’s intended theme, and a story such as “Hands” clearly illustrates what he means by a grotesque. The hands belong to Wing Biddlebaum, formerly Adolph Myers, a teacher in a Pennsylvania village who was beaten and run out of town for caressing boys. Anderson is delicately oblique about Wing’s homosexuality, for the story focuses on how a single traumatic event can forever after rule a person’s life—Wing is now a fretful recluse whose only human contact occurs when George Willard visits him occasionally. George puzzles over Wing’s expressive hands but never fathoms the reason for his suffering diffidence. “Hands,” besides giving first flesh to the word grotesque, makes the reader understand that a character’s volition is not necessarily the factor that traps him into such an ideological straightjacket; sympathy can therefore be more readily extended.

“The Philosopher”

“The Philosopher” provides a more subtle illustration of a grotesque and introduces the idea that a grotesque need not be pitiable or tragic; in fact, he can be wildly humorous, as demonstrated at the beginning of the story with the philosopher’s description:Doctor Parcival, the philosopher, was a large man with a drooping mouth covered by a yellow moustache he wore a dirty white waistcoat out of whose pocket protruded a number of black cigars there was something strange about his eyes: the lid of his left eye twitched; it fell down and it snapped up; it was exactly as though the lid of the eye were a window shade and someone stood inside playing with the cord.

It is George Willard’s misfortune that Dr. Parcival likes him and uses him as a sounding board for his wacky pomposity. He wishes to convince the boy of the advisability of adopting a line of conduct that he himself is unable to define but amply illustrates with many “parables” which add up to the belief (as George begins to suspect) that all men are despicable. He tells George that his father died in an insane asylum, and then he continues on about a Dr. Cronin from Chicago who may have been murdered by several men, one of whom could have been yours truly, Dr. Parcival. He announces that he actually arrived in Winesburg to write a book. About to launch on the subject of the book, he is sidetracked into the story of his brother who worked for the railroad as part of a roving paint crew (which painted everything orange); on payday the brother would place his money on the kitchen table—daring any member of the family to touch it. The brother, while drunk, is run over by the rail car housing the other members of his crew.

One day George drops into Dr. Parcival’s office for his customary morning visit and discovers him quaking with fear. Earlier a little girl had been thrown from her buggy, and the doctor had inexplicably refused to heed a passerby’s call (perhaps because he is not a medical doctor). Other doctors, however, arrived on the scene, and no one noticed Dr. Parcival’s absence. Not realizing this, the doctor shouts to George that he knows human nature and that soon a hanging party will be formed to hang him from a lamppost as punishment for his callous refusal to attend to the dying child. When his certainty dissipates, he whimpers to George, “If not now, sometime.” He begs George to take him seriously and asks him to finish his book if something should happen to him; to this end he informs George of the subject of the book, which is: Everyone in the world is Christ, and they are all crucified.

Many critics have singled out one or another story as the best in Winesburg, Ohio; frequently mentioned are “The Untold Lie,” “Hands,” and “Sophistication.” However, aside from the fact that this may be an unfair exercise—because the stories in Winesburg, Ohio were written to stand together—these choices bring out the accusation that much of Anderson’s work has a “setup” quality—a facile solemnity which makes his fictions manifest. “The Philosopher” may be the best story because Dr. Parcival’s grotesqueness eludes overt labeling; its finely timed humor reveals Anderson’s ability to spoof his literary weaknesses, and the story captures one of those character types who, like Joe Welling of “A Man of Ideas,” is readily observable and remembered but proves irritatingly elusive when set down.

“Godliness”

Anderson exhibits a particular interest in the distorting effect that religious mania has on the personality, and several stories in Winesburg, Ohio attack or ridicule examples of conspicuous religiosity. “Godliness,” a tetralogy with a gothic flavor, follows the life of Jesse Bentley, a wealthy, progressive farmer who poisons the life of several generations of his relatives with his relentless harshness until he becomes inflamed by Old Testament stories and conceives the idea of replicating an act of animal sacrifice. Because of this behavior, he succeeds in terrifying his fifteen-year-old grandson, the only person he loves, who flees from him never to be heard from again, thus breaking the grandfather’s spirit.

“The Strength of God”

Two stories, “The Strength of God” and “The Teacher,” are juxtaposed to mock cleverly a less extravagant example of piety. The Reverend Curtis Hartman espies Kate Swift, the worldly high school teacher, reading in bed and smoking a cigarette. The sight affronts and preoccupies him and plunges him into a prolonged moral struggle which is resolved when one night he observes her kneeling naked by her bed praying. He smashes the window through which he has been watching her and runs into George Willard’s office shouting that Kate Swift is an instrument of God bearing a message of truth. Kate remains entirely oblivious of the Reverend, for she is preoccupied with George, in whom she has detected a spark of literary genius worthy of her cultivation. Her praying episode—an act of desperation which the Reverend mistook for a return to faith—was the result of her realization, while in George’s arms, that her altruism had turned physical.

“Sophistication”

It is exposure to these disparate egoisms, the death of his mother and a poignant evening with Helen White, the banker’s daughter, which are gathered into the components of George’s “sophistication,” the achievement of which causes him to leave town. George’s departure, however, has a decidedly ambivalent meaning. Anderson as well as other writers before and after him have shown that American small-town life can be less than idyllic, but Winesburg, Ohio is problematic because it is not simply another example of “the revolt from the village.” In the story “Paper Pills,” the narrator states that apples picked from Winesburg orchards will be eaten in city apartments that are filled with books, magazines, furniture, and people. A few rejected apples, however, which have gathered all their sweetness in one corner and are delicious to eat, remain on the trees and are eaten by those who are not discouraged by their lack of cosmetic appeal. Thus the neuroses of Anderson’s grotesques are sentimentalized and become part of his increasingly strident polemic against rationality, the idea of progress, mechanization, scientific innovation, urban culture, and other expressions of social potency. Anderson never wonders why pastorals are not written by pastors but rather by metropolitans whose consciousnesses are heightened by the advantages of urban life; his own version of a pastoral, Winesburg, Ohio, was itself written in Chicago.

Anderson published three other collections of short stories in his lifetime, and other stories which had appeared in various magazines were posthumously gathered by Paul Rosenfeld in The Sherwood Anderson Reader. These are anthologies with no common theme or recurring characters, although some, such as Horses and Men, portray a particular milieu such as the racing world or rustic life. Many of the stories, and nearly all those singled out by the critics for their high quality, are first-person narratives. They are told in a rambling, reminiscent vein and are often preferred to those in Winesburg, Ohio because they lack a staged gravity. The grotesques are there, but less as syndromes than as atmospheric effects.

“Death in the Woods”

The gothic nature of the later stories becomes more pronounced, and violence, desolation, and decay gain ascendancy in his best story, “Death in the Woods,” from the collection of the same name. This work also has another dimension: It is considered “to be among that wide and interesting mass of creative literature written about literature,” for, as the narrator tells the story of the elderly drudge who freezes to death while taking a shortcut through the snowy woods, he explains that as a young man he worked on the farm of a German who kept a bound servant like the young Mrs. Grimes. He recalls the circular track that her dogs made about her body while growing bold enough to get at her bag of meat when he himself has an encounter with dogs on a moonlit winter night. When the woman’s body is found and identified, the townspeople turn against her ruffian husband and son and force them out of town, and their dwelling is visited by the narrator after it becomes an abandoned and vandalized hulk.

Because Mrs. Grimes is such an unobtrusive and inarticulate character, the narrator is forced to tell her story, as well as how he gained each aspect of the story, until the reader’s interest is awakened by the uncovering of the narrator’s mental operations. This process leads the narrator to ponder further how literature itself is written and guides him to the final expansion: consciousness of his own creative processes. The transfer of interest from the uncanny circumstances of Mrs. Grimes’s death to this awareness of human creativity lends some credibility to Sherwood Anderson’s epitaph, “Life, Not Death, Is the Great Adventure.”

“The Man Who Became a Woman”

“The Man Who Became a Woman,” from Horses and Men, is another critic’s choice. A young horse groom is sneaking a drink at a bar and imagines that his image on the counter mirror is that of a young girl. He becomes involved in an appalling barroom brawl (its horror contradicts the popular image of brawls in Westerns), and later, while sleeping nude on top of a pile of horse blankets, he is nearly raped by two drunken black grooms who mistake him for a slim young woman. The several strong foci in this long story tend to cancel one another out, and the built-in narrative devices for explaining the reason for the telling of the story succeed only in giving it a disconnected feel, although it is the equal of “Death in the Woods” in gothic details.

“I Am a Fool”

“I Am a Fool,” also from Horses and Men, is Anderson’s most popular story. Here a young horse groom describes a humiliation caused less by his own gaucheness with the opposite sex than by the gulf of social class and education which separates him from the girl. The story re-creates the universe of adolescent romance so well presented in Winesburg, Ohio and brings a knowing smile from all manner of readers. In “The Egg” (from The Triumph of the Egg), a husband-and-wife team of entrepreneurs try their hand at chicken-raising and running a restaurant. They fail at both, and the cause in both instances is an egg. This is a mildly humorous spoof on the American penchant for quick-success schemes, which nevertheless does not explain the praise the story has been given.

“The Corn Planting”

“The Corn Planting” (from The Sherwood Anderson Reader) is Anderson without histrionics. An elderly farm couple are told that their city-dwelling son has been killed in an automobile accident. In response, the pair rig a planting machine and set about planting corn in the middle of the night while still in their nightgowns. At this concluding point, a generous reader would marvel at this poignant and internally opportune description of a rite of rejuvenation. An obdurate one would mutter Karl Marx’s dictum on the idiocy of rural life (not quite apropos since Marx was referring to European peasants, not technologically advanced American farmers); but this reader shall remark that the story itself functions within its confines and breezily add that Anderson’s favorite appellation (and the title of one of his short stories) was An Ohio Pagan.

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