Sherwood Anderson

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Sherwood Anderson Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2868

All novelists are to some extent autobiographical, but Sherwood Anderson is more so than most; indeed, all of Anderson’s novels seem to arise out of the one great moment of his life, when he walked out of the paint factory and left behind the prosperous middle-class life of Elyria. In his imagination, his defection from material success took on great significance and became not only the common paradigm for hisprotagonists but also the basis for his message to the modern world. Industrialization and mechanization, money making, advertising, rising in the world, respectability—all of which Anderson himself had hankered after or had sought to encourage in others—became in his fiction the target of criticism. This is not to accuse him of insincerity, but only to point out the extent of his revulsion and the way in which he made his own personal experience into a mythological history of his region and even of the modern world. Anderson’s heroes invariably renounce materialism and economic individualism and their attendant social and moral conventions and seek a more spiritual, more vital existence.

Windy McPherson’s Son

Anderson’s first published novel, Windy McPherson’s Son, though set in Caxton, Iowa, is clearly based on Anderson’s boyhood in Clyde, Ohio, and his later years in Elyria and Chicago. Sam McPherson is a fictionalized version of Jobby Anderson, with his talent for money-making schemes; his father, like Anderson’s own, is a braggart and liar who frequently disgraces his hardworking wife and ambitious son in front of the townspeople of Caxton. After his mother’s death, Sam leaves Caxton and takes his talent for money making to Chicago, where in effect he takes over management of an arms manufacturing plant. Sam becomes rich and marries the boss’s daughter, but, instead of finding satisfaction in his wealth and position, he discovers that he is dissatisfied with business success and his childless marriage. He walks out of the business, abandons his wife, and wanders through the country attempting to find meaning in existence. After discovering that “American men and women have not learned to be clean and noble and natural, like their forests and their wide, clean plains,” Sam returns to his wife Sue, bringing with him three children he has adopted. Out of some sense of responsibility, he allows himself to be led back into the darkened house from which he had fled, a curious and unsatisfactory “happy” ending.

Marching Men

Marching Men, Anderson’s second novel, repeats the same basic pattern: success, revolt, search, revelation, elevation—but in a less convincing way. The setting is Coal Creek, a Pennsylvania mining town. The hero is Beaut McGregor, who rebels against the miners’ passive acceptance of their squalid existence and escapes to Chicago, where he becomes rich. McGregor continues to despise the miners of Coal Creek until he returns for his mother’s funeral; then, he has an awakening, a sudden illumination that gives him a spiritual insight that alters his existence. He sees the miners as men marching “up out of the smoke,” and that insight and the marching metaphor become the inspiration for McGregor’s transformation.

Back in Chicago, McGregor becomes the leader of a new movement called the “marching men,” an organization as vague and diffuse as its aim: to find “the secret of order in the midst of disorder,” in order that “the thresh of feet should come finally to sing a great song, carrying the message of a powerful brotherhood into the ears and brains of the marchers.” A great march takes place in Chicago on Labor Day, and though the marching of the men makes its power felt when the day is over, it is clear that the movement, whatever its temporary success, has no future. The marchers disperse in roving gangs, and an “aristocratic” opponent of the movement muses on its success and failure, wondering whether in deliberately turning away from the success of business and embracing the ultimate failure of the marching men, Beaut McGregor did not achieve a higher form of success.

Though a failure as a novel, Marching Men is interesting as Anderson’s attempt to give expression to his own kind of achievement and as a place to experiment with concepts successfully handled later in Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson had given up success in the business world for a precarious career as a writer; he saw himself as a prophet preaching ideals of brotherhood that had nothing to do with political movements or social programs, but that expressed a mystical yearning for order and unity. The metaphor of the marching men was intended to express this vague ideal. The quest for order and brotherhood was a theme to which Anderson was to return in his next novel, Winesburg, Ohio, where he found the form best suited to its expression. The format of Marching Men, with its lack of convincing motivation and realistic development, exposed the inadequacy of Anderson’s marching metaphor for sustaining a full-length realistic novel.

Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio is Anderson’s masterpiece, a collection of interrelated stories that are less like chapters than like the sections of a long poem; within these pieces, however, there is what might be called a submerged novel, the story of George Willard’s growth and maturation. Willard appears in many of the stories, sometimes as a main character, but often as an observer or listener to the tales of other characters. There is the story of Alice Hindeman, who refuses to elope with Ned Curry because she does not want to burden him and eventually runs naked out into the rain. There is also Wing Biddlebaum in “Hands” and Elmer Cowley of “Queer,” who desperately try to be normal but only succeed in being stranger than ever. There is the Reverend Curtis Hartman, who spies through a chink in his study window the naked figure of Kate Swift and ends by having a spiritual insight: Christ manifest in the body of a naked woman. These minor characters raise an important critical question: What bearing have they on the submerged bildungsroman?

In five stories, beginning with “Nobody Knows” and ending with “Sophistication” and including “The Thinker,” “An Awakening,” and “The Teacher,” George Willard moves from a lustful relationship with Louise Trunion to a feeling of respectful communion with Helen White, discovering the ultimate reverence for life that Anderson describes as the only thing that makes life possible in the modern world. The discovery was one Anderson himself had made in the early years of his newfound freedom in Chicago, following his escape from the paint factory. In “An Awakening,” the pivotal story in the submerged novel, George is made to undergo a mystical experience in which he feels himself in tune with a powerful force swinging through the universe; at the same time, he feels that all of the men and women of his town are his brothers and sisters and wishes to call them out and take them by the hand, including, presumably, the so-called grotesques of the other stories.

The precise relationship of these other stories to those that constitute the growth and maturation of George Willard is a matter of continual critical conjecture, for Winesburg, Ohio is the kind of book that does not give up its meanings easily, partly because the kind of meaning the book has can only be suggested and partly because Anderson’s way of suggesting is so indirect, at times even vatic. Anderson was possibly influenced by the French post-Impressionist painters such as Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, whose works he had seen in Chicago, and his interest in rendering subjective states indirectly might well parallel theirs. Whether such influences were in fact exerted is arguable. What is clear, however, is that Anderson was by temperament an oral storyteller and that he depended on tone, colloquial language, and folk psychology rather than the more formal structures of the novelist. In Winesburg, Ohio he was also a poet, working by suggestion and indirection, a method that produces intellectual and narrative gaps that the reader is obliged to cross under his or her own power.

One of the chief critical issues of Winesburg, Ohio is the nature of Anderson’s characters. In an introductory story, “The Book of the Grotesque” (an early title for the novel), Anderson supplied a definition of a grotesque as one who took a single idea and attempted to live by it, but such a definition, while it can be applied to some characters such as Doctor Parcival of “The Philosopher,” hardly fits others at all. In an introduction to the Viking edition of Winesburg, Ohio (1960), Malcolm Cowley suggested that the problem of the Winesburg characters was an inability to communicate with one another. Jarvis Thurston’s article in Accent (1956) offers a more compelling view; the Winesburg characters, Thurston says, are all on a spiritual quest, and their often violent behavior is symptomatic, not of their inability to communicate, but of a blockage of the spiritual quest. Only George Willard succeeds in that quest, when he undergoes, in “An Awakening,” a transcendent experience. Burbank, however, in Sherwood Anderson, emphasizes the difference between Willard and the other characters of Winesburg, Ohio in this way: They are all “arrested” in a state of loneliness and social isolation. George, on the other hand, because he has heard the stories of the grotesques and has absorbed their lives, has managed to break out of a meaningless existence into a meaningful one. Burbank calls George “an artist of life.”

Whatever view one takes of Anderson’s characters, it is clear that no simple explanation will suffice, especially not the old writer’s, though some critics think of him as Anderson’s spokesman. Indeed, the prospect of a single idea summarizing and explaining all of the characters seems ironic in the light of the old writer’s assertion that such simplemindedness produces grotesques. Winesburg, Ohio has its own kind of unity, but it has its own kind of complexity as well. It is a book of contradictory impulses that stands conventional judgment on its head; at times it is funny and often at the same time profoundly sad. It is a book in praise of the emotions, but, at the same time, it is aware of the dangers of emotional excess.

Winesburg, Ohio was well received by reviewers and even had a moderate financial success. It also confirmed, in the minds of Eastern critics such as Van Wyck Brooks and Waldo Frank, Anderson’s authentic American genius. He was seen as part of that native American tradition that came down through Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain, expressing the essential nature of American life, its strengths, its weaknesses, and its conflicts.

Winesburg, Ohio has not been without its detractors. From a certain point of view, the antics of a character such as Alice Hindeman dashing naked into the rain are ridiculous, and Anderson’s style at times slips into the mode of the fancy writer of slick fiction; even his mysticism can be ridiculed if one sees it as Lionel Trilling does in The Liberal Imagination (1950) as a form picking a quarrel with respectable society. Despite its faults, however, Winesburg, Ohio still lives—vital, intriguing, moving. It remains a modern American classic, expressing in its eccentric way a certain quality of American life that is all but inexpressible.

Poor White

Anderson’s next novel was to be a more traditional sort of work with a hero and a heroine and a “happy” ending that included the requisite embrace, though the hero and the embrace were anything but popularly traditional. Hugh McVey, the protagonist of Poor White, is the son of a tramp, born on the muddy banks of the Mississippi and content to live there in a dreamy, sensual existence until taken up by a New England woman who does her best to civilize him. Hugh is tall and lanky, rather like Lincoln in appearance if more like Huck Finn in temperament. When Sarah Shepard, the New England woman, leaves Missouri, Hugh goes east to the town of Bidwell, Ohio, where he becomes the town’s telegrapher, and then, out of boredom, begins inventing laborsaving machinery. Being naïve and something of a social outcast, Hugh is unaware of the changes his inventions make in Bidwell. He thinks he is making life easier for the laborers, but opportunists in the town get hold of Hugh’s inventions; the factories they bring into being exploit both Hugh and the farm laborers, who, without work in the fields, have swarmed into the new factories, slaving long hours for low pay. Inadvertently, Hugh has succeeded in corrupting the lives of the very people he had set out to help.

Clearly, the story of Hugh’s “rise” from a dreamy loafer into a rich inventor and the changes that take place in Bidwell from a sleepy farm community into a bustling factory town are meant to tell the story of mid-America’s transformation from a primitive, frontier society of hardworking, God-fearing people to an urban society that differentiates between the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited, the slick new city types and the country-bred factory hands. It is meant to be a pathetic story. In welcoming industry and mechanization—and for the best of reasons—America has managed to stamp out and stifle the older, more primitive but vital life of the frontier. Hugh’s “love” affair is less clearly and convincingly done. He marries, is separated from, and then reunited with the daughter of the rich farmer who exploits him. This part of the novel attempts to make a statement, presumably, about emotional life in the new industrial period, but it seems contrived and mechanical compared with the chapters dealing with Hugh’s rise.

Poor White, then, is not an entirely successful novel. There are too many flat statements and not enough scenes; the character of Hugh McVey—part Lincoln, part Finn, part Henry Ford—seems at times too mechanical. Still, Poor White has its moments; it is an ambitious attempt to deal fictionally with the changes in American life that Anderson himself had experienced in his journey from poor boy to businessman to writer. It is by common assent his best novel after Winesburg, Ohio.

Many Marriages and Dark Laughter

After Poor White, Anderson’s career as a novelist seriously declined. He continued to write and to publish novels: Many Marriages in 1923, and in 1925, Dark Laughter, which became a best seller. Both novels, however, betray what Anderson himself condemned in other writers: the tendency to oversimplify the psychological complexities of human nature. Both novels are anti-Puritan tracts, attacking sexual repression, which writers and popular critics of the day singled out as the source of so much modern unhappiness. In Many Marriages, John Webster, a washing-machine manufacturer who has found true sexual fulfillment with his secretary, decides to liberate his militantly virginal daughter by appearing naked before her and lecturing her and her mother on the need to free their sexual impulses. Dark Laughter retells the story of Anderson’s escape from the paint factory by inventing an improbable hero who gives up his career as a journalist and goes back to the town in which he grew up. There he becomes the gardener and then the lover of the factory owner’s wife, an experience meant to suggest the interrelation of physical and spiritual love.

Both Many Marriages and Dark Laughter suffer from Anderson’s inability to think through the implications of his theme and to dramatize it effectively with developed characters and situations. The same limitations are reflected in his last two published novels, Beyond Desire, a novel about labor unions and strikes, which is badly confused and poorly written, and Kit Brandon, the story of a young woman who is the daughter-in-law of a bootlegger. The weaknesses of these last four novels show that Anderson’s talent was not essentially novelistic. His real strengths lay in rendering an insight or an illumination and in bodying forth, often in a sudden and shocking way, an unexplained and unexplainable revelation: Wash Williams smashing his respectable mother-in-law with a chair, or the Reverend Curtis Hartman rushing out into the night to tell George Willard that he had seen Christ manifest in the body of a naked woman. Both of these scenes are from Winesburg, Ohio, a book that by its structure did not oblige Anderson to develop or explain his grotesque characters and their sudden and violent gestures. In Many Marriages and Dark Laughter, scenes of nakedness and sexual awakening are made ridiculous by Anderson’s attempt to explain and develop what is better left evocative.

After his death in 1941, Anderson was praised by writers such as Thomas Wolfe and Faulkner for the contribution he had made to their development and to the development of modern American fiction. Though he was limited and deeply flawed as a novelist, he ranks with Twain, Crane, and Hemingway as an important influence in the development of American prose style, and he deserves to be remembered as the author of Winesburg, Ohio and a number of hauntingly evocative short stories.

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