Sherwood Anderson Long Fiction Analysis
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, 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 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...
(The entire section is 2868 words.)