Sherwood Anderson Anderson, Sherwood - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sherwood Anderson 1876-1941

See also, "Death in the Woods" Criticism.

(Born Sherwood Berton Anderson) American short story writer, novelist, autobiographer, essayist, poet, journalism, and dramatist.

Considered one of the most original early twentieth-century writers, Anderson was among the first American authors to explore the influence of the unconscious on human behavior. A writer of brooding, introspective works, his “hunger to see beneath the surface of lives” was best expressed in the bittersweet stories that form the classic Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life (1919). This, his most important book, exhibits the author's characteristically simple prose style and his personal vision, which combines a sense of wonder at the potential beauty of life with despair over its tragic aspects.

Biographical Information

Born in the small town of Camden, Ohio, Anderson was the son of an out-of-work harness maker and a washerwoman. He was raised in Clyde, Ohio—which later served as the model for Winesburg—where he grew to hate the irresponsible loafing and drinking of his father and the self-sacrificing drudgery to which his mother was reduced. His father, a Civil War veteran and an adept yarn-spinner, greatly influenced Anderson's own storytelling abilities. Through his readings, notably of Walt Whitman's poetry, Anderson came to believe that, due to the destructive effects of the Gilded Age, a period of prosperity enjoyed by an elite stratum of American society, the United States was in the twilight of an era of independent, wise, and fulfilled agrarian folk. Attending school infrequently, Anderson took a number of temporary jobs to help his impoverished, migrant family. He worked as a newsboy, a house painter, a field worker, and a stablehand, gaining experience that later provided subject matter for his fiction. After a stint in the United States Army during the Spanish-American War, he married, became an advertising copywriter in Chicago, then managed his own paint factory. During this period, Anderson began writing fiction in his spare time. Overworked and beset by various worries, Anderson suffered a mental breakdown in late 1912. As a result, he suddenly walked out of his office and was discovered four days later, and many miles away, incoherent and amnesiac. Shortly thereafter, following the failure of his business and his marriage, Anderson returned to Chicago, where he met such writers of the “Chicago Renaissance” as Floyd Dell, Carl Sandburg, and Theodore Dreiser, who read his early fiction and encouraged him in his literary endeavors. Anderson's first-published short stories appeared in The Little Review, The Seven Arts, and other small literary magazines. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical Windy McPherson's Son, was published in 1916 to moderate critical attention. Three years later, Winesburg, Ohio brought Anderson international acclaim as an important new voice in American literature. “Here is the goal that [Edgar Lee Masters's] The Spoon River Anthology aimed at, and missed by half a mile,” wrote H. L. Mencken. The “goal” that Anderson achieved was a fusion of simply stated fiction and complex psychological analysis that revealed the essential loneliness and beauty of Midwestern town life. Acknowledged as an authentic voice of the American Midwest, Anderson befriended many aspiring writers during the 1920s. He was largely responsible for arranging the publication of William Faulkner's first novel, Soldier's Pay, and for influencing the simple style of Ernest Hemingway's early Nick Adams stories. In 1927 Anderson settled in the town of Marion, Virginia, occasionally publishing collections of his newspaper columns and essays on American life. He leaned toward socialism during the Great Depression, but he ultimately concluded that the work of the artist and that of the reformer were incompatible. He wrote little during the 1930s, declaring that writing was a dead art in America and that the future for artistic achievement lay in motion pictures. While on a cruise in South America in 1941, Anderson died of peritonitis.

Major Works

When asked by the editor of The Bookman to define his vision of life, Anderson referred to a story from Winesburg, Ohio titled “Paper Pills.” The story tells of Doctor Reefy, who spent most of his life driving about the Ohio countryside in his horse-drawn buggy. “Hours of quiet as he drove through the country long empty stretches of road passed over slowly. Thoughts came to him. He wrote the thoughts out on bits of paper and put them in his pocket.” The truths he conceives overwhelm Doctor Reefy's mind for a short time after their discovery, but eventually they are consigned to paper and drift to the bottom of his pocket, where they form round, hard balls. Soon, the paper pills and the thoughts written therein are fit only to be dismissed with deprecating laughter and thrown away. “If you cannot find what philosophy of life I have in that story,” concluded Anderson, “I am unable to give it to you.” Anderson's folksy, poignant tone and sense of wonder at the beauties of rural life lend a compelling quality to his works, which many critics feel tempers his nihilistic outlook. Critics agree that it was in his short stories, primarily those collected in Winesburg, Ohio, that Anderson was most successful in conveying his impressions of life. The stories in this collection constituted an original concept in American fiction that revolutionized the short story genre. Rejecting what he termed the “poison plot,” Anderson focused on the psychological lives of characters emotionally crippled by isolation, sexual repression, and lack of spiritual fulfillment. Anderson's frank yet tender depiction of these thwarted lives engages the imaginative participation of readers through techniques Burton Rascoe has described as “selective, indefinite, and provocative, instead of inclusive, precise, and explanatory.” Although some of the stories have been the objects of individual analysis, critics cite several connective devices that impart a more profound significance to the work when it is considered as a whole. Among the most frequently identified unifying elements are the common setting of the stories; the character of George Willard, whose maturation process is followed throughout the book; the recurrence of characters and images; and a preoccupation with loneliness and repressed self-expression. As a result of these connective devices, the stories in Winesburg, Ohio comprise a disturbingly insightful, yet at the same time compassionate, study of human life. Anderson's thought was shaped during the 1920s by the works of D. H. Lawrence; in such novels as Many Marriages (1923) and Dark Laughter (1925), Anderson attempted to develop the English author's beliefs concerning the psychologically crippling effects of sexual repression. In Dark Laughter, Anderson's most popular novel, amoral sexual experience is presented as a means for his characters to escape the strictures of modern society and return to a more natural existence. Continuing to explore the psychological undercurrents of American life, Anderson wrote some of his strongest works in the 1920s. In addition to Dark Laughter, he published what is considered his best novel, Poor White (1920), which forms an attack on the dehumanizing effects of mass production in industrial America; the acclaimed short stories collected in The Triumph of the Egg (1921) and Horses and Men (1923); and two partly fictional autobiographies, A Story-Teller's Story (1924) and Tar (1926).

Critical Reception

The innovative structure of Winesburg, Ohio was disconcerting to many of Anderson's contemporaries, who challenged the work's validity as fiction. Foremost among the aspects they found unsettling were the stories' lack of plot and Anderson's disregard for temporal sequence. Anderson, calling for a new “looseness of form,” defended his method as an approximation of the chaotic, unselective movement of human thought and action, noting that there are “no plot stories in life.” Later assessments of Anderson's work have judged such stories as “Hands,” “The Untold Lie,” and “Sophistication” from Winesburg, Ohio, and “The Egg,” “I'm a Fool,” and “I Want to Know Why” from later collections to be among the greatest works of American short fiction. While the simple, impressionistic style and unconventional narrative technique of these stories at one time caused Anderson to be dismissed as a primitive minor talent, he has long since been recognized as one of the most important American authors of his time.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Windy McPherson's Son (novel) 1916

Marching Men (novel) 1917

Mid-American Chants (poetry) 1918

Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life (short stories) 1919

Poor White (novel) 1920

The Triumph of the Egg: A Book of Impressions from American Life in Tales and Poems (short stories and poetry) 1921

Horses and Men (short stories) 1923

Many Marriages (novel) 1923

A Story-Teller's Story: The Tale of an American Writer's Journey through the World of Facts, with Many of His Experiences and Impressions among Other Writers (autobiography) 1924

Dark Laughter (novel) 1925

The Modern Writer (essays) 1925

Sherwood Anderson's Notebook (sketches) 1926

Tar: A Midwest Childhood (novel) 1926

A New Testament (poetry) 1927

Perhaps Women (novel) 1931

Beyond Desire (novel) 1932

Death in the Woods, and Other Stories (short stories) 1933

Kit Brandon (novel) 1936

Plays: Winesburg and Others (drama) 1937

Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs (memoirs) 1942

The Letters of Sherwood Anderson (letters) 1953

Buck Fever Papers (journalism) 1971

The Sherwood Anderson Diaries, 1936-1941 (diaries) 1987

Sherwood Anderson's Secret Love Letters (letters) 1991

Cleveland B. Chase (essay date 1927)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chase, Cleveland B. “Anderson's Writings.” In Sherwood Anderson, pp. 46-73. New York: Robert M. McBride and Company, 1927.

[In the following essay, Chase provides an overview of Anderson's later novels, essays, and poetry.]


Anderson has so far published five novels; in addition to the two already discussed, there are Poor White, Many Marriages, and Dark Laughter. They are not good novels; not one of them, considered as a whole, compares with his better short stories. Yet they all contain episodes that are almost short stories in themselves and that, as episodes, hold their own with anything he has...

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Marilyn Judith Atlas (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Atlas, Marilyn Judith. “Sherwood Anderson and the Women of Winesburg.” In Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson, edited by David D. Anderson, pp. 250-65. New York: G. K. Hall and Company, 1981.

[In the following essay, Atlas discusses Anderson's relationships with the women in his life and the effect they had on his characterizations of women in Winesburg, Ohio.]

Winesburg, Ohio has been studied biographically, geographically, historically, thematically, structurally, mystically, and mythically.1 However one enters the novel, attention is given to its characters. Edwin Fussel and Carlos Baker have seen the novel within the tradition of the...

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Clare Colquitt (essay date summer 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Colquitt, Clare. “The Reader as Voyeur: Complicitous Transformations in ‘Death in the Woods.’” Modern Fiction Studies 32, no. 2 (summer 1986): 175-90.

[In the following essay, Colquitt observes the connection between Anderson's polarization of male and female and the narrative techniques of “Death in the Woods.”]

Like most writers, Sherwood Anderson was vitally concerned with the workings of the imagination and the creation of art. For Anderson, these concerns were also inextricably linked to questions of personal salvation. In letters to his son John, himself a painter, Anderson asserted that “The object of art … is to save yourself”: “Self...

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David D. Anderson (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Anderson, David D. “Sherwood Anderson's Poor White and the Grotesques Become Myth.” Midamerica 14 (1987): 89-100.

[In the following essay, Anderson describes the mythic qualities of Poor White.]

When the Modern Library edition of Sherwood Anderson's Poor White was published in 1926, Sherwood Anderson wrote—a rare occasion in the Modern Library series—his own introduction to the novel. He wrote not for a new generation of readers but for those who had not read the book in the more than five years since its original publication. In the introduction, he talked frankly about Poor White as he had seen it while writing it, as the critics...

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Martin Bidney (essay date summer 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “Anderson and the Androgyne: ‘Something More than Man or Woman.’” Studies in Short Fiction 25, no. 3 (summer 1988): 261-73.

[In the following essay, Bidney analyzes “the androgynous model of the psyche” as the unifying element to the stories in Winesburg, Ohio.]

No previous study of Sherwood Anderson has noted his use of the androgynous model of the psyche in Winesburg, Ohio.1 The present essay attempts to show that the androgyny myth is in fact the organizing principle of Anderson's complex book, the unifying vision tying together the remarkably varied stories. Anderson strategically places in his work three...

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Michael Wentworth (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wentworth, Michael. “‘Your Dear! You Dear! You Lovely Dear!’: Failure and Promise in Sherwood Anderson's ‘Death.’” Midamerica 15 (1988): 27-38.

[In the following essay, Wentworth discusses the meaning of personal tics and repeated phrases in Winesburg, Ohio.]

One of the most remarkable aspects of Sherwood Anderson's craftsmanship in Winesburg, Ohio is his frequently synecdochic evocation of the personal tragedy or the esential “grotesqueness” of the individual life depicted in terms of a single image, impression, mannerism, nervous tic, part of the body or, on occasion, even a character's name. An especially striking instance of this...

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Claire Badaracco (essay date winter 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Badaracco, Claire. “The Influence of Publicity Typologies on Sherwood Anderson's News Values.” Journalism Quarterly 66, no. 4 (winter 1989): 979-86.

[In the following essay, Badaracco analyzes the influence of advertising and marketing techniques on Anderson's early-twentieth-century news columns in which he explored the development of the emerging American business class.]

The rise of journalistic mass markets and commercial language trades, as the advertising journal writer Sherwood Anderson predicted, would so saturate the future American Public's appetite for news that its understanding of publicity would become second nature.1...

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David D. Anderson (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Anderson, David D. “Sherwood Anderson in Fiction.” Midamerica 16 (1989): 80-93.

[In the following essay, Anderson examines the self-portraits throughout Sherwood Anderson's fiction.]

That Sherwood Anderson was his own favorite fictional character is obvious to anyone familiar with the facts of his life and the substance of his fiction. So fascinated was he with the almost mythological unfolding of twin patterns of escape in his life—the first, in Horatio Alger, Jr. fashion, from a rustic poverty-ridden childhood to middle-class respectability and affluence, and the second from the service of Mammon to the service of Calliope—that the protagonists of...

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Mary-Elisabeth Fowkes Tobin (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tobin, Mary-Elisabeth Fowkes. “The Composition of Sherwood Anderson's Short Story ‘Not Sixteen.’” Studies in Bibliography 42 (1989): 293-300.

[In the following essay, Tobin traces Anderson's development of his short story “Not Sixteen.”]

Myths about Sherwood Anderson's life and art die hard. In recent years, critics have worked hard to dispel the notion that Anderson wrote little of value after the 1920s and that only Winesburg, Ohio and a handful of short stories are worthy of critical recognition.1 Another notion that needs correction concerns Anderson's method of composition. Some critics have argued that Anderson wrote only...

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Stephen C. Enniss (essay date May 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Enniss, Stephen C. “Alienation and Affirmation: The Divided Self in Sherwood Anderson's Poor White.South Atlantic Review 55, no. 2 (May 1990): 85-99.

[In the following essay, Enniss analyzes the notion of escape and, for Anderson, its consequent affirmation of self and community, in Poor White.]

It has become a critical cliché that Sherwood Anderson was a writer who tried to retell in his novels and stories his own mythic escape from his Elyria paint factory.1 In his first novel (Windy McPherson's Son, 1916) Sam McPherson leaves behind wealth and position in order to wander the countryside working as a common laborer. Like...

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Martin Bidney (essay date spring 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “Refashioning Coleridge's Supernatural Trilogy: Sherwood Anderson's ‘A Man of Ideas’ and ‘Respectability.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 2 (spring 1990): 221-35.

[In the following essay, Bidney examines Anderson's retelling of the supernatural poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.]

The poet-philosopher Joe Welling, solipsistic yet inspired, and the monstrously ugly yet mysteriously attractive Wash Williams, courtly lover turned morose misogynist, are two of the most profoundly conceived visionary grotesques in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. They are almost antitypes of human nature: Joe, shielded in his private world of...

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Ray Lewis White (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: White, Ray Lewis. “The Grotesques.” In Winesburg, Ohio: An Exploration, pp. 56-94. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1990.

[In the following essay, White examines Anderson's depiction of the grotesque in the physical, psychological, and sexual propensities of his characters.]

Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio presents an interesting description and dramatization of a typical midwestern American town in the 1890s, complete with the citizens and the institutions associated with such places. It can also be read pleasurably as the description and dramatization of a youth's initiation or growing toward adult understanding in a typical midwestern...

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Margaret Ripley Wolfe (essay date winter 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolfe, Margaret Ripley. “Sherwood Anderson and the Southern Highlands: A Sense of Place and the Sustenance of Women.” Southern Studies 3, no. 4 (winter 1992): 253-75.

[In the following essay, Wolfe discusses the influence of the women in Anderson's life on his writings.]

Sherwood Anderson hailed from the Buckeye State, and the Midwest claims him as one of its literary giants; Anderson himself, however, ultimately identified with the South and chose to be a Southerner. Although a native of Ohio and an aficionado of Chicago, he spent a critical portion of his later life, some sixteen years, in the Southern Appalachians. Well in advance of his premature demise...

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Christopher MacGowan (essay date autumn 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: MacGowan, Christopher. “The Heritage of the Fathers in Sherwood Anderson's ‘The Man Who Became a Woman.’” Journal of the Short Story in English 21 (autumn 1993): 29-37.

[In the following essay, MacGowan explores the significance of paternity and patriarchy to “The Man Who Became a Woman.”]

Sherwood Anderson's short story “The Man Who Became a Woman,” from his 1923 collection Horses and Men, is often acknowledged to be one of his finest successes in the form. However, analysis of the story has usually focused upon the themes—central to much of Anderson's earlier work—of adolescence, sexuality, and sexual roles. While these are...

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David S. Kramer (essay date spring-summer 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kramer, David S. “Sherwood Anderson's Beyond Desire: Femininity and Masculinity in a Southern Mill Town.” Southern Studies 5, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1994): 73-79.

[In the following essay, Kramer examines the role of traditional Southern structures of masculinity and femininity and the changing industrial landscape in Beyond Desire.]

From 1927 to 1931 Sherwood Anderson was the publisher and editor of two newspapers in Marion, Georgia, a period of labor unrest in mining towns and textile mills following the southern industrialization of the previous decades. In his novel Beyond Desire (1932) Anderson took an old theme of his—the destructive...

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Clarence B. Lindsay (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lindsay, Clarence B. “The Unrealized City in Sherwood Anderson's Windy McPherson's Son and Marching Men.Midwestern Miscellany 23 (1995): 17-27.

[In the following essay, Lindsay argues that Anderson's “urban” fiction fails to realize its intended impact.]

My inquiry into the unrealized city in Sherwood Anderson's fiction stems from two separate sources. (In respect to Anderson's treatment of the city I will be limiting my remarks to Anderson's first two novels, Windy McPherson's Son published in 1916 and Marching Men published in 1917.) Some years ago when reviewing a collection of short fiction, I found myself nettled,...

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Douglas Wixson (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wixson, Douglas. “Sherwood Anderson and the Midwestern Literary Radicalism in the 1930s.” Midwestern Miscellany 23 (1995): 28-39.

[In the following essay, Wixson explores Anderson's place in the literary political landscape of the 1930s in the United States.]

“We are in the new age. Welcome, men, women and children into
          the new age.
Will you accept it?
Will you go into the factories to work?
Will you quit having contempt for those who work in the

—Sherwood Anderson, “Machine Song: Automobile”1

In the course of exploring a group of writers who contributed to little magazines...

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Bernard F. Engel (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Engel, Bernard F. “Sherwood Anderson's Chants of the Mississippi Valley.” Midamerica 25 (1998): 50-60.

[In the following essay, Engel examines Anderson's themes in Mid-American Chants.]

Sherwood Anderson once wrote that “the best way to kill the growth of a distinctive middle western literature is to talk about it” (“Chicago Culture”). But Anderson got it partially wrong. His prose survives the endless talk about it; the verse almost no one talks about has nearly disappeared. Aware of this, he defiantly continued to write poetry. In the representative collection MidAmerican Chants (1918), the speaker in his poem “Song of the Singer”...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


White, Ray Lewis. Sherwood Anderson: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977, 430 p.

Chronologically organized annotated bibliography of secondary sources.


Townsend, Kim. Sherwood Anderson. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987, 370 p.

Biographical and critical study based on the premise that Anderson's “writings continually direct our attention back to the story of his life.”


Burbank, Rex. Sherwood Anderson. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964, 159 p.

Introductory critical and...

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