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.
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.
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).
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.