Sherwood Anderson

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Cleveland B. Chase (essay date 1927)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6653

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 written.

Each of these novels wobbles annoyingly toward the end; in each one the hero's character, which is usually fairly convincing at the beginning, becomes more and more confused as the book progresses. In each of them there are several minor characters more convincing than those to whom the author devotes most of his attention. Each is at its worst when it deals with sex and idealism. Each contains to some degree what we have seen to have been the two outstanding weaknesses of his first novels: a preoccupation with “the meaning of life” that leads him to put his personal problems to characters in a book, and an inclination to tell himself fairy stories about life instead of going through the hard work of actually understanding and expressing it. And each is written with a mastery of technique that is at times amazing.

It may be instructive to enquire briefly into some of the possible reasons for Anderson's shortcomings as a novelist. It would be easy to blame most of them on his theory that the true history of life is a history of moments—and by moments, Anderson means, of course, climactic moments—did not the flaw go deeper, were it not that his very way of looking at life, his comprehension of it force him to adopt this theory. If Anderson were a great writer, if he were able to grasp all of the important causes of these “moments” and to deduce all the significant results from them, his theory would work quite as well in a novel as in a short story. But he does not possess that gift. In a book like Winesburg, Ohio, for instance, he showed that he knew pretty well what was happening at a given “moment.” Even in that book, however, there was little comprehension of what went on before and what followed. A novel almost always moves from one “moment” to another. If they do not flow naturally one into another, if they are not combined and related, the novel, instead of gaining in effectiveness as it proceeds, loses it. This is what happens to Anderson's novels. The really effective episodes are rarely those which bear directly on the main story; much more often they are detached vignettes, sketches of minor characters, “colorful” episodes inserted to establish a desired atmosphere.

Thus it is fair to say that one of the chief troubles with Anderson's writing, if indeed it be not the principal one, is his lack of actual knowledge of his characters. This failing he disguises at once. He has a vivid imagination of the type possessed by children who tell each other stories. When his interpretive imagination fails him and he lacks actual facts, he falls back upon this childish imagination. He makes up stories about characters and situations that “will do just as well,” and when he does that, instead of “being true to the essence of things,” he reconstructs events as he would like them to have been. He has an innate feeling that life is wrong and when he falls back upon this childish imagination, he remakes it as he feels it should be—which is essentially the method of the “Pollyanna” school of writing which he so detests. True writing consists in heightening life, not in disguising it.

In the foreword to Tar, Anderson admits his failing and tries to excuse it. “All tale telling,” he writes, “is, in a strict sense, nothing but lying. This is what people cannot understand. To tell the truth is too difficult. I long since gave up the effort.” Real writing is not lying, as Anderson himself proved in Winesburg, Ohio and in passages in his other books. Neither is it too difficult to tell the truth when one is conscious of a truth to be told, as Anderson is at times. It is only when he has nothing to say that Anderson descends to lying.

Before continuing our discussion of these novels, it is necessary to note in passing one legend which has grown up about Anderson and which he himself has done a great deal to spread. It is the picture of a dynamic man who sees all, feels all, and understands all but is kept from telling what he knows by his insuperable inarticulateness. It is the picture of a clumsy, uneducated man groping for words with which to express himself. The image is highly fallacious. Few American writers have had the sheer virtuosity, the fluency, the control over words that Anderson possesses. He can put words together so well that he can say nothing for pages on end and still entice on even a reluctant reader; there comes, of course, an aftermath of resentment at being thus deluded, but Anderson reduces it to a minimum by cannily distracting the reader's attention from what has happened by awakening new hopes for the future, and by subtly arousing in his mind a question as to whether he actually understood all that the author had to say.

When Anderson has something to say he says it, and says it effectively. What he is groping so painfully for is for something to say. Despite his varied experience in early life, the number of things about which he writes is strictly limited. Most of the important events in his own life he has described from three to half a dozen times. Anderson has devoted himself to writing as people of old devoted themselves to the crafts. He has learned every trick of the story teller's trade. Writing has given him a refuge from “the tangle of things of daily life”; it has provided him with an extensive outlet for his restless and dramatic imagination and a chance to practice the craftsmanship that he has come to think of as the only road to personal satisfaction. But, and perhaps in this lies Anderson's great tragedy, he lacks the raw material with which to pursue his craft. He must skimp and be niggardly. Having constructed, he must tear down and re-use the material. The paucity of his material is not so noticeable in the limited space of a short story; in a novel it becomes striking. And when, thus handicapped, he holds religiously to the production of at least one volume each year, his failing becomes somewhat a matter for public concern.

In his third novel, as in his first two, Anderson tells the story, so dear to American ears, of the penniless country lad who makes a fortune—and as before he adds his own little moral to the effect that money and the power that go with it don't make a man happy. But Poor White, despite its plot, has more to recommend it than had Anderson's first two novels. It contains, for one thing, a fine description of the transition of a Middle Western town from a small farming community to a thriving industrial center, and in it there are also some valid observations as to the effect of that change on various individuals. A few of the sketches of minor characters almost reach the plane Anderson achieved in Winesburg, Ohio, but the hero and heroine are insipid puppets.

Hugh McVey is represented as being a listless and anemic descendant of Huck Finn, who lives in the Missouri village of Mudcat Landing, on the Mississippi. He comes under the influence of a sharp-tongued, thrifty, energetic New England woman, who “with all her mother's soul wanted to protect Hugh.” He is unbelievably lazy and shiftless by nature, but so strong is the woman's influence upon him that, when he leaves her care and is working as a section hand in another town, he never allows himself a moment of repose for fear of becoming a loafer again. He would sometimes, we are told, spend most of the night going through the town counting the pickets in the fences in front of the houses. After which he would estimate the number of pickets that could be cut out of an ordinary-sized tree; and then how many could be cut from all the trees in town. Later, if there were time, he would snatch a few hours' sleep and start for work.

Anderson often verges on the ridiculous in his description of Hugh and occasionally he achieves it.

As a result of his fear of doing nothing, Hugh masters the intricacies of applied mechanics (the correspondence schools lending the author a helping hand), and becomes an inventor. He invents machines for planting cabbages, for loading hay, for dumping loaded freight cars into the holds of ships and becomes rich and famous.

He marries the daughter of a rich farmer and industrial promoter. His wife has been to college, has thought a good deal about the place of “modern woman” in the world, but hasn't solved many problems. On the bridal evening Hugh sneaks out of the bedroom when his new wife isn't looking, muttering, “I won't let her do it,” and wanders around the fields all night. It isn't until a week later that he musters the nerve to consummate the marriage. The book ends on a hopeful but confused note with the passing of Clara, the college graduate, into the background. “At that moment the woman who had been a thinker stopped thinking. Within her arose the mother, fierce, indomitable, strong with the strength of the roots of a tree.” One wonders a bit whether that is Anderson's advice to all women, or whether it merely works in Clara's case. One is not even convinced that Clara will get so far just because she stops thinking. Perhaps Anderson got tired.

The main points of the story do not come much closer to ringing true than most conventional “log cabin to mansion” stories, or the blurb of a press agent about a famous inventor. There are a few pages in the novel, however, in which Anderson catches admirably the thrill, the excitement, the exuberant heedless optimism that ran through the country with the coming of factories.

There is an admirable portrait of Joe Wainsworth, the harness maker: “I know my trade and do not have to bow down to any man. … Learn your trade. Don't listen to talk. The man who knows his trade is a man. He can tell every one to go to the devil.” Joe, of course, is pushed to the wall by machine-made goods. Anderson greatly injures the portrait at the end by a flagrantly over-dramatic episode wherein Joe murders his assistant. Jim, a farm hand, Tom Butterworth, the rich farmer and promoter, and Steve Hunter, “an early Rotarian,” are also convincingly sketched.

In Poor White Anderson's day-dreaming qualities are most in evidence; in Many Marriages his worry about “problems” runs away with him.

Many Marriages is a good example of what is often spoken of as Anderson's “mysticism.” It is not real mysticism at all, but mystification. It is Anderson's old search for “the meaning of life” dramatized, sentimentalized, disguised in a soft mush of words with a little unsuccessful symbolism thrown in for flavoring. In his first novels Anderson came right out with his problems and his attempted solutions; it was direct and vigorous, if unsuccessful. There is a whining, insinuating note in Many Marriages that becomes increasingly annoying. The book is filled with prose poems that don't come off, with endless petty yearnings and complaints. Anderson has stretched out the material for a mediocre short story into a full length novel and has made the material itself worthless in the process. The book rambles; repeats words, thoughts, symbols; were it not so thoroughly confused and meaningless, it would come very close to being immoral.

There are four characters: John Webster, a middle-aged manufacturer, who feels that he isn't getting what he should out of life; Mrs. Webster, a dumpy useless woman without a trace of emotional or intellectual life; Jane Webster, the daughter, without convictions, emotions or ideas, who will turn out to be like her mother but whom John Webster thinks he can “save”; Natalie Schwartz, the stenographer who placidly accepts her employer's love. Except for John Webster, none of the other characters ever achieve any semblance of life. The plot is simple. Webster decides to desert his wife and his business and to go off with his stenographer, with whom he falls in love because she is the only other woman he sees. Before leaving he wants to explain his action to his daughter.

Anderson feels vaguely that there is something noble in the man's action; but at the end of the book, after two hundred and fifty pages of listening to the workings of Webster's mind, when he and Natalie Schwartz walk out into the night and Mrs. Webster commits suicide, the reader has a distinct impression that Webster hasn't made a very noble gesture, that he hasn't made much progress toward solving his problems, and that within a few weeks he will wish desperately that he could run back to his home, his wife and his business.

The whole book works up to the climactic scene where Webster arranges an altar in his bedroom, with candles, a crucifix and a painting of the Madonna. He then undresses and struts before this altar in what Anderson would have us believe an ecstasy of cleanliness and regeneration. The pot-bellied, be-spectacled little man has become a mystic! …

The last hundred and fifty pages of the book might easily be disgusting were they not ridiculous. Naked before this altar, Webster tells his daughter, who is clad in a thin nightgown, what he thinks about life and love, and from time to time he half makes love to her himself.

Many Marriages is Anderson run completely amuck. It is a painful book to read, for the author is obviously striving to be honest and sincere; he is writing with the utmost seriousness and is trying to portray the intangible, subtle nuances of life. The harder he tries, the more ridiculous the story becomes.

At the bottom of Many Marriages is an incurably romantic and sentimental outlook on life. Anderson is trying to read into life things that aren't there at all, or, perhaps better, which aren't at all where he thinks they are.

In Dark Laughter we have a new Anderson; he is restrained, mellow, observant; no longer does he torture himself about “the meaning of life”; nor does he remake it. He is writing autobiographically, but he maintains a certain objectiveness and detachment; he rearranges facts, but in the process does not destroy them. Never before or since has he handled a hero so well; he still holds to his “moments” theory, but the moments are so coördinated and related that one flows naturally into another. Bruce Dudley is substantially the same man in all parts of the book—which is more than can be said for the heroes of the other novels. When Anderson is sentimental it is with moderation; it does not upset all balance of values; indeed it lends a tone of mellowness to his writing. It is true that the novel weakens toward the end, but it is the first novel in which Anderson is able to reach the final page without collapsing. Technically it is one of his most brilliant performances; for the first time he is master of the intricacies of the novel.

Dark Laughter is easily Anderson's best novel, but seldom does it rise above the level of the second rate. It is good, skillful, perceptive writing, much better than the average “competent” novel, but still not very exciting when compared to the best of this or of other ages. Anderson has overcome a good many of his faults but in so doing he has dissipated a number of his positive virtues. The book shows very plainly the influence, either direct or indirect, of such writers as Joyce and Proust; and it is feeble compared to the work of either of them.

It is possible that in Dark Laughter Anderson is attempting to work out, from an entirely different point of view, what he tried so unsuccessfully to do in Many Marriages. Bruce Dudley, like John Webster, gets fed up with his job and his wife and decides to leave them both. Starting from Chicago, he drifts down the Mississippi to New Orleans, loafs about for a while, returns to the Indiana town where he was born, works in an automobile factory and later as a gardener, falls in love with his employer's wife and runs away with her before the bewildered husband's eyes. Except for the final elopement, which is in the nature of a dramatic after-thought dragged in to provide the conventional climax, the book runs a steady, compelling, impressive course.

Gone are the fake mysticism and hysterical sentimentality. When Bruce Dudley leaves his wife he merely walks out the door; neither he nor she have any deep feeling about it. Anderson has shown convincingly that their married life had become a not very satisfactory economic arrangement, unsupported by emotional or intellectual sympathy. They lived together, but except for half-hearted quarrels they had no relations that were not formal and essentially meaningless. Bruce was a tired, superficially cynical newspaper reporter who didn't want commercial success. His wife was a clever hack writer who was destined before long to become highly successful. She was pushing and energetic; he lazy and desirous of taking things easy; he had a nebulous desire to write but didn't let it worry him.

His guiding philosophy was that “when things got settled you were through, might as well sit in a rocking chair waiting for death. Death, before life came.” He dreaded becoming the type of man who “wanted a nice, firm little wall built around him, who wanted to be safe behind the wall, feel safe. A man within the walls of a house, safe, a woman's hand holding his hand, warmly—awaiting him. All others shut out by the walls of the house.”

Bruce, drifting down the Mississippi in a rowboat, lying naked on a bed on a hot New Orleans night listening to the laughter and songs of the niggers, painting wheels in an automobile factory, unhurried, undisturbed, loafing, thinking when thoughts come to him but not seeking them, content merely to enjoy the simple acts and sights of life without worry about past or future, reminiscing and day-dreaming Bruce is a more lackadaisical Huck Finn grown up and returned to his old haunts. At times Anderson makes Bruce out to be the content, irresponsible wanderer that every man at some time or other dreams of becoming.

The story is a thoroughly Proustian psychological monologue; Bruce, working in the automobile factory, is reminiscing to himself, and through his wandering thoughts we get his life as he has seen it. The tempo of the story is admirably controlled; never does the monologue become unintentionally monotonous; soliloquies, psychological analyses, descriptions, lyric moments, anecdotes are woven into a lively and harmonious pattern. At times apparently confused, the total effect of the story is one of great simplicity and cohesion.

There are, however, a number of technical defects. After the manner of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Anderson sometimes attempts to achieve the effect of recurrent ideas in a man's mind by repeating thoughts, words and phrases in a sort of refrain; but he fails to attain the desired result and leaves us instead conscious of the poverty and lack of variety of his material. Also the dialogue, as in most of his books, is abominable. The characters speak more often in Anderson's own idiom than in their own. As has already been remarked, toward the end of the book Anderson falls back into the melodramatic faults of his early novels, but even so, Dark Laughter is for him a tremendous step forward.

Early in the novel we are given Anderson's definition of art, at which no one could quibble: “Art is something out beyond reality, a fragrance touching the reality of things through the fingers of a humble man filled with love.” It is only unfortunate that, necessary as they are, humility and love are not the only qualities requisite for the production of art.


If one really wants to know Sherwood Anderson, the writer, it is only necessary to turn to A Story Teller's Story; there one finds Anderson, all of Anderson that gets into his books, and a good deal of the man behind the books. In A Story Teller's Story Anderson is yarning, yarning about what he has done, where he has been, what he has seen, about people he has met and observations he has made. Some of it actually happened, some of it didn't, but it is all Sherwood Anderson.

It is a rambling, informal collection of reminiscences, essays, imaginings; it contains character sketches that rank with Anderson's better works, autobiographical anecdotes that have obviously served as the bases for much of his writing, observations upon life and manners in America of which some are confused and insipid and others so vivid, spontaneous and accurate that they take one's breath away. One gets the impression that Anderson, forgetful of art, unself-conscious for once, is merely sitting down to tell a succession of interesting stories confident that his audience isn't bored. Perhaps it is not quite exact to say that he is unself-conscious; Anderson never for a moment forgets his audience; he is watching it, playing with it, experimenting. But his self-consciousness is that of an actor rather than of a man unsure of himself.

The volume is divided into four books. The first deals with his boyhood, the same boyhood that he has so often described in his other works. The poor family living in haunted houses to escape paying rent, three boys sleeping in a single bed to save bedclothes, the silent impressive mother and the talkative, story-telling vagrant father. Although he manages to describe the atmosphere in which he grew up, most of the hundred and thirty pages of the first book are devoted to the telling of two stories: one supposedly by his father, “Major” Anderson, in which various romantic episodes in the Civil War are revised and described; the other by Sherwood himself when he is lying buried in the hay in a farmer's barn telling himself about smugglers and South American revolutionists with fierce cruel eyes, bronze complexions and black mustaches. These stories are unalloyed sentimental romances of a Saturday Evening Post or Cosmopolitan Magazine type. But they pretend to be nothing else, and as such they are amusing interludes.

The second book is largely composed of anecdotes about his life during the years spent wandering around the country immediately after leaving home when his mother died. He works with race horses, in a bicycle factory, rolls kegs of nails out of a warehouse and loads them on trucks, reminisces about his boyhood, fights with a fellow workman and tries to bluff his chambermaid into believing that he won the fight, saves money for drinking and reading bouts, and finally enlists for the Spanish American war to avoid returning to a factory. He includes several good character sketches among the rambling anecdotes.

The third book contains the description, already quoted, of Anderson's leaving his wife and business in Elyria; a statement of his philosophy as a writer; a lyric bit about the joys of sitting before a piece of white paper, as yet untouched by a pencil; a few miscellaneous anecdotes and a superb passage about America. In justice to Anderson this last should be quoted. Perhaps never before has one side of the American psychology been so well summarized:

“In America … something went wrong in the beginning. We pretended to so much and were going to do such great things here. This vast land was to be a refuge for all the outlawed brave foolish folk of the world. The declaration of the rights of man was to have a new hearing in a new place. The devil! We did get ourselves into a bad hole. We were going to be superhuman and it turned out we were sons of men who were not such devilish fellows after all. You cannot blame us that we are somewhat reluctant about finding out the very human things concerning ourselves. One does so hate to come down off the perch.

“We are now losing our former feeling of inherent virtue, are permitting ourselves occasionally to laugh at ourselves for our pretensions, but there was a time here when we were sincerely in earnest about all this American business, ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ We actually meant it and no one will ever understand presentday America or Americans who does not concede that we meant it and that while we were building all of our big ugly hurriedly-thrown-together towns, creating our great industrial system, growing always more huge and prosperous, we were as much in earnest about what we thought we were up to as were the French of the thirteenth century when they built the cathedral of Chartres to the Glory of God.

“They built the cathedral of Chartres to the glory of God and we really intended building here a land to the glory of Man, and thought we were doing it too. That was our intention and the affair only blew up in the process, or got perverted, because Man, even the brave and the free Man, is somewhat a less worthy object of glorification than God. This we might have found out long ago but that we did not know each other. We came from too many different places to know each other well, had been promised too much, wanted too much. We were afraid to know each other.

“Oh, how Americans have wanted heroes, wanted brave simple fine men! And how sincerely and deeply we Americans have been afraid to understand and love one another, fearing to find ourselves at the end no more brave, heroic and fine than the people of almost any other part of the world.”

The short fourth book tells how it feels to become a successful writer, to go to New York and meet all the important literary people, and to take a trip to Europe. The book ends with an epilogue in which Anderson describes the visit to him of a successful writer of football stories who wants to go in for something a little more “artistic.”

A Story Teller's Story is one of the most interesting documents that has come out of America in the last two decades. A hundred years from now it will still be a valuable source book. It will describe in abundant detail the psychological and emotional reactions of a super-sensitive, sentimental melodramatic man who was unable to adjust himself to an industrialized America. It will show a number of the processes whereby America changed from an incongruous, jumbled “melting pot” into a homogeneous nation with as definite a character and as varied idiosyncrasies as those of any European nation. And it will show the hardships worked upon unadaptable individuals by this process of standardization and assimilation. A Story Teller's Story may well be Anderson's most enduring book; it is perhaps the least pretentious of his works, but it comes closer to achieving its purpose than anything else he has written.

As Anderson explains in the preface, Tar started out to be an autobiographical account of his boyhood told in the first person, but that method of attack proved unsatisfactory, so he called himself “Tar” Moorehead and went on with the story. It is a remarkable testimonial to Anderson's craftsmanship that Tar is readable. In it he merely retells the same childhood that he has described so often before; the characters, the atmosphere, the feeling are identically the same. Yet the incidents are different and somehow one is not much oppressed by a sense of repetition.

Tar himself is an idealized memory. There never was, never could have been a boy like that. Anderson remembers the events of his boyhood, but he has forgotten the emotions he had. What the book achieves is a description of what the mature Anderson would have felt had he been able to reënact the events of his childhood. The agony, the sordidness, the ecstasy, the indescribable importance of unimportant events, the vividness of all emotional reactions are passed over. The young Tar possesses a saneness, a philosophical impassiveness that no child ever enjoyed, and certainly not such a child as was the hyper-sensitive Anderson. In short, the character of Tar has been so idealized that it is flat.

What one carries away from the book is the memory of a series of sharp, vivid snapshots: the death of the old woman in the snowstorm, the white body in the moonlight, the dogs running in a circle around her; Tar's shy love for the Farley girl and his idealization of her; his adventure with Mame Thompson in the hayloft, his fright and loss of nerve and later shame and regret that he lost his nerve; the loneliness of the “bad” woman, her affection for Tar and his understanding of her; the night the train came in late when Tar, accompanied by his restless sister, delivered his papers after midnight; their walk through the cemetery on the black rainy night, the sound of groaning, the flash of lightning that showed Hawkins, the filthy hog dealer, praying in the rain beside his wife's grave; Tar's glimpse through the back window of the drug clerk's house as the latter and his wife are making love; the contrast between the poverty of the Mooreheads with their thin cabbage stew and the abundance of food on the tables of Tar's friends; the evening when Tar's father came home drunk to an embarrassed, silent, frightened family. Tar himself is never quite real, but many of the things he does are.

Anderson's material is thinner, but he squeezes more out of what he has.

Sherwood Anderson's Notebook resembles suspiciously a collection of pot boilers. Most of the essays and sketches in it had been previously printed in such magazines as The Nation, The New Republic, Vanity Fair, The Dial. There is little in the volume that warrants detailed discussion. The essay entitled “A Note on Realism” is an interesting presentation of Anderson's literary philosophy, but we can consider that to better advantage a little further on. For the rest, the book contains rather insipid extracts, apparently from Anderson's diary; sketches of Gertrude Stein, Paul Rosenfeld, Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis, George Bellows and Alfred Stieglitz; and a few other miscellaneous essays.


Two of Anderson's books, Mid-American Chants and A New Testament, may most easily be classified as poetry. They are unlike his usual prose; they are not essays; they very patently echo many of Walt Whitman's thoughts; they attempt to recapture the rhythm of certain passages from the Old Testament; and they bear evidence to a lyrical urge on the author's part.

Anderson himself presents them with modesty. In the foreword to Mid-American Chants he writes, “For this book of chants I ask only that it be allowed to stand stark against the background of my own place and generation. … In secret a million men and women are trying, as I have tried here, to express the hunger within and I have dared put these chants forth only because I hope and believe that they may find an answering and clearer call in the hearts of other Mid-Americans.”

I am inclined to class these two volumes as clever and sometimes interesting experiments with new combinations of sounds and new methods of expression. Without defining the nebulous boundaries of poetry, I would say that these books carry prose perilously close to poetry. But they remain prose, they remain experimental, they remain confused, and despite their occasional cleverness they are never successful enough to make one forget that essentially they are tours de force. I think of Anderson writing them to blow off steam—because he has been feeling the limitations and restrictions of the usual prose forms, because he is exasperated at life or at something that has happened, because by employing this new medium he is able to consolidate and concentrate more than in prose, or merely because he feels poetic and thinks that he should be writing poetry.

The “poems” vary in mood and in quality quite as much as Anderson's other writing. Many of them voice the hysterical complaining wail of a baffled and defeated man, as, for instance, this passage from “Chicago”:

“I am a child, a confused child in a confused
          world. There are no clothes made that fit me.
          The minds of men cannot clothe me. Great
          projects arise within me. I have a brain and
          it is cunning and shrewd.
I want leisure to become beautiful, but there
          is no leisure. Men should bathe me with
          prayers and with weeping, but there are no

Most of these poems deal to some extent with the difficulty the artist has in combating the crass blatant ugliness of industrial life. In the “Song of Industrial America” Anderson catches that note especially well:

“They tell themselves so many little lies, my be-
          loved. Now wait, little one—we can't sing.
          We are standing in a crowd, by a bridge, in
          the West. Hear the voices—turn around—
          let's go home—I'm tired. They tell them-
          selves so many little lies.
You remember in the night we arose. We were
          young. There was smoke in the passage and
          you laughed. Was it good—that black
          smoke? Look away to the streams and the
          lake. We're alive. See my hand—how it
          trembles on the rail.
Here is song, here in America, here now, in our
          time. Now wait—I'll go to the train. I'll
          not swing off into tunes. I'm all right—I
          just want to talk. …
You know my city—Chicago triumphant—fac-
          tories and marts and the roar of machines—
          horrible, terrible, ugly and brutal.
It crushed things down and down. Nobody
          wanted to hurt. They didn't want to hurt
          me or you. They were caught themselves.
          I know the old men here—the millionaires.
          I've always known old men all my life. I'm
          old myself. You would never guess how old
          I am.
Can a singer arise and sing in this smoke and
          grime? Can he keep his throat clear? Can
          his courage survive?
I'll tell you what it is—now you be still. To Hell
          with you. I'm an old empty barrel floating
          in the stream—that's what I am. You stand
          away. I've come to life. My arms lift up—
          I begin to swim.
Hell and damnation—turn me loose. The floods
          come on. That isn't the roar of the trains at
          all. It's the flood—the terrible, horrible
          flood turned loose.”

Several of the chants are hackneyed, sentimental and obviously derived, as, for instance, “Song to the Sap”:

In my breasts the sap of spring,
In my brain gray winter, bleak and hard,
Through my whole being, surging strong and
The call of gods,
The forward push of mystery and of life …
From all of Mid-America a prayer,
To newer, braver gods, to dawns and days,
To truth and cleaner, braver life we come.
Lift up a song,
My sweaty men,
Lift up a song.

A New Testament is even more introspective, sentimental and technically experimental than the first volume of poems. Anderson is worrying about himself, attempting to analyze his reactions to people and to life in general, to decide what he is and what things are and what the relations between them actually are. In the process he comes to identify himself with trees, houses, streets, people, landscapes, thoughts, cities.

          At times, just for a moment, I am a Cæsar, a
Napoleon, an Alexander. I tell you it is true.
          If you men who are my friends and those of
you who are acquaintances could surrender your-
selves to me for just a little while.
          I tell you what—I would take you within my-
self and carry you around with me as though I
were a pregnant woman.

Most of Anderson's confessions and musings are confused and lushly sentimental. His baffledness over the meaning of life; his consciousness that he might have been a great writer and that he has not made full use of his potentialities; his flooding, overflowing sympathy for things in general and the difficulty he finds in fixing it on the concrete; his wistful romanticism; his insight into things and his inability to group his perceptions into a cohesive unity; his almost psychopathic introspection—all find their outlet here and combine to give us a picture of the baffled “pregnant” man who is Sherwood Anderson. But often before Anderson has given us this picture; it pours out of each book he has written. There is nothing new in what he says; it is merely said more sentimentally. One can understand how in a period of unusual bewilderment or depression he may have written these poems; school and college boys often have the same impulse; one wonders that he should publish them as they are.

There are, however, a few amusing experiments with word pictures, of which the following, from “Song Number Four,” is a good example:

          You are a small man sitting in a dark room in
the early morning. Look, you have killed a
woman. Her body lies on the floor. Her face is
white and your hands tremble. A testament is
creeping from between your teeth. It makes your
teeth chatter.
          You are a young man in the schools.
          You walk up the face of a hill.
          You are an insane driver of sheep.
          You are a woman in a brown coat, a fish mer-
chant in a village, a man who throws coal in at the
mouth of a furnace, a maiden who presses the body
of her lover against the face of the wall.
          You are a bush.
          You are a wind.
          You are the gun of a soldier.
          You are the hide that has been drawn over the face of a drum.
          You are a young birch tree swaying in a wind.
          You are one who has been slain by a falling tree in a forest.
          Your body has been destroyed by a flying mass of iron in the midst of a battle.
          Your voice comes up out of a great confusion.
          Listen, little lost one, I am testifying to you as
I creep along the face of a wall. I am making a
testament as I gather stones and lay them along
the face of a wall.

There can be no doubt that these lines have a certain effectiveness. It is as though a dozen movie reels had been cut haphazardly, stuck together, and run flickering over the screen many times too fast but occasionally coming to a full stop. It is interesting to see that this effect can be produced with words, but it is not especially enlightening. Anderson has made public a laboratory experiment that has not yet and is not likely to come to a definite end.


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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.

Marilyn Judith Atlas (essay date 1981)

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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 Bildungsroman and have found George Willard's journey toward self and subsequent escape from Winesburg to be its center;2 David D. Anderson has demonstrated that George Willard's role is secondary to the people about whom each story centers and that one must understand the individual characters and their human experience in order to fully comprehend the novel.3 But serious critical attention has not been paid to all of the individuals in Winesburg. The women, although they appear in almost every story, have not been studied collectively. Such a study can illuminate Winesburg, Ohio as well as Sherwood Anderson's understanding of and relationship to women. One scholar, Chris Browning, has attempted to understand Anderson's relationship to women by exploring one character, Kate Swift, the teacher of Winesburg. In her essay, “Kate Swift: Sherwood Anderson's Creative Eros,” she discusses Anderson's relationship to this character, establishing that Anderson's portrait of Kate Swift is an embodiment of his ideal woman.4 And if we accept that Kate Swift is Anderson's ideal, is this kind of idealization enough? Why does Anderson leave her isolated and weeping in Winesburg? How typical is this pattern in the novel?

As empathetic as Sherwood Anderson was toward the women he created in Winesburg, Ohio, he allowed neither Kate Swift nor any of the other women in Winesburg the escape that he hinted was possible for George Willard. While for George, Winesburg might become a background on which to paint his dreams of manhood, for even the most promising women of the town—for Kate Swift, Elizabeth Willard, Louise Bentley, Alice Hindman, and Helen White—Winesburg remained the foreground, if not the entire canvas of their lives. Even when Sherwood Anderson made George Willard and Helen White momentary equals and allowed them to find understanding and acceptance in one another, he ended his novel treating them in vastly different ways. The last image the reader has of George is one of ascension. He is boarding a train that will take him away from his home town and ideally toward further understanding of himself; the last image that the reader has of Helen is one of misdirected energy. Helen chases the very same train on which George departs, hoping to have a parting word with him, herself having no thought of permanently leaving town. While Helen chases George, he is seated on the train preoccupied with himself and his future. Granted, it is George Willard, not Helen White, who is the main character of these stories, and it is his growth and escape which is central to Winesburg, Ohio, but since Anderson clearly portrayed that there was no salvation for those who remained in town and since he did allow a few other male characters—David Bentley, Seth Richmond, and Elmer Crowley—the possibility of beginning a new life elsewhere, one wonders why no woman leaves Winesburg.

Perhaps one of the reasons Anderson allowed no woman to leave Winesburg was because he created out of his own experiences, and his early experiences with women were with those who may have been sensitive but who were also clearly trapped. His mother, Emma Smith Anderson, followed the pattern of the sacrificing woman, dying in her forties worn out from having to maintain a family of six children with insufficient financial and emotional support from her husband. Anderson was very much affected by his mother's drudgery and as an adult confessed that he never looked at a working woman without recalling his mother's life.5 Not only did he perceive his mother's hard life, but he also perceived her yearning for something past the surface of her experience. He acknowledged her influence on him in his dedication to Winesburg, Ohio, where he gave her credit for his hunger to see beneath the surface of lives.

The other major female figure of his youth, his older sister Stella, led an equally self-effacing life. If Anderson inherited his mother's sensitivity, Stella inherited both that sensitivity and a sense of obligation to be the family's nurturer. Before her mother's death she wrote verse, graduated as valedictorian from her high school class, and taught for two years, but after her mother died her personal ambitions were frustrated. She became the caretaker of her five brothers and found few outlets for her own creative energy. In his memoirs, Anderson recalled that one evening she asked him to walk with her and pretend he was some other man. On their walk her fantasy burgeoned. She caressed her brother's hair and asked him “‘Do you love me, James?’” In recreating this scene, Anderson touched delicately yet powerfully on the extent of his sister's desperation. Eventually, Anderson's older brother, Karl, and he responded to their sister's need for her own life, and Stella was able to attend the University of Chicago. But she stayed for over six years, and Sherwood and Karl decided that was too long. Sherwood Anderson was chosen to tell her that she would have to quit school and work. In his memoirs he recalled his sister's initial anger at his request and verbalized that he found her response to be both inappropriate and selfish. While he empathized with Stella's need to make her own life, he was displeased when her independence exceeded the boundaries he and his older brother had established for her. Soon after Sherwood's request Stella quit school, found a teaching job, and had an overpowering religious experience which caused her to repent her “selfishness.” She apologized to Sherwood. Later she married, but felt that her life should have been dedicated to God. In 1917, forty-two years old, she died. A tract she wrote, “The Story of a Christian Life,” was read at her funeral: in it she portrayed her life as one of self-sacrifice and obligation.6

Anderson's mother and sister both had starved lives and their lives understandably left a strong impression on Anderson. Many of the frustrated lives in Winesburg, Ohio are very likely patterned on these women. But there were other women in Anderson's life who were strong and confident.

His first wife, Cornelia Platt Lane, was a graduate of Western Reserve University, a literary editor of the school Annual, and an avid fan of the theater. After her marriage to Anderson she remained active in literary clubs and discussion groups, and after their separation she turned her attention to getting work in order to support herself and her three children. She taught from 1915-1917, clearly trying to see her options and to make the most life-giving choices she could.7

The woman Anderson was involved with during the creation of Winesburg, Ohio, Tenessee Claflin Mitchell, was an intelligent, creative woman who was making untraditional choices. She left a small town, Jackson, Michigan, to move to Chicago where she danced, sang, sculpted, and wrote, supporting herself by teaching music and dance, and by tuning pianos.8

There were many other independent, expansive women in Anderson's life by the time he began writing Winesburg in the fall of 1915. Margaret Anderson, editor of The Little Review, was one of Anderson's first connections to the literary world of Chicago.9 Edna Kenton, Harriet Monroe, and Agnes Tietjens were all part of Chicago's artistic community, the community which nurtured Anderson's own exploration and intellectual growth during that period of his life.

One of the writers who was to most strongly influence his work was Gertrude Stein. Irving Howe suggests that his response to Stein and her innovative art was not simply positive as Anderson recollected in his memoirs. Howe presents the evidence:

Anderson has recalled that he “had come to Gertrude Stein's book about which everyone laughed but about which I did not laugh. It excited me as one might grow excited in going into a new and wonderful country where everything is strange. …” The truth, however, was somewhat more complex than Anderson's memory. His first reactions to Stein were antagonistic: at a Chicago party in 1915 he told Edna Kenton that he thought it merely funny that anyone should take Tender Buttons seriously, and shortly afterwards he even composed a parody of Stein for his advertising cronies.10

Regardless of how Anderson actually responded to Stein, he was aware of her impact on experimental writing, of her power, independence, and individuality.

It is clear that while Anderson was writing Winesburg, Ohio, he was aware that women, even some from small towns, were escaping from their repressive environments and trying to live creative, self-directed lives. He even mentioned in “Adventure” that there was a “growing modern idea of a woman's owning herself and giving and taking for her own end in life.”11 But Anderson was not interested in making any woman of Winesburg a carefully delineated, fully developed “modern woman.” He began to make a number of his women strong but each one eventually catches herself in a traditional trap: Elizabeth Willard needs love first as does Louise Bentley. Alice Hindman can go as far as accepting economic independence, but she too prefers to live through her lover, even after he has obviously deserted her; Helen White shows potential: she is intelligent and seems capable of making choices, but Anderson finally chose not to develop her individuality, and presented her only through her relationships with others. At the end he was more comfortable leaving her safely at home.

While Anderson could be sympathetic to women, he could also unrealistically limit not only his presentation of them, but his understanding of what they needed. Too often he was comfortable assuming that what women wanted most was to give themselves away to an ideal lover. His belief that women wanted men and men wanted to create is depicted in the love relationships of Winesburg. Alice Hindman's relationship with Ned Currie and Helen White's relationship with George Willard are examples of this belief. What he portrayed in Winesburg, Ohio, he stated in his later essay, “The Modern Writer.”11 “It is true as there is a sun in the sky that men cannot live in the end without love of craft. It is to the man what love of children is to the woman.”12 Anderson did not let his experiences with women get in the way of his idealizations: contact with intelligent, creative, ambitious women did not liberalize him. Rather as he grew older these stereotypes crystalized. Even while accepting that his memoirs were never edited by him, it is still impossible not to take seriously the implications of his statements about women. For example, in his memoirs, he began one discussion about modern women by analyzing the difficulties his wives had living with an artist, who, like all artists, emotionally withdrew when in the process of creating. While he willingly took blame for his unsatisfactory marriages, he managed to define women and men at the expense of women's creative and independent natures. He wrote not only about himself, but about all artists, male artists, that is:

When one of us makes a failure of marriage it is, almost inevitably, his own fault. He is what he is. He should not blame the woman.

The modern woman will not be kicked aside so. She wants children. She wants a certain security, for herself and for her children, but we fellows do not understand the impulse toward security. When we are secure we are dead. There is nothing secure in our world, out there, and as for the matter of children we are always having children of our own.13

Anderson needed to make women simpler than they are and when angry, or frustrated, or afraid, he easily moved into traditional, and safe, categories. When angry at critical responses to his work he could write that success was overrated and amounted to nothing more than “silly women mouthing over you.”14 But he knew in the midst of his statements that women wanted men and men wanted to create, that women needed more security than men, that women were somehow more stupid than men, that he was frightened of women. Most of all, he was frightened of needing them, losing his independence, of somehow being seduced by sexuality into being corporeal rather than creative. Whether emotionally or artistically, Anderson was convinced that “One of the things a man has to learn is to fight most bitterly the influence of those who love him.”15 It was easier for him to create what he did not fear and what he did not need.

When Anderson wrote “Impotence,” a story concerning the life of Marietta Finley, a woman with whom he corresponded from 1916 to 1931, rather than trying to portray her strength, he consciously limited it. He wrote to her, willing to share his creation, but afraid of insulting her. He warned her that “Impotence” was not an accurate presentation of her life or her strength:

Now let me explain. If you want to see the story I shall have to have an understanding with you first. There is something gone out of my Marie that is not gone out of you. You have a thousand things she has not. I could not bear to have this story taken as an interpretation of your life. That will have to be understood or I will tear it up and throw it to the winds.16

Anderson was not totally unconscious of his fear of strong women. In “Loneliness,” one of the Winesburg stories, he reduced the main character, Enoch Robinson, to a complaining child because Enoch is so afraid of strong women that he makes his life devoid of love. In love, Enoch Robinson runs from a woman to whom he is attracted because he is convinced that she is too “large” for his room and will subsume him. He treats her cruelly, forcing her out of his life. Overcome by the implications of his actions he whimpers: “‘I'm alone, all alone. … It was warm and friendly in my room but now I'm all alone.’”17 Although Anderson's depiction of Robinson is not sympathetic, his involvement with this story was very strong; he was very anxious that it be accepted by his friend and editor, Waldo Frank, for publication in Seven Arts. Anderson, by recreating the horrors of isolating oneself because of fear of strong women, was making a statement which he found important and for which he needed outside support. When Waldo Frank rejected the story in December 1916, Anderson responded strongly:

Damn it, I wanted you to like the story about Enoch Robinson and the woman who came into his room and was too big for the room.

There is a story every critic is bound to dislike. I can remember reading it to Floyd Dell, and it made him hopping mad. “It's damn rot,” says Floyd. “it does not get anywhere.”

“It gets there, but you are not at the station,” I replied to Floyd, and I think I was right.

Why do I try to convince you of this story? Well, I want it in print in Seven Arts. A writer knows when a story is good, and that story is good.

Sometimes when I am in New York, I'll bring that story in, and I'll make you see it.18

Anderson was himself confused over the strength of his response, but if one remembers that this exchange took place six months after his marriage to Tenessee Claflin Mitchell, a marriage that according to his memoirs “did not take,” a marriage to a woman who was trying to be creative, who may at times have felt too “large” for his room, his passionate response makes psychological sense. He might condemn his character for forcing the strong woman out of his life, but he understood the impulse and the fear of being subsumed.

Anderson also knew that if he were large enough, an independent woman would not function as a threat whom he needed to perceive in limited terms. Rather, she could be a friend with whom he could share both sensuality and art. In a larger mood he wrote to Waldo Frank:

The world has a wart on its nose.

In the night the winds come down out of Medicine Hat.

They play in dead cornfields.

In the cold and the night the gods burrow deep in the ground.

There is a stretch of land in the West over which a man may walk 30 days seeing nothing but cornfields. I have a picture. In the midst of that vast open space, exposed to the winds that tramp the world, Edna Kenton and Harrison Grey Fiske are talking of art.

See the moon. Isn't the night delightful?19

In Anderson's ideal world two Chicago artists, a man and a woman, serve as allegorical figures. They are connected to nature and art and they walk without fear. But in his own life, and in his creation of women in Winesburg, Ohio, he felt that he must settle for less.

The women that Anderson created most sensitively in Winesburg, Ohio were those who posed no threat for either him or his male protagonists. Helen White is a potential threat to George Willard's freedom and she is a possible competitor: leaving her behind with no solid aspirations of her own and only George Willard's wish that she not become like all the other women in Winesburg, was as much strength as Anderson was willing to allow her. Anderson created no overt power struggle between these two characters and he in no way dealt with the fact that he sacrificed Helen's potential in order to simplify George's exit.

But Anderson's unwillingness to allow his female characters the same amount of mobility as he allowed his male characters did not blind him to the fact that men's attitudes toward women can and do damage them irreparably. In “Godliness,” Anderson created a protagonist who succeeds in killing his wife, not out of cruelty but by watching her take on a role for which she is not sufficiently strong, and who succeeds in emotionally crippling his daughter because she was not the son who would help him “‘pluck at last all of these lands out of the hands of the Philistines.’”20 In Winesburg, Ohio Anderson questioned some of the traditional myths; but he embraced others. Women, in Anderson's understanding, did not long to be worked to death, they did not long to be rejected because they were female, but they did long to be subsumed in a man.

If one journeys through Winesburg, Ohio looking carefully at the female characters that Anderson created, one senses that even if Anderson was not accurately or openly exploring all the various aspects of women in a small Midwestern city, he was seriously exploring them. The stories reflect both a deep sensitivity to female traps and an unwillingness to allow women the same choices, needs, and strengths that it allowed men. The first woman in Winesburg that Anderson presented in detail appeared in “Paper Pills.” She remained nameless throughout the story, hardly more than a sacrifice. The force of her powerlessness and of her accepting silence colored not only this tale, but all of Winesburg, Ohio. The reader is told little about her other than that her parents are dead and have left her a large fertile farm, and that this inheritance, coupled with the fact that she is dark, mysteriously attractive, and alone, interests suitors. One young man, the jeweler's son, talks constantly of virginity and another, a silent, black-haired boy, impregnates her. She is, in the context of Winesburg, a twisted apple, sweetest of all those in the orchard, and she sees herself in just such passive terms:

At times it seemed to her that as he talked he was holding her body in his hands. She imagined him turning it slowly about in the white hands and staring at it. At night she dreamed that he had bitten into her body and that his jaws were dripping.21

When the silent, dark-haired suitor seduces her, it is not without violence. In his moment of passion, he bites her. Shortly after this barbarous but brief encounter she realizes that she is pregnant and goes to see Doctor Reefy. In his office, she watches a woman whose tooth is being removed bleed. The woman's husband is also watching, and at the moment of extraction both the woman and her spouse simultaneously scream. The main female character does not react. She accepts the pain around her as simply as she accepts her own. The story quickly progresses and we are told that she falls in love with Doctor Reefy, and passively accepts the truths he shares. After a vague illness in which she loses her unborn child, she marries Doctor Reefy, and in the spring of that year, she quietly dies.

From this silent, bloody, dreamlike tale, the reader is introduced to Elizabeth Willard, George Willard's mother. She, unlike the woman in “Paper Pills,” has the hunger to express herself, but she is no less silent and no more free. Elizabeth prays that her son be allowed to express something for them both. Desperate for this, her prayer becomes violent and the violence is willingly directed against herself:

“Even though I die, I will in some way keep defeat from you,” she cried, and so deep was her determination that her whole body shook. Her eyes glowed and she clenched her fists. “If I am dead and see him becoming a meaningless drab figure like myself, I will come back,” she declared. “I ask God now to give me that privilege. I demand it. I will pay for it. God may beat men with his fists. I will take any blow that may befall if but this my boy be allowed to express something for us both.”22

When we are introduced to her, she is forty-five and broken. Her death hovers over the length of the novel and her wish for George Willard's creativity increases our own investment in it. In “Death,” one of the last stories in Winesburg, Ohio, we are told of her love relationship with Doctor Reefy and of her youthful aspiration to be an actress. As a young woman, her need of love stood in the way of her need of self. This, the narrator explains, is the way of women. But Elizabeth is less sure of this. She takes some responsibility for her defeat and states that she “let” the dream within her be killed.23 But more frequently she feels that she has been a victim. Anderson has her put down her head and weep when the Winesburg baker throws sticks and bits of broken glass at the druggist's cat who crouched behind barrels in an attempt to escape the abuse. Elizabeth eventually stops looking at the grey cat. The relationship between the cat and the baker seems too much like “a rehearsal of her own life, terrible in its vividness.”24

In “The Philosopher” we are again introduced to women as victims. Doctor Parcival describes his mother quietly working without complaint: “‘My mother, who was small and had red, sad-looking eyes, would come into the house from a little shed at the back. That's where she spent her time over the washtub scrubbing people's dirty clothes.’”25 This story ends with another bloody image of women's lives and women's lot: a female child is defenselessly thrown from a buggy and killed.

Louise Trunnion, one of the two central characters in the next sketch, “Nobody Knows,” is a return to the Elizabeth Willard type: a female character who hungers but does not get what she wants. Louise Trunnion is a confused young girl living in her father's house who wants something for herself but she is neither sure what she wants nor how to get it. First, she sends George Willard a note offering herself: “‘I'm yours if you want me,’” but she is not comfortable being the chooser and when Willard appears she sulkily says, “‘How do you know I want to go out with you. What makes you so sure?’” George's encounter with her is coldly insensitive. After it, he is simply impressed that his pleasure is free: “‘She hasn't got anything on me. Nobody knows,’ he muttered doggedly and went on his way.”26

The next story, “Godliness,” is written in four parts. Through the development of Louise Bentley, the central female character, Anderson again explores how women are victimized by the society they live in and the people with whom they associate. When Anderson presents Louise Bentley's frustrated life and her inability to find the love she needs he has his narrator intrude with a statement indicting society and calling the writers of the period to action: “Before such women as Louise can be understood and their lives made livable, much will have to be done. Thoughtful books will have to be written and thoughtful lives lived by people about them.”27 Ironically, it is also in “Godliness” that Anderson states his theory that what women want most is to be possessed: “Sometimes it seemed to her that to be held tightly and kissed was the whole secret of life, and then a new impulse came and she was terribly afraid. The age-old woman's desire to be possessed had taken possession of her. …”28 But in developing his character, Anderson shows that Louise Bentley wants more than someone to possess her: she wants spiritual communication with another human being.

All through her life Louise longs for love. Her father had rejected her because she was not the son with whom he could build God's kingdom on earth; Mary and Harriet Hardy, the daughters of Albert Hardy, the man whose house Louise lives in while she attends Winesburg's high school, view her negatively because she receives their father's praise for being academically successful. Wanting control, Louise decides that if she were only braver, she could get the love for which she longs. Anderson carefully depicts that bravery is not the issue: the issue is communication and the channels are not yet open between either men and women or women and women.

In creating Louise Bentley and giving her a need for love which overpowers all her talents, Anderson is dooming her to an unhappy life. Wanting a friend, she takes John Hardy to be her lover, but sexuality does not satisfy her. John cannot understand what she wants and her frustration turns to bitterness. Her unhappiness does not cause her to reconsider the practicality of love as life's central solution. Instead it leads her to be an angry, ineffectual woman, and a hater of men. Interestingly, she does not reject women; for her they remain fellow victims, but she rejects all men and this anger negatively affects her relationship with her son whom she treats ambivalently. When her husband reproaches her for being a cruel mother she laughs: “‘It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway,’ she said sharply. ‘Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it.’” But Louise Bentley does not have a woman child and she is given no opportunity to satisfy either her need to love or her need to be loved. She is clearly one of the female victims of Winesburg whose strength and creativity lead nowhere.

In the next story, “A Man of Ideas,” Anderson creates a strong female character, but he fails to develop her. Sarah King is an outcast of the town; she is neither beautiful nor a member of a socially acceptable family. While the story suggests that a meaningful relationship exists between her and Joe Welling, another outcast, and that this relationship is mutually fulfilling, he fails to support this. While the two characters nurture one another, the relationship seems to lack honesty. Joe Welling may tell her that she is intelligent, and Sarah King may allow him to talk to her about his ideas, but she is frightened when he decides to share these ideas with George Willard for she is convinced that Joe and George will quarrel over their worth. Her response implies that she finds Joe's ideas less intelligent than she privately encourages him to believe. Anderson, through the narrative tone, implies that Sarah is lucky that she is not more isolated being neither of fine breeding nor fine beauty, and certainly the town's people laugh at Joe's protestations of love, but the reader must question the degree of her luck, her happiness, and her strength.

Anderson is not allowing women many options. In his next story, “Adventure,” we are introduced to Alice Hindman who has good standing in her society, is strong and creative as well as beautiful. But he has her use that strength to repress herself rather than to love or create. In her youth, she impulsively and passionately loved Ned Currie, a reporter, who goes to Cleveland promising to return when he has found work. He clearly deserts her and the remainder of the story explores her unwillingness to let him go and to find some other route toward her own happiness and fulfillment. Alice Hindman is willing to support herself economically, but she is unwilling to make realistic life plans for herself. She waits for Ned Currie to return, at first actively rejecting other suitable men, and then, in desperation, passively accepting the attention of a middle-aged drug clerk. After a few years of his tedious visits she can no longer bear his company and only then will she send him away. She represses her passionate nature as long as she can and only when she is beyond reason does she allow herself to act. If she is going to betray her lover by being sexual, she can only do so unintentionally:

For a moment she stood by the window hearing the rain beat against the glass and then a strange desire took possession of her. Without stopping to think of what she intended to do, she ran downstairs through the dark house and out into the rain. As she stood on the little grass plot before the house and felt the cold rain on her body a mad desire to run naked through the streets took possession of her.

She thought the rain would have some creative and wonderful effect on her body. Not for years had she felt so full of youth and courage. She wanted to leap and run, to cry out, to find some other lonely human and embrace him. On the brick sidewalk before the house a man stumbled homeward. Alice started to run. A wild, desperate mood took possession of her. “What do I care who it is. He is alone, and I will go to him,” she thought; and then without stopping to consider the possible result of her madness, called softly. “Wait!” she cried. “Don't go away. Whoever you are, you must wait.”

The scene ends in irony. The man to whom she calls is old and somewhat deaf. He does not comprehend her, and she, realizing what she had done, drops to the ground, waits for him to go, and then crawls home.

Alice Hindman tries to force herself to accept that many individuals live without love. She at no time considers finding a healthy outlet for her needs, but rather she demands that instinct be controlled; she does not consider being larger and learning to own the various parts of her nature, but rather demands that she be smaller and survive that smallness.

Instead of moving forward, creating a woman who is attempting to define new, more life-giving categories for herself, in Anderson's next story, “Respectability,” he depicts two female characters who are destructively passive at best, evil at worst. The central character of “Respectability,” is Wash Williams, a woman-hater who once idealized a woman, and because she disappointed him has decided that all women are “bitches.” He tells George about his days of innocent happiness with the woman who wronged him:

“In the garden back of our house we planted vegetables, … you know, peas and corn and such things. We went to Columbus in early March and as soon as the days became warm I went to work in the garden. With a spade I turned up the black ground while she ran about laughing and pretending to be afraid of the worms I uncovered. Late in April came the planting. In the little paths among the seed beds she stood holding a paper bag in her hand. The bag was filled with seeds. A few at a time she handed me the seeds that I might thrust them into the warm, soft ground.”

Wash Williams' relationship with his wife seemed ideal; their gardening is a metaphor of interdependent fertility. But as we watch each character play his or her respective role we realize that they are exactly that, characters, to each other: Wash does not know his wife, nor is there any evidence that he cares to know her. When she takes lovers he is surprised and feels betrayed. He sends her back to her mother who, in an attempt to reconcile the couple, invites Wash to her home, sits him in the parlor and then sends her daughter to him naked. When she enters the parlor she stands passively awaiting Wash's acceptance or rejection of her. Wash responds with violence, striking the mother, but fails to kill her. As he finishes his tale he tells George that his only regret is that the mother died a few months after this incident and therefore removed all possibility that he might take his revenge later. George Willard empathizes only with Wash Williams. In this tale Anderson is indirectly portraying the empty lives of women, but he has his narrator identify only with the man who suffers because women's lives are empty. Wash is portrayed as loving his wife even if he does not attempt to understand her, and Anderson's sympathy for him implies that love, without any attempt to understand, is enough. The fact that a dream cannot be actualized if it is not built on solid ground, the fact that women should be accountable to themselves before they are accountable to either husband or mother, are not explored or in any way discussed. Wash Williams is angry and hurt, and Anderson, through George Willard, simply accepts that anger as righteous. There is no hint that George will ever consider Wash Williams' story from the point of view of either woman and there is no hint that Anderson sees the danger of so limited a focus.

Kate Swift, the teacher, stern and cold toward her students, unable to communicate though passionate and sensitive, fares no better than her less intelligent, or less good, sisters. At thirty, she is considered a spinster, and has no outlet other than aborted attempts to communicate, and late night walks. Her mother, Elizabeth Swift, is angry when she stays out late. She reinforces her daughter to repress all instinct. During one quarrel she tells Kate:

“I am glad you're not a man. … More than once I've waited for your father to come home, not knowing what new mess he had got into. I've had my share of uncertainty and you cannot blame me if I do not want to see the worst side of him reproduced in you.”

Kate Swift stays in Winesburg frustrated, unwilling to be sexual, unable to communicate, watching herself grow old. Once she was adventurous and travelled, but five years have passed since then, and there is no hint that she will search her fortune elsewhere.

Helen White, the woman with the most potential in Winesburg, Ohio, first appears in “The Thinker.” She is still young, a high school student, and, according to George Willard, has more “get up” than any other girl in Winesburg. She is attracted to George Willard, and to any young man, it seems, who has the least potential for leaving Winesburg and directing his own life. In “The Thinker,” Seth Richmond and George Willard compete for her attention. Rather than being shown her spiritual or intellectual complexity, we are shown her hunger for a worthy suitor. When Seth Richmond tells her that he is going to leave Winesburg and get some work, she is immediately impressed: “‘This is as it should be,’ she thought. ‘This boy is not a boy at all, but a strong, purposeful man.’” She does not think of her own freedom, but rather is overcome by the sadness of losing the possibility to relate with Seth.

We meet Helen White again later, but we never see her actively working out her own goals. She is always caught between men, watching other characters define themselves and strike out new paths or she is simply the object of admiration and fantasy. In “Drink” Helen White appears as Tom Foster's fantasy. Tom works for her father, the town banker, and falls in love with her, but is afraid of sexuality and wants only to get drunk and verbalize his dreams of her. He tries to tell George Willard about these fantasies, but succeeds only in aggravating him. Helen White appears as a fantasy in “Death,” the story that centers on the death of Elizabeth Willard. When George's mother dies, he thinks of Helen and how he would have to postpone being with her. George's vision of her, young, alive, sexual, becomes intermingled with his thoughts about his mother. He longs to lift the sheet covering Elizabeth and imagines that somehow she is not underneath the sheet at all, but another woman is there who can spring up from the bed and comfort him. George's vision almost overpowers him. When his Aunt Elizabeth comes into the room, George is shaken by sobs. First he tells his aunt that his mother is dead and then half turning from Aunt Elizabeth says, “‘The dear, the dear, oh the lovely dear.’” The impulse that urges him to verbalize this is outside himself. He weeps for his mother's lost youth. Again, the story turns toward Helen White. She will serve as the place where he can momentarily rest his heart:

With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another. If he prefers that the other be a woman that is because he believes that a woman will be gentle, that she will understand. He wants, most of all, understanding.

George looks to Helen White for comfort less as an individual than as a nurturing woman. However, while he thinks of her, she is entertaining a young instructor whom her mother, the town organizer for poetry study groups, has invited down from college. Helen is also thinking of him. The main difference between George and Helen lies in the fact that George is caught between his thoughts of her and his thoughts of his own future, while she is much more involved in comparing two men than in seriously considering her independent existence.

When George and Helen next meet, George is more interested in telling her what he needs her to be than in listening to what she herself feels she needs:

“I want you to do something, I don't know what. Perhaps it is none of my business. I want you to try to be different from other women. You see the point. It's none of my business I tell you. I want you to be a beautiful woman. You see what I want.”

Helen is neither offended nor satisfied. They part before either one of them is ready and they both want to somehow reestablish contact. George's solution is to go over to her house. Helen is less comfortable being so calculating and simply runs to her garden and calls his name. He is within hearing by then and they walk, successfully establishing mutual feelings of unity. But it is George Willard's feelings, the narrator tells us, which are reflected in Helen White. He is renewed and refreshed by her presence. While the narrator feels comfortable dealing with George's thoughts, at this point of the novel, the narrator refuses to deal with Helen's. He tells us: “There is no way of knowing what woman's thoughts went through her mind but, when the bottom of the hill was reached and she came up to the boy, she took his arm and walked beside him in dignified silence.”

Helen White is thus reduced to an abstract figure whom we cannot know. She is the shadow of a strong woman and her major role at the end of Winesburg, Ohio is one of reflection rather than independent action. Here is Anderson's chance to develop a character who might try to break old patterns, find more life-giving categories, use her impulses and intelligence to form a balanced, self-directed life, but Anderson does not take it. We are given no evidence that Helen White will ever leave Winesburg or that she will ever transcend traditional roles. We have never seen her do so, and there is no suggestion that she can.

One might apologize for Anderson by simply accepting that George Willard's exit is what he is concentrating on at the end of Winesburg, Ohio, or, as Nancy Bunge points out in her article, “The Ambiguous Endings of Sherwood Anderson's Novels,” we might say that the ending of this novel reflects his general difficulty finding satisfactory endings. Bunge feels the inadequacy of his endings reflects his need to be optimistic:

Anderson would rather write novels with indeterminate endings than reinforce the despair he sees around him. The generous wish that Americans can be cured rather than a faulty aesthetic sense makes him stop in mid-air rather than follow the lives of his characters through to their logical conclusion.

I do not believe that the ending of Winesburg, Ohio portrays Anderson's lack of an aesthetic sense; nor do I believe that the ending portrays Anderson's generous wish that Americans be cured. Perhaps he does wish American men to be cured, for through George Willard he grants them mobility, but he cannot wish American women to be cured if he leaves them, like Helen White, at the platform speaking to the wind.

While Anderson is harsh in his final depiction of Helen White, this harshness seems to come from his discomfort in viewing her as anything more than a fulfillment of George Willard's momentary need for warmth. He is more comfortable with Tandy Hard who embraces her role as reflection. Only a child, she wants nothing more than to be “‘brave enough to dare to be loved.’” The grief to which she gives herself over at the end of her story is never explained. She sobs with abandon “as though her young strength were not enough to bear the vision the words of the drunkard had brought to her.” The story is presented without irony for Tandy Hard's solution is one whose legitimacy Anderson does not question. Anderson is also more comfortable when he presents Nell Gunther in “The Untold Lie,” because she is a threat to no male protagonist. She has been impregnated by Hal Winters who after some thinking decides to willingly do the honorable thing and marry her. Hal Winters is fond of her because she is strong and because she makes no demands. His older friend, Ray Pearson, trapped into marriage by his pregnant lover and now overwhelmed with pale, thin children, runs to discourage his friend from making the same mistake, but after Hal tells Ray of his intentions, Ray realizes that whatever advice he would have given Hal would have been dishonest. There are losses and gains for men whichever way they choose. In Winesburg, Ohio men are given the privilege of the decision and women are often rewarded for being silent and making no demands.

For all the sensitive attention Anderson can pay to his female characters, for all the sympathy he uses to present the story of Louise Bentley, Alice Hindman, and Kate Swift, for all his tenderness toward Elizabeth Willard, he does not, even when the opportunity naturally presents itself, create a female character who wants, and is able, to form her own life. It is interesting that between 1915 and 1917 when Winesburg, Ohio was being created, Anderson was attempting to form an I-Thou relationship with a woman; he did not succeed. It may be that through the Helen White-George Willard relationship Anderson is also attempting to form this type of relationship, but again he does not succeed. He is not yet ready, even fictionally, to create a liberated woman with whom his protagonist must relate on equal terms. But Sherwood Anderson is aware that attitudes toward women must change, for the lives women are forced to live are unnecessarily cruel and destructive. If Anderson does prefer women to be reflections of men, he does not want them to be tortured or destroyed. Winesburg, Ohio does not satisfactorily portray the possibility of an active, independent, and creative woman who is also a survivor, but at least it portrays the women whose lives are limited because they live within a system which was never created for their benefit. By exploring the lives of the women in Winesburg we explore the biases of a period, the biases of a town, and the biases of an author, but we also experience moments of insight from which we may explore our own biases, our own potential, and our own alternatives.


  1. Douglas G. Rogers, Sherwood Anderson: A Selective, Annotated Bibliography (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976), pp. 111-28.

  2. Edwin Fussell, “Winesburg, Ohio: Art and Isolation,” Modern Fiction Studies, 6 (Summer 1960), p. 106; Carlos Baker, “Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg: A Reprise, “Virginia Quarterly Review, 48 (Autumn 1972), p. 578.

  3. David D. Anderson, “Sherwood Anderson's Moments of Insight,” Critical Studies in American Literature: A Collection of Essays (Karachi, Pakistan: University of Karachi, 1964), p. 123.

  4. Chris Browning, “Kate Swift: Sherwood Anderson's Creative Eros,” Tennessee Studies in Literature, 13 (1968), p. 141.

  5. William A. Sutton, The Road to Winesburg: A Mosaic of the Imaginative Life of Sherwood Anderson (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1972), p. 503.

  6. Ray Lewis White, ed. Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs: A Critical Edition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1969), pp. 105-09; 135-41.

  7. Sutton, pp. 162; 181; 237.

  8. Sutton, p. 244.

  9. Sherwood Anderson to Oscar H. Fidell, January 9, 1933, Howard Munford Jones and Walter B. Rideout, eds., Letters of Sherwood Anderson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953), pp. 274-75.

  10. Irving Howe, “The Book of the Grotesque,” The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson: Essays in Criticism, Ray Lewis White, ed. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1966), p. 93.

  11. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (New York: The Viking Press, 1965), p. 115.

  12. Sherwood Anderson, The Modern Writer (San Francisco, Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, 1925), p. 29 as quoted in Bernard Duffey, Chicago Renaissance in American Letters (East Lansing: The Michigan State College Press, 1954), p. 203.

  13. Memoirs, p. 9.

  14. Sherwood Anderson to Waldo Frank, after? November 18, 1917, Letters, p. 26.

  15. Sherwood Anderson to Waldo Frank,? May, 1917, Letters, p. 14.

  16. Sherwood Anderson to Marietta D. Finley, December 21, 1916, Sutton, p. 328.

  17. Winesburg, Ohio, p. 178.

  18. Sherwood Anderson to Waldo Frank, December 14, 1916, Letters, p. 5.

  19. Sherwood Anderson to Waldo Frank, December 7, 1917, Letters, p. 28.

  20. Winesburg, Ohio, p. 73.

  21. Ibid., pp. 37-8.

  22. Ibid., p. 40.

  23. Ibid., p. 43.

  24. Ibid., p. 41.

  25. Ibid., p. 53.

  26. Ibid., p. 62.

  27. Ibid., p. 87.

  28. Ibid., p. 94.

Principal Works

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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

Clare Colquitt (essay date summer 1986)

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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 is the grand disease. It is what we are all trying to lose” (The Letters of Sherwood Anderson 166, 167). Given Anderson's faith in the redemptive possibilities of art, it is not surprising that the writer frequently compared “literary [and nonliterary] composition to the experience of pregnancy and deliverance, and also to the poles of maleness and femaleness in life” (Letters XV). One letter composed three years before the author's death well illustrates Anderson's understanding of the problematic nature of such “deliverance”:

The trouble with the creative impulse … is that it tends to lift you up too high into a sort of drunkenness and then drop you down too low. There is an artist lurking in every man. The high spots for the creative man come too seldom. He is like a woman who has been put on her back and made pregnant, but even after he gets the seed in him, he has to carry it a long time before anything comes out.

(Letters 414)

If, as Anderson claims, “There is an artist lurking in every man,” so, also, did the writer believe that there is a woman “lurking” in every artist. Indeed, the image of the male artist whose “lurking” burden is the female within is depicted repeatedly in the correspondence, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in a letter Anderson sent late in life to his mother-in-law, Laura Lou Copenhaver: “There is a woman hidden away in every artist. Like the woman he becomes pregnant. He gives birth. When the children of his world are spoken of rudely or, through stupidity, not understood, there is a hurt that anyone who has not been pregnant, who has not given birth, will never understand” (Letters 428).1

The assumptions “hidden away” within such assertions are easily gleaned from letters in which Anderson frankly acknowledges his “old-fashioned”2 views about men and women. In another letter to his son John, Anderson admitted, “I do not believe that, at bottom, they [women] have the least interest in art. What their lover gives to work they cannot get” (Letters 187). As a result, the writer held that the sole “high spot” available for women to experience in life is childbirth. To be sure, Anderson understood that the biological impulse also moves man,3 but, as he makes clear in letters to his male friends, the love of woman “isn't enough for an eager man”: “No woman could ever be in herself what we want or think we want” (Letters 168, 324). Thus, whereas woman's destiny is circumscribed by biology, man's destiny transcends the purely physical and finds consummate expression only in the creation of art. As Anderson explained to Dwight MacDonald in 1929:

There is no purpose other than the artist's purpose and the purpose of the woman. The artist purposes to bring to life, out of the … hidden form in lives, nature, things, the living form as women purpose doing that out of their lovely bodies.

The artist there[fore] is your only true male. …

(Letters 192)

The “tru[ly] male” quality of Anderson's artistic imagination and of his polarized worldview is forcefully represented in his short stories and novels, as well as in his letters and memoirs. Indeed, to speak of woman's destiny in the context of Anderson's fiction is to call to mind what is undoubtedly one of the master storyteller's most disturbing tales, “Death in the Woods.” Written at the “peak of his [creative] powers” (Howe 160), “Death in the Woods” has provoked a varied critical response, ranging from interpretations that see the tale much as Anderson claims he did, as a biological allegory depicting woman as feeder, to more recent interpretations that focus less upon the plight of the old farm woman and more upon the narrative consciousness that constructs her story. This shift of focus has led several critics to conclude that “Death in the Woods” is “a story about the creation of a story” (Joselyn 256; see also Robinson), hence Anderson's many attempts to unveil the mechanics of the creative process through the workings of the tale's narrative center, an older man who looks back to one scene from his childhood out of which he will spin his yarn.4 To borrow from the title Anderson gave to his first published memoir, “Death in the Woods” has been increasingly viewed as “a story teller's story.” As Wilfred Guerin argues, “It is a story about how fragments become a whole and have meaning, partly through the workings of the unconscious, partly through the conscious memory” (5).

That there exists an intricate bond connecting the “real story” (“Death” 423) of an old woman's life and death and the “creating” consciousness5 who narrates her tale has long been acknowledged. Critics have also observed that the relationship between narrator and reader is similarly complex. As early as 1959, Jon Lawry astutely perceived that the narrator's tortuous labors to give meaning to the death he describes are offered as both an interpretative and experiential model for the reader of “Death in the Woods” to follow: “The audience is invited to enter as individuals into a process almost identical with that of the narrator. … to share directly not only the narrator's responses but his act of discovering and creating those responses” (308). What few critics have since examined, although both Lawry and William Scheick point toward the issue, are the implicatory bonds that result when the reader blindly accepts this enticing invitation; for if the reader succumbs to the narrator's interpretative wiles, he becomes enmeshed in a web of guilt that connects him not only with the “I”/eye of the tale but also with the other men and boys in the woods who pruriently feed upon the body of a dead woman. By further exploring the peculiar design of this web, I hope to illumine the obsessive concern evidenced in this short story with the process of reading and making meaning. This is of course the very experience that Anderson's reader must also enact if the story is to be grasped, as the narrator himself claims to have done, as an aesthetic whole: “A thing so complete has its own beauty” (424).

Several critics have noted the somewhat unorthodox alternation of tenses that operates throughout “Death in the Woods,” as in the first paragraph of the story: “She was an old woman and lived on a farm near the town in which I lived. All country and small-town people have seen such old women, but no one knows much about them. Such an old woman comes into town driving an old worn-out horse or she comes afoot carrying a basket” (410-411). Although critics differ as to the effects of such shifts, many would agree with Guerin's explanation that “In this and in the second paragraph of the story the historical present tense of the verbs makes clear the timeless quality of the regularity of such old women and their doings” (4).6 Diverting the reader's attention from the particular to the general, from the life of one old woman to the experience of “such old women,” the narrator strives to “universalize” his story in a timeless setting by removing the “she” of his opening description from history and by granting himself the authority to speak of “all country and small-town people” in categorical terms. Such ahistorical maneuvering complements another effect of this passage that no critic has yet observed: “Death in the Woods” begins much like a fairy tale. Further, any reader who reflects upon the tales passed on in childhood may note a slight echo here with one of our culture's most famous allegories of female feeding, the Mother Goose story of the old woman who lived in a shoe. In addition, the reader may come to see Anderson's narrative as cautionary, particularly if other tales of wolves, women, and dark woods come to mind. From this initial description then the reader comes to two important realizations. First, the frame in which the “Death in the Woods” occurs is both fanciful and remote, a timeless realm that suggestively resonates with the surreal landscape of children's stories. Second, the reader learns that the tale is not to be interpreted simply as the narrative of an isolated farm woman but rather as a fiction that has universal implications. After all, one of the first statements the narrator makes about the old woman is that she is “nothing special” (411).

Having been thus directed toward the ostensible subject of the story, the reader soon finds that the interpretative process is effectively impeded by obtrusive references the narrator makes concerning his own past. Indeed, in the opening section of “Death in the Woods,” the reader learns almost as much about the narrator's childhood as about the plight of old country women. Interestingly, the narrator's allusions to his past closely resemble the boyhood recollections set forth in Anderson's memoirs; yet, despite the similarities that seem to link the storyteller with his tale, Anderson himself “persistent[ly]” interpreted the narrative of Mrs. Jake Grimes in thematic, not autobiographical, terms:

In a note for an anthology Anderson wrote that “the theme of the story is the persistent animal hunger of man. There are these women who spend their whole lives, rather dumbly, feeding this hunger. … [The story's aim] is to retain the sense of mystery in life while showing at the same time, at what cost our ordinary animal hungers are sometimes fed.”

(Howe 165)

Anderson's reading is a superb illustration of what John Berger calls critical mystification—“the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident” (15-16)—for as Irving Howe noted more than thirty years ago, this interpretation is “apt, though limited. … Anderson could hardly have failed to notice that the story may be read as an oblique rendering of what he believed to be the central facts about his mother's life: a silent drudgery in the service of men, an obliteration of self to feed their ‘persistent animal hunger,’ and then death” (166). Regardless of the limits of Anderson's analysis, one fact is clear: Anderson, like his narrator, is trying to steer critics of “Death in the Woods” away from the realm of history—from the varying records of a writer's conflicted relationship with his mother—to the hallowed domain of myth. Having fastened upon a presumably “safe” and unalterable interpretation of his story, Anderson thereby avoids public confrontation with painful memories of his childhood.

How painful those memories were is suggested in several of Anderson's more revealing letters. Of these, perhaps none more poignantly illustrates the writer's anguished ties to his past than one addressed but never mailed to Paul Rosenfeld. Given the highly personal nature of its contents, it is easy to see why Anderson chose not to post it; for far more than a simple communication to a friend, this lengthy letter represents an aging artist's “effort to justify” his politics and clarify his “obligation” as a writer (Letters 358). Of primary importance to Anderson in 1936 was his relationship with the proletariat, a relationship that led the writer to remember the tedious “hopelessness” of his mother's struggles to support her family:

You must remember that I saw my own mother sicken and die from overwork. I have myself been through the mill. I have worked month after month in factories, for long hours daily, have known the hopelessness of trying to escape. I have seen my own mother stand all day over a washtub, washing the dirty linen of pretentious middle-class women not fit to tie her shoelaces, this just to get her sons enough food to keep them alive, and I presume I shall never in my life see a working woman without identifying her with my mother.

(Letters 361)7

Several points immediately emerge from this passage. First, Anderson sees a significant portion of his own adult experience as closely resembling his mother's. As members of the working class, they have both “been through the mill.” Second, this excerpt obliquely suggests how much their lives diverged, for, unlike his mother, Anderson “escaped” and rose out of his class to enjoy a successful career as a writer. That he did so, he implies, is in some part a testament to his mother's decision to sacrifice herself “just to get her sons enough food to keep them alive.” Not surprisingly, a legacy of unresolved guilt still haunts the writer. Anderson avoided his mother's fate, it seems, precisely because he chose another course; for Anderson, self came first. Indeed, the proliferation of I's in this passage points toward the egocentric nature of his interests. In short, Anderson as artist is evidently more enthralled by his own vision of martyred motherhood than by the grim particulars of his mother's impoverished existence, hence the heavy reliance upon varying forms of the verb “to see” in the passage above: “I saw,” “I have seen,” “I shall never … see.”

This shift of focus away from the mother and toward the artist parallels the narrative stratagems employed in the opening section of “Death in the Woods.” Here the narrator also moves quickly to guide the reader's attention away from his apparent subject, an old farm woman, to what is ultimately his larger concern—himself. Particularly jarring is the narrator's first substantial digression concerning the liver he was forced to eat as a child, a digression that interrupts his account of what old women do when they come to town:

Such an old woman … takes [eggs] to a grocer. There she trades them in. …

Afterwards she goes to the butcher's and asks for some dog-meat. Formerly the butchers gave liver to anyone who wanted to carry it away. In our family we were always having it. Once one of my brothers got a whole cow's liver at the slaughterhouse near the fair grounds in our town. We had it until we were sick of it. It never cost a cent. I have hated the thought of it ever since.


Clearly, this is a narrator who needs close watch, for as such digressions multiply, the reader becomes increasingly fascinated not with the “real story” (423) of an old woman's death but rather with the peculiar manner in which her story is told. This first digression is peculiar enough, suggesting as it does a puerile hostility on the narrator's part toward his past as well as the bonds of poverty and sickness that bridge the narrator's memories of his childhood with the experience of “nameless” (411) country women. At this juncture, the narrator also reveals that when he first noticed the woman he soon identifies as Mrs. Jake Grimes, he himself was literally sick in bed with “inflammatory rheumatism” (411), a statement that takes on added significance when he subsequently remarks that Mrs. Grimes had journeyed to town even though “she hadn't been feeling very well for several days …” (415). Given the vehemence of these boyhood reflections, the reader might justifiably wonder at this point if the “inflammatory” child has ever fully recovered, for as the unpredictable narrator continues to weave his tale, the reader begins to sense that this man is still none too well.

Following this unsettling digression, the narrator sketches the rough outlines of Mrs. Grimes's life. Through him we learn that in her youth she worked as a “bound girl” (412)8 for a German farming couple: “At the German's place she … cooked the food for the German and his wife. … She fed them and fed the cows in the barn, fed the pigs, the horses and the chickens. Every moment of every day, as a young girl, was spent feeding something” (414). That her life was neither one of ease nor happiness becomes plain when the narrator discloses that the “young thing” (412) was sexually abused, perhaps raped, by her employer. Interestingly, however, the reader's knowledge of the bound girl's life is unstable, for the narrator evidences uncertainty concerning the particulars of her story. Thus, in the opening section of “Death in the Woods,” the narrator first hesitantly supposes that the young girl was “bound”—“You see, the farmer was up to something with the girl—she was, I think, a bound girl …” (412)—whereas only shortly afterwards he claims that he knows the woman was so: “I remember now that she was a bound girl and did not know where her father and mother were” (413). Such wavering causes the reader to question the narrator's confidence in the truth of the tale he says he has only “suddenly” remembered: “I have just suddenly now, after all these years, remembered her and what happened. It is a story” (411). By calling attention in this way to the manipulative possibilities of narration, Anderson directs his audience to larger questions concerning the nature of “story” telling. As Mary Joselyn observes, “the fact that [Anderson] goes out of his way several times to tell us that the story might have been told … differently is important, for these statements emphasize that the process of creation is essentially one of choice and of selection” (257).

The role that choice plays in the shaping of fiction is stressed on several occasions in “Death in the Woods” when the narrator returns to scenes or conversations that he has previously described. In the opening section of the story, the narrator records two conversations that take place between the bound girl and Jake Grimes, another employee on the German couple's farm. Although the conversations are not identical, the subject of these talks is: both focus upon the sexual abuse that the young girl allegedly suffered on the farm. The narrator first recounts that before Jake became the bound girl's lover, she confided in him that “when the wife had to go off to town for supplies, the farmer got after her. She told young Jake that nothing really ever happened, but he didn't know whether to believe it or not” (412). Between this and a later dialogue occurs a fight involving the German and his hired hand, which the narrator delightfully describes: “They had it out all right! The German was a tough one. Maybe he didn't care whether his wife knew or not” (413). In the midst of this passage, the reader gradually realizes that the narrator could not possibly know all the details he provides of the scene, for there were no witnesses to the brawl. Indeed, the narrator himself seems aware of this problem when he parenthetically inserts: “(I wonder how I know all this. It must have stuck in my mind from small-town tales when I was a boy)” (413). Following this admission, the reader learns of the conversation that takes place after the fight when Jake finds his lover “huddled up … crying, [and] scared to death” (413). Now, however, the narrator's phrasing suggests that the bound girl's “stories” are not to be believed: “She told Jake a lot of stuff, how the German had tried to get her, how he chased her once into the barn, how another time … he tore her dress open clear down the front” (413). The narrator's unwillingness to grant the woman any degree of credibility in either of these confessions is further emphasized when he reveals that Jake Grimes “got her pretty easy himself, the first time he was out with her” (412), an assertion that may once again lead the reader to wonder how the narrator can possibly “know all this.”

What Anderson himself knows of course is how to construct a story, a story that, as its narrative voice becomes increasingly assured, causes the reader to question any interpretation offered concerning the meaning of the life and death of Mrs. Jake Grimes. Indeed, as the description of the fight scene suggests, the narrator identifies himself less with the plight of the “young thing” who is “scared to death” (413) than with the men who are able to bind such women to their will. This is, moreover, not the only occasion in which the narrator reveals his sympathy with brutal forms of masculine expression, as is evident in the second section of the story when Mrs. Grimes makes her last trip to the butcher's:

she went to the butcher and he gave her some liver and dog-meat.

It was the first time anyone had spoken to her in a friendly way for a long time. The butcher was alone in his shop when she came in and was annoyed by the thought of such a sick-looking old woman out on such a day. … [He] said something about her husband and her son, swore at them, and the old woman stared at him, a look of mild surprise in her eyes as he talked. He said that if either the husband or the son were going to get any of the liver or the heavy bones with scraps of meat hanging to them that he had put into the grain bag, he'd seen him [sic] starve first.


In spite of the narrator's tacit assumption that his audience will see this interchange as positive, many readers imagining this encounter might question how “friendly” such a conversation would appear to a woman grown accustomed to “the habit of silence” (414) who suddenly finds her family being sworn at and threatened by a man she hardly knows.

Immediately following this passage, the narrator depicts the death that has been anticipated since the opening lines of the story. In this middle section of the narrative, the old woman starts her journey home. Laden with a sack of provisions too heavy for her, Mrs. Grimes decides to take “a short cut over a hill and through the woods. … She was afraid she couldn't make it” otherwise (416-417). In the midst of her “struggle” (416) home, the old woman “foolish[ly]” allows herself to rest against a tree and “quietly” (417) falls into a sleep from which she never completely awakes. The interest in the “strange picture” her death presents lies with the several dogs that are “running in circles. … round and round” her sleeping form: “In the clearing, under the snow-laden tree and under the wintry moon they made a strange picture, running thus silently in a circle their running had beaten in the soft snow” (418). At this point, the narrator shocks the reader by disclosing that he also has been part of a similarly “strange picture”: “I knew all about it afterward, when I grew to be a man, because once in the woods in Illinois, on another winter night, I saw a pack of dogs act just like that. The dogs were waiting for me to die as they had waited for the old woman that night when I was a child …” (419). Like most critics, Jon Lawry dismisses this revelation as fictive, suggesting that Anderson is striving to unveil the “negative capability” necessary to the artist (308). According to Lawry, even the narrator knows that at this moment he is telling tales. Evidence in the memoirs, however, suggests that the adventure in the Illinois forests may be interpreted less figuratively; for the experience the narrator records seems modeled upon a “strange performance” Anderson himself claims to have witnessed when, as a young man, he awoke to find himself encircled by a pack of dogs:

In the forest on the winter night dogs kept leaving the mysterious circle in which they ran and coming to me. Other dogs ran up the log to put their forelegs on my chest and stare into my face. It seemed to me, that night, that they were caught by something. They had become a wolf pack. …

That there was such a thing as man, that they were the servants of man, that they were really dogs not wolves in a primitive world. That night I stood the strange performance as long as I could and then I arose and ran. … I shouted. I … picked up a stick and ran among the dogs, hitting out at them.

(Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs 426)

“It was on that night,” Anderson avers, that he “got the impulse for one of [his] best stories” (Memoirs 425)—“Death in the Woods.”

In many respects these three “moonlit” pictures are strikingly similar, as if Anderson is attempting to suggest that the shared experience of the “primitive world” unites all human beings. To be sure, within the story itself, this is the moment at which the narrator most identifies with the plight of the dying woman; yet as soon becomes clear, his identification with her is remarkably shortlived. Indeed, the narrator survives the nightmarish “performance” precisely because he, like the combative writer depicted in the memoirs, is “young” and male and “ha[s] no intention whatever of dying” (“Death” 419). By contrasting the two male-centered portraits with the “strange picture” of Mrs. Grimes's death, I hope to show how fundamentally separate these varying wintry images are. A brief look at the history of the composition of “Death in the Woods” will aid this contrast.

If, as Anderson claims, “the telling of the tale is the cutting of the natal cord” (Story 93), then the creation of “Death in the Woods” was an exceptionally laborious birth.9 In his memoirs Anderson reveals that he “did not succeed in writing it at once. It was one of the stories I wrote, threw away and rewrote many times” (425). One fragmentary reference to an “old woman … who died alone in a wood on a winter day” appeared in 1924 in a passage from A Story Teller's Story where Anderson describes at some length the “strange life” that peopled his boyhood imagination:

As a boy lying buried in the hay I presume I had some such notion as that and later as a man standing by a lathe in some factory some such notion must have still been in my mind. I wanted then to be something heroic in the eyes of my own mother, now dead, and at the same time wanted to be something heroic in my own eyes too.

One could not do the thing in actual life so one did it in a new world created within one's fancy.

And what a world that fanciful one—how grotesque, how strange, how teeming with strange life! …

There are so many people in that land of whom I should like to tell you. … There is the old woman accompanied by the gigantic dogs who died alone in a wood on a winter day, the stout man with the grey eyes and with the pack on his back who stands talking to the beautiful woman as she sits in her carriage, the little dark woman with the boyish husband who lives in a small frame house by a dusty road far out in the country.


Somehow this “grotesque” image of an old woman's death became fused in the artist's imagination with that “strange performance” depicted in the posthumously published memoirs. There as well the experience in the woods looms larger than life as if the dogs roaming within and without Anderson's “fancy” world were all “gigantic[ally]” “large German police dogs.” Although Anderson never admitted to being “frightened” by this “primitive” encounter, certainly most people would see this experience as threatening:

How long I lay there that night I'll never know. I was warmly clad. It is possible that I slept and dreamed although I do not think so.

The dogs had become silent and then suddenly there was one of them, a large German police dog with his bare leg on my chest. He was standing, his hind legs on my legs, his forelegs on my chest and his face close to my face. In the moonlight I could look directly into his eyes.

I thought there was a strange light in his eyes.

Was I frightened?

Well, I can't remember.

(Memoirs 425-426)

Importantly, neither passage from these autobiographical writings is dominated by sexual overtones; nor does an undated precursor of “Death in the Woods” entitled “The Death in the Forest” depict as sexually menacing the “big ugly dogs” that accompany Ma Marvin (Mrs. Grimes in the final version) on her journey to town. Rather, the narrator simply mentions as a matter of fact that “of course [the] pack … one always saw lying about Ike Marvin's ruined saw mill … had come with her” (235). This early version of the story differs from “Death in the Woods” in other ways as well. Notably, in “The Death in the Forest,” the “Marvin dogs … gro[w] bold” only after the old woman is dead, at which time they tear through the bag on her back in order to get “the hunk of salt pork within” (235). Between this and the final version of the story we know as “Death in the Woods,” Anderson drastically reenvisioned the particulars of this scene. Whereas the “Marvin dogs” were merely “big” and “ugly,” the “Grimes dogs” are “all tall gaunt fellows” (418), and when one of them “left the running circle and came to stand before” the half-conscious woman, the “dog thrust his face close to her face. His red tongue … hanging out” (418-419). Clearly, this image represents a significant departure from those winter landscapes depicted in the memoirs and in the undated manuscript of “The Death in the Forest.” Bluntly put, in “Death in the Woods” the narrative thrust is directed elsewhere, for the threat Mrs. Grimes faces from these “tall gaunt fellows” is the threat of rape, as becomes plain when the narrator records what happens after the sleeping woman dies.

The seven dogs, which had run round Mrs. Grimes as if operating by “some old instinct, come down from the time when they were wolves” (418), now drag her thinly clad corpse into the open. As they rip the food sack from her back, they tear through her clothing “clear to the hip” (420), conveniently leaving her body unharmed. This last image echoes the earlier “rape” scene in which the German farmer tore the bound girl's “dress open clear down the front” (413), even as it also nicely complements the second section of “Death in the Woods” in which the narrator reasserts woman's role as feeder. According to his report, Mrs. Grimes's married life was merely an extension of the monotony she knew on the German couple's farm: “Horses, cows, pigs, dogs, men … [all] had to be fed” (416). Even her sexual relations with her husband are imaged by the fixated narrator as a form of feeding when he envisages Mrs. Grimes's relief at no longer being sexually desirable: “Thank heaven, she did not have to feed her husband—in a certain way. That hadn't lasted long after their marriage” (415).

In the final sections of “Death in the Woods” the process of reading and interpretation is brought to the fore, for the first person to discover the partially exposed body is a hunter who seemingly “misreads” the scene. “Something, the beaten round path in the little snow-covered clearing, the silence of the place, the place where the dogs had worried the body trying to pull the grain bag away or tear it open—something startled the man and he hurried off to town” to tell “his story”: “‘She was a beautiful young girl. Her face was buried in the snow’” (420, 421). Once again, the reader notes the narrator's identification not with the woman herself but rather with the man who had been so “frightened” by his discovery that he “had not looked closely at the body”: “If something strange or uncanny has happened in the neighborhood all you think about is getting away from there as fast as you can” (421). This rationalization sets the stage for the “mystical” transformations that result when a “crowd of men and boys,” including the narrator and his brother, accompany the hunter back into the forest. Following this journey, the young boy knows that he and his brother, like the hunter before them, will “have something to tell” (421).

The “fragments” (423) with which the narrator pieces together his story are modeled upon the hunter's wish-fulfilling vision of the “beautiful young girl”:

She did not look old, lying there in that light, frozen and still. One of the men turned her over in the snow and I saw everything. My body trembled with some strange mystical feeling and so did my brother's. It might have been the cold.

Neither of us had ever seen a woman's body before. It may have been the snow, clinging to the frozen flesh, that made it look so white and lovely, so like marble.


What the narrator remembers from this epiphanic moment is “only the picture there in the forest, the men standing about, the naked girlish-looking figure, face down in the snow. …” He further acknowledges that “the scene in the forest had become for me, without my knowing it, the foundation for the real story I am trying to tell. The fragments, you see, had to be picked up slowly, long afterwards” (423). As several critics have observed, this “real story” can be interpreted on one level as the boy's sexual awakening, or as William Scheick has argued, his failure to do so (144). On another level, however, this experience represents an aesthetic metamorphosis: the “slight thing,” who previously moved through town unnoticed, becomes in death a symbol for the feminine ideal, an object d'art worthy to serve as the “foundation” for a “real story.”

This final metamorphosis—woman into art—can prove disturbing, particularly if the reader has accepted Anderson's invitation “to enter … into a process almost identical with that of the narrator” (Lawry 308). Yet no matter how appealing this invitation is, our experience of this “mystical” transformation differs considerably from what the male posse “saw” in the woods, for even as Anderson's trembling narrator reenvisions this scene, we know, as the crowd in the forest does not, exactly who this woman is. Indeed, it is only when her body is carried back to town and protected from men's eyes by the blacksmith's coat that the beautiful marbled nude is discovered to be the naked corpse of the old Mrs. Grimes. In distinguishing between Mrs. Grimes's shifting status as “naked” and “nude,” I follow John Berger's analysis of these terms set forth in his insightful study Ways of Seeing. There Berger asserts that “To be naked is to be oneself,” as Mrs. Grimes is when there are no men or boys about pruriently relishing the “lovely” vision of her “frozen flesh.” Mrs. Grimes becomes “nude,” however, when she is put “on display.” As Berger maintains, “To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display” (54). Had the crowd encircling the “faceless” torso not been exclusively male, Mrs. Grimes might have been identified more quickly. That Anderson himself sensed this is suggested by a significant revision he made in the course of composing his story. In the early version of the tale I have already discussed, “The Death in the Forest,” the crowd that “went out to Grimes' woods” includes both men and women: “Even women who had no babies to look after went” (234). Largely because of this, the townspeople's discovery of Ma Marvin's clothed body seems quite prosaic when compared with that “mystically” male moment in “Death in the Woods” when the men and boys “see” only a projection of their collective imagination.

Importantly, the narrator returns in the final section of “Death in the Woods” to the episode in which he also “had a half-uncanny, mystical adventure with dogs in an Illinois forest” (423). What startles the reader in this passage is not the narrator's repeating himself—he has done that before—but rather the vague confession that prefaces this second reference to the “mystical adventure”: “Things happened. When I was a young man I worked on the farm of a German. The hired-girl was afraid of her employer. The farmer's wife hated her. I saw things at that place” (423). If nothing else has previously alerted the reader to the narrator's disturbing identification with the community of males that, within the bounds of this short story, routinely victimizes women, this hesitant admission should; for here the narrator firmly locates himself in a position of power identical to that of Jake Grimes, a position that grants him the ability to “get” frightened “young things” to satisfy his various hungers. Contrary to what William Scheick has argued, the young boy's sexual development clearly has progressed according to the definition of masculinity accepted by “all country and small-town people.”

Several critics have discerned the shattering effect with which Anderson's male narrators depict their initial sexual encounters with women. Judith Fetterley's analysis of “I Want to Know Why” pertains well to “Death in the Woods”: “What Anderson's boy resists is not just growing up, it is specifically growing up male” (14). Yet as Fetterley demonstrates in her criticism of the earlier story, and as I hope to have shown in my own study of “Death in the Woods,” any resistance felt by Anderson's narrators on this score is eventually overcome. Indeed, one might argue of “Death in the Woods,” as Fetterley does of “I Want to Know Why,” that the story is “infused with the perspective it abhors, because finally to disavow that perspective would be to relinquish power” (xiv). Or in the terms offered within Anderson's own interpretation of “Death in the Woods,” to abandon power is to become like one of those “women who spend their whole lives, rather dumbly, feeding” the “persistent animal hunger of man.” Thus, despite the narrator's attempts to sympathize with the “simple story” (424) of Mrs. Jake Grimes, his allegiances are ultimately with the powerful and most definitely closed male community—with the “crowd of men and boys” who go to the woods, with the “frightened” hunter and the “friendly” butcher, and most especially with the two men who strive to “get” the bound girl. Admittedly, the narrator does seem to regard Mrs. Grimes more compassionately than any other man who is fed by her; yet the story he tells deals less with the miserable reality of an old woman's life than with the transforming power of artistic genius. Indeed, it is only as an artist that the narrator can justify this woman's life by envisioning her in death as a “slight” but nonetheless “beautiful” “thing.” The “foundation” of this “real story” of the artist-as-a-young-man may rest upon the bones of a dead woman, but it certainly little concerns her. In short, the narrator/artist can effectively ignore the political realities facing “such old women” by making of one woman's life a poetical whole, a lyric that suggests that Mrs. Grimes's destiny—and by implication, the destiny of her sex—is biologically determined: “The woman who died was one destined to feed animal life. Anyway, that is all she ever did. She was feeding animal life before she was born, as a child, as a young woman working on the farm of the German, after she married, when she grew old and when she died” (423). The many cyclical images within the story, as well as the narrator's passing references to his own mother and sister (421), reinforce such a constricted view of woman's fate.

The essential hopelessness that pervades Anderson's fiction has long been recognized. As Robert Morss Lovett observed in 1922,

this hopelessness is not an interpretation playfully or desperately imposed on the phenomena of life from without by thought or reason; it springs from within; it is of the essence of being. … It is as if, to use Cardinal Newman's words, man were implicated from birth in some “vast aboriginal calamity”; only instead of placing the fall of man historically in the Garden of Eden Mr. Anderson traces it biologically to the egg.


To recall that Mrs. Jake Grimes herself takes eggs to market in order to buy food for her family; to recall that this woman dies only when she “foolish[ly]” deviates from her customary route home; to recall that the narrator interprets her existence solely in terms of feeding—to recall these is to realize that Anderson's own aesthetics are most narrowly “bound.” Naturally the story proves unsettling to many readers today; for if we are taken in by the interpretative web Anderson's narrator seductively dangles before us, if we also become trembling voyeurs in the woods, then we also implicate ourselves in that “vast … calamity” of masculinist convention that proceeds to dehistoricize woman by objectifying her into art. We may of course recognize the alluring contours of this web without becoming ensnared in the trap, which led one of America's most distinguished storytellers, Edgar Allan Poe, to maintain that the “most poetical” of melancholy subjects is not the story of a real woman's life but rather the “death of a beautiful woman” as imagined by the artist who loves her (486).


  1. One of Anderson's most illuminating apologies for his “children” appears in A Story Teller's Story, where the artist/mother records his discomfort at once having to listen to a speaker who “praised [him] as a writer but spoke slightingly of the figures that lived in the tales [Winesburg, Ohio]”:

    Could the man not understand that he was doing a quite unpermissible thing? As well go into the bedroom of a woman during her lying-in and say to her—“You are no doubt a very nice woman but the child to which you have just given birth is a little monster and will be hanged.” Surely any man can understand that, to such a one, it might be permitted to speak at any length regarding her own failings as a woman but—if the child live—surely this other thing must not be done. “It must not be condemned for the failings of the mother,” I thought shivering with fright. (93-94)

    For similar imagery, see also letters to Charles Bockler, Norman Holmes Pearson, and Gilbert Wilson (17 February 1931, 242-243; after 13 September 1937, 387-388; 12 October 1937, 390).

  2. The term is Anderson's and comes from a letter to Roger Sergel in which the writer explains why “the modern factory” has affected men and women differently:

    I dare say I [am] an old-fashioned male. I do not think that men and women are alike or that they react to life in the same way. I know that saying this often annoys some women, but still I stand my ground. I do not believe that women employees have been hurt by the modern factory as men have. It is possible for the woman to create in her own person in the flesh, and it is not possible for men. It seems to me that to be is as important as to do. Basically, I do believe that the robbing of man of his craft, his touch with tools and materials by modern industry does tend to make him spiritually impotent. I believe that spiritual impotence eventually leads to a physical impotence. This belief is basic in me. The darkness is a darkness of the soul.

    (Letters 377)

  3. Anderson's awareness of his own physical needs is well suggested in his correspondence. As he wrote Roger and Ruth Sergel, “I've never been able to work without a woman to love. Perhaps I'm cruel. They are earth and sky and warmth and light to me. I'm like an Irish peasant, taking potatoes out of the ground. I live by the woman I love. I take from her” (Letters 245). As I will argue in my paper, the narrator of “Death in the Woods” is similarly parasitic, for, like the other men particularized in the story, the artist/narrator also feeds upon the hapless Mrs. Grimes.

  4. Many critics have observed the frequency with which Anderson portrays artists in his work. William V. Miller, for example, asserts that “the most important character type in Anderson's stories is the artist. His stories are filled not only with painters and writers but also with potential artists, story-tellers like May Edgley in ‘Unused’; and what may be called the ‘artistic impulse’ is shared by an even wider scope of characters.” Although he never discusses “Death in the Woods,” Miller's comments on Anderson and his narrator/artists also apply to that story:

    [T]he distinctive narrators, whether they be Anderson thinly disguised or separate characters, are actively present in the stories, apparently creating the tale as it progresses and inviting attention to the process through little asides like “I don't know how I learned this” or “you know how it is.” Indeed, after we recognize the full dimensions of the role of the artist in Anderson's fiction, rare is the story in which we do not discover elements of this role.


  5. This last term is Jon Lawry's, who argues that the story concerns the gradual metamorphosis of the “receiving … consciousness” into a “creating” consciousness (307).

  6. Mary Joselyn argues similarly about this shift:

    The first part of the sentence is purely a statement of fact from and about the “real” world, a generalization framed in the present tense as a truism should be, but the second clause leaps out of the level of realistic detail to suggest a more universal realm where deeper issues are raised—the meaning of seeing, the amazing possibility of seeing better in a transforming half-light, of perceiving something not revealed clearly by the physical sight.


    William Scheick analyzes these shifts from another perspective, holding that “whenever the narrator elliptically moves from objective observation of the woman's dilemma to imaginative identification with her thoughts,” he “readily mixes past and present tense. … His confusion of tenses represents a suspension of time identical to what occurs during a mystical experience. He cannot pass beyond that frozen mystical moment when he unconsciously identified with the dead woman”


  7. Sherwood Anderson remembers his mother's struggles less bitterly in the following passage from the Memoirs:

    Often when the fall fear comes, I tell myself that it is because I am thinking of my mother, of how she suffered. She took in the family washing of other and more prosperous families and the winter must have been bitterly hard for her. I remember her blue cold hands, her skirts, sometimes frozen stiff so that she could take them off and stand them like skirts of wood beside the kitchen stove.


  8. In his autobiographical writings Anderson repeatedly asserted that his own mother had been “bound”: “Mother had been a bound girl and must have been quite lovely. Her picture, as a young and beautiful woman, is before me on my desk as I write” (Memoirs 33). However, as Ray Lewis White notes in his edition of Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs, “Emma Smith Anderson apparently was never a ‘bound girl’” (33). That the line separating fact from fiction is blurred in Anderson's personal commentary is irrelevant. What is important is the stratagem of avoidance by which Anderson as critic refuses to admit—or perhaps even see—the connections joining his “fictions” about his mother with his narrative of Mrs. Jake Grimes.

    The two women are also “bound” by their relative “fatherlessness.” In the first section of “Death in the Woods,” the narrator reveals that the “bound girl” “did not know where her father and mother were. Maybe she did not have any father. You know what I mean” (413). According to White, Emma Smith Anderson “may have had little family life as a child, for her father, William H. Smith, annulled his marriage to Emma's mother” shortly after her birth (Memoirs 33).

  9. Two versions of the story were published in 1926. The first appeared as an untitled chapter in the autobiographical Tar: A Midwest Childhood; later that year the story was published separately as “Death in the Woods.” Several changes distinguish the chapter in Tar from the story included in the September, 1926, issue of The American Mercury. The most important of these involves narrative technique: whereas in the former, the third-person narrator speaks to the “reader” about Tar (the unnamed “I”/eye of “Death in the Woods”) and his efforts to understand “the story of the old woman's death” (Tar 141), in the latter version of the tale, the first-person narrator speaks for himself and colloquially addresses his audience as “you.” Identical to the September, 1926, narrative is that which appeared in 1933 as the title piece to Anderson's last collection of fiction, “Death in the Woods” and Other Stories.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. “The Death in the Forest.” Ed. William V. Miller. Tar: A Midwest Childhood 232-236.

———. “Death in the Woods.” The Portable Sherwood Anderson. Ed. Horace Gregory. New York: Viking, 1972. 410-424.

———. Letters of Sherwood Anderson. Ed. Howard Mumford Jones and Walter B. Rideout. Boston: Little, 1953.

———. Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs. 1942. Ed. Ray Lewis White. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1969.

———. A Story Teller's Story. 1924. Ed. Ray Lewis White. Cleveland: P of Case Western Reserve U, 1968.

———. Tar: A Midwest Childhood. 1926. Ed. Ray Lewis White. Cleveland: P of Case Western Reserve U, 1969.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972.

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

Guerin, Wilfred L. “‘Death in the Woods’: Sherwood Anderson's ‘Cold Pastoral.’” CEA Critic 30 (1968): 4-5.

Howe, Irving. Sherwood Anderson. 1951. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1966.

Joselyn, Mary. “Some Artistic Dimensions of Sherwood Anderson's ‘Death in the Woods.’” Studies in Short Fiction 4 (1964): 252-259.

Lawry, Jon. “‘Death in the Woods’ and the Artist's Self in Sherwood Anderson.” PMLA 74 (1959): 306-311.

Lovett, Robert Morss. “The Promise of Sherwood Anderson.” Rev. of The Triumph of the Egg. Dial Jan. 1922: 79-83. Rpt. in Sherwood Anderson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Walter B. Rideout. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1974. 65-69.

Miller, William V. “Portraits of the Artist: Anderson's Fictional Storytellers.” Sherwood Anderson: Dimensions of His Literary Art. Ed. David D. Anderson. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1976. 1-23.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” 1846. Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. David Galloway. New York: Penguin, 1967. 480-492.

Robinson, Eleanor M. “A Study of ‘Death in the Woods.’” CEA Critic 30 (1968): 6.

Scheick, William J. “Compulsion toward Repetition: Sherwood Anderson's ‘Death in the Woods.’” Studies in Short Fiction 11 (1974): 141-146.

Further Reading

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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 biographical study.

Crowley, John W. New Essays on Winesburg, Ohio. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 133 p.

Original essays examining Winesburg, Ohio from various perspectives, including biographical, thematic, and comparative.

Miller, William V. “Sherwood Anderson's ‘Middletown’: A Sociology of the Midwestern Stories.” Old Northwest: A Journal of Regional Life and Letters 15, no. 4 (winter 1991-92): 245-59.

Examines the stories in Winesburg, Ohio for the sociological information they reveal about the American Midwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Papinchak, Robert Allen. Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, 190 p.

Surveys Anderson's short stories and reprints commentary by and about Anderson's work as a short story writer.

Scruggs, Charles. “The Reluctant Witness: What Jean Toomer Remembered from Winesburg, Ohio.Studies in American Fiction 28, no. 1 (spring 2000): 77-91.

Argues that in his short-story cycle Cane, Jean Toomer recontextualized “Winesburg's small-town psyche into a southern Gothicism that underlined [Toomer's] own social position in the American scene as an African American.”

Stouck, David. “Anderson's Expressionist Art.” In New Essays on Winesburg, Ohio, edited by John W. Crowley, pp. 27-51. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Notes commonalities between Anderson and the early-twentieth-century Expressionist movement in painting, photography, and drama.

Wetzel, Thomas. “‘Beyond Human Understanding’: Confusion and the Call in Winesburg, Ohio.Midamerica 23 (1996): 11-27.

Contends that a “sense of the indefinite, the concealed truth, and the confused narrative pervades all of Winesburg, Ohio, calling the reader to read indirectly, away from the obvious and confused ‘truth’ of how the stories appear, and to look for different sorts of cues to find the essence of personal truth within Anderson's tales.”

Additional coverage of Anderson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 30; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1917-1929; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 121; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 61; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 86; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 4; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 46; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 10, 11; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 10, 24; and World Literature Criticism.

David D. Anderson (essay date 1987)

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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 understood it when it appeared, and as he saw it five years later.

Earlier, in 1920, he had summed up his view of what he thought he had done in the novel in a letter to Jerome and Lucile Blum. At that time he wrote “The new novel [Poor White], out in October, will, I hope, build up the country about Winesburg, sweep Winesburg into the modern industrial life, show what made it an Akron, Ohio.”

Five years later, however, he had undergone several major transitions in his life: he had abandoned Chicago, New York, and New Orleans for the hill country of western Virginia, divorced Tennessee Mitchell and married Elizabeth Prall, and rejected the spirit of liberation that a decade earlier he had thought was so important; furthermore, in that five years he had published two novels, two volumes of stories, and a volume of memoirs, and he had a fictionalized autobiography of his childhood ready for publication. From this new perspective, he began to review the experience of Modern Library publication, and then turned to the book itself:

There is this book, Poor White—now to be published in The Modern Library, tricked out in a new dress, going to call on new people. The Modern Library is something magnificent. Long rows of names—illustrious names. My book, Poor White, feels a little like a countryman going to live in a great modern sophisticated city.

The book becomes now—well, let us say a house in a vast city.

With this new perspective, from experience, from writing, from the Virginia hills, he saw that Poor White was not merely the biography of a town as it became an industrial city as he had written to the Blums, but that, like Winesburg, Ohio, it was primarily about people:

Who lives in the house?

I began reciting names … Jim Priest, the farm hand who admired General Grant … Rose McCoy, the school teacher … Hugh McVey … Clara Butterworth … Steve Hunter, an early Rotarian … Sara Shepard … Joe Wainsworth …

I tried to put down the things you did to each other and the people about you and what other people, what life itself did to you.

Earlier, when he finished the novel and tried to assess his accomplishment, he recognized now, he had seen the appearance of the novel rather than its reality, the town rather than its people:

There was a town in the state of Ohio. The town was really the hero of the book. After Poor White was published none of the critics spoke of that. What happened to the town was, I thought, more important than what happened to the people of the town.

Why—well, because I presumed I realized all the time that after Joe, Jim, Clara and the others had been forgotten new people would be living in the town.

Five years later, however, Anderson knew that while his fictional town would continue to grow, to change to something no longer recognizable for what it had been, the people, those whom he had created and placed there were fixed in time and place, durable rather than ephemeral:

I sat in the back room of a saloon among sailors and while they talked of the sea little Joe Wainsworth killed Jim Gibson in a harness shop in the Ohio town. I was on the deck of a boat in the Gulf of Mexico and there came that moment when Hugh McVey crept out of his wife's bedroom. On another day I was in a quiet residence street at night. It was dark. I went along swinging my stick. People passed—knowing nothing.

And all the time as I walked that tall gaunt man, Hugh McVey, was creeping in the cabbage field at the edge of town, back in Ohio—that night when he frightened the French boys so that they ran away …

How much of all I felt, saw, knew of my people of my town, of the people of my fancy finally got into the book?

That you, the reader, will have to decide. Here is the book. I cannot change it now. It is very close to me and at the same time very far away.

In this introduction Anderson was not only closer to the novel and more understanding of what he had done at any time since he put the last words on paper, but he would never return to it in such intimacy again. Unfortunately, however, not only has this introduction almost uniformly been overlooked by critics and scholars, but the book, then and now, has continued to be seen as the biography of a Midwestern town in transition from its nineteenth century origins as the trading center of an agricultural region to its new twentieth century role as an industrial complex in a new technological age.

That dimension of the book is certainly important: it is, without question, the best fictional account of that transition that we have, and it does indeed show, as Anderson wrote, Winesburg as it became another Akron. But to accept that interpretation is, as Anderson recognized and tried to communicate to the readers of a new, inexpensive edition, to ignore or overlook the novel's most durable, most memorable dimension, that of the people of Bidwell. Like those of Winesburg, the people of Bidwell are memorable for their very humanity; they are durable in their attempts to express it, to define it, to make their indelible marks on the fragile pages that preserve the history of the evolution of their time and place.

Poor White is indeed the story of Winesburg become another Akron and of the creation of the American twentieth century. But it is also the story of those who came out of the nineteenth century, pursuing a humanistic ideal, only to create at the same time a new materialism and a new dimension of the perennial Midwestern—American—search for an elusive personal fulfillment. It is, in other words, the story of the two competing ideals of the eighteenth century that had been carried across the mountains and down the rivers in the early years of the nineteenth century to make of the Old West as it became the Midwest an intellectual—and often personal—battleground that would ultimately define the nature of the region and the nation in what we had, until recently, called the American century.

But Poor White is neither intellectual nor economic history. It is, like Winesburg, Ohio, the story of its people, and its substance is the intensity of their experience as twentieth century America became reality, as the Hamiltonian definition of progress fused with New England Puritan values to smash forever the Jeffersonian dream of a self-sufficient society of farmers and craftsmen, united by their common human dignity. For Anderson, the competing ideals, carried across the mountains and up the rivers by the men and women who sought order and fulfillment in a new land had, by the end of the 1860s, through the already mythical figures of Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, made a permanent mark on the national psyche. As the novel opens, the ideal of human freedom shared by Jefferson and Hamilton alike had become an attainable reality.

The story of the town and its people begins at that great nineteenth century social and cultural watershed in Midwestern—and American—history. Anderson describes that moment in detail in its human, its individual, its personal dimension:

In all the towns of mid-western America it was a time of waiting. The country having been cleared and the Indians driven away into a vast distant place spoken of vaguely as the West, the Civil War having been fought and won, and there being no great national problems that touched closely their lives, the minds of men were turned in upon themselves. The soul and its destiny was spoken of openly on the streets. Robert Ingersoll came to Bidwell to speak in Terry's Hall, and after he had gone the question of the divinity of Christ for months occupied the minds of the citizens. Then ministers preached sermons on the subject, and in the evening it was talked about in the stores. Every one had something to say. Even Charley Mook, who dug ditches, who stuttered so that not a half dozen people in town could understand him, expressed his opinion. …

… everyone knew his neighbor and was known to him. Strangers did not come and go swiftly and mysteriously and there was no constant and confusing roar of machinery and of new projects afoot. For the moment mankind seemed about to take time to try to understand itself.

It was to Bidwell at this time that Hugh McVey had come in 1889, at the age of twenty-three, in search of the most mundane manifestation of fulfillment: a job as telegrapher and agent at the Wheeling and Lake Erie station at Pickleville, a mile north of town. Behind him McVey left the early nineteenth century past: the sleepy Mississippi River town of Mudcat Landing, Missouri, and the primitive frontier roots of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, of Thomas Lincoln, of those who pursued their happiness in the territories, of those who, in Anderson's words in Winesburg, Ohio, sought their fulfillment in an environment characterized by an “old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence.”

But McVey, like Abraham Lincoln two generations earlier, becomes a townsman, and in so doing, becomes, again like Lincoln, a catalyst that unwittingly brings about a new American reality. Whereas Lincoln, however, had sought order and justice through law, a decision consciously arrived at, McVey fell under the influence of those who were to transform the Jeffersonian agrarian democracy into a Hamiltonian economic oligarchy. In turn, after having fallen under that influence, essentially the sense of guilt and of fear that had come across the mountains from New England to the Old Northwest, McVey became a tinkerer and a catalyst in the tradition of Edison and Henry Ford, and like them, he was to reshape the lives of the people in the town and beyond.

The impact of New England morality on McVey and through him on generations of Midwesterners is personified in Sarah Shepard, the first of the grotesques become myth, the motherly woman become the image of the New England conscience brooding over the Ohio countryside. When Sarah, the New England-born wife of Henry Shepard, the stationmaster, took over the direction of Hugh's life at fourteen, much as the Widow Douglas had attempted to take over Huckleberry Finn's, to “sivilize” him through imposition of the Puritan virtues of hard work, thrift, sobriety, and guilt that would bring success, Sarah herself takes on mythic proportions as the force who, single-handedly, will transform the brutal ignorance of the Old Western frontier to the orderly countryside of the new Midwest. To Sarah it was no less than her duty: “When a job has to be done,” she tells Hugh, “there's no use putting it off. It's going to be hard work to make an educated man of you, but it has to be done.” To her, idleness—which she called laziness—was evil, to be destroyed in the spirit, and her words rang in her head for the rest of his life:

“It's a sin to be so dreamy and worthless.”

Like Edison, born on the bank of Ohio's Huron River, Hugh becomes a telegrapher, and his riverbank dreaminess is transformed to a practical imagination useful to the new age. As a telegrapher, as a tinkerer, he came to Bidwell, on Ohio's rich agricultural lake plain as, Anderson notes, the time of waiting was coming to and end, and the town, the region, and the nation had determined the course of the future:

New talk ran through the town. A new force that was being born into American life … was feeding on the old dying individual life. … It was meant to seal men together, to wipe out national lines, to walk under seas and fly through the air. …

The wise old men of the town began to see the lives of the people in new terms. To Judge Hanby, the future was clear:

In England, he explained, the cities were constantly growing larger, and already almost every one either worked in a factory or owned stock in a factory. “In New England it is getting the same way fast,” he explained. “The same thing'll happen here. Farming'll be done with tools. Almost everything now done by hand'll be done by machinery. Some'll grow rich and some poor. The thing is to get educated, yes, sir, that's the thing, to get ready for what's coming. It's the only way. The younger generation has got to be sharper and shrewder.”

While at Pickleville, Hugh McVey watches the cabbage-planters in the fields along the railroad tracks and begins to tinker and a rich farmer, Tom Butterworth, sends his daughter Clara off to the state university in Columbus, another old man, a refugee in the town from New York City and post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South, sees the new age somewhat differently:

“Well, there's going to be a new war here,” he said. “It won't be like the Civil War, just shooting off guns and killing people's bodies. At first its going to be a war between individuals to see to what class a man must belong; then its going to be a long, silent war between classes, between those who have and those who can't get. It'll be the worst war of all.”

Life in the town, imbued with the spirit of the new age, began to take on an air of excitement. McVey produced a workable planting machine, to the curiosity of the town and the enthusiasm of its men of affairs, and Anderson recreates the town's commitment to what could be, and, for many of them, would be:

The air of Bidwell began to stir with talk of new times. The evil things said of the new life coming were soon forgotten. The youth and optimistic spirit of the country led it to take hold of the hand of the giant, industrialism, and led him laughing into the land. The cry, “get on in the world,” that ran all over America at that period … rang in the streets of Bidwell.

But for Joe Wainsworth, the journeyman harness-maker, perhaps a shadow image of Anderson's technologically-displaced father, insulted by a request to repair shoddy machine-made harnesses, the future would belong, as had the past, to the conscientious skilled craftsman:

During the afternoon, after he had heard of the four factory-made work harnesses brought into what he had always thought of as a trade that belonged to him by the rights of a first-class workman, Joe remained silent for two or three hours. He thought of the words of old Judge Hanby and the constant talk of the new times coming. Turning suddenly to his apprentice … he broke into words. He was defiant and expressed his defiance. “Well, then, let'em go to Phildelphia, let'em go any damn place they please. … I know my trade and do not have to bow to any man,” he declared. He expressed the old tradesman's faith in his craft and the rights it gave the tradesman. “Learn your trade. Don't listen to talk,” he said earnestly. “The man who knows his trade is a man. He can tell every one to go to the devil.”

But the machine-made harnesses continue to arrive at the Bidwell freight station, and they appear increasingly on the streets and the country roads, even as Bidwell's first factory, to manufacture McVey's planting machine and the other inventions to follow, rises along the railroad tracks. While Wainsworth mutters at his work and on the streets, a model of the planter appears, to the joy of the townspeople. But it drew, too, the denunciation of Ezra French, who had planted cabbage plants by hand all his life, twisting his body permanently in the process, and whose sons were to follow his path:

“The thing, you see, can't be done. It aint right. Something awful'll happen. The rains won't come and the plants'll dry up and die. It'll be like it was in Egypt in the Bible times. … Don't it say in the Bible men shall work and labor by the sweat of their brows? Can a machine like that sweat? You know it can't. And it can't do the work either. No, siree. Men've got to do it. … It ain't right. That's what I say and all your smart talk ain't a'going to change me.”

With the failure of the planting machine and of the company formed to manufacture it, to French, to Wainsworth, to the handful of other sceptics, it appears that justice and tradition will prevail, even at the cost of the savings of much of the town. But the corn-cutting machine and the coal-unloading machine that McVey invents are successes, the town flourishes, factories are built, farm hands become factory hands, and foreigners appear on the streets. The tinkerer, still practical, becomes rich, as do the town's men of affairs. The young men of the town are captured by the spirit of the new age, and local varieties of the new era's dreams of conquest, of manifest destiny, of class stratification appear among them. For young Harley Parsons, son of the shoemaker and himself an apprentice blacksmith, new-found prosperity in the nearby oil fields make possible a personal victory over the old world and far places:

He came home wearing a fancy silk vest and astonished his fellows by buying and smoking ten-cent cigars. His pockets were bulging with money. “I'm not going to stay long in this town, you can bet on that,” he declared one evening as he stood, surrounded by a group of admirers before Fanny Twist's Millinery Shop on lower Main Street. “I have been with a Chinese woman, and an Italian, and with one from South America.” He took a puff on his cigar and spat on the sidewalk. “I'm going back and I'm going to make a record. Before I get through I'm going to be with a woman of every nationality on earth, that's what I'm going to do.”

But for other young men of the town, the new agression manifests itself in the economic and socal opportunities available in the town and the new age as a new social structure, compounded of money and power, begins to appear. Young Ed Hall, formerly a carpenter's apprentice in the town, becomes a foreman in the new corn-cutter factory at a salary of twenty-five dollars a week. Anderson describes the result:

It was more money than he had ever dreamed of earning in a week. On pay nights he dressed himself in his Sunday clothes and had himself shaved at Joe Trotter's barber shop. Then he went along Main Street, fingering the money in his pocket and half fearing that he would suddenly awake and find it all a dream. He went into Wymer's tobacco store to get a cigar, and old Claude Wymer came to wait on him. On the second Saturday evening after he had got his new position, the tobacconist, a rather obsequious man, called him Mr. Hall. It was the first time such a thing had happened and it upset him a little. He laughed and made a joke of it. “Don't get high and mighty,” he said, and turned to wink at the men loafing in the shop. Later he thought about the matter and was sorry he had not accepted the new title without protest. “Well, I'm foreman, and a lot of the young fellows I've always known and fooled around with will be working under me,” he told himself. “I can't be getting thick with them.”

Ed walked along the street feeling very keenly the importance of his new place in the community. Other young fellows in the factory were getting a dollar and a half a day. At the end of the week he got twenty-five dollars, almost three times as much. The money was an indication of superiority. There could be no doubt about that. …

For Joe Wainsworth, the harnessmaker, for the former farm hands, and for Peter Fry, the blacksmith, the new values and the products and the system out of which they came are incomprehensible and their effects on the townspeople deplorable, both upon those who rise in the new society and the taciturn farm hands turned factory workers whom it victimizes as they lose the dignity and the mobility that once had been theirs. For Wainsworth, the result is a grudging concession that eventually explodes into violence; for Fry, for Smoky Pete, as the town knows him, it is a new role as the town's conscience, its Jeremiah, come from his forge and his small house, threatened by expanding factories, to walk the streets of Bidwell, calling down condemnation and judgment on those corrupted by the new values. At Sandy Ferris, the housepainter taken to drink, he shouts, “You cheap thing, warming your belly with whisky while your children freeze … ;” for Pen Beck, a merchant and elder of the church, whom rumor had caught in an indiscretion that included drinking and a bout with a notorious woman of the county seat, his indignation turns to ridicule on crowded Main Street: “Well, Penny, my lad, so you went for a night among the ladies? You've been fooling around with my girl, Nell Hunt, over at the county seat …,” and to the townspeople: “He didn't commit adultery. I don't want you to think that happened. All that happened was he bit my best girl, Nell Hunter on the neck. …”

With that, Anderson recounts, “The merchant, white with anger, rushed up and struck him a blow on the chest with his small and rather fat fist. The blacksmith knocked him into the gutter and later, when he was arrested, went proudly off to the town mayor and paid his fine.”

To prosperous farmer Tom Butterworth, seen slipping into the millinery shop at night, Smoky Pete makes the source of his indignation clear: “Well, Tom Butterworth, you're fooling around with Fanny Twist. You're sneaking into her shop late at night, eh? … Are you and Fanny Twist going to open a house here? Is that the next industrial enterprise we're going to have here in this town?”

Smoky Pete, the town concludes, has gone crazy.

For one of the French boys, son of old Ezra, who had denounced McVey's first invention, another kind of disillusionment comes, and he walks along the railroad track with a group of factory hands, muttering and cursing.

… I thought I'd come to town to a factory and find it easier here. Now I've got married and have to stick to my job no matter what they do. In the country I worked like a dog a few days a year, but here I'll probably have to work like that all the time. It's the way things go. I thought it was mighty funny, all this talk about factory work being so easy. I wish the old days was back. …

For Joe Wainsworth, an abortive effort at change, at adapting himself and his craft to the machine age and its values, results in humiliation and tragedy. While socialist union organizers arrive in town to attack the Ed Halls and promise dignity to the farm hands turned factory hands, moving inexorably toward the “long, silent war between classes” predicted by the wise old man when Bidwell was a village, Wainsworth buries himself in his work and his brooding, turning the day-to-day operation of the shop to Joe Gibson, his journeyman harnessmaker. Gibson is an individualist and, like many of his contemporaries, a “spiritual bully,” who is determined to rise in the new age. But his success will not come though the hard work that had brought Wainsworth to mastery of an obsolete craft and near-despair; it will come through acquiring personal power:

… A week before, a traveling man had come to the shop to sell machine-made harness. Joe had ordered the man out and Jim had called him back. He had placed an order for eighteen sets of the harness and had made Joe sign the order. The harness had arrived that afternoon and was now hung in the shop. “It's hanging in the shop now,” Jim cried [to workmen outside in the street]. Go see for yourself.”

For Joe, humiliation was complete:

… In his hand he held his harness-maker's knife, shaped like a half moon and with an extraordinarily sharp circular edge … on the day after the incident of the placing of the order for the factory-made harness he had gone into a hardware store and bought a cheap revolver. He had been sharpening the knife as Jim talked to the workmen outside … Joy shown in his eyes [as Joe returned to work].

With one stroke, Jim is nearly decapitated, and Joe goes off into the street, the revolver in his pocket, the cries of workmen—“Hey … do you believe in factory-made harness now-days, Joe Wainsworth? Hey, what do you say? Do you sell factory-made harness?”—ringing in his ears. On a street corner he encounters Steve Hunter, the entrepreneur who had brought the new times to Bidwell; Joe shoots him dead, and dropping the revolver, flees into the woods to seek his own death.

With Joe's ultimate indignity, captured by Ed Hall, the new superintendent of the corn-planter factory, in his refuge in the woods, the subjugation of the town and its old values is complete. Those whose values were not conducive to survival in the new age, the technologically displaced craftsmen, the voices crying out against the new materialism, fade away, their cries falling mute under the triumphant whistles of the factories. The people of the old Bidwell take their places in an American Midwestern past rapidly moving from reality to myth, from childlike innocence and brutal ignorance to a pastoral paradise that never was. Living people in the novel provide the record of a period of social change, whether pointing the way, as did Sarah Shephard when she inadvertantly introduced the Puritan ethic to a primitive youth, or attempting to stop a force they do not understand, as do Ezra Frank, Smoky Pete, and Joe Wainsworth, who protested the effects of that ethic on the society they founded and in which they flourished. But each of them becomes, as the factory whistles shriek, not a living person in a town become a city, but a grotesque become myth as elusive thought become truth slips out of helpless fingers. Each becomes a vague memory, a shadowy image in a new vision of what was, and, the whistles make clear, will never be again.

For those who brought the new age into being—Hugh McVey, who made it possible, Ed Hall, who transformed the ideas of a rustic genius into bricks and mortar and whistles, Clara Butterworth, who sought a new, personal freedom and a new meaning in her marriage to McVey—the book is unended; Hugh and Clara find each other and seek a new, post-industrial fulfillment, but Hall and his cohorts are part of a newer, more brutal ignorance unmitigated by the childlike innocence of the Frenches, the Wainrights, the Jeremiahs of the Ohio countryside. Their voices, stilled, have been replaced by the harsh, impersonal whistles that suggest ultimate failure for Hugh and Clara, and final and permanent but empty victory for the Ed Hallas as the novel ends.

Martin Bidney (essay date summer 1988)

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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 passages which metaphorically articulate his psychological and artistic ideal. The first of these orienting passages occurs in the prefatory “Book of the Grotesque”; the second is found in the visionary tale “Tandy,” at the exact center of the volume, with ten stories preceding and ten following (the preface excluded); the third appears in “Sophistication,” George's culminating epiphany, near the book's conclusion. We have in these three passages the beginning, middle, and end of a progress of vision: first an old writer sees the androgyne vision in quasi-scriptural figurations; then a drunkard sees it as potentially realizable in the future growth of Tandy; finally George and Helen experience it for the briefest of moments on earth.

The old writer in “The Book of the Grotesque” sees the androgynous potential within himself. Close reading of the relevant passage shows its central image subtly doubled—an androgyne within an androgyne: “He was like a pregnant woman, only that the thing inside him was not a baby but a youth. No, it wasn't a youth, it was a woman, young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight.”2 “He” is “like” a “woman”—male and female fused—and the “woman” inside him, at first indistinguishable from a “youth,” wears “mail like a knight.” The images are arranged in a male-female symmetry: the “youth,” moved aside for a moment to make way for the young woman, returns in the final image of the armored knight. Going from old man to pregnant woman to baby to youth to young woman to knight, we are left with an androgynous blur, something between Joan of Arc and Don Quixote. The coat of mail of the questing knight suggests the qualities which masculinity is held to add to the androgynous synthesis: boldness and initiative, to balance the intimacy and receptivity of the female in the Anderson world. The female within the old man looks male and wears mail.

This vision of androgynous wholeness is the “young thing within the writer” (22), the thing that “saved the old man” (25) from becoming a grotesque. It is a vision of life “in the beginning when the world was young” (24)—Genesis—and it is introduced by a conversation with a compassionate carpenter, “for the purpose of raising the bed” (24)—a play on “raising the dead,” or the Apocalypse (cf. “For a time the two men talked of the raising of the bed” [21]). The carpenter—Anderson's hint at a Jesus-family theme, with messianic resonances—becomes “the nearest thing to what is understandable and lovable of all the grotesques in the writer's book” (25), for his womanly weeping endears him to the writer: it shows that he too approaches a male-female synthesis. We learn from the writer's vision that the seizing of individual truths—primal apple-greed—turns them into fallen falsehoods: the imagery of that vision informs us further that the supposed truths, but real falsehoods, of isolated maleness and femaleness are the worst consequences of the fall.

Angus Fletcher has argued that the protagonists of all allegories are “divided androgynes”: for him, allegories shade into religious or mythic vision when their fixated, one-sided personae approach androgynous awareness, as in the concluding apocalypses of Blakean epics.3 Certainly the Andersonian vision, at once spiritual and psychological, has marked affinities with the Blake-Shelley tradition of androgynous mythmaking. Albion must unite with Jerusalem, Prometheus with Asia, a male psychic/cosmic force with its female counterpart: the apocalyptic marriage means, for both world and mind, a higher version of primal wholeness.4 Later writers have focused either on the religious expressions of this vision, as Eliade in The Two and the One (originally titled Méphistophélès et l'Androgyne), or on its psychological content, as in Jung's posited unity of male self with anima, female with animus. Psychological androgyny has been more recently reconceived by June Singer and Carolyn Heilbrun.5 Sherwood Anderson contributes powerfully to this important tradition.

Central to the meaning of Winesburg, Ohio are the utterances of Anderson's persona, the visionary drunkard of “Tandy.” The unnamed, and thus intriguingly mysterious, “stranger” sees a five-year-old girl whom he speculatively envisions as perhaps the future woman of his lifetime dream, the new woman who will be “strong to be loved,” who will be—in a phrase of crucial import—“‘something more than man or woman’” (145; emphasis added). It is implied that God is peculiarly manifest in this young girl: we are encouraged to believe that Tandy Hard (her new first name the drunkard's visionary gift) will be the divine woman—or man-woman, since she must transcend male and female. The mysterious stranger has a “faith” in the new “strong and courageous” being, but he fears his faith “will not be realized” (144-45). Tandy Hard can hardly “bear the vision” (146) thrust upon her.

What does it mean to be “strong to be loved”? What does it mean to say, as the drunkard says to Tandy, “‘Be brave enough to dare to be loved’”? (145). Strength here seems closely allied to initiative and courage; “to be loved” implies intimacy and receptivity. Be “strong,” or “dare,” plus “to be loved” thus strongly suggests the formula: Be man plus woman; be the androgyne. The phrases “dare to be loved” and “strong to be loved” connect the androgynous vision of “Tandy” with George and Helen's initiation into maturity near the book's end. George “wanted to love and to be loved by” Helen (241). This is a clue that George—and Helen, too, who has similar feelings at the same moment—has understood, as the drunken visionary wanted Tandy Hard to understand, the need to combine and thus transcend both active and passive, boldness and vulnerability, the need “to love” and the need “to be loved.” Just as Tandy has sobbed “as though her young strength were not enough to bear the vision the words of the drunkard had brought to her” (146), so too George has to try “With all his strength” to “hold and to understand the mood that had come upon him” (241).

How does one go about daring to be loved—combining strength and tenderness, boldness and vulnerability, active initiative and quiet receptivity, so as to become “‘something more than man or woman’”? The people of Winesburg do not show us. Instead, they characteristically overcompensate for the frustrations of imposed or felt passivity by a blind rush into some form (often a destructive or unreasoned form) of activity. Rebelling against feeling “female”—and this applies to men as well as women—they try, desperately and ineffectually, to assert their “maleness.” But afterward they fall back into their original passivity, or else their “male” and “female” qualities simply persist, together but separate, in mutual antagonism. In place of androgynous synthesis, we see a double distortion in the grotesques of Winesburg. Femaleness becomes twisted or suppressed into mere passivity, and maleness becomes brutally simplified into mere egotistic assertiveness or gestures of pointless aggression.

All of Anderson's characters in Winesburg are failed androgynes—even Tandy and George are not so much exceptions as intimations of something different, suggestions for the future social or spiritual development of our capacity for synthesis. But their failure would mean little if their inherent potential for androgyny were not correspondingly great. And just as, in Romantic mythmaking, the artist is the intensified type of humanity in general, so too in the neo-Romantic Andersonian world it is the artist who embodies the most urgent need and longing for androgynous synthesis, which is the fundamental requirement of Andersonian humanity.

The two women whose mental worlds Anderson describes most fully in Winesburg, Elizabeth Willard and Kate Swift, are also the women who correspond most fully to the designation of failed artist. Elizabeth combines the interrelated roles of failed actress and failed androgyne:

For years she had been what is called “stage-struck” and had paraded through the streets with traveling men guests at her father's hotel, wearing loud clothes and urging them to tell her of life in the cities out of which they had come. Once she startled the town by putting on men's clothes and riding a bicycle down Main Street.


Elizabeth dreams of combining male boldness and female intimacy, of “wandering over the world, seeing always new faces and giving something out of herself to all people” (46). Turned eventually by overwork into a “ghostly” shadow of her true self, she one day overhears her husband berating their son for acting like an absent-minded, “‘gawky girl’”: “‘You're not a fool and you're not a woman. You're Tom Willard's son and you'll wake up. … If being a newspaper man had put the notion of becoming a writer into your mind that's all right. Only I guess you'll have to wake up to do that too, eh?’” (44). Elizabeth realizes that her husband is trying to suppress or distort the boy's androgynous potential, to make George equate “fool” and “woman” so he will think of writing not as expression of intimacy but as male-oriented journalistic pragmatism.

Because Elizabeth has been praying to God for years to let “‘this boy be allowed to express something for us both’” (40)—i.e., to achieve a form of expression that would combine his truth and her own in a synthesis of male and female inwardness—she reacts vigorously to the threat her husband now poses. To defend George against the imminent destruction of his androgynous/artistic instinct—“the thing I let be killed in myself” (43)—she resolves to stab Tom with her dagger-like sewing scissors, half hoping that after the murder she too would suddenly die. But she collapses on a chair when she hears George's footsteps outside, and when he tells her of his decision to leave town to “‘to go away and look at people and think’” (48), she feels too weak, perhaps too permanently repressed, to express her joy. It is wonderful that George still has a chance to become a true, uncorrupted writer, but Elizabeth's own chance at a starring role in high tragic drama has just passed her by.

Kate, too, is a failed artist/androgyne. Her frustrating internalized passivity and consequent sadomasochistic overcompensation attempts parallel those of Elizabeth. For schoolchildren she teaches, but even more for her own benefit, Kate makes up “intimate” stories about Charles Lamb, counterbalanced with anecdotes about “bragging, blustering, brave” Benvenuto Cellini (161)—a revealing choice of contrasting heroes, mild modesty and violent braggadocio respectively embodied in figures manifesting those elements seen as “female” and “male” in Winesburg society. Like Elizabeth, Kate wants George to express something in his writing for her also. In fact, she is in love with him, though most of the time she doesn't realize it, and when he fails to respond to her confused advances, she beats on his face with her fists. Aggressively but vainly, she rebels against her passive “female” role. As we see her walk distractedly through the wintry streets with her “features of a tiny goddess on a pedestal” (160), we recall the vague “gods” which timid Dr. Reefy claimed that he and Elizabeth Willard had worshiped together. Anderson uses fantasy-deities and pedestalled goddesses as ironic comments on the imprisoning idealizations practiced by imaginatively gifted but confused and inhibited people. One is amazed at the boldness of the sarcasm Anderson directs against forms of idealism which, he feels, frustrate union and thwart internal synthesis: it is no accident that Kate, on one of her walks, follows a street that “led over Gospel Hill and into Sucker Road …” (161).

Less imaginative than Elizabeth and Kate, and with less androgynous potential, Alice Hindman and Belle Carpenter make less determined efforts to counter the frustrations of their imposed “female” vulnerability. Alice, left behind by a man, remains faithful for two or three years to the quixotic ideal of his eventual return. But even after giving up on him, Alice lacks the initiative to seek out anyone else, except on one occasion when, seized with the wish to convert her vulnerability into defiance, she impulsively runs naked from her house to the sidewalk in the rain. When the man to whom she desperately calls turns out to be old and half deaf, she treats this fact simultaneously as a relief and as a punishment. She makes a swift retreat, physically into her home, mentally into a stoical acceptance of the supposed “fact that many people must live and die alone …” (120). Principled subjection to her supposed fate is Alice's form of mind-stunting idealism. Belle Carpenter seems somewhat stronger—“When black thoughts visited her she grew angry and wished she were a man and could fight someone with her fists” (179)—but after only one brief, delightful episode of defiance, when she smeared soft mud on her tyrannic father's clothes-press, she reverts to her customary passivity. She even chooses as her beloved a man who, in his bullying aggressiveness, is a mere copy of her bullying father, who had brutally abused her mother. Her only defiance of Ed Handby—a few walks with the notably unthreatening non-rival George—is of the mildest sort. Like Alice, Belle understands maleness as pure activity, femaleness as sheer passivity. Since both conceptions are badly oversimplified, neither woman can imagine a valid androgynous synthesis. What's needed is “something more” than “man” or “woman” as Winesburg grotesques like Alice and Belle understand these terms.

Louise Bentley—to conclude the roster of major Winesburg women—is highly intelligent, enough so to serve as provocation for the jealousy of the two Hardy sisters, who play the role of evil stepsisters to Louise's Cinderella. But she, too, quickly reverts from balked “male” ambition (“Be strong,” “dare”) back to “female” passivity (“to be loved”), and cannot begin to conceive of the needed androgynous synthesis. Frustrated in her intellectual ambition, she seeks salvation in being loved by some Prince Charming: “Sometimes it seemed to her that to be held tightly and kissed was the whole secret of life” (94). She places her faith in “Surrender” (the title Anderson gives to his account of her younger years), and when satisfaction in marriage fails, she, like Elizabeth Willard, resorts to futile gestures of murderous aggression: “She got a knife from the kitchen and threatened her husband's life” (74). Then she turns the sadism into masochism—or combines the two—through drugs, drink, reclusiveness, and frantic driving, aimlessly, “furiously through the quiet streets” (75). Louise conforms to the typology of the Winesburg woman, who seeks to make up for the limitations of “feminine” tenderness and receptivity through some act of “masculine” boldness or daring. Such acts prove useless: defiance is fruitless; destructive impulses boomerang.

We have seen that this pattern of impulsive but futile overcompensation takes variant forms among Winesburg women. The compensatory activity is sometimes aggressive, sometimes self-destructive (or both together), and sometimes it is still so submerged or muffled by inhibitions as to be hardly more than a pathetic gesture, mere token rebellion, followed by regressive perseveration in the behavior it was meant to counteract. The men of Winesburg, starting from the same frustrating feeling of imprisoning (“female”) passivity, overcompensate in the same ways as the women, with equally disappointing results. Re-actions rather than actions, their assertions of “maleness” are panicky, misguided, distortive.

The pattern shown by Elizabeth, Louise, and Kate is repeated in the lives of Elmer Cowley, Curtis Hartman, and the George Willard of “Nobody Knows.” Elizabeth and Louise threatened their husbands with knives; Kate beat on George's face with her “fists” (165). The Winesburg men aren't desperate enough for knives, but Elmer and Curtis carry over the fist motif. Perennially passive Elmer finally projects years of frustration at being considered “queer” on the nearest person who might serve as embodiment of the community he feels has victimized him: Elmer hits George Willard “blow after blow on the breast, the neck, the mouth” (201). Afterward Elmer feels less “queer.” But the meaningless tokenism of Elmer's revolt does nothing to free him from his lifetime of passive subjection to his supposed fate of queerness.

Rev. Curtis Hartman thinks he wins a violent victory through the strength of God. But the only God that Anderson values is the God “manifesting himself in the little child” Tandy, the potential androgyne (143). And this God will remain forever unknown to fearful Hartman, who tries to fight off lustful thoughts by smashing the stained glass window with a hole in the corner, through which he had seen the naked figure of Kate Swift. But it was only through such voyeurism that Hartman had ever succeeded in generating enough passion to enable him, for the first and only time, to be “something like a lover in the presence of his wife” (151). So Hartman's bloody fist indicates nothing but self-defeat, a relapse into passive celibacy-within-marriage. Hartman's brief aggressive act wholly defeats his maleness and insures the continuance of his lifelong passionless passivity.

George, too, tries to use egotistic “male” aggressiveness to counteract a deeper “female” fear. On his way to a tryst initiated by Louise Trunnion's note, George “was afraid … that he would lose courage and turn back” (59). Like Wash Williams, he timidly imagines that “Just to touch the folds of the soiled gingham dress” of his love object would “be an exquisite pleasure” (60). Overreacting against the idealizing timidity that makes him feel unmale and vulnerable, George finally, for the briefest moment, becomes “wholly the male, bold and aggressive,” with “no sympathy” for Louise “in his heart” (61). But after this bit of cruelty, his nervous unease predictably returns: hapless, exaggerated gestures contain no promise of synthesis.

Anderson also offers several richly developed male examples of the same kind of heavily inhibited and thus merely token rebellion enacted by female personae such as Elizabeth and Belle. Tom Foster, Seth Richmond, and the George of “An Awakening” all illustrate the paradigm of pathetically inhibited, token boldness or “male” activity, followed by relapse into a “female” passivity which hardly makes much of a contrast. Maleness is as hopelessly oversimplified and misunderstood as femaleness in Winesburg.

Tom and Seth are astonishingly passive people, grotesques of overwhelming “femaleness” as Winesburg understands it, males without “mail.” “So gentle” was Tom's nature “that he could not hate anything and not being able to understand he decided to forget” (215). Brought up in rough circumstances, he edits the roughness out of consciousness—or tries to. It returns in his fantasies, transformed into masochistic pleasure. When he falls “in love with Helen White,” he images her as a flame to his dry and leafless tree, a stormy and “terrible” sea-wind to his solitary, abandoned boat (216). When, in a mood of rebellion, Tom resolves to imitate all those other people he sees and knows—that vast majority of mankind which “suffers and does wrong”—he decides to get drunk. Getting drunk, he feels, is the only thing he can do that would not “hurt someone else” (219); it is unaggressive. It's “like making love” because it “hurt … and made everything strange” (219): pleasure and meaning are seen as things painfully inflicted. Activity is possible for Tom only insofar as it feels like passivity. He wholly lacks the “male” component of the needed androgynous unity.

Seth is even more passive, more grotesquely non-“male.” Tom, at least, savors a myriad of tiny joys, but Seth “sometimes wondered if he would ever be particularly interested in anything” (133). Resolved to court Helen White, Seth imagines himself “buried deep among the weeds beneath the tree,” holding hands with Helen, who is buried right beside him; a “peculiar reluctance” keeps him from kissing her, and he listens instead to the “masterful song of labor” of the bees overhead (140). Like Tom, Seth cannot transcend masochistic passivity (death, burial) even in his fantasies: love itself must take this symbolic form.

In the ironically titled story “An Awakening,” George Willard remains unawakened because the brief experience of cosmic consciousness that makes him feel “unutterably big and remade” (185) really only conveys to him a sense of his pathetic passiveness in a mythically idealized form. Of the five “brave” words he mutters—“Death,” “night, the sea, fear, loveliness” (185)—the first four entities are large, dark, threatening things. And so the final item, “loveliness,” takes on the same passive-making, forbidding and man-dwarfing largeness. George's passivity has overmastered him: though he holds Belle's hand, he thinks not of her but of comfortingly abstract generalities: “lust and night and women” in the plural (188). We are prepared to see Ed Handby toss George casually aside: Belle, sensing George's passivity, would hardly consider him worth helping. Like those of Seth and Tom, George's inhibited attempt at passionate, active self-assertion is hardly more than an unwittingly transformed but, to the reader, barely disguised idealization of passivity. No “mail” is here, either.

There is one more major group of Andersonian failed androgynes, a group characterized not by some isolated, sudden act of real or idealized rebellion, but rather by a long-term split within the psyche. In these grotesques, the impulse toward rebellious “activity” is strong enough to make over at least half of the mind on a fairly permanent basis. But since the “active” impulse never truly transforms the “passivity” it so dislikes, the result is an unhappy stalemate, or an alternation of power between the two warring components within the mind. Unintegrated, the “male” and “female” components are each twisted away from a fulfilling purpose toward something self-punishing or destructive. Each person in this group embodies an unmastered war within, a battle of two deformed sub-selves, ruling out any prospect of an androgynous union.

Dr. Parcival and Jesse Bentley are physical grotesques because their disjointed or dissociated “vision” is mirrored in their abnormal eye movements. Each persona overcompensates, unwisely but too well, for a delicacy or vulnerability which is felt as a source of never-appeased irritation. The unsuccessful suppression of this “female” component is symbolized by an intermittent hampering of vision in the left (Latin, sinister: disapproved) eye. In Dr. Parcival's case, “The lid of the left eye twitched; it fell down and snapped up” (49), while of Jesse Bentley we learn: “At one time in his life he had been threatened with paralysis and his left side remained somewhat weakened. As he talked, his left eyelid twitched” (81). The grotesqueness of this one-sided vision is the more pathetic in that both men have an uncommonly expansive, artistic androgynous potential. “To write [a] book Dr. Parcival declared was the object of his coming to Winesburg to live” (55). Jesse, for his part, was “born an imaginative child” and had “within him a great intellectual eagerness” (71). Each man is inherently an artist: the prime object of their lives is a total “vision” (Parcival is even named after Sir Perceval or Parsifal, the Holy Grail visionary).

Both men were brought up religious and were closely attached to their mothers; later, trying to become less “odd” and “womanish,” they each tried to work out a more “male” form of religious vision, accenting power and hardness. The “dream” of Parcival's mother, whom he loved obsessively, was to make him a “Presbyterian minister” (52); of Jesse's family, “only his mother had understood him, while everyone else was simply “amused” to see him, “small and very slender and womanish of body,” dressed in the traditional garb of “young ministers” (66). Parcival's worshipful love of his mother proved unrequited—“‘My mother loved my brother much more than she did me’” (53)—and since the brother, a domineering person, treated Mother roughly and managed the household finances like a dictatorial god, the jealous Parcival reluctantly concluded that the bossy brother was his superior. He conquered jealousy by identifying with, even deifying, his brother, a “superior” being whose capacity for “hatred and contempt” seemed to set Parcival an example of callous, proud lordliness (55). Eventually Parcival's brother, drunk, was run over by a railroad car, and it seems likely that even in Parcival's final philosophical formulation—“everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified” (57)—he is still identifying with his brother, this time as deified martyr. Parcival's philosophy is partly true, but hopelessly one-sided. Like Christ, we all suffer, but like Cain, we also inflict suffering, as Anderson emphasizes with his references to Parcival's fantasies of committing murder and to the mysterious bloody birthmarks, recalling the mark of Cain, on the hands of Tom Willy. Parcival's superman ethic is as absurd as his obsessive compensatory guilt at having refused to examine the dead child in the motor accident. Deifying his harsh brother has simply intensified Parcival's guilty self-pity as Mother's unloved, passive, and vulnerable child.

Jesse Bentley's overcompensation for being “womanish” and an “odd sheep” in the family takes the form of so massive an identification with the twin male power-myths of Biblical-patriarchal leadership and industrial-technological prowess that he works his wife to death “in his service” (69) and terrifies his grandson by trying to mark him out as his divinely chosen successor in a weird ritual of initiation. The power-crazed, yet somehow “wavering, uncertain stare” (99) of the old Jesse is so threatening to his grandson David that the latter fells Jesse with a slingshot as an inimical Goliath. Jesse had wanted, for his own crazed mystical reasons, to rub the boy's head with the blood of the lamb, but now poor David, thinking himself a murderer, feels more like Cain than Christ. The story of Jesse's unloved, neglected daughter Louise is called “Surrender”; that of Jesse's ritual assertion of power over David is called “Terror.” Surrender and Terror—the grotesque extreme of “female” vulnerability and “male” aggression—together haunt the Bentley family like a curse of the Atreidae.

If Parcival and Jesse show us a mode of vision in which the left eye (in Jesse's case, the whole left side), felt as female or oversensitive, is partly disabled by the right eye (representing male strength, approved by society), Wing Biddlebaum and Wash Williams each show an analogous sort of mental rift, this time between regions designated as “upper” and “lower.” These two men, like Parcival and Jesse, are instructive examples of failed androgynes because they, too, are inherently artists, with highly imaginative temperaments.

Wing, a boy-man of idealized and diffused sexuality, is “not unlike the finer sort of women”; a gifted, poetic teacher of young people, he rules “by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness” (31). His hands are compared repeatedly to wings, as of the Holy Spirit, for they express his aspiration to a communion of dreams. But after he is run out of town on false charges of molestation, Wing's hands change their function. No longer “pennants of promise” (31) to awaken the poetic imaginations of apathetic pupils, they are now employed in the male-approved business world of “activity”: “With them Wing Biddlebaum had picked as high as a hundred and forty quarts of strawberries in a day” (29). The strawberry business is something “high,” highly valued in the community, while the deeper sort of community Wing longs for is lowered, degraded in the estimation of his fellows. In terror, Wing suppresses his wish to talk to George of dreams and goes home instead to practice his frustrated communion ritual on the floor, where he picks up bread crumbs “like a priest engaged in some service of his church” (34). Male-oriented society demotes Wing's “female” values to the lowest level.

Hands6 are central to the symbolism of rifts between “upper” and “lower” regions in the psyche of Wash Williams as well. Here hands represent the upper, approved world of rationality or male activity, while the rest of Wash's body is equated with the unconscious, with sexuality, with everything Wash has disowned and banished as “female.” Wash himself was extremely “female” in Winesburg terms—passive, vulnerable, delicate, tender—throughout his marriage. His androgynous potential was great, his imaginative capacity expansive but idealizing: a religious poet, he worshiped his wife. “‘When the hem of her garment touched my face I trembled’” (126). When his mother-in-law tried shock tactics, organizing an exhibition of her daughter's nudity to startle Wash out of passive idealism into active desire, she succeeded only in making Wash feel dishonored. Now he keeps his hands pure for his cerebral telegraph work, while he expresses his unconscious sense of defilement by letting himself become repellently fat, dirty, and ugly—a mirror image of the offensive wife whom he hates, as something “foul,” with the “abandon of a poet” (124). Since Wash has unwittingly made himself into a mirror image of the object of his hatred, we must conclude that he unwittingly despises the female within himself as well. Yet he remains “still proud” of his ability as telegraph operator—perhaps still “the best telegraph operator in the state” (122). In the male world of business and brains, self-respect is still partially possible.7

Our last three examples of failed androgynes with permanently split personalities—Dr. Reefy, Enoch Robinson, and Joe Welling—each overcompensate for a “female” passivity through various forms of male hardness, futile assertion of power, or unrelenting, driving will. Reefy is an aphorist, Enoch a painter, Joe a homegrown natural philosopher. Though each is a potential artist, all remain fragmented, unrealized.

Since Enoch Robinson can never paint the ideally beautiful “wounded woman” (170) who embodies his vulnerable anima, he overcompensates through two equally futile forms of male-oriented power. He pretends to hold a job, to pay taxes, to get married—that is, in a manner which R. D. Laing has analyzed, Enoch does all these things with his “unreal self.”8 Meanwhile, with his “real” self, Enoch peoples his mental world with imaginary beings, over whom he is the male ruler, “a kind of tiny blue-eyed king” (171). But his unreal marriage falls through, and when his ex-wife visits him in his lonely room, her fleshly reality dissipates the insubstantial beings he has created. Nothing is left but the invisible wounded female who, once again, overshadows the animus-that-might-have-been. Enoch has never been able to paint this invisible woman and never will: he has not “mail” enough for an artist/androgyne.

Contrasting with Enoch's atrophied maleness is Dr. Reefy's suppressed femaleness. In Dr. Reefy were “seeds of something very fine” (35), like the truths he is always writing down on scraps of paper, but these seeds have compacted and hardened into something dead, like paper pills, or “hard balls” (38), or Reefy's own wooden-looking knuckles, or the fatal reefs in his own name. Reefy can't produce a coherent structure out of the truths he discovers because together they form a huge truth that becomes terrifying. So he repeatedly takes the fragmented scraps or paper pills out of his pocket and throws them defiantly at John Spaniard, whom he calls a “‘sentimentalist.’” (36), thereby indicating that what threatens Reefy is a truth that might be construed as sentimental or overly tender (read “feminine”).

Joe Welling is so passive in relation to his inspirations as to resemble an epileptic in his “seizures” (124). But, like Coleridge's unhappy ancient mariner whom in many ways he closely resembles,9 Joe projects his extreme (“female”) passivity outward as compelling, merciless power. “‘In me,’” he says to the hypnotized ballplayers he coaches, “‘you see all the movements of the game’” (107). These words are the motto of Joe's life: he bosses and bewitches rather than communicates. Although he rhetorically asks, “‘You can't be too smart for Sarah, now can you?’” (111), Joe is really much “too smart” for his “sad-looking” financée (108), for he talks at her, not to her, showing that he cares as little for her as for anyone else. Unconsciously overcompensatory power-drive has turned Joe into a solipsist: the victim of seizures seizes total power.

Finally, a word about “The Untold Lie.” Though adventurous Hal Winters has asked the “quiet, rather nervous” (202) Ray Pearson for advice on whether to marry the young woman whom Hal had audaciously but predictably gotten “in trouble” (205), anything Ray says “‘would have been a lie’” (209). Horribly henpecked, the abjectly passive Ray cries out at one point against his life of enslavement to wife and children. The beauty of the land at sunset makes Ray want to “scream or hit his wife with his fists” in frustration (206), behavior reminiscent of Kate or Elmer or Curtis. But Ray's children have given him “pleasant evenings” (208-09) of deep value. In sum: Ray's excessive (“female”) passivity has been no worse and no better, no more or less one-sided, than the assertive (“male”) adventurousness for which Hal is notorious in Winesburg. Hal and Ray are each incomplete. They are the split halves of the psychological androgyne.

If, in the people of Winesburg, “feminine” receptivity is continually suppressed into forms of inertness, delusion, and fear, it cannot be said that the qualities of boldness and enterprising action defined as “masculine” receive adequate expression either. Sometimes, as with Tom, Seth, and Enoch, “male” attributes are repressed. When affirmed, “male” qualities are misused; employed in panicky re-actions rather than originative actions, they too are twisted out of shape—into forms of oblivious, egotistic willfulness. The result is a lack of fertile interaction between self and anima, or animus. Instead we see recurrent confict, inner rifts. The greater the androgynous/artistic potential, the more tragic the rift. No one in Winesburg is unaffected. The day of the psychological or spiritual androgyne is not yet. But like the old man and the carpenter at the book's beginning, Anderson himself speaks implicitly of the raising of the dead.10


  1. Sally Adair Rigsbee, however, has broken new ground with her valuable emphasis on the “crippled feminine dimension of life” in Anderson's book; see Rigsbee, “The Feminine in Winesburg, Ohio,Studies in American Fiction 9 (Autumn 1981), 236. Her correlation of femininity, as defined in Winesburg, with the values of “vulnerability, intimacy, and tenderness” (pp. 236-37) is accurate and has also been adopted here. But she devotes no attention to masculinity, or to androgyny, in Anderson's vision.

  2. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (New York: The Viking Press, 1960), p. 22; all quotations are from this edition. For biographical background, see Robert George Kraft, “Sherwood Anderson, Bisexual Bard: Some Chapters in a Literary Biography,” diss. Univ. of Washington, 1969. Rigsbee's description of the above-cited passage as depicting an “image of artistic power as a woman within a woman” is misleading: such a formulation ignores half the image-data in the passage, as my analysis makes clear.

  3. Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1964), p. 356, n. 61.

  4. Though one cannot prove Anderson studied Blake or Shelley, for general Romantic affinities, see Walter Göbel, Sherwood Anderson: “Ästhetízismus als Kulturphilosophie (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1982), pp. 141-52. Though Plato's Aristophanic myth of the primal androgyne in Symposium is a possible reference point, more immediate thematic parallels may be found in Whitman. On parallels between Blake and Whitman, see my “Structures of Perception in Blake and Whitman: Creative Contraries, Cosmic Body, Fourfold Vision,” Emerson Society Quarterly: A Journal of the American Renaissance 28 (Winter 1982), 36-47. In Anderson's quasi-Whitmanesque A New Testament (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927), p. 11, we find the following androgynous vision:

    At times, just for a moment, I am a Caesar, a Napoleon, an Alexander.

    I tell you it is true.

    If you men who are my friends and those of you who are acquaintances could surrender yourselves to me for just a little while.

    I tell you what—I would take you within myself and carry you around within me as though I were a pregnant woman.

    Anderson the would-be prophet is a pregnant Napoleon. His androgynous vision, dubbed “insanity” to disarm critics, comes through clearly in paired images of a clinging vine and a phallic worm: “My insanity is a slow creeping vine clinging to a wall. / My insanity is a white worm with a fire in its forehead” (15).

  5. See Mircea Eliade, The Two and the One, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Harper and Row, 1965); Méphistophélès et l'Androgyne (Paris: Gallimard, 1962). Also, C. G. Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 11-22; June Singer, Androgyny: Toward a New Theory of Sexuality (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977); Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Knopf, 1973).

  6. For more on hands in Winesburg, see Carl J. Maresca, “Gestures as Meaning in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio,College Language Association Journal 9 (March 1966), 279-83.

  7. Not only does Wash hate his wife with the “abandon of a poet”; we can probably even identify the specific poet-mentor Anderson may have in mind. Wash's description of his wife as a “living-dead thing … making the earth foul by her presence” (122) recalls the lines, “The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she, / Who thicks man's blood with cold.” See “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” ll., 193-94, in The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1912), I, 194.

  8. R. D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Baltimore: Penguin, 1965), passim, especially pp. 94-105, “The false-self system.”

  9. “Pouncing upon a bystander he began to talk. For the bystander there was no escape. The excited man breathed into his face, peered into his eyes, pounded upon his chest with a shaking forefinger, demanded, compelled attention” (WO 103). Cf. Coleridge: “‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’” (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” l. 11).

  10. This would be my reply to David Stouck's sensitive but pessimistic appraisal, “Winesburg, Ohio as a Dance of Death,” American Literature 48 (January 1977), 525-42.

Michael Wentworth (essay date 1988)

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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 technique occurs in “Death,” one of the later stories in Winesburg. Ostensibly, the story deals with the death of George Willard's mother Elizabeth, though, within the larger framework of the novel as a whole, Elizabeth's death provides George with the necessary impetus and motivation to leave—and thus escape—a small-town environment that ultimately would have proven as enervating and self-defeating to him as it had to his mother. One of the most intriguing and curious features in the story is the recurrence, with minor variations, of the statement “You dear! You dear! You lovely dear!”

Spoken to or about Elizabeth Willard on three separate and unrelated occasions and by three different men in Elizabeth's life, the question arises, “Why would Anderson risk such an obvious coincidence and what did he hope to gain by such an effect?” The answer, I sense, lies, once again, with Anderson's characteristic use of less to say more, his characteristic tendency to reduce character and that complex of circumstances by which character is shaped and determined to their simplest, minimalist terms. In the most obvious sense, the refrain-like recurrence of the statement serves as a formal emblem of the tragic failure and disappointment in Elizabeth's life. Yet at the same time, the three iterative instances of the statement reveal as much, and once again in typically synecdochic fashion, about the individual speakers themselves.

The statement first appears in the second section of the story which, like the preceding and following sections, examines the mutual attraction of Elizabeth and Doctor Reefy. For Elizabeth, who has been victimized by a loveless marriage and who, as a result of her own thwarted dreams, has isolated herself from the community, Doctor Reef is as much spiritual confidant as medical consultant. There is, in fact, a special likeness between the two that no doubt explains their mutual attraction. Thus, though “their bodies were different …, and the circumstances of their existence, … something inside them meant the same thing, wanted the same release, would have left the same impression on the memory of an onlooker” (221).1 Following her occasional afternoon visits with the doctor, Elizabeth is temporarily revived and “strengthened against the dullness of her days” (222) and even regains a measure of her former youthful vigor. But eventually she is overcome by weariness, a feeling intensified as she recalls “her girlhood with its passionate longing for adventure” and “the arms of men that held her when adventure was a possible thing for her” (222-23). She remembers in particular

one who had for a time been her lover and who in the moment of his passion had cried out to her more than a hundred times, saying the same words madly over and over: “You dear! You dear! You lovely dear!” The words, she thought, expressed something she would have liked to have achieved in life.

(italics added 223)

The occasion for the concluding afterthought is, of course, the perceived contrast between the promise of Elizabeth's youth when the achievement suggested above, like adventure, would still have been “a possible thing for her” and the total and irrevocable failure of that possibility in the present and, by extension, the future. What, in retrospect, Elizabeth “would have liked to have achieved in life,” while no less ardent, is no more definite than her “passionate longing for adventure.” But similar in either case is a desire to be perceived in terms equivalent to her lover's impassioned declaration: “You dear! You dear! You lovely dear!” Such a need, consciously identified as it is in retrospect, is clearly the result of her loveless marriage to Tom Willard. But Elizabeth's relationship to her father (she does not remember her mother who died when she was five) had been equally loveless and explains the fact that as a young woman she

was forever putting out her hand into the darkness and trying to get hold of some other hand. In all the babble of words that fell from the lips of the men with whom she adventured she was trying to find out what would be for her the true word.


The “true word” for which she seeks would seem to be embodied in the lover's declaration. Yet in terms of the lover himself, the effect of the declaration proves no more lasting than the passion that provoked it. Still, for Elizabeth the words linger and signifiy even years later a quality of perception by which she would be measured, though a quality of perception that she has never managed to find, the consequences of which are no less apparent to her than Alice Hindman when at the conclusion of “Adventure,” Alice recognizes that “many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg” (120). In this sense, Elizabeth's recurring recollection of the lover's words might properly be viewed as a self-epitaph, a continual reminder of her lost youth, her entrapment, and the failure of the longing for escape and fulfillment that might have saved her. As such, the lover's words say much more about Elizabeth Willard than the lover himself who, in fact, is neither named nor described but is evidently forgotten, obliterated no doubt by the cumulative weight of disappointment that marks Elizabeth's life.

The occasion for the next appearance of the lover's words is a meeting between Elizabeth and Doctor Reefy in Reefy's office. As he sits, quietly listening to Elizabeth, Doctor Reefy, “without realizing what was happening,” began to love her (226). As Elizabeth continues to speak of her unhappy marriage to Tom Willard and, more specifically, of her longing shortly after her marriage “to run away from everything” but, at the same time, “to run towards something too,” she instinctively turns to Doctor Reefy and kneels on the floor beside his chair. He in turn takes her in his arms and begins “to kiss her passionately” (227). Then, no longer conscious of Elizabeth's account, he mutters, “You dear! You dear! Oh you lovely dear!” Reefy's unconscious reprise of the lover's words recalls the occasion for and circumstances of their first appearance when Elizabeth was still a young woman. It is appropriate therefore that Elizabeth is suddenly transformed in the doctor's perception from “a tired-out woman of forty-one” into “a lovely and innocent girl who had been able by some miracle to project herself out of the husk of the body of the tried-out woman” (227-28). Unlike the questionable sincerity of the unidentified lover's original declaration, however—occasioned as it is by the reckless spontaneity of the moment—Doctor Reefy's declaration—though voiced, too, in a moment of passion—is motivated by a genuine affection and regard for Elizabeth's sensitivity and vulnerability. The integrity and selflessness that underlie Doctor Reefy's declaration parallel that sensitivity of feeling and judgment demonstrated in his own story “Paper Pills.” Though, in relation to that period in Doctor Reefy's life described in the story, Elizabeth has been dead for some years, the story does have a direct bearing upon Elizabeth's relationship to Doctor Reefy in “Death.”

“Paper Pills” deals in part with Doctor Reefy's brief but happy marriage (one of the few happy marriages in Winesburg) to a “tall dark girl” who originally comes to him because she is “in the family way and had become frightened” (37), though it is later established that her condition eventually “pass[es] in an illness” (38). With the same compassionate understanding that later marks his attraction to Elizabeth, Doctor Reefy comforts the young woman and “it seemed to her [in turn] that she never wanted to leave him again” (38). When, shortly afterward, they are married, the event mystifies the community since the girl is young, beautiful, and wealthy whereas Doctor Reefy is much older (he is forty-five when he marries), unkempt, and, though apparently self-sufficient, far from prosperous. During the course of “Paper Pills,” there are a number of references to the “twisted little apples that grow in the orchards of Winesburg.” These “few gnarled apples” are rejected by the pickers who prefer instead those more perfectly formed apples which are “put in barrels and shipped to the cities where they will be eaten in apartments that are filled with books, magazines, furniture, and people” (36). What the apple-pickers fail to recognize and appreciate, however, is the wonderful sweetness of the apples, a sweetness known only to a privileged “few” who see beyond the apples' twisted appearance. What the community misses in the mutual attraction of Doctor Reefy and the young girl is precisely what the majority of apple-pickers miss in rejecting the “gnarled apples.” At the same time the basis for the attraction between Reefy and the young girl is a sensitivity of feeling and perception that parallels the more discriminating judgment of those few who value the “twisted apples” for their special sweetness. Appropriately, then, the narrator directly compares the story of Doctor Reefy's ‘’courtship of the tall dark girl” to the deliciousness of the “twisted apples” and, even more pointedly, likens the girl's attraction to Doctor Reefy to “one who has discovered the sweetness of the twisted apples” (38). It is precisely this quality of perception, this instinctive capacity for sympathy and understanding in others that Elizabeth Willard, prior to her afternoon meeting with Doctor Reefy, has never found, the very thing that she, in recalling the words of her former lover, has failed to achieve.

As a young woman, Elizabeth, “like all women in the world [had] wanted a real lover” (224). As it turns out, Doctor Reefy is “the real lover” for whom Elizabeth has always longed and whom to this point she has never found. Physically, in fact, Doctor Reefy is “on the point of becoming her lover,” though unlike the various lovers to whom in loneliness and desperation she turned as a young woman, his passion is informed by an appreciation of Elizabeth's special sweetness which like the hidden sweetness of the “twisted apples” has gone largely, if not altogether, undetected. Any possibility of consummation is thwarted, however, by the sudden sound of footsteps on the stariway outside. The two spring to their feet and stand “listening and trembling” and the passion and promise of the previous moment give way to hysteria. The spell is thus irrevocably broken and Elizabeth, who moments before had through Doctor Reefy's transforming perception recovered the beauty and vitality of her youth, is returned to the present and a corresponding realization of who she is. Following their adventure, or near adventure (Winesburg is full of such adventures that are interrupted or ultimately come to little, if any, effect) that afternoon in Doctor Reefy's office, he doesn't see Elizabeth again until after her death several years later.

Finally, then, Doctor Reefy's reiteration of the lover's words is tragically ironic. Though Reefy's declaration is motivated by a genuineness and quality of feeling—no doubt lacking in the nameless lover's earlier declaration—the promise of achievement, at least in any sustained sense, that Elizabeth reads in the words of her former lover is now, as earlier, conclusively denied and defeated. For Elizabeth, the “real lover,” the gentleman caller for whom she has always longed finally appears too late as does the “true word” (manifested in the doctor's declaration) for which she has always searched. Of course, had Doctor Reefy and Elizabeth actually managed to consummate their passion, it is doubtful that anything would have come of it, trapped as they are by age, circumstance, a suffocating small-town morality, and, for Elizabeth, a cumulative legacy of defeat and humiliation and a resulting resignation to the joylessness of her life. Thus when she sees once again the lights of the New Willard House which, as a reminder of the failure and defeat not only of herself but of her father and her husband as well, is as cursed as any house in Greek tragedy, “she began to tremble and her knees shook so that for a moment she thought she would fall in the street” (228). As for Doctor Reefy, he never again speaks directly to Elizabeth (his last words to her are the very words of her former lover), though years later he does speak fondly of her to the “tall dark girl” who becomes his wife, the “tall dark girl” who, had circumstances and the conditions of achievement been different, could at one time just as easily have been Elizabeth herself.

The final and perhaps the most perplexing appearance of the lover's words is occasioned by Elizabeth's death and is spoken by her son George Willard. At the time, George is only eighteen and though he has previously listened tolerantly, if passively, to the tragedies of other failed lives in Winesburg (in fact, his presumed intelliigence, understanding, and sensitivity are the very reasons that such characters as Wing Biddlebaum, Doctor Parcival, and Enoch Robinson seek him out as a confidant), he originally has “but little sense of the meaning of [Elizabeth's] death,” for “only time could give him that” (229). In fact, if anything, he is annoyed and inconvenienced by his mother's death or, at any rate, the timing of her death since he is forced to cancel a meeting that evening with the daughter of the town banker, Helen White.

When, following her death, George enters his mother's room, he at first thinks “of his own affairs” and definitely decides “he would make a change in his life, that he would leave Winesburg” (230)—a resolution that parallels Elizabeth's own previous “uneasy desire for change, for some big definite movement to her life” (“Mother” 46) when she was approximately the same age as George. The next moment, however, his mind turns once again to Helen White and as before, he becomes “half angry at the turn of events that had prevented his going to her” (230). He imagines Helen's “red young lips” touching his own, the very thought of which makes his body tremble and his hands shake, even as the youthful body of his mother had trembled in the embrace of a youthful lover. Like his mother, George's sense of personal ambition, his expressive needs, his desire for change and “some definite movement” to his life are confused by the sudden, more immediate need for physical fulfillment. Fortunately, George recovers himself. Ashamed of his thoughts, he begins to weep, and then, convinced that “not his mother but someone else lay in the bed before him” (231), he suddenly becomes “possessed of a madness to lift the sheet from the body of his mother and look at her face” (231). George's following estimate of the covered body is revealing since it recalls not only Doctor Reefy's earlier transforming perception of Elizabeth but recalls as well the loveliness and innocence of Elizabeth's own youth:

The body under the sheets was long and in death looked young and graceful. To the boy, held by some strange fancy, it was unspeakably lovely. The feeling that the body before him was alive, that in another moment a lovely woman would spring out of the bed and confront him, became so overpowering that he could not bear the suspense.


As George leaves the room he remains unconvinced that the body in the room is his mother's—“That's not my mother. That's not my mother in there” (231).—until “half blind with grief,” he confronts and accepts the truth: “My mother is dead” (231). Then he turns and “stare[s] at the door through which he had just come” and, “urged by some impulse outside himself” (italics added), he mutters, “The dear, the dear, oh the lovely dear” (232). Here, then, is the final iterative instance of the lover's words which thread their way throughout the story and, by extension, of course, Elizabeth Willard's life—and death. The statement acquires special significance given the occasion and its occurrence near the end of the story. Yet the relationship of George's declaration to the previous declarations of Elizabeth's lover and, later, Doctor Reefy is problematic. Equally problematic is what is evidently the unsolicited nature of the statement since it originates in “some impulse outside [George] himself.”

Compared to the two previous statements, the tone of George's declaration is less intimate, more detached. This modulation in tone is signaled by the shift from the more intimate second person “you dear” (italics added) to the more formal “the dear” (italics added). If not directed specifically to his mother, George's declaration is nonetheless very much about her. This, together with the formality and finality of his declaration, suggest the characteristic features of the epitaph. The primary purpose of epitaph is, of course, the commemoration of the special qualities and distinctive achievements of the deceased. Considered in such a commemorative sense, George's statement is directly suggestive of and at the same time anticipated by Elizabeth's recollection of her lover's words, a recollection that in itself is very much a self-epitaph, though, as in the case of George's declaration, the characteristic function of epitaph, is ironically undercut by the fact that Elizabeth's life, at least in her own estimation, has been one of failed achievement since, with the previous exception of Doctor Reefy—and possibly the present exception of her son George—her special qualities have gone unrecognized. Ironically, of course, George is unaware of the shared intimacy between his mother and Doctor Reefy and this irony is underscored when the two meet without speaking in his mother's room immediately after her death. Still, George's observation upon leaving the room establishes, though unconsciously of course, an unspoken bond between the two men. This bonding is further suggested by George's perception of the youthful grace and unspeakable loveliness of the form of his mother's body which, of course, recalls Doctor Reefy's own earlier transforming perception.

If George's parting observation is viewed as an epitaph, it is still very much an unself-conscious epitaph, originating as it does outside of George himself. However, it might be argued that the statement does originate with George himself or, more precisely, a more mature and selfless version of himself than he had previously known. Viewed as such, George's announcement not only marks a formal acknowledgment of his mother's death but may also mark a threshold in his own life of which he himself at this point is, no doubt, largely unconscious—a transition, therefore, from the narcissistic self-preoccupation of infancy and adolescence to a more sensitive awareness of the world and corresponding concerns beyond the self. Earlier in the story, George is completely absorbed by self-interest and he is thus more concerned with the personal inconvenience wrought by his mother's death than he is with the magnitude and meaning of the event itself. Eventually, however, he feels ashamed of his thoughts, but though his own self-interest has been chastened and replaced by a sense of guilt, he is still unable to accommodate himself to the fact that the woman lying in front of him is actually his mother and not some stranger. Then finally, upon leaving the room and “half blind with grief,” he sobs, “My mother is dead.” To this point, George has moved from a preoccupation with his own selfish wants to a less self-occupied awareness and understanding of the fact that his mother his died. When he observes, “The dear, the dear, oh the lovely dear,” he moves further from a recognition of the event of his mother's death to an even more self-distanced recognition and understanding, as if for the first time, of his mother herself—the other beyond the threshold. Though it is noted earlier in the story that “only time” would provide George with some “sense” of the meaning of his mother's death, he does manage to come by or, at any rate, approach that “sense” by the end of the story, a realization signaled by the companion statements “Mother is dead” and “The dear, the dear, oh the lovely dear.”

On frequent occasions prior to his mother's death, George often betrays a naive and inflated sense of his own importance, his ambitions, and his presumed understanding of thoughts, ideas, and feelings which as yet he has never experienced. Typical in this regard are his thoughts in “An Awakening” when he walks alone one evening through the deserted streets of Winesburg:

The desire to say words overcame him and he said words without meaning, rolling them over on his tongue and saying them because they were brave words, full of meaning. “Death,” he muttered, “night, the sea, fear, loveliness.”


George demonstrates a similar tendency toward self-inflation when he informs Seth Richmond, in “The Thinker,” of his intentions of becoming a writer:

“It's the easiest of all lives to live. … Here and there you go and there is no one to boss you. … Wait till I get my name up and then see what fun I shall have.”


Following his mother's death, George's sense of himself is much less certain and his perceptions of life much more tentative. In “Sophistication” (which immediately follows “Death”) George finally does keep his appointment with Helen White, but whereas previously he “had tried to make her think of him as a man when he knew nothing of manhood” (235), he now is ashamed (as he had been ashamed of his petty selfishness in “Death”) of his former presumption. He now feels a special “reverence” for Helen as he does for all the people of the town, a reverence that parallels and reinforces the belated reverence he feels for his mother at the end of “Death.” In the case of his mother this reverence is signaled by George's compassionate recognition of his mother as a distinct and separate “other,” a recognition that receives formal expression in George's unconscious reiteration of the words of his mother's former lover. So too, when George and Helen embrace in the darkness, they are both occupied with the same thought: “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other” (241). George and Helen's shared intimacy—together with their mutual, though unspoken, discovery of “the sadness of sophistication”—mark the occasion as a rite of passage: “Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible” (243). In George's meeting with Helen, then, the heightened understanding and sensitivity immanent, if not consciously recognized, in George's parting testimonial to his mother is fully realized and George, through the event of his mother's death, succeeds in negotiating the distance between the egocentrism of adolescence and that locus of self-disinterestedness and a concomitant recontextualization of the self that occasions and informs the testimonial itself. The final and most significant implication of George's testimonial is not realized, however, until the final story in Winesburg—“Departure.”

When during the long years of loneliness and disappointment that follow her marriage to Tom Willard, Elizabeth recalls the words of her former lover, she is reminded of the failed achievement of her life and the defeat of the possibility of love and fulfillment which she later associates with her lover's words. To compensate for her own personal disappointment, Elizabeth transfers her previous expectations for herself at a time when adventure was still “a possible thing for her” to her son George. Though she does not live to see it, her faith in her son and her faith as well in the promise of achievement that life and circumstances have denied her are ultimately vindicated when, at the end of “Departure” George, possessed now of a deeper understanding of himself and attuned to what Wordsworth describes as “the sad still music of humanity,” leaves Winesburg. Nor is George's departure the idealized and romantically invested escape his mother had originally imagined for herself since George retains a constructive sense of his past in Winesburg, the legacy of which will finally serve as the canvas upon which he will “paint the dreams of his manhood” (247). Finally, then, the achievement that always eluded his mother is not only “a possible thing” for George but, given his maturity of judgment and the self-understanding that his mother lacked as a girl and that George himself had previously lacked, is more possible than it ever would have been for Elizabeth Willard or, prior to his mother's death, than it ever would have been for George himself. Thus, though George may not figure directly in every story in Winesburg, each of the failed lives depicted serves as a foil to his ultimate departure and the promise of achievement enabled by his departure. Within the broader context of the novel as a whole, it is the probable prospect of achievement that provides, perhaps, the most meaningful and significant link between George's reiteration of the lover's words and the meaning that Elizabeth retrospectively assigns to those words. Where others—and most specifically his mother—have failed, George will succeed or, at any rate, is in a position to succeed. In this regard, George's observation “The dear, the dear, oh the lovely dear” has as much to do with his own beginning as it does with his mother's end.


  1. All quotations from Winesburg, Ohio are based on the Penguin edition of Winesburg, Ohio published in 1976.

Work Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Claire Badaracco (essay date winter 1989)

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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 Advertisements, political propaganda, business pamphlets, brochures, catalogs and trade journals (what Frank Luther Mott2 classified as synonymous with “house organs”) were so abundant, according to Lawrence Romaine, that a catalogue of this type of printing in America between 1744-1900 would comprise 50 volumes.3 Mott's categorization bears re-examination: there is greater differentiation among this classification of commercial writing than has been suggested to date, and less distinction between “house organs” and “legitimate journalism” than might at first blush appear. Journalism historians will find ample evidence in the 1895-1920 trade journals of bona-fide news coverage.

Roland Marchand's recent iconographic analysis of how The American Dream was advertised in 1920-1940 includes evidence from leading trade journals.4 My analysis is focused on the 1880-1920 period, and my method has been to employ economic and content analysis of the news, opinion columns, trend analyses and editorials in 20 of the more than 200 publicity and allied trade journals of this period. I include small literary journals with other types of commercial and trade journals: this is not merely a bibliographical or academic nuance. To exclude small literary journals from the marketplace of commercial literature during this period, or to separate trade journalism from mass market commercial literature, is to overlook a critical transformation in American cultural values at the turn of the century that was influenced by the rise of mass markets, news and publicity trades. That development is the subject of this article, and I have used Sherwood Anderson's work in the publicity trade press as a representative case study.

The modern public's saturation with dramatic events, Anderson predicted, would produce “efficient public men.” They would lead “what the newspapers call an exemplary life,” and from among their ranks the nation's journalists would pick those to “write up” as celebrities,5 becoming “best known for their well-knowness,” as Daniel Boorstin put it in his 1961 classic The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.6 In Anderson's time, he reported on the early demographic indicators of the emerging class of professional propagandists in an economy where public opinion climates, newspapers, publicity, manufactured products, reputation and faith were co-dependent and meshed imperceptibly.

Men had learned to put their faith in … publicity. This had become the central, the true faith. … Have I not myself seen how every year machinery becomes more and more efficient? Does not efficiency in machinery mean less men employed? … it is no longer a question of how much wages … but of whether or not men are to be employed at all. … More and more goods, with less and less people employed. That is prosperity … how can you manage that? By publicity. By publicity. Advertise. Advertise. What a strange childish faith! … Words. Declare we are a prosperous people. Keep declaring it. Have all of the newspaper editors declare it loudly. Have all the leaders of industry give out interviews. A strange faith in words. We writers should not object to that faith. Most of us get on very well.7

In his later life as a rural newspaper editor, Anderson's “faith” in words vascillated between “imagination” and “realism,” and their respective value for a commercial writer. Part of the 18th century textual tradition that Romaine, Charles Evans and Will Ransom catalogued, trade journals carried “stories” of all types, from what William Dean Howells termed in 1888 “barnumized” facts, to legitimate business news.8 Anderson was never ambivalent about the reciprocal influence exerted on culture by human character in commerce, even when he was immersed in it in Chicago, circa 1903-13, where the trade press flourished, and where modern publicity techniques originated. Anderson never mistrusted his boyish instincts about how news value in the 20th century would be profoundly influenced by publicity.

As a consequence of his early trade journalism experience, Anderson never had to learn what the writers of previous generations fought to understand: he knew his audience, their interests and how to target readers so they would buy what he wrote. Yet as a popular writer, the argument could be made, Anderson was bettered by the succeeding generation—journalists like Hemingway—who expected commercial success without questioning that their realistic style might be compromised by the exercise of imaginative fiction writing.9 As a copywriter, Anderson in his columns for Agricultural Advertising helped frame the problem of news value for the modern journalist as an aesthetic as well as ethical debate. He was a private man recording realistically the traffic of events called “news,” conversing in a commercial language designed to capture the interest of the broadest segment of the American Public in a democracy of goods.10

The distinctions between “high” and “low” culture, once very clear in the 19th Century, became less certain in the early decades of the 20th. Whether or not writing from the imagination was a “higher” good than writing from observation and experience concerned both journalists and fiction writers. Trade journals, newspapers and magazines were co-dependent, with the rise in popularity of one genre influencing the demise of another, and the emergence of one trade having a spin-off effect, creating new markets for allied professional groups. Commercial writers worked in several niches of the language-products economy simultaneously, as did Anderson, or moved from one language trade to another. Trade literature was “a well established development” in journalism, “very complete and barely distinguishable from ‘legitimate’ publications” as early as 1910.11 These publications “moved beyond mere trade information and became vehicles for … discussing [and] … debating professional qualifications … and methods,” in the opinion of contemporaneous commentators.12 The journalism marketplace became, in the hands of trade columnists like Anderson, another “great moral show,” where advertisements competed with bona-fide news events, as Roland Marchand and Frank Presbury have implied.13

Throughout his life as an advertising copywriter, occasional poet, then popular novelist, then rural newspaper editor, Anderson's style retained its definition from the interests of his early audience.14 The subjects of his “Rot and Reason,” and “Business Types” columns written for Agricultural Advertising between 1903 and 1913, became prototypes for his later literary work, including poems published in Harriett Monroe's Poetry (1917), and his first novel, Winesburg, Ohio (1919).


It might be argued that “news,” the product that epitomized the uncommon, the deviation from daily life as usual, was the catalyst that transformed American Romanticism of the late 19th century into the Realism of the early 20th. The public's attention was redirected from news about the humanity of heroes to uncovering what was heroic about being human. This latter circumstance took certain powers of invention, of course, yet the same motivation of journalists to seek out stories with uncommon human interest also precipitated the rise of publicists, who sought coverage and “write-ups” of the products and individuals they aimed to make well known by inventing a place for them above the ordinary.

Evolutionists, such as John Fiske, and philosophers such as William James debated the point publicly in several consecutive issues of the North American Review as early as 1881.15 Between the philosophical questions raised by social Darwinism, and Jamesian philosophy about the relationship of environment to genius, whether or not biology provided a paradigm for human selection, the argument developed about what idiosyncratic attributes typified an American Public.

Does not the American continent produce certain modifications of character … ? May not these modifications be transmitted to descendants, and be gradually accumulated so as to bring about a new type?

[Grant Allen]

… the average height of men in the United States may be about five feet and eight inches, very few men being shorter than five feet and four inches, or taller than six feet; but in the side-tents which accompany the “great moral exhibition,” the circus, one may for a quarter of a dollar, see giants eight feet in height, or dwarfs like General Tom Thumb. It is just the same with men's intellectual capacities. …

[John Fiske]16

The lack of sentimentality, appreciation of realism, and devotion to journalistic objectivity in writing about the average American Public, as news, and authentic human interest in characterization, formed a values base for the emerging professional codes of the allied language trades.


In 1903, Sherwood Anderson, as advertising solicitor and copywriter for the Long Critchfield agency, publishers of Agricultural Advertising (1901-1917), attracted immediate popular interest, and an offer to write for the Saturday Evening Post, which Anderson turned down to stay at his trade desk.17 As Anderson developed his column, he adapted the conversational realism and pictorial style to the interests of his business audiences. In analyzing “Business Types,” he mixed realistic character study with imaginative moralism.

In one of Anderson's most important columns for Agricultural Advertising titled “The Sales Master and The Selling Organization” Anderson asserted that in America “all men are salesmen,” and the “beau ideal of the average businessman” was a “moralized Standard Oil Company.”18 He also saw the relationship between the “organization man” and the advertising agency as one in flux, with the growth of “the organization man” placing demands on the publicist for more than publicity, “for sound, practical business advice,” functioning more like a lawyer than a salesman. Persuasive language, in other words, was evolving from “pitch” to “counsel.”

Every man must have his opinion … and then sit back to be admired. Beardless youths write strong sentences, print them on little colored placards and mail them about in offices, and the man who cannot “make good” in a $2,000 position must write his book or pamphlet, setting down in serial rows all of the infallible precepts- … like honest old Ben Franklin ruling his little note book that he might write down from day to day his inspired rules for living a perfect life. … This is evident in the pages of the magazines, where the old, cock-sure, “absolutely pure” advertiser is being replaced by the man who, in a clear, pleasing way, tells the people “the reasons why.”19

The strength of the publicist, Anderson argued, was in his position, being “on the outside of” the corporation, and beyond the reach of the organization man, “The Sales Master.”20 This was the moral equivalent of objectivity for journalists. Once inside an organization, “safely seated,” “behind rows of desks,” that journalistic quality of objectivity about events that previously had allowed him to be “a clear-headed, wide awake outside Type” would be lost.

There is a growing demand for the advertising man of a quick sympathy and appreciation of the ends sought by the sales manager; men who, because of their wide acquaintanceship and their study of many problems, are able to keep the inside man alive to the other side of the story, and who help him to see the effects of his work upon the public … a class of business physicians. …21

With the development of Anderson's trade journal column, the variations on “Types” of men he analyzed became increasingly individualized. Their habits explained why they failed or succeeded in business. Human character, if it caused a man to fail, could be regarded as bonafide news if printed in the newspapers, or as a moral fable if printed in the trade press.

Each of Anderson's “Types” could be found among those working in the commercial language trades: some, like the “Fussy Man,” “everlastingly busy,” who would button-hole and glad-hand his way through life while the “Trimmer” worked noiselessly, “like a finely balanced machine,” the epitome of the editorial mind which “cuts things out.”22 As “rare as a toad at a live stock show,” The Trimmer, Anderson noted, could be found “in any business.”

“The Trimmer” … “uses his brain. He is mentally busy. The rest of you work hard enough with your hands—altogether too hard—that is one of your troubles. … Look at the common attitude of the president of almost any of your business institutions. The moment he sees a man sitting calmly looking out of a window, he jumps to the conclusion that the man is idling. It never occurs to him that the man may be working with his brain. … [If] You must be a fussy American … walk feverishly up and down; swear when your train does not arrive; make a great show … in the end you won't get much of anything done, but, at least, you won't … get talked about in the newspapers and the magazines … as queer and indifferent … when you die … that is for the Trimmer.”23

The optimistic, forever “Boyish” man, had the talent to make negative news sound positive, a fundamental “spin doctor” techniques of the propagandist.

… when a man turns forty and there are a lot of raw places where his harness doesn't fit just right, it takes courage, boyishness and almost heroism to laugh and be a boy.24

The “Discouraged Man,” who begins to believe in his own myth, the tales he spins to sell others on things he himself knows are untrue, take on a quality of reality to him through constant repetition.

… Paint the front of your shop [the Discouraged Man says]. Hire a good-looking lady cashier. Throw out those Louisiana Exposition cigars and get in line. You're lying in Nearville, my man. Nearville the unknown and unheralded, the reticent, but, behold! a month passeth and the memory of man gladly forgets, and the Whirlwind Washer gets its picture in the newspapers from Maine to California.25

The “Undeveloped Man,” is naturally talented, someone who “knows the value of words,” but is “wasted” in an industrial job, who “in six months” could be making people believe he “could pull their teeth by mail.”26 In “The Lightweight,”27 and “The Born Quitter,”28 Anderson saw the ordinary workingman with “no philosopher” in him, who gets beat to the punch repeatedly in a competitive, “pell-mell” life, who “will make the news if he isn't careful,” as a suicide:

Business wants … more newspaper editors, more editors, more workers who can shut their eyes to the main chance occasionally and work for the game itself. Let's … stick to the … general hurrah for things … take a look at the heads we hit and stop occasionally to engender a little ginger and hope into the limber-legged fellow beside us, the “lightweight.”29

Anderson was an advertising solicitor, a travelling salesman as well as copywriter. His occupational trend report circa 1905, on the disappearance of “The Travelling Man,”30 a “Noisy Johnny,” in loud clothes, diamonds, and “a grip on the affections of dining room girls,” was accurate, if somewhat self-serving. Yet the news of the disappearance of the old-style agent, and the emergence of a commercial language-merchant class of professional business propagandists, bourgeoise moderns, “clean, well-read, and clever,” was accurately reported.31

In a world where “the Napoleons are dead,” and Americans settled into “buying and selling and eating three meals a day,” and commercial writers claimed that by “eating a certain kind of breakfast food we could next week paint a great picture, write a poem or lead an army to victory,” “The Silent Man”32 represented natural, even heroic wisdom, the “real power of silence,” “the ability to get things done” in a celebrity-saturated market. Occasionally, a true genius would emerge, the hero whose actions spoke louder than his words, a man like Lindbergh, as Anderson later wrote.

… was he not all poetry once? … for a day and a night, out there alone over the Atlantic—the American eagle come to life—flown off the American dollar for the time.33

“The Man of Affairs,” Anderson based on his own autobiography, a potentially tragic man, someone “clean, frugal” whose “morals are right.” Once he learns, however, about “the weakness of humanity,” this type of man plays upon it for his own profit, slipping easily into becoming someone who is “a product of the times and the opportunities.”34 By not playing on those opportunities, Anderson raised the value of his craft, what he later called “taking control,” and elevated his own social position above both publicists and journalists, or so it might be argued that he felt. Anderson was trying to avoid becoming this “Type,” a worldly man who manipulates others through language, for him the essence of the modern writer's tragedy.

In the midst of bourgeois American business life, Anderson saw a place for the “only real gentlemen,” whom he dubbed “The Good Fellow”; genial, “born, not made,” an aristocrat among technocrats.

The real good fellow, like the real poet, is born, not made. He [makes a man realize] that he is a man on the earth with other men; that he has a right to breathing room; to an opinion. …35

President Roosevelt was the epitome of Anderson's “Sales Master,” extending business principles into the political arena. Roosevelt was first of all a salesman to the American Public; secondarily, he himself was capable of “making news.”

The first Roosevelt administration was an advertising campaign for the square deal. The people of America stood for the appropriation and followed it up with a new four years' contract for the big bodied, earnest man who engineered things … if within the past decade America has got into its rightful place in the councils of the nations … isn't it because we have had the right kind of an advertising man to make for us our front before the world? … We believe that the dignity of the office this man fills is not injured by his appreciation of publicity … in our conception of the word, good advertising carries with it good goods, good intentions, making good; and in the present trip of the President or any of his impulsive actions of the past may be classed as advertising campaigns, he has at least carried with him the goods. He not only got the mountain lions he went after, but he got the good will of the people, all through the West, who heard him talk of the square deal; and he renewed again their faith in the good intentions of the government he represents.36

“Advertising a Nation,” Anderson's column devoted to Roosevelt's Westward expansion campaign, featured a full page photograph of the President in cowboy attire, “on his way to the Colorado wilderness,” sitting astride his horse with rifle at the ready and a belt of bullets under his rough trail coat. Roosevelt, Anderson intended his audience to note, was, not unlike Anderson, a travelling salesman, a solicitor for America, a metaphor for so much of the west and the rough ways of commercial language trades, which had yet to arrive, but were “on their way.” Roosevelt was not only a political and public hero, in Anderson's view, but an intuitive publicist, authentic and credible.

In some of the older states of this Union, where civilization is supposed to have been carried to a higher and more perfect plane, there has developed a cynical type of man who get his chief pleasure out of life by laughing at the pretensions and the advertising activities of such public men as President Roosevelt … Roosevelt … fits naturally into the life of the country where men are in the raw and know not the glories of the frock coat … [though he was] born amid the roar of Broadway.37

In the same neighborhood where Anderson wrote his “Business Types” columns for Agricultural Advertising, Harriet Monroe began to market Poetry in 1912, attempting to get the public to think of the tight, metrical or rhymed language as a performing art, “like the city symphony,” which she hoped would put Chicago “in the news.”

We feel that the magazine is the most important aesthetic advertisement Chicago ever had … our work is of more far-reaching influence. … Our matter of course dependence upon New York for all its intellectual initiative is a blight at the heart of our national life.38

In the period when many of the proliferating trade journals barely survived, Monroe's financial success was significant. Based on her conviction about “the necessity of better circulation through all the members of this giant country,” Monroe tried to “make news” with poetry.

Monroe called the types of Americans who “made tradition,” that is, who made news by their actions, however common or heroic, “living realities.”39 Roosevelt accomplished that admirably for the West and the Cowboy. President Roosevelt's westward expansion campaign had brought cowboys to the front page of newspapers. In the summer of 1917, Associate Editor Alice Corbin Henderson wrote an editorial about the cowboy songs of the west and southwest; she did not believe “that the American public is as puritanical as the press would have us believe.”40

In that issue, Monroe featured a number of western songs, including selections from John Lomax's “The Old Chisholm Trail.” Among Anderson's six poems, for which he received $75, was “Song of Stephen The Westerner,” featured on Page 1 of the following issue. In addition, the series contained several spinoffs from his “Business Types” columns, titled “Song of the Drunken Businessman,” and “Song of Industrial America.”41

At a time when all literature, both that which could be called “serious,” part of the high culture, and that which was commercial, part of the popular culture, struggled for a mass market niche, publicity offered an audience the language of something uncommon—not unlike news—in an increasingly standardized economy of undifferentiated goods.

We had got into a new age almost over night. What had happened to us? Standardization, for one thing. … As anyone will understand, the man who owns a factory for the making of women's dresses, chewing gum, cigars, automobiles, men's hats, must … create in the public mind a widespread demand for one kind of cigar … one make of automobile. As a natural result of the demand for standardization of taste and material desires came the modern magazine. The real purpose, as everyone understands, was to create through advertising, a nation-wide demand for certain commodities. The magazines were business institutions run by business men … as propaganda instruments for business expansion. … Our minds will not become standardized. They fly from the machine to the man. There remains a curious interest in one another.42

Publicity language offered an exaggerated faith in its own reality, a self-conscious need to announce its credibility, its verisimilitude, an “effect produced by all the … photographic reproductions of life,” according to Anderson. But that realism would always be undermined, in his view, by the needs to meet the demands of the larger reality, the American Public.

There is always that huge, self-satisfied American audience made up of all kinds of people with little prejudices, hates and fears that must not be offended. …43

By the time Anderson became a full time newspaper editor in his later years, he had moved through several stages of faith and subsequent disbelief. As a young copywriter and trade journalist in 1903, he had described how the lessons of character types found in the publicity trades were applicable to the manner in which all men conducted their commercial affairs. Anderson's appreciation of human interest led him into increasingly realistic portrayals of characters for the next 20 years. Within a decade after publishing his first poetry and novels, and “moving up” as a writer, Anderson believed that America had changed the locus of its faith, from publicity to machines. The young engineer in Perhaps Women (1931), Anderson sees as “the type of American young men in whom our faith is placed now.”

The young man … dreams … of some day seeing a mill built that would employ no people at all. … They will all be highly paid specialists. They will stroll through the mill, listening and looking. The cotton will come in at one end of the mill and the cloth flow out at the other. No human hand will touch it.44

Finally, as a working journalist in 1941, Anderson came full circle, putting his own faith not in realism but in the imagination.

My own belief is that the writer with a notebook in his hand is always a bad workman, a man who distrusts his own imagination. Such a man describes actual scenes accurately, he put down actual conversations … realism, in so far as the word means real to life, is always bad art, although it may possibly be very good journalism.45

In the end, his faith landed somewhere closer to the realism, “Barnumized,” from his early publicity trade days than to the objectivity inherent in “news.”

I do not know what reality is. I do not think any of us quite know how much our point of view, and, in fact all of our touch with life, is influenced by our imaginations. … The whole matter of what we think of as realism is pretty tricky … no man can make himself a camera.46

Anderson's is a representative case history of this period, illustrating how commercial writers moved through several stages in the course of one career, writing in every genre from poetry to news. Rather than define himself as a journalist, publicist, poet, or novelist, Anderson was all four. Typical of many other writers of this period less celebrated, Anderson formed his professional identity by what he valued more than what he did.

Anderson's case represents the transformation of cultural values that occurred in the shift from the 19th Century sensibility that saw writing as a private prayer to the 20th Century consciousness that saw writing as a public good in a “democracy of goods.”47 That change is what William Dean Howells alluded to as something “as radical as the American Revolution in politics,”48 so profoundly did it shape our collective values about how distinctions could be drawn during the rest of this century, between news that really happened and news that was manufactured.


  1. Sherwood Anderson Manuscripts, Special Collections, Newberry Library. See also Kim Townsend, Sherwood Anderson (New York: Houghton, 1987); George Daughtery, “Anderson, Advertising Man,” Newberry Library Bulletin, Series 2, No. 2 (Dec. 1948) 30-38; Norman Holmes Pearson, “Anderson and the New Puritanism,” Newberry Library Bulletin, Series 2, No. 2 (Dec. 1948), pp. 52-63.

  2. Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines 1885-1905 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1907) Vol. 4, pp. 246-7.

  3. Lawrence B. Romaine, A Guide To American Trade Catalogs 1744-1900 (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1960) i-ix. See also Will Ransom, Private Presses and Their Books (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1929); Charles Evans, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications printed in US 1639-1820 (New York: 1903).

  4. Roland Marchand, Advertising The American Dream/Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

  5. Anderson MSS, Special Collections, Newberry; See also Sherwood Anderson, Perhaps Women (New York: Horace Liveright, 1931) pp. 66-74.

  6. Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Atheneum, 1987) pp. 57-58.

  7. Anderson, Perhaps Women, pp. 72-74.

  8. See William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes, ed. Nordloh et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976); Howells, “Editor's Study,” Harper's Monthly, November [Illegible Text], 159-160; Edwin Cady, The Realist at War (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1958); Christopher P. Wilson, “Markets and Fictions: Howell's Infernal Juggle,” American Literary Realism 1870-1910, vol. 20, no. 3, Spring 1988, pp. 2-22.

  9. See Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway, (New York: Scribner, 1981).

  10. “democracy of goods” is Daniel Boorstin's phrase.

  11. “Beware the House Organ,” Profitable Advertising, August 1908, 216; “Building a House Organ to Last,” The Graphic Arts, March 1915, p. 75.

  12. “House Organ Harmony,” Judicious Advertising, April 1909, np.; “The Graphic Arts House Organ Directory,” The Graphic Arts, February 1915, p. 34.

  13. Marchand, op. cit.; Frank Presbury, The History and Development of Advertising (New York: Doubleday, 1929) p. 360.

  14. Townsend, op. cit.

  15. John Fiske, “Sociology and Hero-Worship,” American Mercury, Jan. 1881, pp. 75-84.

  16. Fiske, loc cit.; Grant Allen, “The Genesis of Genius,” American Mercury, March 1881, 371-381; see also William James, “Great Men and Their Environment,” in The Will To Believe, 1899.

  17. Marco Morrow, MSS Anderson papers; Townsend, Daugherty, loc. cit.

  18. Sherwood Anderson, “The Sales Master and The Selling Organization,” AA, March/April 1905, pp. 306-308. Newberry Library Anderson Collection.

  19. Anderson, “The Sales Master.”

  20. Anderson, “The Sales Master.”

  21. Anderson, “The Sales Master.”

  22. Anderson, “The Fussy Man and the Trimmer,” AA, December 1905, pp. 79-81.

  23. Anderson, “The Fussy. …”

  24. Anderson, “The Boyish Man,” AA, October, 1905, p. 53.

  25. Anderson, “The Discouraged Man,” AA, July, 1905, pp. 43-44.

  26. Anderson, “The Undeveloped Man,” AA, May, 1904, pp. 31-32.

  27. Anderson, “The Lightweight,” AA, March, 1903, p. 18.

  28. Anderson, “The Born Quitter,” AA, March 1903, pp. 18-19.

  29. Anderson, “The Lightweight.”

  30. Anderson, “The Travelling Man,” AA, April 1904, p. 39.

  31. Anderson, “The Travelling Man.”

  32. Anderson, “The Silent Man,” AA, Feb. 1904, p. 19.

  33. Anderson, Perhaps Women, loc. cit.

  34. Anderson, “The Man of Affairs,” AA, March 1904, pp. 36-38.

  35. Anderson, “The Good Fellow,” AA, January 1904, p. 36.

  36. Anderson, “Advertising a Nation,” AA, May 1905, pp. 388-389.

  37. Anderson, “Advertising.”

  38. MSS Monroe Collection, Poetry Magazine Business Correspondence, Regenstein. Special Collection, University of Chicago Library.

  39. MSS [Illegible Text] Collection.

  40. Poetry, vol. 10, no. 5, August, 1917, editorial, pp. 255-6.

  41. Poetry, vol. 10, no. 6, September, 1917, pp. 281-291.

  42. Sherwood Anderson, The Modern Writer, San Francisco: The Lantern Press, 1925, p. 19.

  43. Anderson, The Modern Writer, pp. 12-38.

  44. Anderson, Perhaps Women, pp. 70-74.

  45. Sherwood Anderson, “A Writer's Conception of Realism,” The Writer, Jan. 1941. Typescript, Anderson Collection.

  46. Anderson, “A Writer's,” loc. cit.

  47. Boorstin, op. cit.

  48. Howells, Hazard, p. 213.

David D. Anderson (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5063

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 many of his short fictions and almost all of his novels reflect, literally, symbolically, or both, Anderson's journey from Clyde, Ohio, newsboy to Elyria, Ohio, company president, respectable marriage, and membership in the country club. His early life was an American dream realized through practicing the virtue instilled in the American character by William Bradford and John Winthrop two hundred years earlier.

This is the Sherwood Anderson myth reflected in the rise of Sam McPherson, son of Windy, from youthful poverty and shame in Caxton, Iowa, to affluence, respectability, and power in Chicago; in the confidence with which young George Willard goes off to Chicago, west with the setting sun to find his fulfillment, in the inventive genius of Hugh McVey of Bidwell, Ohio, in the success of John Webster, washing machine manufacturer, for each of whom, however, material success turns to dust in his hands even as he grasps it.

Consequently, also reflected is the second Anderson myth, that which enables Anderson's protagonists to turn their backs on material success and to transcend material values in the search for a truth and fulfillment that are at once human and spiritual. For Anderson it is a higher, truer myth; it is the rejection of Puritanism introduced into the American character by Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman earlier in his own century.

This second Anderson myth, engendered by his departure from Elyria in 1913 and his many tellings of the story in admitted fiction and purported fact, is that which brought Sam McPherson to reject success and wander through the Midwest seeking Truth, that led Beaut McGregor in Marching Men to seek in purposeless marching order a new meaning for men, that told Hugh McVey to seek meaning beyond the whistles of Bidwell, that made John Webster walk, through a morass of murky symbols, out of the night and into a new day with his secretary, that sent Bruce Dudley of Dark Laughter out of Chicago and an empty liberation and marriage to a refuge down the river.

In each of his fictional self-portraits Anderson is not merely the confused groper portrayed by the Eastern and academic critics of the 20s and 30s or even by Irving Howe and Kim Townsend, nor is he “a puzzled Sherwood Anderson” (685) as Oscar Cargill described him. Rather, his groping is that of the seeker who knows that somewhere beyond reality lies truth. “If it is meant by groping, that I do not know the answers,” Anderson wrote a few years before his death, “O.K.” (560)

If Anderson remained in his own mind a groper, a seeker to the end, confident that, as his epitaph proclaims in his own words “Life, not death, is the great adventure,” he adopted another persona almost immediately after his initial literary successes in Chicago. This was his dual role as literary artist-craftsman and mentor, which he had adopted as early as the initial issue of The Little Review in 1914, for which he wrote “The New Note,” his first literary publication and his definition of the literary artist as craftsman.

As “The New Note” makes clear, almost from his return to Chicago early in 1913 Anderson saw himself as a serious artist who had rejected the standards of the literary marketplace as well as popular literary success, and to the younger members of the Chicago Renaissance—Margaret Anderson in 1913 was 22, Floyd Dell was 26, Susan Glaspell was 30, Maxwell Bodenheim was 20, Ben Hecht was also 20—Anderson at 36 presented himself as experienced, a genuine rebel, and a dedicated artist with a trunkful of unpublished manuscripts. While the others wrote, talked, edited, and listened to Anderson, he was the first to enjoy recognition with “The Rabbit-Pen” in Harper's in July 1914, with stories in The Little Review and elsewhere, and most importantly, even as the Renaissance was already running its course, with the publication of Windy McPherson's Son in September 1916, a work hailed by Waldo Frank in The Seven Arts as an indication of Anderson's “emerging greatness.” (73-78)

Anderson wrote no major fiction based on his experiences in the Renaissance, although it is reflected in short fiction—“Seeds,” “The Triumph of a Modern,” even “A Chicago Hamlet,” “Milk Bottles,” and “A Man's Story,”—and Bruce Dudley in Dark Laughter is clearly a refugee as Sherwood was a refugee, each from a movement and a marriage in Chicago, both of which had become hopelessly artificial and confining. The great themes of Anderson's work were fixed by the time he left Elyria for Chicago in 1913. But curiously, few of the younger members of the Renaissance used what to them was their first major liberating experience in fiction; indeed, these younger artists produced little fiction that reflected the experience in terms other than the perennial searches of the young for love and for identity. Thus, Susan Glaspell's first novel, The Glory of the Conquered (1909) is the story of selfless love on the University of Chicago campus; her second, The Visioning (1911) permits her protagonist to discover a cause; Floyd Dell's Moon-Calf (1920) defines Felix Fay's escape from a provincial Bohemia to the experience of Chicago; in effect, it is Dell's Winesburg, Ohio. Dell's second novel, The Briary Bush (1921) was his first attempt to deal directly with the Renaissance experience in fiction. In the novel Felix Fay finds love, a cause and his art. Significantly, however, both of Dell's novels were published after he had found a new perspective, a role, a new place, and a new love in New York, together with a measure of maturity against which to view the Chicago experience. Like Glaspell one of the first members of the Liberation, he was the first to leave it behind. With him on the train to New York he carried the manuscript of Windy McPherson's Son in order to seek a publisher for it, a role he later insisted made him Sherwood Anderson's literary father.

As the Renaissance dissipated or went to New York and beyond, The Little Review and Margaret Anderson moving briefly to San Francisco in 1916 and then to New York, and Glaspell and George Cram Cook taking Provincetown by storm, thereby awakening a young man named O'Neill, Sherwood Anderson and Ben Hecht, both still in Chicago, had become close. Anderson, in spite of the prominence he had achieved with Windy McPherson's Son, Marching Men, Mid-American Chants, and finally, in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio, seemed destined to spend his life in Chicago, in “the writing of advertisements for somebody's canned tomatoes” (45), as he described his lot; and Hecht, a reporter on the Daily News had begun to write stories for Smart Set and to collaborate on plays, at first with Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, and then with Maxwell Bodenheim. In his memoir, A Child of the Century, Hecht remembered listening to Anderson read the stories of Winesburg, Ohio, and he recalled, whether literally true or not, that he and Anderson had begun collaboration on a play about Benvenuto Cellini, with whom, Hecht recalled, Anderson identified himself and spent hours declaiming Cellini's speeches. The project was eventually abandoned after a first act of about 150 pages—enough proportionately for an eight-hour drama had it been completed.

Anderson, Hecht recalled, was truly a poet, truly an artist, aloof from the concerns of the literary market places. “He was never hack and artist too,” he wrote. “Unlike Hemingway et al. he did not grandly play the poet while wooing the box office.” (252) Hence it was perhaps inevitable that when Hecht's first novel, Erik Dorn, was published in 1921, after his return from a two-year stint as foreign correspondent in post-war Germany for the Daily News, Sherwood Anderson would play a perceptible—and predictable—role in the novel.

Eric Dorn is Hecht's novel of the Chicago Renaissance, and it is Hecht's story, too, of his search for love and for identity if not for art. Erik is clearly Hecht, a marvelously exaggerated egotistical self-portrait of a brilliant, talented man with, however, neither Hecht's literary pretensions nor an outlet for his talent. Like Hecht, a Chicago newspaperman, Dorn can only coin epigrams as in frustration he watches his marriage to Anna deteriorate and his attraction to a young magazine artist, Rachel, grow. The young woman is attracted to Dorn's Bohemian insouciance, but she is also attracted to Hazlitt, a young lawyer, who is clearly Hecht's ambitious and inner-directed alter ego.

In mid-novel, Dorn avoids both women to spend a night on the town with Warren Lockwood, an older, reasonably successful novelist who is abruptly introduced at that point. Lockwood is clearly Sherwood Anderson and, in a long digression, as omniscient author, Hecht writes of an increasingly ambigious relationship between the two men:

Dorn had been attracted to him at first because of the curious intonations of his voice. He had not read the man's novels—there were four of them dealing with the Middle West—but in the repressed sing-song of his voice Dorn sensed an unusual character.

“He's a good writer, an artist,” he thought, hearing him talk. … He talks like a lover arguing patiently and gently with his own thoughts.” …

… The idea of Warren Lockwood being a lover grew upon Dorn. Of little things, of things seemingly unimportant and impersonal, the novelist talked as he [Dorn] would have liked to talk to Rachel—with a slow simplicity that caressed his subjects and said, “These are little things but we must be careful in handling them, for they're a part of life.” And life was important. People were tremendously existent. Dorn, listening to the novelist, would watch his eyes that seemed to be always adventuring among secrets.


Dorn's introspection concerning Lockwood continues:

There grew up in Dorn a curious envy of the novelist. He would think of him frequently when alone. “The fellow's content to write. I'm not. He's found his way of saying what's in him, getting rid of his energies and love. I haven't. He feels toward the world as I do toward Rachel. An overpowering reality and mystery are always before him, but it gives him a mental perspective. … Yes, I have wings but there's no place to fly with them. Except into her arms. There must be something else. …


And again, Hecht relates that

The friendship between Lockwood and Dorn matured quickly. The two men, profoundly dissimilar in their natures, found themselves launched upon a growing intimacy. To Lockwood, heavy spoken, delicate sensed, naive despite the shrewdness of his forty-five years, Erik Dorn appealed as some exotic mechanical contrivance might for a day fascinate and bewilder the intelligence of a rustic. And the other [Dorn] … thought “If only I had this man's simplicity. If on top of my ability to unravel mysteries into words I could feel these mysteries as he does, I might do something.”


Again, Dorn finds his envy overpowering him:

… “I'm alive. He's static,” he sometimes told himself. I live above him. There's nothing beyond me. I can't feel the things out of which he makes his novels, because I'm above him.”


And finally, Dorn felt himself hurling through life, to “hurl himself through crowds, pulverize Warren, bang out astounding fictions on the typewriter, watch the faces of acquaintances light up with admiration. … (220)

After this soul-searching reflection, the actual night out is almost but not quite anti-climax. Lockwood takes Dorn to visit an avant-garde sculptor he admires, but Lockwood's excited admiration eludes Dorn; they then eat in an unappetizing restaurant, and Lockwood threatens to put Dorn and his tensions in a novel; they walk on through heavy rain, and finally go into a low dive in a basement full of drink, laughter, obscenity, strong odors of perspiration and sex and the loud sounds of jazz; it is an orgy in Dorn's words, and he abruptly seizes a woman and takes her up a flight of stairs, outdoors, and through the rain into a reeking room.

Later, Lockwood finds Dorn out in the night, his clothes torn and bloody. “‘I've had a look at hell,’ he whispered, [to Lockwood] and with a laugh hurried off alone. Lockwood watched him moving swiftly down the street, and yawned.” (239) Later Dorn tells Rachel that “That damned Warren Lockwood led me astray.” (240)

Even this incident does nothing for or to Dorn; his relationships erode; he is sent to Germany by his paper, and he becomes acquainted with the political turmoil of post-war Germany and its decadence. He learns that he has lost both Anna and Rachel; he observes a new, grotesque German government threatened by communist revolution; he has a brief affair; and finally, unchanged, like Hecht himself, he returns to Chicago to work at the paper.

Although Hecht remembered in his memoirs that his tribute to Anderson in the novel was well-intended, his portrait of Anderson was not Anderson as he saw himself, and its publication marked the end of their friendship. The novel was not bad, Anderson reportedly told him, but they could both best advance their literary causes not through friendship but through enmity. Hecht should attack him and he would attack Hecht—beginning with Erik Dorn. But there is no evidence that Anderson did so.1

Nevertheless, their friendship was over, and while Hecht founded the Chicago Literary Times and then went East to Front Page success, a column for P.M., and movie writing, Anderson went East and then South, and his literary reputation stagnated. Only once more did they meet, twenty years later, accidently, in Twenty-One in New York. Anderson was to sail for South America in the morning. It was, Hecht remembered, as if the twenty years had been two weeks, and the next day Hecht wrote a column for P.M. about Anderson—his successes, his failures, his faith. In it he wrote that Sherwood Anderson had re-invented the long-dead American soul. The column appeared a few days later, beneath an announcement of Anderson's death in Panama.

Interestingly, when Erik Dorn was reprinted in a new edition in 1963 by the University of Chicago Press, it was prefaced with a foreword by Nelson Algren, who, while complimentary, commented that “in no other American novel is the relationship between the book's hero and the novelist revealed so lucidly.” Hecht became incensed, refused to go the the publication party, and wrote that he had “no hankering to pose in your local festivities as a literary patsy,” later adding about Algren that “I haven't the faintest idea of what he writes like. In this case it [the preface] stinks.”

Algren, equally incensed, replied that Hecht “hasn't done anything good since Erik Dorn,” that he “made one or two good movies and some awfully bad ones,” that he had neglected his talent. Algren's comments are typical of assessments of Hecht's career in the years after he left Chicago.

Anderson's break with Hecht in 1921 was part of a series of breaks that he brought about in the early twenties as he sought to redirect this life and to find a place conducive to work and a meaningful relationship to make the work possible. He befriended Ernest Hemingway; he went South, hoping to leave Chicago permanently; he traveled to Europe and back; he published Many Marriages, Horses and Men, A Story Teller's Story; he spent months in Reno, finally freeing himself from Tennessee Mitchell and marrying Elizabeth Prall. By summer, 1924, he had settled, presumably permanently, in New Orleans. Late that year he became acquainted with an aspiring twenty-seven-year-old poet from Mississippi, a meeting Anderson later fictionalized in “A Meeting South,” published in The Dial in April, 1925.

That young poet, whom Anderson called David in the sketch, was William Faulkner, and “A Meeting South” is the most idealized portrait Anderson was ever to write of a living person. The story is slight, but it is clear that Anderson had accepted Faulkner as he had presented himself. Like Hemingway, Faulkner had constructed for himself a distinguished ancestry and military career: he came from an old Southern family, and he had enlisted in the R.F.C. at the outbreak of war; he had flown gallantly over the Western Front for four years; his career had ended in a crash that left him badly wounded, to walk forever with a Byronic limp. His ambition was to write poetry in the manner of Shelley; he was thoroughly and easily and affectionately familiar with the blacks of Harlem and the South that Anderson and others of his generation had begun to romanticize.

In reality, of course, Faulkner had enlisted in the R.C.F.C. late in 1918; he was in pre-flight training in Canada at the Armistice and never served overseas. Conversely, Hemingway, the “Soto Tenente Hemingway,” of his self-image, who had enlisted in the Italian Army before America entered the war, and had served heroically, been decorated, and badly wounded, according to his self-created myth, had actually joined the Italian Red Cross in May 1918 and had just arrived at the front—on a bicycle to distribute candy, gum, and cigarettes to the troops—before being actually if accidentally wounded—presumably seriously, although he managed to emerge with no broken bones.

There is a suggestion in several of Anderson's later comments that he had learned the truth about both men's military service—or lack of same—and that it later colored his attitude toward both of them. After all, Anderson's own military career in Co. I, Sixth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which he always deprecated, had been, while scarcely distinguished, certainly longer and more demanding than either Faulkner's of Hemingway's. Yet in “They Come Bearing Gifts,” an account of Anderson's relations with younger writers published in the American Mercury, October, 1930, Anderson describes them as two young heroes, one Northern, one Southern, both of whom served bravely and had been badly wounded in the Great War.

The close relationship that developed between Anderson and Faulkner in New Orleans in 1925 has been often described, although some parts of that relationship are still obscure or debated. They sauntered together through the French Quarter and along the docks; they talked, they drank moonshine together, Anderson presumably turning Faulkner away from poetry and into prose. Faulkner served a prose apprenticeship writing sketches for the Double Dealer and the Times-Picayune and then wrote Soldiers' Pay, which Anderson persuaded Horace Liveright to publish, after which Anderson told him to write of the patch of ground back in Mississippi that he knew. Anderson and Faulkner had collaborated, to a greater or lesser extend on a rustic character named Al Jackson, central character in a rustic, never-ending tall tale; they, had, too, according to critical wisdom, taken at least one excursion on Lake Pontchartrain, an experience that led to Faulkner's second novel, Mosquitoes, also published by Liveright, in 1926.

Although Faulkner left New Orleans for Europe with William Spratling in July 1925, to return to Mississippi late that year to write Mosquitoes, and then returned to New Orleans late in 1926, he and Anderson apparently did not meet again. Conventional biographical and scholarly wisdom has it that Anderson became upset at Faulkner's parody of Anderson's style in the foreword to Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles, itself a parody of Miguel Covarrubias's The Prince of Wales and Other Famous Americans the previous year. The parody included caricatures by Spratling of Anderson, Roark Bradford, Hamilton Basso, and others of the New Orleans literati. It was dedicated “to all the artful and crafty ones of the French Quarter.” Four hundred copies were sold at $1.50 each. The conventional scholarly wisdom has it, too, that this parody, published almost simultaneous with Hemingway's unfortunate “The Torrents of Spring” (1926), offended the older writer, who was further offended by Faulkner's unflattering portrait of him as Dawson Fairchild in Mosquitoes.

The parody of Anderson's style in Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles is skillfully done; with more restraint and good humor than Hemingway's heavy-handed work, it is less a parody by Faulkner than an exercise in attempting to find a style of his own. But in Mosquitoes, truly a period-piece of the mid 1920s, as an attempt to satirize artistic and intellectual pretensions, Faulkner portrayed Anderson as friends and acquaintances had always known him, as one who enjoyed people, as one who liked a drink, as one who remained sensitive about his unsophisticated background and lack of education. But above all, Faulkner portrayed him as a teller of tales.

Unlike Erik Dorn, Mosquitoes is less a serious novel than an attempt at a light-hearted—that sometimes becomes heavy-handed—satire of the artful and crafty ones to whom the earlier satire was dedicated. The group in the novel spends five days on the yacht Nausikaa, owned by socialite/arts patron Mrs. Maurier; they drink, romance, play cards, take excursions, on occasion run aground, but above all, they talk, and the major romantic interest—an attempted elopement by Mrs. Maurier's niece and the young steward David—is aborted by hordes of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, the insect equivalents of Mr. Talliaferro—born Tolliver—, Major Ayres, Mrs. Wiseman, and various others.

The artists—Gordon, a sculptor with little to say but much good work to do, and Dawson Fairchild, a successful, middle-aged Midwestern novelist—remain largely aloof, below decks, drinking and talking with the nameless Semitic man called Julius, who functions as foil, philosopher, and confidant. Of the three, Dawson Fairchild is the most compelling character, clearly Anderson as Faulkner saw him in the mid-20s.

The caricature is clear and sometimes clever but far from vicious. Unlike his counterpart in Erik Dorn, Fairchild is frequently present in the novel, “a novelist,” Faulkner writes, “resembling a benevolent walrus too recently out of bed to have made a toilet” (33): with a loud “burly jovial voice” he is, as the Semitic man tells him, not an artist but “… a bewildered stenographer with a gift for people … an artist only when you are telling about people …” (51) He is, as Mrs. Wiseman describes him, “… an American of a provincial lower middle-class family …” (24); further, he is, as the Semitic man tells him, “a man in all the lusty pride of his Ohio valley masculinity. …” (209) In swimming, “Fairchild looked more like a walrus than ever: a deceptively sedate walrus of middle age suddenly evincing a streak of demoniac puerility.” (80)

None of these descriptions is unkind, and the remarks come from sources of varied reliability in the novel, but the portrait of Fairchild the raconteur, like Anderson the story-teller, is as true as the later descriptions by Margaret Anderson in My Thirty Years War of a younger Anderson in a younger age in Chicago a decade before. Yet Mrs. Maurier tells herself that “Mr. Fairchild's way was—well, uncouth; but after all, one must pay a price for Art.” (66)

In the tale Fairchild tells, to the consternation of Mrs. Maurier, as he pulls the leg of the proper English Major Ayers (apparently based on one Colonel Charles Glen Collens, a Scottish adventurer who had spent weeks in the New Orleans jail fighting extradition to Bombay for failure to pay for $50,000 worth of jewelry) Faulkner draws on the tall tales he and Anderson had created in their conversations and in letters during the summer and fall of 1925. Fairchild's telling of the tale begins after lunch, after a discussion of the Major's scheme to sell fancily bottled salts to Americans: “Fairchild was in the lead, burly and jovial, a shade unsteady as to gait.” (61)

And now Fairchild was saying:

“Now here's a clean case of poetic justice for you. A hundred odd years ago Major Ayers' grandpa wants to come to New Orleans, but our grandfathers stop him down yonder in those Chalmette swamps and lick hell out of him. And now Major Ayers comes into the city itself and conquers it with a laxative so mild that, as he says, you don't even notice it. … Say, he certainly ought to make Al Jackson a present of a bottle, oughtn't he?’”

… Major Ayers repeated: “Al Jackson?”

… “Why, didn't you ever hear of Al Jackson?” asked Fairchild in unctuous surprise. “He's a funny man, a direct descendent of Old Hickory that licked you folks in 1812, he's quite a character in New Orleans … You can always tell him because he wears congress boots all the time—”

“Congress boots?” murmured Major Ayers, staring at him. …

“Sure. On the street, at formal gatherings, even in evening dress he wears 'em. He even wears 'em in bathing.”

“In bathing? I say.” Major Ayers stared at the narrator with his round china-blue eyes.

“Sure. Won't let anyone see him barefoot. A family deformity, you see. Old Hickory himself had it: that's the reason he outfought the British in those swamps. …”


The tale continues through Old Hickory's cavalry, mounted on half-horse, half alligators, from his stock farm in Florida. Finally, the Major surrenders: “Go on,” he says at last, “you're pulling my leg.”

“No, no:” Fairchild answers him. “But then, it is kind of hard for a foreigner to get us. We're simple people, we Americans, kind of childlike and hearty. And you've got to be both to cross a horse and an alligator and then find some use for him, you know. …”


The tall tale continues on another occasion; in the second telling Al Jackson is a fishherd in the Gulf; he owns a fish ranch; he notches his fish's tails for identification. Those fish the Major has noted in England with notched tails are runaways from the Jackson fish ranch. Finally, Mrs. Wiseman tells him: “Dawson … shut up. We simply cannot stand any more.” (88) Ultimately the yacht and its strange cargo return to the city.

The last scenes in the novel belong triumphantly to Fairchild. He, the Semitic man, and Gordon become magnificently drunk and wander through the Quarter. In the last scene the Semitic man declaims about color and form with “Fairchild beside him, leaning against a dark wall, vomiting.” (340) Recovering, Fairchild testily gives Mr. Talliaferro advice about his problem with Jenny: “Do? Do? Go to a brothel if you want a girl. … And here I am, wasting my damn life trying to invent people. …” (345) Later that night, Talliaferro phones him, having solved his own problem:

“Fairchild? So sorry to disturb you, but I have it at last.” A muffled inarticulate sound came over the wire, but he rushed on, unheeding. “I learned through a mistake tonight. The trouble is I haven't been bold enough with them: I have been afraid of frightening them away. Listen: I will bring her here, I will not take No; I will be cruel and hard, brutal, if necessary, until she begs for my love. What do you think of that? … Hello! Fairchild? …”

An interval filled with a remote buzzing. Then a female voice said:

“You tell 'em, big boy; treat 'em rough.”


Faulkner's Dawson Fairchild is no less sympathetic than Hecht's Warren Lockwood, but clearly there is a difference. Faulkner's is a caricature rather than a realistic portrait, and yet in many ways the caricature is the reality and the realistic portrayal an idealized portrait, or, in other words, the attempts by two young writers to portray the Sherwood Anderson who had come into their lives to contribute to their direction represent not different Andersons but different views of the same man, neither of which touches his reality and all his uncertainties as he saw himself.

Whether or not Anderson took offense at Hecht's portrayal is debatable, although Anderson broke off his friendship with Hecht at that point, just as he broke with Faulkner at the time of publication of Mosquitoes, and broke with Hemingway after the publication of The Torrents of Spring. But, unlike Hemingway, both Hecht and Faulkner continued to praise Anderson as a writer, an influence, and a man, each purporting not to understand the break. But in “They Come Bearing Gifts” and in his Memoirs Anderson ascribed the break with Hemingway and Faulkner to other reasons: a vicious letter from Hemingway and an argument with Faulkner in New Orleans in which Faulkner insisted that the product of a white-black relationship, like that of a horse and a burro, could only be sterile, a comparison Anderson found offensive. Nevertheless, when Faulkner published Sartorsis in 1929 his dedication to Anderson was touching:

                    To Sherwood Anderson
                    through whose kindness
          I was first published with the belief
that this book will give him no reason
                                        to regret that fact.

Later, in an essay in the Atlantic Monthly in 1953 and in a 1956 Paris Review, Faulkner was gracious in acknowledging Anderson's influence on his career. Hemingway, conversely, commented in A Moveable Feast that Anderson had written a few good stories.

At this stage myth and reality are irretrievably interwoven in the stories of Anderson's relationships; and the truth is still the subject of scholarly debate. The fictional portraits that resulted from those relationships have, however, been too frequently overlooked or forgotten, but they remain testaments to Anderson's nature and personality, portraits as significant—and perhaps as real—as those he provided of himself and perhaps even more significant than those provided by his biographers.


  1. In a later novel, Humpty Dumpty (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924), p. 224, Hecht includes the following exchange between two characters:

    “I was reading that Sherwood Anderson book,” Stella smiled. “I had it on top. It's mine, you know. I bought it.”

    “You will waste your time reading Anderson,” Savaron answered. “I can give you all of Sherwood in a sentence—the wistful idealization of the masculine menopause. …”

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Letters, edited by Howard Mumford Jones with Walter Rideout. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953.

Anderson, Sherwood. Memoirs, edited by Ray Lewis White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

Cargill, Oscar. Intellectual America. New York: Macmillan, 1948.

Faulkner, William, Mosquitoes. New York: Liveright, 1927.

Faulkner, William Sartorsis. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929.

Frank, Waldo. “Emerging Greatness,” in The Seven Arts 1, November, 1916, pp. 73-78.

Hecht, Ben. A Child of the Century. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1954.

Hecht, Ben. Erik Dorn. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1921.

Mary-Elisabeth Fowkes Tobin (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4335

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 when “in the mood” and was not interested in revising and reworking half-formed material.2 Malcolm Cowley describes Anderson as “a writer who depended on inspiration. … He couldn't say to himself, ‘I shall produce such and such an effect in a book of such and such a length.’”3 James Schevill argues that “Anderson always had difficulty in disciplining himself to go over his work and improve poor passages.”4

Though there is, indeed, some evidence suggesting that Anderson despaired about and neglected revision of some of his longer works, it is also clear that he revised his late short stories very carefully. A demonstration of the care with which Anderson wrote and revised one of these late short stories, “Not Sixteen,” will help to dispel some of these old, and erroneous, assumptions about Anderson's method of composition and make clear that he was well in control of his artistry.

“Not Sixteen” was written between 1938 and 1940 in what many critics feel to be Anderson's “disastrous” late period.5 The Newberry Library has the five versions of “Not Sixteen”: a holograph manuscript, two typescripts and their respective carbon copies. The holograph manuscript, 24 pages long, written on yellow legal-sized paper in black ink, has few revisions.6 It looks as though Anderson wrote the story rapidly in one sitting (the handwriting is larger and looser toward the end). The few corrections he made as he wrote involve words misformed, crossed out, and begun again. Anderson typed up his manuscript, again making very few corrections, and produced a typescript eight pages long (T.S.1) with a yellow carbon copy. Leaving the carbon copy of this first typescript untouched (possibly for use to check against the emended versions), Anderson did the bulk of his revisions on the ribbon typescript, making copious annotations, corrections, deletions, and additions. To make room for all the corrections he pasted another piece of paper to the right-hand side of each page. He then typed up this heavily revised first typescript, producing a second typescript (T.S.2) and its carbon copy.7 While typing this second typescript, Anderson made very few changes so that the second typescript and its carbon are virtually the same as the revised first typescript except for one major difference: Anderson did not complete typing the story. He stopped typing on the middle of page 10 of the second typescript and did not complete at this time the process of transcribing the story as it appears in the holograph manuscript or in the revised first typescript. The second typescript (T.S.2) and its carbon differ from each other because it is on the carbon that Anderson later reshaped the ending, incorporating some of the T.S.1's revisions and adding to that ending a few new but quite significant phrases.

Many of the changes made in “Not Sixteen” (especially in T.S.1) suggest that Anderson consciously tried to write this story in the manner of his greatest work, Winesburg, Ohio. The plot of “Not Sixteen” is similar to the one used repeatedly in the Winesburg stories: a character is revealed in a state of emotional conflict, a history is then given of how the character developed the conflict, and finally the conflict is resolved in a moment of self-revelation. “Not Sixteen” is the story of how a boy, nineteen, deals with his sexual feelings toward a girl, much younger than he (not yet sixteen). We see enough of his past to know that he has a problem with self-control—he avoids the drudgery of going to school, spends his money carelessly, and, when confronted with the girl's refusal to marry him and/or to have sex with him, he has trouble coping with her determined resistance. But, because he is able to respect her strength and ability to wait until she is sixteen, he discovers in himself the ability to wait and to control himself. Pleased with himself, he says, “I have controlled myself. It is a fine thing.” His triumph is only of the moment, however, for we know that he will not have enough control or determination to fulfill his fantasy of going to school and becoming a rich businessman.

The style of “Not Sixteen” is also similar to Winesburg, Ohio. The prose is direct with simple subject-verb sentence structure. Gone from Anderson's style is the impressionistic and jerky stream-of-consciousness which he affected in Dark Laughter, spoiling his straightforward and simple Midwestern prose. The various drafts show Anderson systematically removing the half-sentences and replacing them with plainer and simpler syntax. In the manuscript and first typescript there are many half-sentences joined either by a dash or by ellipses. In subsequent revisions the ellipses and dashes are deleted and replaced with a period or comma, and the half-sentences are turned into simple subject-verb sentences. In the first typescript, for example, this sentence appears: “I came down from her room one night … it was one of the moonlight nights … pretty cold … I'd been lying up there, on the blanket beside her bed” (T.S.1 8.6-8). In contrast, in the revised typescript this sentence becomes: “He had come down from her room. It was one of the moonlight nights and cold. He'd been lying up there on the blanket by her bed” (T.S.2 10.19-20).7

Anderson also revised repetitive sentences that had given the prose a staccato quality, thus making the sentences simpler and smoother. The sentence which in the first typescript reads “I thought about that. At night, in bed, I thought about it” (T.S.1 1.11) becomes in the second typescript, “He thought about it at night in bed” (T.S.2 1.15). He also took many single sentences which stood as separate paragraphs and joined them to make a free-flowing long paragraph. In the first typescript he wrote:

It was in quite a big field.

There was the part of the field where the corn was already cut. You could look across it.

There were the shocks of corn we had cut, standing out there.

There were pumpkins on the ground, big yellow ones.

Beyond the open place where the corn shocks stood there was a wood.

(T.S.1 5.14-19)

In the second typescript the following revision appears:

They were at work in a big field and there was the part of the field where the corn was already cut. They could look across the open place. There were the shocks of corn they had cut, standing out there. There were yellow pumpkins on the ground. Beyond the open place where the corn shocks stood there was a wood.

(T.S.2 7.9-12)

The care with which Anderson used punctuation to form the fluid prose style associated with Winesburg, Ohio is obscured in the two published versions of “Not Sixteen” by over-zealous editors who took it upon themselves to standardize Anderson's unusual punctuation.8 Thus, many of the nuances of phrasing Anderson so painstakingly created in “Not Sixteen” are missing from the published texts. Published posthumously in 1946 in Tomorrow and in 1947 in Paul Rosenfeld's The Sherwood Anderson Reader, neither edition of “Not Sixteen” received authorial approval. The most frequent example of over-editing is the removal of commas which Anderson carefully and deliberately placed in a phrase to stop the reader's eye and to make him consider what he has just read. This type of editorial intervention occurs in the Rosenfeld edition approximately twenty-five times. For instance, Anderson wrote in the second typescript: “She kept on insisting on it. She whispered it in the barn, at night, after the day in the cornfield” (T.S.2 1.11-12). Anderson purposely placed the commas to break up the sentence, to make the reader pause so that the impression is one of her repeating and insisting on not being sixteen. The editor, misunderstanding the purpose of the comma, removed it: “She kept on insisting on it. She whispered it in the barn at night, after the day in the corn field” (p. 836). Again, Anderson wrote: “She was shy and, at the same time, bold” (T.S.2 6.8), which the editor changed to “She was shy, and at the same time bold” (p. 840). In deleting the comma, the editor shifted the cadence and removed the emphasis on her boldness, and thereby altered the original meaning of the text.

In another effort to control the effect of his prose and create a feeling of simplicity and spareness, Anderson deleted more than ten repetitive passages and revised passages that were ambiguous. The boy in the first typescript, for instance, says, “I told her how it was different with me and her” (T.S.1 6.16), and in the second typescript says, “I was afraid of her but I'm not of you” (T.S.2 8.29), a change that qualified the difference.

Aware that his audience might be offended by this story of sexual attraction, Anderson carefully removed the eight passages that could be construed as over-explicit. For instance, Anderson wrote in the second typescript: “When he began to plead with her, she knew what he meant. She wanted to” (T.S.2 2.2); he crossed out in hand “She wanted to.” He also removed from the first transcript: “She told me that she had seen the animals, the hens and roosters, the pigs and sheep, doing it” (T.S.1 6.19).

These kinds of small but significant stylistic changes suggest that Anderson approached “Not Sixteen” with the care of a skilled craftsman and refute the idea that Anderson in his later years could not discipline himself to make revisions. Yet some critics have argued that Anderson could only make relatively small stylistic changes—“pencil work”—and was not able to make substantive improvements. Cowley writes: “He couldn't tighten the plot, delete a weak passage, sharpen the dialogue, give a twist to the ending; if he wanted to improve the story, he had to wait for a return of the mood that had produced it, then write it over from beginning to end” (p. 4). But if we look at the substantive changes Anderson made while revising “Not Sixteen,” this assessment simply does not hold up.

The concern Anderson showed over the ending of “Not Sixteen” is indicative of the care he gave to revising this short story. In typing up the second typescript, Anderson did not quite make it to the end of the story, but stopped transcribing the revised first ribbon typescript at the bottom of page 7 when the boy is begging “Please, please.”9 Anderson then attached the last page of the heavily revised first typescript (page 8) to the carbon copy of the second typescript, crossing out the “8” and adding the notation “11”. Not yet satisfied with this ending, Anderson wrote in a large, bold hand across the bottom of this page, “Self-control is a fine thing,'.” Anderson produced his next version of this story by adding to the second typescript a retyped page 10 and 11, a transcript of page 8 of the revised first typescript, making no changes while typing. Finally, Anderson corrected this last version by hand, crossing out “Self-control” of the phrase “Self-control is a fine thing,” and adding in its place, “‘I have controlled myself. It,” thus making, “‘I have controlled myself. It is fine thing,’ he thought.” This last version bears his signature under the title of the story on page 1.

Perhaps the most significant revision Anderson made in writing “Not Sixteen” was in the revisions of the first ribbon typescript when he changed the narrative voice from the first person to the third, thus breaking away from the formula he used in most of his successful short stories. One explanation might lie in his desire to return to the effective narrative technique of Winesburg, Ohio, where a sense of profound compassion and sympathy for the main characters of the story is achieved by the voice of an omniscient narrator.

In the manuscript and first typescript version of the story, the narrator, who tells of his encounter with Lillian, expresses himself in a crass manner and is incapable of understanding the significance of his own story. By changing the voice to an omniscient one, Anderson created a vantage point outside the boy and his adventure, thus investing the boy's story with a meaning and a sense of pathos far beyond the boy's ability to understand or to articulate.

By changing the narrative technique, Anderson also made this pathetic boy a more attractive character. The crass, bragging quality of the boy's character in the first version is largely gone, and his thoughts and feelings seem more complex. For instance, in the first typescript Anderson wrote: “I could have stood it” (T.S.1 8.12). In the second typescript this is changed to: “He thought he could have stood it” (T.S.2 10.25). The first typescript's “struggle with her until she gave up but I didn't” (T.S.1 7.17) in the second typescript becomes “struggle with her until she surrendered but, for some obscure reason, he didn't” (T.S.2 10.2-3). And in the first typescript Anderson wrote “I got quiet” (T.S.1 7.11) which is changed in the second typescript to “he got strangely quiet” (T.S.2 9.24).

When Anderson changed the story's narrative voice and created two different points of view—the boy's and the narrator's—he widened the separation between their perspectives by formalizing the narrator's language and by making the boy's more casual. For instance, on page 7 of the first typescript where the boy-narrator says “couldn't” and “made up” (T.S.1 7.20), the omniscient third person narrator says “could not” and “invented” (T.S.2 10.5). The boy's speech is revised from the first to the second typescript to contain more colloquialisms. “All right” (T.S.1 3.23) is changed to “O.K.” (T.S.2 4.27) and “repair” (T.S.1 3.29) to “fix” (T.S.2 5.5); the boy in the first typescript says, “You marry some rich girl” (T.S.1 4.23); whereas, in the second typescript he says, “You marry, say now, a rich girl” (T.S.2 5.9).

This separation between the narrator and the boy enables the reader to view the boy from the outside and encourages the reader to judge the boy's thoughts and actions, and yet the tone, the incidents, and the boy's character create in the reader a feeling of sympathy. Anderson's artistry in his great stories lies in this ability to make the reader feel the distance between himself and the character, heightening the reader's sense of the character's isolation, while at the same time arousing in the reader sympathy and compassion for the pathetic and often grotesque character.

One of the ways Anderson makes the boy more sympathetic is by giving him some admirable character traits. Much that is likable in the boy was added when he revised the first typescript. Among the details Anderson added that enhance the boy's character are those describing his past, in particular, his experience as a swipe on the grand trotting circuit, as a factory worker in a Detroit automobile plant, and as a soldier in World War I. Added, for instance, is a paragraph of about fifty words that describes John's home-coming from the war and his acute and bitter assessment of the town's attempt to make the returning soldiers into heroes. “There had been a banquet in the town hall. He and other soldiers had been called heroes again. … ‘All this talk. It's bushwa,’ he said. ‘They are handing us the lousy bunk,’ he said” (T.S.2 2.14-2.20). Added also are the brief descriptions of how the boy felt about his job “on the line” in automobile factory, how the “job had got me,” and how he had “chucked” that job (T.S.2 2.21-2.25). Even John's belligerent observations on patriotism and factory work make him a sympathetic character, for his anger implies a sturdy individualism, a refusal to be victimized by the forces of imperialism and industrialization.

John's love of horses and horse-racing also make him attractive because the racing world represents an escape from the grind of alienating factory work and the drudgery of farm work. Anderson added a lengthy section to the first ribbon typescript that sharpens our sense of the boy's longing for an alternative to his dull life and exhausting work. Wondering what to do with his life, John considers returning to his old job in the horse-racing circuit. “It had been a temptation to John. He went to caress the horse. He ran his hand along his back and down his legs. ‘He's a good one,’ he thought. He thought of the drifting from town to town. In time he might become a driver. It was an old dream come back” (T.S.2 3.22-3.25). John recognizes that the appeal of life on the racing circuit is its escape from middle-class responsibilities; however, he rejects the life of a horseman for that very reason. In the course of his reflections he discovers that he has middle-class aspirations—to go to school and to get an education so that he may become a successful businessman and perhaps marry a rich woman. “If he did not get an education he would remain as he was—sunk, a worker, a man going through life with his feet in the mud. There was a ladder up which you climbed. Education was the thing that did it” (T.S.2 4.23-4.27).

With the addition of a few lines, Anderson deftly portrays the boy's struggle between his love of horses, racing, and track life and his more respectable goals. “He thought of nights, in strange towns, with the other swipes. There'd be drinking, there'd be some whoring done. He stood looking at the horse. ‘No,’ he thought. ‘I got to cut that out.’ ‘Those race horsemen,’ he thought, ‘where do they ever get?’” (T.S.2 3.28-4.3). Trying to convince himself that with an education he could become a “prosperous man” (T.S.2 4.17) and then perhaps own horses and race them, he says to himself, “OK, … I'll give up what I want to be, a horseman” (T.S.2 4.28-29).

The theme of escape from alienating work, a theme which reoccurs in Anderson's work as well as in his accounts of his own life, is paired with a valorization of the imagination. Of all the added details the ones that perhaps make John the most attractive are those which give him a vivid imagination. In one scene he spins a fantasy for the young girl who loves to listen to him talk.

He could pretend there was another world, besides the one they lived in, a world of little living things, men and women like themselves, but small, he said. “No bigger than that,” he said. He put his thumb at the first joint of a finger. He began inventing. He told her that the little people lived, in the day-time, in the wood, that they hid in there.

“Now see, they've come out to play,” he said.

“They are men and women like us,” he said, “but they don't get married.” Two dry leaves went skipping along.

(T.S.2 8.5-8.12)

Despite the attractiveness of John's imagination and his resistance to accepting his life as it is and despite the sympathy Anderson so carefully arouses in the reader for this boy, we cannot fail to see that John in his effort to overcome the conditions of his life is pathetic. Anderson strives to make very clear by his several revisions of the ending that this boy lacks sustained self-control. John is pathetic because he has rather lack-luster middle-class aspirations which he will never realize since he lacks the self-discipline necessary for achievement. John's display of self-control at the end of the story is only of the moment and not a permanent feature of his personality. We know that he will drift from job to job, his mind filled with unrealizable and half-formed aspirations. Anderson's seemingly simple story is really complex, raising moral as well as political and social questions in his portrayal of a boy who recognizes that there is something wrong with his life and yet is unable to do anything about it.

The fact that “Not Sixteen” was very deliberately and carefully revised supports the contention that, despite what many critics have suggested, Sherwood Anderson, even after 1925, was a serious craftsman who was concerned about producing certain effects through his art. That Anderson returned to the mode of narration, form, and style of Winesburg, Ohio shows how in his later years he abandoned affected Joycean forms and began to come to terms with his own great contribution to American literature—the simple and direct Midwestern prose and a story that evokes a bittersweet yearning in the reader. In the middle and late 1930s Anderson produced some of his best literature. Besides the monumental Memoirs, he wrote great short stories—among them, “The Corn Planting,” “Nobody Laughed,” and “Not Sixteen.” A careful study of the typescript states of “Not Sixteen” and the final intended version of the story shows Anderson to be a dedicated artist and craftsman even after 1925. Similar studies of the composition of some of Anderson's other late works should further corroborate this point.


  1. A major contributor to this notion of deterioration is Irving Howe, especially in a chapter “The Downward Curve” of Sherwood Anderson (1951). More recent criticism beginning in the mid-60s and culminating in 1976 with the celebration of Sherwood Anderson's centennial has tried to counter such negative assessments of Anderson's life and work. See, in particular, David D. Anderson's introduction to Sherwood Anderson: Dimensions of his Literary Art (1976), his introduction to Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson (1981), his critical biography, Sherwood Anderson: An Introduction and Interpretation (1967), and his essay included in Hilbert Campbell's Centennial Studies (1976). Also see Walter B. Rideout's introduction to Sherwood Anderson: A Collection of Critical Essays (1974) and Ray Lewis White's The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson (1966).

  2. William L. Phillips suggests that Anderson himself may have been partly responsible for promulgating this myth; Phillips quotes from Anderson's memoirs: “I am not one who can peck away at a story. It writes itself, as though it used me merely as a medium. … The short story is the result of a sudden passion. It is an idea grasped whole as one would pick an apple in an orchard. All of my own short stories have been written at one sitting.” Phillips points out that Anderson's own accounts of his method of composition are often tinctured with “romantic subjectivity.” Trying to determine how Anderson really wrote his stories, Phillips examines the manuscript of “Hands.” He concludes that “the story, although first drafted in a ‘sudden passion’ was reworked several times.” “There are … two hundred instances in which earlier words and phrases are deleted, changed, or added to, to provide the readings of final published version of the story.” “Not Sixteen” like “Hands” seems to have been written in one sitting, but then, like “Hands,” was heavily revised. See Phillips, “How Sherwood Anderson Wrote Winesburg, Ohio,American Literature 23 (1951), 7-30, especially pp. 19-21.

  3. Malcolm Cowley ed., “Introduction,” Winesburg, Ohio (1984), p. 3. This myth may be slow to die because Cowley's introduction to Winesburg, Ohio, published first in a 1960 Viking edition, is now attached to the popular Penguin edition which has undergone 14 printings in the past 10 years.

  4. James Schevill, Sherwood Anderson: His Life and his Work (1951), p. 235.

  5. Paul Rosenfeld says “Not Sixteen” was written in 1940. See The Sherwood Anderson Reader (1947), p. 836. However, an earlier date can be deduced from material found in the Newberry Library folder which contains the holograph manuscript and typescripts of this story. A hand-written note, most likely Mrs. Eleanor Anderson's handwriting as it matches the word “finish” on one of the typescripts (see note 9 below), contains a few phrases describing the subject matter of the story (“Spanish Amer War,” “What Chance (Horse)”), a reference to a letter from Chambrun, his literary agent, with the date of August, 1938, and a list of the magazines this story was sent to—Harpers, Mercury, Atlantic Monthly, College Humor, and For Men Only.

  6. I gratefully acknowledge the Newberry Library's and the Sherwood Anderson Estate's permission to quote from this material.

  7. I have chosen out of convenience to use the notation T.S. 1 to refer to the first typescript before he revised it as indicated by the carbon copy. T.S. 2 refers to the second ribbon typescript which is virtually the same as the heavily revised first ribbon typescript until page 10 of the new typescript.

  8. Ray Lewis White comments on the fact that most editors and critics think that because Anderson had only one year of high school education, he did not understand comma placement. White writes: “The grand assumption—a false one—among all previous editors of Sherwood Anderson's manuscripts has been that the author knew nothing about the mechanical preparation of his writing for publication. The fact is that Anderson was by no means ignorant of paragraphing, punctuation, and grammar. … Sherwood Anderson knew how to write as he wanted his material read—slowly, carefully, each sentence building itself by progressive relative clauses and separate phrases into a full, often complicated structure and thought.” (See his “Introduction,” Memoirs [1969], p. xxxvi.) Editors confronted with Anderson's loose and apparently formless sentences often standardized and stiffened his free flowing prose and ignored his clearly marked episode spacing and paragraphing. White says that “one would not exaggerate in speculating that almost no essay or book by Anderson was published as the author intended in his manuscripts.” (See White's “Introduction,” Marching Men [1972], p. xxv.)

  9. On the last page of the carbon of the second typescript, page 10, the word “finish” is written in a hand other than Anderson's, probably Mrs. Eleanor Anderson's, as she often took a supervisory role in the production of his writing.

Stephen C. Enniss (essay date May 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6511

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 Anderson himself, John Webster (Many Marriages, 1923) gets up from his desk and walks away from his washing machine business and his family, while John Stockton (Dark Laughter, 1925) runs away to the South and takes the name Bruce Dudley. In the stories of these lives, Anderson expresses something of the discontent of his age, though these stories also testify to his persistent belief in a better life just out of reach. Too often, however, Anderson criticism has focused on the rejection inherent in such escapes and failed to recognize the life that he sought to affirm. Lionel Trilling, writing of Anderson's preoccupation with escape, has charged that “Anderson never understood that the moment of enlightenment and conversion—the walking out—cannot be merely celebrated but must be developed, so that what begins as an act of will grows to be an act of intelligence” (215). For Anderson, however, escape was also an affirmation. If on the one hand it was a flight from the conventional, middle-class, business ethic, on the other it was an attempt to find a more meaningful life in art. Anderson's own flight from his paint factory became the symbol for both acts, the act of rejection and of affirmation.

It is my belief that this spirit of affirmation can be found throughout Anderson's stories and novels. Though Winesburg, Ohio (1919) is clearly a collection of stories of physical isolation and spiritual loneliness, it is also an expression of longing for the lost values of the community. Similarly, in his novels of escape, Anderson captures the groping of men and women towards a life that is sustaining and somehow more whole than that left behind. This tension between the forces of alienation and of affirmation is clearly evident in Poor White (1920), Anderson's novel of the industrial transformation of Bidwell, Ohio.2 Like the typical Anderson hero, Hugh McVey follows a familiar pattern of rejection and affirmation as he attempts to lead a good life in the new age. Largely overlooked in previous discussions of the novel, however, is Anderson's own ambivalence in the face of the choices Hugh encounters. This confusion is most apparent in a number of conflicting descriptions of Hugh that remain unreconciled by the end of the novel. At times Anderson portrays Hugh as a man acting positively in his world in an attempt to free men and women from oppressive labor, but by the close of the novel Anderson would have us see Hugh withdrawing from the new age in an attempt to better understand himself. One view emphasizes Hugh's heroic qualities, while the other reveals more clearly Anderson's preoccupation with escape. One is an attempt to act positively in the world, the other, a negative rejection of the values of that world. These conflicting impulses within Hugh remain as evidence of an unresolved tension within Anderson himself.

From the beginning Poor White is a novel of choices. Raised by his father in a shack by the Mississippi, Hugh grows up into an idle life. His father, John McVey, is unemployed and spends his days drinking, “the easy obvious thing for him to do” (4). He loiters in the streets and on the river bank and only awakens out of his “habitual stupor” when “driven by hunger or the craving for drink” (4). On such occasions father and son go into town where they earn money sweeping out stores or cleaning cisterns and outhouses. These interruptions aside, however, life flows undisturbed. It is these early childhood experiences that shape Hugh's own dreamy nature, and later it is this idle past that Hugh struggles to reconcile to the fierce activity of the new age. It is, however, an oversimplification to view Hugh's struggle as simply one to escape his father's life by the river. Too often Sarah Shepard's judgment that John McVey is “good-for-nothing” has been accepted by critics, and the novel's later repudiation of that view overlooked.3 When Hugh turns away from his father it is “not because of resentment for his hard youth, but because he thought it time to begin to go his own way” (5).

Sarah Shepard offers Hugh a life in direct opposition to that of his father. Her people had been hardworking men and women who had moved west in the years after the Civil War. Her father had worked in the fields clearing the land of stumps, all the while dreaming of “a future of ease” (10). When Sarah comes to Mudcat Landing, she brings with her a belief in a future reward for hard work. She reads success stories in the newspapers and magazines and dreams of her husband, Henry, becoming a railroad president or a millionaire. Driven by this dream, she admonishes Henry with her formula for success: “Do everything well. … Remember to make your reports out neatly and clearly. Show them you can do perfectly the task given you to do, and you will be given a chance at a larger task. Some day when you least expect it something will happen. You will be called up into a position of power” (11). Sarah puts her faith in that puritan work ethic which promises a future reward for hard work, but she dreams a dream of the new age, a dream of living the life of a Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Morgan.

With Sarah Shepard's arrival in Mudcat Landing, Hugh is for the first time presented with a choice between two opposing ways of life. When he goes to work for the Shepards, he finds a home life he has not had with his father. He is given new clothes to wear, and for the first time in his life he sits down to regular meals. More important for Hugh's development, however, are Sarah Shepard's attempts to make a man of him by strict discipline and hard work. After going to work for the Shepards, Hugh is faced with a choice between two extremes. He can slip easily into the animal-like existence of his father or he can adopt Sarah Shepard's circular work ethic, which rewards work well done with a new job to be well done once more. One life offers only momentary gratification, while the other offers only receding rewards.4

In the opening pages of Poor White Anderson describes Hugh's indecision before this choice. The companionship of the Shepards and the sense of home that Hugh finds with them seems at times “a kind of paradise” (9), but still he remains attracted to the idle life his father leads.5

When neither the station master nor his wife was about he went with his father to sit for half a day with his back against the wall of the fishing shack, his soul at peace. In the sunlight he sat and stretched forth his long legs. His small sleepy eyes stared out over the river. A delicious feeling crept over him and for the moment he thought of himself as completely happy and made up his mind that he did not want to return again to the railroad station and to the woman who was so determined to arouse him and make of him a man of her own people.


In this early conflict of values Anderson establishes the dichotomy that is to dominate the rest of the novel. Like George Willard and other Anderson heroes, Hugh leaves home and sets out to find a way of life that will bring him meaningful happiness. This movement, however, is not simply a celebration of escape; it is also an expression of faith in the idyllic life that Sarah Shepard had described to him.

The woman had talked of a land dotted with towns where the houses were all painted in bright colors, where young girls dressed in white dresses went about in the evening, walking under trees beside streets paved with bricks, where there was no dust or mud, where stores were gay bright places filled with beautiful wares that the people had money to buy in abundance and where every one was alive and doing things worth while and none was slothful and lazy.


Though none of the towns or cities that Hugh passes through bears any resemblance to this idyllic home that he searches for, his persistent faith in such a place gives his movements purpose and direction (he always travels east).

What Hugh does not immediately understand is that he cannot leave Mudcat Landing behind him. His own nature has been shaped by those dreamy afternoons at rest on the bank of the Mississippi. In adopting Sarah Shepard's harsh view of his past life and in fleeing from that past, he flees from himself. Through much of the novel Hugh's actions are an unnatural denial of his own nature. When a farmer on a farm east of Indianapolis mistakes Hugh for a drunkard (35), Hugh recoils at the thought that he has inherited his father's drunken ways. Though not a drunkard, Hugh is very much the son of John McVey. In a town in northern Indiana a railroad man that he meets makes the same mistake. “You've got to get on your feet,” the man tells Hugh; “I was a boozer myself, but I cut it out. A glass of beer now and then, that's my limit” (59). These mistaken assumptions about his character mirror Hugh's own confusion over who he is and what life he should lead. At a time when he searches for a community of hardworking and virtuous people, he is reminded of his own poor white birth and his unworthiness for contact with others. At this point he is as driven by his desire to escape his past as he is drawn forward by Sarah Shepard's dream of a better life.

What Hugh finds, however, is that he is unable either to escape his past or find that life that he has dreamed of. When he arrives to be the new telegraph operator for the Bidwell station, he is cut off from the lives of those around him. The station is located about a mile outside of Bidwell, “out from under the invisible roof of the town” (71). Isolated from his neighbors as he is, Hugh decides “to express himself wholly in work” (71). Initially he turns his attention to solving mathematical problems; he calculates the number of fence pickets that could be cut from a tree and the number of railroad ties needed to support a mile of track. In one sense, however, these exercises are only another form of idleness. While he goes through the motions of work, his calculations are as removed from any application as his sweeping of the already clean station platform had been back in Mudcat Landing. In each case work is an act of self-justification rather than a step towards any external goal.

In his exploration of the motives behind Hugh's work, Anderson first suggests his own uncertainty about Hugh's role. On the one hand, Hugh works (like John Webster in Many Marriages) simply to occupy his mind and “to destroy the tendency to dreams in himself” (68).6 But he also works in order to realize a second goal—he works in order to earn the respect of those around him and to be welcomed into their company. In these two distinctly different motives we see Hugh pulled between his poor white past and a new life with the men and women of Bidwell. Though these two motives are not incompatible, they do spring from two very different urges (the urge to reject his past and the urge to affirm a new identity). Soon after his arrival in Bidwell, Hugh turns his mind to more practical problems. He sets out to design a corn harvester and later a plant-setting machine. By the spring of Hugh's second year in Bidwell, however, Anderson has introduced a third motive behind this creative awakening. When planting time arrives, Hugh begins going to the edge of Ezra French's fields and watching the workers setting out the young cabbage plants (work that Anderson had done in his own youth). Anderson writes:

As he saw the stooped misshapen figures crawling slowly along and heard the words of the old man driving them like cattle, his heart was deeply touched and he wanted to protest. In the dim light the slowly moving figures of women appeared, and after them came the crouched crawling men. They came down the long row toward him, wriggling into his line of sight like grotesquely misshapen animals driven by some god of the night to the performance of a terrible task.


Standing at the edge of this field at night, Hugh experiences an epiphany; he escapes momentarily from his own troubles, and his heart goes out to the stooped laborers in the fields. Anderson suggests that it is in part this feeling for his fellow man that drives Hugh's creative mind: “For a moment as he listened to the voices of the complaining workers, Hugh wanted to go to them and ask them to let him share in their labor. Then another thought came. … The machine-like swing of the bodies of the plant setters suggested vaguely to his mind the possibility of building a machine that would do the work they were doing” (80). This third motive behind Hugh's work is not incompatible with his desire to escape his past or to establish a relationship with his neighbors, but as Hugh's machines go to work, Anderson's own ambivalence about his role becomes more pronounced.

Over the course of the novel, Hugh realizes none of his three goals. As his inventions begin to transform the town of Bidwell into a growing industrial center, he feels at times that he has escaped his poor white birth, but such feelings are only momentary.7 More often, he remains acutely aware of the former self that still follows him wherever he goes. Though attracted to Rose McCoy, for example, he is unable to act on his feelings for her because of his sense of his own unworthiness:

“She's a good woman. Remember, she's a good woman,” he whispered to himself, and when he got again into his bed he refused to let his mind linger on the thoughts of the school teacher, but compelled them to turn to the unsolved problems he still had to face before he could complete his hay-loading apparatus. “You tend to your business and don't be going off on that road any more,” he said, as though speaking to another person. “Remember she's a good woman and you haven't the right. That's all you have to do. Remember you haven't the right,” he added with a ring of command in his voice.


In this dialogue Anderson reveals the divided self within Hugh. One self longs to reach out to Rose, while the other restrains that impulse. Hugh is able to escape this repressive second self only momentarily. When the governor of the state comes to Bidwell to campaign for reelection, he praises the townspeople and its leading citizens, mentioning Hugh by name. When Hugh writes Sarah to tell her of his progress, he mentions in his letter the governor's praise. But despite this apparent success, Hugh is still not satisfied with his life, and he remains troubled by feelings of his own inadequacy. His boast to Sarah soon turns to self-deprecation as he tells her, “Anyway they must think I amount to something whether I do or not” (257).

Similarly, Hugh fails at his second goal as well. His hard work does not bring him the friendship he longs for but instead only further separates him from those around him. For example, Steve Hunter is originally afraid of approaching Hugh because he thinks of him as a great man. Rose McCoy too finds Hugh's achievements an obstacle between herself and Hugh. After listening to the governor praise him, Rose thinks to herself, “How could he care for me? How could a man like him care anything for a homely little school teacher like me?” (238). Both she and Steve Hunter find it difficult to approach Hugh because they imagine him to be someone else; they have elevated him in their minds to the level of greatness. This misperception brings a symmetry to the novel. While earlier Hugh had been mistaken for a drunkard like his father, he has now come to be thought of as the epitome of Sarah Shepard's great man. The irony of the novel is that Hugh is neither. Like earlier misunderstandings, this one too comes about in part because of Hugh's own reticence. The townspeople wonder about this quiet man who lives alone out at the Pickleville station, and Steve Hunter concludes, “His silence might be indicative of anything” (94). This silence is filled by those in the community who imagine a variety of different roles for Hugh. George Pike believes “that his passing off as a telegraph operator is only a bluff.” Birdie Spinks thinks he is an inventor, while others suspect he has been sent by rich men in Cleveland who want to start a factory (73-74). Even after Hugh's inventions begin to change Bidwell irreversibly, Hugh remains a mystery to his neighbors. His work brings him a distant respect, but it does not bring him the understanding or the companionship that he longs for.

Hugh's marriage to Clara Butterworth does not reverse this pattern of misunderstanding but instead only further dramatizes his essential loneliness.8 Clara too misunderstands Hugh and thinks of him as a man who must have thought deeply about the questions raised by the new industrialism. Again, Hugh's silences contribute to this misunderstanding. “Like every one else she wanted heroes,” Anderson tells us, “and Hugh, to whom she had never talked and about whom she knew nothing, became a hero” (253). The marriage that follows is hardly one built on mutual understanding. Instead, the wedding party itself resembles a parody of the whole undertaking.

When the farmhand Jim Priest hears of Hugh and Clara's plans to get married, he goes to find Clara's father, Tom, eventually locating him at the house of Fanny Twist, a milliner with a dubious reputation. Returning to the farmhouse with cooks, a band, and guests in tow, Tom indulges in a display of extravagance meant more to boast of a profitable alliance than to celebrate Hugh and Clara's union. As drink takes hold of the guests, and as the party degenerates into a coarse display of excess, Tom begins to speak of his own wedding night, boasting of being “piped as a hatter” (297). The frivolity of the evening, however, only intensifies the sense of isolation that Hugh and Clara endure. All around them the festivities mock the relationship that they both long for. Later that night, when Hugh climbs out of the bedroom window and runs away, his escape is only another sign of the unnaturalness of such a proceeding.

Neither is Hugh any more successful in realizing his third goal—in easing the labor of the workers he has seen in Ezra French's fields. Hugh's inventions do help transform Bidwell from a farming community to a rapidly growing industrial town, but with time Hugh becomes aware of how far removed this change is from the goal he first envisioned standing by the cabbage fields at planting time. It is not that Hugh's inventions do not perform the tasks they were designed to do but instead that they are misused by opportunists of the new age. For example, when Hugh's plant-setting machine fails (one of his early inventions), Steve Hunter has already positioned himself to profit from the failure. While the small investors lose their money, Steve Hunter buys up the now devalued equipment at low prices. What Anderson dramatizes here is a shift in value from the work that the machine performs to a profit unrelated to any work. The small investors naively watch the test field and pray for the success of the machine, while Steve Hunter begins making plans to gain control of the company. In these two different ways of looking at the machine, Anderson captures a basic shift in values. In Steve Hunter the ends of work become disassociated from the plant-setting machine itself and instead attach to the money to be made from the enterprise. As a result he can in good conscience send Ed Hall into the test field at night to replace the dying cabbages and to keep the deception alive (128). If for no other reason, Poor White remains a significant novel for its depiction of this new business morality.

With time Hugh becomes aware of the failure of his machines to improve the workers' lives. Passing the corn-cutter factory one evening, Hugh overhears the grumbling of the men just leaving their shift. “I thought it was mighty funny, all this talk about the factory work being so easy,” one of the men complains; “I wish the old days were back. I don't see how that inventor or his inventions ever helped us workers. Dad was right about him. He said an inventor wouldn't do nothing for workers. He said it would be better to tar and feather that telegraph operator” (263). Ironically, this voice that Hugh overhears in the dark is the same voice that he had heard coming from Ezra French's field. That dream that Hugh once had of joining the workers and sharing in their labor has now come to something far different, something he had not anticipated and that he now only half understands. Later, when one of the town's craftsmen, Joe Wainsworth, physically attacks Hugh, this discontent takes a more tangible form. In the end, Hugh is as unable to enjoy the success of his machines as he is to escape his poor white past or to find understanding among his neighbors. Each of his early goals remains unrealized.

Towards the end of the novel, Hugh's failure to realize any of his original goals leads him to question Sarah Shepard's early lessons and the life he has been pursuing. In a number of passages in the novel, however, Anderson suggests a far different direction for Hugh. At one point in the conception of the novel, Anderson appears to have conceived of Hugh as a kind of hero of the new age. At times Anderson describes the machine not as a destructive thing but as a thing of beauty. He speaks of it as having created “a new kind of poetry” in the land (231). The McVey Corn-Cutter, for example, has proved a success; it has eased man's labor and made for him a time of idleness and thoughtfulness.

Hugh's machine took all of the heavier part of the work away. It cut the corn near the ground and bound it into bundles that fell upon a platform. Two men followed the machine, one to drive the horses and the other to place the bundles of stalks against the shocks and to bind the completed shocks. The men went along smoking their pipes and talking. The horses stopped and the driver stared out over the prairies. His arms did not ache with weariness and he had time to think. The wonder and mystery of the wide open places got into his blood. At night when the work was done and the cattle fed and made comfortable in the barns, he did not go at once to bed but sometimes went out of his house and stood for a moment under the stars.


What is remarkable about such a description is the way in which Anderson has incorporated the machine into the natural order. This scene stands in sharp contrast to that archetypal moment that Leo Marx describes when the machine suddenly bursts on the landscape destroying the natural repose (Marx 15-16). Here the presence of the machine makes possible man's contemplation of nature. Despite the indictment of industrialism that Poor White makes, a side of Anderson continued to believe in the machine as a potential source of good (David Anderson 59-60). Hugh thinks of it as such, and it is only with time that he finally recognizes the destructive side of his machines.

The movement of the novel, however, is not from this early idealized faith in the machine to a maturer recognition of its true nature. Instead, Anderson himself remained torn between these two conceptions of the machine and the two conflicting roles that such views suggest for Hugh. On the one hand, Hugh is the typical Anderson hero who turns his back on the world of business and money-making in order to discover a new freedom within himself. On the other hand, he is a hero of the new age, a man who tames the machine and saves a generation from dehumanizing work. Clara views her husband as such a hero; in her mind the factory is “a powerful beast-like thing that Hugh has tamed” (253). But more importantly, Anderson himself at times viewed Hugh in this way. In one passage Anderson brings the novel down to the present moment. In the early pages of book 4 he writes of Hugh as having helped to free the giant of industry (231). Anderson continues, “He is still doing it. In Bidwell, Ohio, he is still at it, making new inventions, cutting the bands that have bound the giant” (231). These two conceptions of Hugh's role reveal Anderson's own ambivalence towards the new age. On the one hand, Anderson wants to be a poet of the machine, while on the other hand, he has Hugh come face to face with the destructiveness of the new industrialism.

The closing scenes of the novel point unmistakably towards Hugh's rejection of the machine age and his turning toward the human problems of his own life with Clara.9 Ever since Joe Wainsworth's violent attack, Hugh has been infected with the virus of thinking, Anderson tells us. He now questions any simple view of progress, and he finds it difficult to apply himself to the mechanical problems before him. Tom, who has now become Steve Hunter's partner and who has risen to a position of power in the town, instructs Hugh to try to get around the patents of an Iowa inventor's hay-loading machine, and in this new work, Anderson dramatizes a further corruption of creative labor. No longer does the machine that Hugh labors over have a unique purpose (the Iowa inventor's machine already does the job), and no longer can Hugh believe in the value of his work. Instead, the altered design that Tom wants Hugh to develop is simply a means of gaining a share of the profits from the Iowa inventor. In the end it is this corruption of work that Hugh rejects, but his rejection is nevertheless a rejection of the mechanical age itself.

In the final scene of the novel when Hugh and Clara stand together by an open field, it becomes clear that Hugh's life of work with the new machines is at an end.10 Clara no longer thinks of her husband as one who will help solve the mechanical problems of the age (370), and Tom too, realizing this, has already spoken to Steve Hunter about getting a new man to do Hugh's work (363). This change in Hugh becomes even clearer when Anderson writes that the disease of thinking “was making Hugh useless for the work of his age” (371). Clearly Anderson leaves us with no heroic figure taming the giant of industry.

In his review of Poor White H. L. Mencken recognized this conflict within the novel, though he put it in different terms. Writing in the Smart Set, Mencken observed a tension in the novel between Anderson's role as an artist and his role as a reformer:

What ails him primarily is the fact that there are two Andersons, sharply differentiated and tending to fall into implacable antagonisms. One is the artist who sees the America of his day as the most cruel and sordid, and yet at the same time as the most melodramatic and engrossing of spectacles … the artist standing, as it were, above the turmoil, and intent only upon observing it accurately and presenting it honestly, feelingly and unhindered. The other is a sort of uncertain social reformer—one appalled by the muddle of ideas and aspirations in the Republic, and impelled to do something or say something, however fantastic, however obvious, to help along the slow and agonizing process of reorganization.


Viewed in these terms, the artist in Anderson seems content with describing Hugh's withdrawal from the world, while the reformer in Anderson would have Hugh bring to fruition the full potential of the new machines. It is a mistake, however, to view only reform as a positive action. (Mencken himself values the artist above the reformer.) Even as Hugh turns his back on the work of the new age, he is affirming a belief in what his life can be. As he and Clara return to their farmhouse to sleep, Anderson suggests that for the first time they will find rest and comfort in each other.

Writing over forty years ago in his classic study of American literature, Alfred Kazin attempted to capture the spirit of modern American writing when he wrote:

Who is there to deny that for fifty years the ethos of American literature at its best has been resignation, attack, escape, but so rarely acceptance? Who is there to deny that the very fame of American writing in the modern era, the very effort to create a responsible literature in America appropriate to a new age, rests upon a tradition of enmity to the established order, more significantly a profound alienation from it?


Kazin singles out no particular individuals, but instead speaks of a common sentiment in the literature of the period. Certainly Sherwood Anderson was a writer squarely rooted in this tradition of alienation, as were so many others of his generation. But while we should not deny that orientation, neither should we let our preoccupation with the idea of alienation hide that spirit of affirmation in Anderson's stories and novels. Critical discussion of Anderson too often focuses on Winesburg, Ohio, as a place of suppressed desires and severed connections between lovers and neighbors. Rarely are Anderson's small towns seen as places of virtue, though clearly his cities offer no better. What is lost in such a view is Anderson's struggle for order, stability, and security. Throughout his writing there is a lingering sense of what could be. The misfit Elmer Cowley has it, as do John Webster, Bruce Dudley, and Hugh McVey. It is this faith in the possibility of a better life that motivates the actions of Anderson's characters and that defies that pervasive sense of alienation.

While Anderson's men and women often look back to a pre-industrial good life for their sense of what has been lost, their longing is not simply for what can never be. Instead, their actions are a clear indication of their faith in what can be regained and reaffirmed in the present. Anderson does not call for a return to the brutish innocence of Mudcat Landing or for the reversal of Bidwell's industrial development. Instead his stories and novels express the very real need to hold to what is permanent and unchanging in our nature. As Clara discovers, a new machine that goes along a road at a very fast speed may indeed change the face of the earth, but it does not change certain facts of her life. In his writing, Anderson repeatedly reminds us of these unchanging facts. He reminds us of those basic human needs that have been all but drowned out by the roar of the machine. He reminds us, finally, of who we are and what we can still be to one another.

Such a message is hardly cause for despair. Hugh and Clara's search for a good life in accord with their nature may be hesitant and faltering, but it is nevertheless purposeful. In the words of David Anderson, they struggle “to find and retain human values in the face of a whistling, screeching, triumphant industrialism” (59). Kazin charges that modern American writers have steeped themselves in the experience of their country but, in a real sense, “never learned to live in it” (31). A rereading of Anderson, however, suggests otherwise. By the end of Poor White, Hugh and Clara stand together and face a life far different from the life that their neighbors still pursue. With their new knowledge of themselves and with their new relationship with each other, they seem ready to leave behind them that past of confusion, misunderstanding, and loneliness. This new-found health promises a different life for Hugh and Clara, and for their children. Anderson believed in that promise, and we might understand him and his times better by recognizing its positive influence in all of his writing.


  1. Anderson is reported to have suddenly gotten up from his desk and walked away from his Elyria business. Several days later he was found in Cleveland suffering from amnesia. For Anderson's own account of this event in his life, see Story Teller's Story 96-99, 215-36. For other accounts, see Sutton, Exit to Elsinore; Townsend 76-82.

  2. Though Poor White is a neglected work, it is generally spoken well of when it does attract critical commentary. When it was published in the fall of 1920, H. L. Mencken, writing in the Smart Set, called it Anderson's best novel and proclaimed, “The Anderson promise begins to be fulfilled” (275). More recent critics, including Walter Rideout and Kim Townsend, have echoed Mencken's judgment (Rideout ix; Townsend 150).

  3. James Schevill is one critic who repeats Sarah Shepard's judgment, describing Hugh's father as “good-for-nothing” (127). Much of Hugh's struggle over the course of the novel, however, is a struggle to escape such labels and to acknowledge his own self-worth. To dismiss the value of Hugh's life with his father is to misread Hugh's character as he works towards a reconciliation with his own poor white birth. It is this same misreading that has led Daniel Hoeber to describe Hugh's dreams as a regression (51). Nancy Bunge is virtually alone in her opposition to this view, insisting on the healthy influence of Hugh's youth (253).

  4. In her recent study of Anderson, Kenny Williams understates the drawbacks of Sarah Shepard's way of life when she suggests that Hugh “is saved” by Sarah (201). In order to appreciate Hugh's dilemma, it is necessary to recognize the positives and negatives of Hugh's two choices.

  5. In his discussion of Poor White, Rex Burbank makes the mistake of compressing events in the early part of the novel. He writes of Hugh's early dissatisfaction with “the squalid, torpid life of his ‘poor white’ background” (81). While there is of course a growing dissatisfaction within Hugh, it is important to recognize that this dissatisfaction does not begin until Hugh is first exposed to Henry and Sarah Shepard.

  6. Hugh bears a close resemblance to John Webster. In Many Marriages Anderson describes Webster as “a rather quiet man inclined to have dreams which he tried to crush out of himself in order that he function as a washing machine manufacturer” (3). Later Anderson adds that “he kept his mind on affairs and did not give way to dreams and vague thoughts” (29).

  7. Even Steve Hunter's insistence that Hugh's parents “were of the best English stock” (228) fails to comfort Hugh. In the end, this momentary escape is as superficial as the lie itself. Hugh continues to be haunted by his own feelings of inadequacy.

  8. Like Hugh, Clara too is misunderstood by those around her. Her father does not trust her, nor do the relatives she lives with while attending the state university. Ironically, Clara's marriage to Hugh is the direct result of these misunderstandings. When the marriage that her father had arranged falls through, Clara's reputation suffers. It is at this point, when her reputation is at its lowest, that Hugh is able to overcome his own feelings of inadequacy and propose.

  9. Blanche Gelfant suggests that the novel ends with Hugh's internal conflict still unresolved, but in her discussion of the novel she implies a clear direction for Hugh. She argues, appropriately I believe, that there is a direct corollary in the novel between the rise of industrialism and the failure of love (63). Such a corollary suggests that Hugh's movement towards Clara at the end of the novel is a movement away from Hugh's own participation in the machine age.

  10. Those critics who have discussed the ambiguous ending of the novel have often focused on the unresolved tensions between Hugh and Clara. Hugh's relationship to his work is far less ambiguous.

  11. More recent literary histories have also characterized Anderson's writing by this quality of alienation. Wendy Steiner describes Poor White as a novel focusing on the theme of alienation (Elliott 860). While certainly this theme is present in the novel, my point here is that there is another current present as well, one equally important which is often overlooked.

Works Cited

Anderson, David D. Sherwood Anderson: An Introduction and Interpretation. American Authors and Critics Series. New York: Holt, 1967.

Anderson, Sherwood. Many Marriages. New York: Huebsch, 1923.

———. Poor White. New York: Huebsch, 1920.

———. A Story Teller's Story: A Critical Text. Ed. Ray Lewis White. Cleveland: P of Case Western U, 1968.

Bunge, Nancy L. “The Ambiguous Endings of Sherwood Anderson's Novels.” Sherwood Anderson: Centennial Studies. Ed. Hilbert H. Campbell and Charles E. Modlin. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1976. 249-63.

Burbank, Rex. Sherwood Anderson. New York: Grosset, 1964.

Elliott, Emory, et al., eds. Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.

Gelfant, Blanche H. “A Novel of Becoming.” Sherwood Anderson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Walter Rideout. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1974. 59-64.

Hoeber, Daniel R. “The ‘Unkinging’ of Man: Intellectual Background as Structural Device in Sherwood Anderson's Poor White.South Dakota Review 15.1 (1977): 45-60.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. New York: Reynal, 1942.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. London: Oxford UP, 1964.

Mencken, H. L. “The Two Andersons.” H. L. Mencken's Smart Set Criticism. Ed. William H. Nolte. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1968. 273-75.

Rideout, Walter B. Introduction. Poor White. By Sherwood Anderson. New York: Viking, 1966. ix-xx.

Schevill, James. Sherwood Anderson: His Life and Work. Denver: U of Denver P, 1951.

Sutton, William A. Exit to Elsinore. Ball State Monograph 7. Muncie, IN: Ball State U, 1967.

Townsend, Kim. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Houghton, 1987.

Trilling, Lionel. “Sherwood Anderson.” The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson. Ed. Ray Lewis White. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1966. 211-21.

Williams, Kenny J. A Storyteller and a City: Sherwood Anderson's Chicago. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1988.

Martin Bidney (essay date spring 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7213

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 enthusiastic self-absorption from all disappointment or dismay; Wash, so vulnerable in his self-abasingly idealistic wife-worship that a sudden revelation of the facts of life induces a lifelong trauma. At a deeper level the antithesis between self-absorption and self-abasement is greatly qualified: Joe and Wash turn out to be alike in surprising ways. The two men are both inspired seers, for even Wash's love-turned-hate still invests him at moments with visionary power, though he and Joe are equally comic-grotesque in the fanaticism of their fixations. Deep down, Wash is irremovably attached to his tarnished ideal, and Joe is transfigured by his love for making discoveries about every detail in the surrounding world (though he can't get over the fact that they are his discoveries). So “Respectability,” the story of Wash, and “A Man of Ideas,” the tale of Joe, both turn out to be epiphanies of distorted love. But they have far more in common than this.

Taken together, the two stories constitute a richly detailed refashioning of Coleridge's great trilogy of “supernatural” poems.1 In “A Man of Ideas” Anderson re-envisions “Kubla Khan”; in “Respectability” he recreates “Christabel”; and both stories rework imagery and episodes from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Anderson's rethinkings or reimaginings are surprisingly specific and comprehensive, forming a carefully woven texture of borrowed and analogous images, close paraphrases of Coleridgean wordings, and outright quotations of phrases and epithets. One does not ordinarily expect this sort of thing from Anderson, whose relaxed approach and ambling stylistic gait in Winesburg do not alert the reader in any obvious way to complex allusive patterns. But the element of surprise in Anderson's allusive strategy increases the power that these tales possess to release their meanings through a series of delayed-reaction effects. Wash and Welling (their names allied by the theme of water—an initial hint at some of the “Ancient Mariner” parallels we will look at later) are intensely alive in their own right, psychological portraits attesting to Anderson's originality and boldness of conception. Yet as meditations on three of Coleridge's profoundest lyrics, they gain still further depth by acquiring greater psychological complexity and fuller mythic resonance.

Before beginning the analysis of Coleridgean image- and motif-patterns in the two stories, it may be useful to suggest a possible motive for Anderson's decision to single out the tales of Joe Welling and Wash Williams for such unusual allusive texturing (no other stories in Winesburg receive anything like a comparable treatment). Names may provide a clue. It is probably no accident that the novel's central questing protagonist, the aspiring writer George Willard, has a surname that not only resembles those of the grotesque imaginers Welling and Williams, but is situated alphabetically between them. Willard's eventual development is but vaguely adumbrated in Winesburg, but Anderson may be offering both his hero and his readers a context of paired symbolic indicators. If all goes well, Anderson hints, Willard may some day be situated in fact where his name appears to place him symbolically: somewhere between the self-absorbed inspiration of Joe Welling, reminiscent of the “Kubla Khan” visionary, and the self-transcending poetic idealism (so tragic when disabused) of innocent, Christabel-like Wash Williams. Situated at the midpoint, Willard may avoid the hazards of the two extremes.2

That both Welling and Williams are deeply troubled seers is indicated by the oddly but revealingly symbiotic way in which their stories interrelate through shared reworkings of Coleridge's “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the story of still another darkly ambivalent visionary, prophet and outcast, grotesquely punished and yet exalted by the inseparability of love and torment. Willard, even if he avoids the extremes of Welling and Williams, may not avoid the existential problems they share—these problems are perhaps our common lot. But however that may be, the central position symbolically hinted by his name may help us relate Willard, the central Andersonian portrait of the very young artist, to mainstream Romantic visionary tradition. For I do not think one can find anywhere a more ingenious re-creation of Coleridge's “supernatural” trilogy than Anderson offers in his neo-Romantic psychological portraits of Welling and Williams.

Ambitious and intelligent, Joe resembles the poet-persona of “Kubla Khan” in the inclusiveness of his many-sided vision, even if at times he unwittingly parodies the Coleridgean seer in the unabashed boastfulness of his self-dramatization as wonder-worker. In the Coleridge lyric, it is impossible to distinguish the visionary marvel created by Kubla Khan, the “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice” (l. 36), from the vision of the poet-persona who narrates the lyric, and who claims he himself can “build,” or rebuild, “that dome in air” (l. 46) with some help from an Abyssinian muse. Kubla Khan becomes blended with his modern recreator, as the dream-filled skull of the poet-persona becomes the new pleasure-dome. We shall see that Joe Welling internalizes the visionary landscape of “Kubla Khan” as thoroughly as the Coleridgean persona had done.

As Coleridge's seer-persona blends with the dome-building Kubla Khan in the final lines of the lyric, he presents a self-portrait that is strongly echoed in Anderson's presentation of Joe. The shaman-like prophet is possessed:

I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

(ll. 46-54)

As the shaman's frenzy arouses fear, so too the citizens of Winesburg watch Joe, the visionary eccentric, “with eyes in which lurked amusement tempered by alarm. They were waiting for him to break forth, preparing to flee” (WO 104). The amusement can only “lurk,” cannot become fully manifest, for the “alarm” keeps it in check. Joe's “seizures” are “overwhelming” and “could not be laughed away” (104). Like Coleridge's shaman, Joe is overcome by uncontrollable powers as if in an epileptoid attack. “He was beset by ideas and in the throes of one of his ideas was uncontrollable”; he “was like a man who is subject to fits, one who walks among his fellow men inspiring fear because a fit may come upon him suddenly and blow him away into a strange uncanny physical state in which his eyes roll and his legs and arms jerk” (103). The Coleridgean “Beware! Beware!” motif is underlined: Joe is possessed. “Uncanny” is the best characterization of Joe's fear-inspiring “fits,” as of the Coleridgean shaman's visionary possession.

The “flashing eyes” motif is equally pronounced in the portrayal of Joe, whose “eyes began to glisten” when he started telling George Willard, the young newspaperman, what a “marvel” Joe himself would be as a newspaper reporter (the “sunny pleasure-dome,” too, was a “miracle,” as Coleridge tells us [l. 35]). Even when the light in Joe's eyes becomes less bright, it remains visionary: “With a strange absorbed light in his eyes he pounced upon Ed Thomas” (104). At other times, the motif of a flashing gleam is transferred half-humorously to Joe's teeth: “The edges of his teeth that were tipped with gold glistened in the light” (103) as Joe pounces on another bystander; as he speaks to George of his latest marvel of insight, “A smile spread over [Joe's] face and his gold teeth glittered” (106). Joe even manages to allude glancingly to Coleridge's “dome in air” when he tells George, “I just snatched that idea out of the air” (106).

What sort of ideas or visionary insights does Joe snatch from the air? Very much the sort that the Coleridgean seer embodies in his air-built “sunny” dome with “caves of ice”: ideas of opposites or contrasts, which in combination add up to an inclusive world-view. The central symbol in the Coleridge poem is the river that runs through the lyric landscape. Called Alph by Coleridge to recall alpha, the letter of beginnings, it meanders and descends “Through caverns” (l. 4) till it reaches the “lifeless ocean” (l. 28), the ocean of endings. It sums life up from beginning to end. Or, since it is a “sacred river” (l. 5) and since God himself is described as “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6)—God adds, “I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely”—we may see the river as including all the life of man, as conceived in religious tradition, from genesis to apocalypse. In “A Man of Ideas” Joe Welling offers three visionary insights, corresponding respectively to the three stages of the Coleridgean river's course: the alpha of beginnings, the meanderings and cavern-descent of midlife and aging, and the apocalypse of endings, the lifeless ocean.3

Altering Coleridge's order, Anderson has placed Joe's genesis-vision last, but let us begin with it, so as to conform to the mythic pattern's own inherent logic. Anderson's story ends with a monologue, delivered by Joe to his startled future in-laws, Tom and Edward King, in which a hypothetical new creation, a marvellous imaginary genesis, is sketched out. Joe speculates that if all the world's vegetables and crops were “by some miracle swept away,”4 a new genesis or quasi-magical regeneration of the vegetable world could nevertheless come to pass:

Now here we are, you see, in this county. There is a high fence built all around us. We'll suppose that. No one can get over the fence and all the fruits of the earth are destroyed, nothing left but these wild things, these grasses. Would we be done for? … More than one fat stomach would cave in. But they couldn't down us. I should say not.


Of course we wouldn't be defeated, for we are in Joe's miracle-place, in his personal visionary territory. The “high fence” recalls the “walls and towers” that “girdled round” the Kubla Khan garden, and the fenced-in area of Joe's creative vision will likewise prove extremely “fertile ground” (“Kubla Khan” ll. 6-7). Joe explains: “We'd begin, you see, to breed up new vegetables and fruits,” simply using the surviving wild grasses in the fenced-in area as our evolutionary starting-point, and “soon we'd regain all we had lost,” even if the “new things” wouldn't be “the same as the old” (111). “There would be a new vegetable kingdom you see” (111). Like Kubla Khan, Joe becomes a visionary monarch or emperor, creator of a “kingdom.”

As metaphorical kingdom-maker, Joe is imperial, but he is still more than this: he is an Eden-maker. One plant species particularly absorbs Joe's attention and excites his wonder: “‘Take milkweed now,’ he cried. ‘A lot might be done with milkweed, eh? It's almost unbelievable. I want you to think about it’” (111). It is not clear at first what makes milkweed such a marvel, but the secret lies in Coleridge's lines in “Kubla Khan”: “For he on honey-dew hath fed, / And drunk the milk of Paradise” (ll. 53-54). Milkweed is metaphorically milk of paradise, for by its means we may accomplish a new genesis, which means a new Eden. (The fenced-in, or walled-in, area where the new genesis is imagined to take place is appropriate to the edenic typology: a hortus conclusus.) Joe is dreaming of a new plant kingdom, so the milk of paradise is suitably metamorphosed into milkweed (honey-dew, conveniently, also has a secondary meaning relating to the regenerate vegetable world of Joe's vision: it is a kind of melon). Milkweed, an image felt as “almost unbelievable” in its potential for evolving meaning, ends Joe's story on the same note of awestruck wonder as Coleridge's poem.

Next we come to the downward course of Coleridge's visionary river, which has its wonder-inducing counterpart in bright-eyed Joe's first child-like monologue, this time delivered to helpless Ed Thomas in the Winesburg drugstore. Like the genesis vision of a plant kingdom springing forth from edenic grasses or paradisal milkweed, this too is a victory of unschooled visionary science. Joe's account of the discovery begins in wonder and leads to a deeper wonder. Joe says he could “hardly believe” his “own eyes” when he first noticed that, even though there hadn't been any rain in Winesburg for ten days, the water in Wine Creek had risen to within eleven and a half inches of the flooring of Trunion Bridge: “Thoughts rushed through my head. I thought of subterranean passages and springs. Down under the ground went my mind, delving about” (105). Or, as Coleridge puts it, “… Alph, the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man” (ll. 3-4); and again, “Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, / Then reached the caverns measureless to man” (ll. 26-27). There was still no cloud in the sky, or rather only the tiniest of clouds (“no bigger than a man's hand” [105]), so Joe's thoughts had to be directed below (though he finally realized it must have rained over in Medina County). Exploring imagined underground caverns within the local landscape, Joe had blended his ranging, meandering mind with the descending, now subterranean river. “Thoughts rushed” through his head like a rushing river; then “Down under the ground went” his riverlike “mind, delving about” the hidden caverns of a geographic landscape now hardly separable from his mental topography. The Coleridgean allusion helps us see Joe, like the Kubla Khan visionary, as a seeker of the mind's subterranean passages.

Joe's third vision is, appropriately, apocalyptic, a vision of endings: “The world is on fire” (106). Of course, Heraclitus used this same insight to express the interdependence of birth and death, coming into being and passing away, as mutually counterbalancing processes sustaining the cosmos. Joe, however, stresses only one side of the Heraclitean fire philosophy—fire as death or, as Joe calls it, “decay”: “Decay you see is always going on. It don't stop” (106). This is the omega of Joe's alpha, the “lifeless ocean” (1. 28)—death, the terminus of decay, and the beginning of yet more decay—toward which the Coleridgean river leads, the termination of the life-vision. But Joe, like the Coleridgean poet-persona, is a seer, and even this vision of all-consuming fire (which, if it were only “decay,” would leave the earth “lifeless” indeed) is experienced not as desolation but as apocalypse or revelation (however tinged with the comic-grotesque). Joe claims that if he ran such apocalyptic visions as headlines in the local newspaper, “I'd be a marvel. Everybody knows that” (107). If Kubla Khan's sunny pleasure-dome is a “miracle of rare device,” Joe's vision of cosmic fire, like Joe himself, is (in its childlike way) assuredly a “marvel”—one need only recall the cosmic, world-consuming fires in Revelation.

Since Joe experiences, after his own fashion, the three major moments of the “Kubla Khan” river vision (genesis, visionary descent, and apocalypse), Anderson appropriately describes Joe's visionary speech in river-like or water-like terms. “Words rolled and tumbled from his mouth” (103); “His personality … overrode the man to whom he talked, swept him away, swept all away” (104); “Joe Welling was carrying the two men in the room off their feet with a tidal wave of words” (110). The mention of rising water in Wine Creek also hints at a water-into-wine context of miraculous doings. And the wine motif is introduced early in the story, whose second sentence reads: “The house in which [Joe and his mother] lived stood in a little grove of trees, beyond where the main street of Winesburg crossed Wine Creek” (103), the creek that gives Winesburg its name. The wine motif is strongly implied in “Kubla Khan,” too, for the Coleridgean shaman—frenzied, possessed, ecstatic and dangerous—is readily identifiable as a Dionysian or Bacchic seer, a devotee of the wine god: one may think of the “Bacchic maidens” in Plato's Ion, who are said to “draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind” (Abrams 355, n. 9). If Wine Creek was indeed intended to refer to the maenad-like or Bacchic visionary transport of Joe Welling the Coleridgean river-seer, Anderson may want us to see Joe as the archetypic Winesburg citizen, epitome of all the town's solitary dreamers.

It certainly bears re-emphasizing that Joe is no mere copy or uncritical re-envisioning of Coleridge's poet-persona, but a highly original Andersonian meditation on that persona. In part, Joe Welling is a semi-parodic, comic or tragicomic grotesque. This guiding idea can lead us to some observations about Anderson's telling divergences or deviations from the Coleridge prototype. For instance, even though the name “Welling” suggests the “mighty fountain” (l. 19) welling up from the “chasm” (l. 17) as the river Alph wends its way through the landscape of “Kubla Khan,” Joe is also explicitly compared to a volcano, “a tiny little volcano that lies silent for days and then suddenly spouts fire” (103). True, the Coleridgean fountain is itself quite volcano-like, eruptive: amid its “swift, half-intermitted burst / Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, / Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail” (ll. 20-22). One thinks of the Grim Reaper; Coleridge's vision, with its goal of inclusiveness as well as intensity, is replete with imagery of destruction as well as creation. But when we learn that Joe's mother was a “grey, silent woman with a peculiar ashy complexion” (103), it's hard to avoid concluding that she got that way from living with a grotesquely monomaniacal verbal volcano. Joe's fiancée, too, though “tall and pale,” has “dark rings under her eyes” (108), and it's equally easy to see these dark circles as a parodic allusion to Coleridge's verse “Weave a circle round him thrice” (l. 51). The circles under poor Sarah's eyes are always close to the image of the tirelessly voluble Joe, an image that will be continually reflected in those eyes as long as Sarah doesn't close them with holy dread, or weary satiety.

Though her doubly regal name (“Sarah” is usually translated “princess”) suggests that Sarah King would be a suitable mate for the imperial, khanlike Joe, as his fiancée she will be so bedevilled by his incessant self-promotion that we are equally entitled to wonder: could Sarah be the unfortunate Coleridgean “woman wailing for her demon lover” (l. 16)? Anderson playfully encourages us to pose such questions when he slyly notes that Joe's “passionate eager protestations of love” were “heard coming out of the darkness by the cemetery wall, or up from the deep shadows of the trees …” (108-09; emphasis added). Anderson never forces points like these; Sarah just happens to live near the cemetery, so Joe has to go near there when he takes her for a walk. But the voice heard coming up from the cemetery wall and from the deep shadows clearly suggests that Joe is as much comic-grotesque chthonic demon lover as khan-like maker of visionary decrees. Sarah, for her part, tall and pale and lean and sad, is not exactly Coleridge's muse-like Abyssinian maid, but she may well spend more time than she likes in the abyss of Joe's absorbing or devouring self-preoccupation.

For the “holy dread” that this fascinating seer inspires is twofold. It can arise from deep empathy, as when George Willard finds himself “Shaking with fright and anxiety” as he waits to see whether Joe will be able to confront the menacing-looking Tom and Edward King without suffering grievous bodily harm. Joe is fearless, and his unworldliness combined with physical vulnerability arouses in George a response compounded of amusement and terror—a “terror that made his body shake” from empathetic identification (109). Yet there is also the kind of terror that strikes the baseball players who fall victim to Joe's series-winning but alarming enchantments as spellbinding coach: “The players of the opposing team … watched and then, as though to break a spell that hung over them, they began hurling the ball wildly about,” while Joe's players scamper home to the accompaniment of “fierce animal-like cries” from their coach (107). Joe hypnotizes everybody with his incessant shouts of “Watch me! In me you see all the movements of the game!” Alarmingly, he seeks total control. “He is a wonder,” everyone agrees (107), accepting Joe's own self-estimation as “marvel.” A wonder, but a holy terror.

That is why any visionary monologue from Joe may well leave its hearer “A sadder and a wiser man” or woman (Rime, l. 624). Like that of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Joe's narrative compulsion both charms and repels his captive audience: “Pouncing upon a bystander he began to talk. For the bystander there was no escape. The excited man breathed into his face, peered into his eyes, pounded upon his chest with a shaking forefinger, demanded, compelled attention” (103). Compare Coleridge:

He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship,” quoth he.
“Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!”
Eftsoons his hand dropped he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—

(ll. 9-13)

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

(ll. 17-20)

We have mentioned the transfixing stare and glistening eyes of Joe in connection with the “flashing eyes” of the “Kubla Khan” visionary, but the “glittering eye” of the Mariner is equally apposite. Joe's compulsion to narrate is not impelled by guilt like the Mariner's; rather, his never-expiated (because never recognized) flaw is self-absorption.

Joe's implicit evangel—his message concerning the miraculousness of simple things about us—is not far removed from the Ancient Mariner's injunction to love well “All things both great and small” (l. 615). Yet, like the glassy-eyed Mariner, Joe tells his tale in a kind of seizure or fit; he talks at his targeted listeners rather than to them. Each seer's spoken message, being inseparable from the message conveyed by his behavior, is both enlightening and sobering, joyful and frighteningly melancholy. The symbolically two-sided miracles experienced by the Mariner are perhaps typified by a single revealing example: at one point in his tale, rain is described as pouring down from “one black cloud,” the single solitary cloud in the sky, hardly enough (one would think) to produce the wide “river” of “lightning” that issues from it (ll. 320, 325-26). A similar cloud shadows Joe's narrative. Telling of his attempts to discover why the water was so high in Wine Creek though it hadn't rained in town for ten days, Joe says he surveyed the almost empty sky till he finally found a single solitary cloud, “a cloud in the west down near the horizon, a cloud no bigger than a man's hand” (105). The illuminations conveyed by Joe and his Coleridgean tale-telling prototype, the Ancient Mariner, are never free, even at their brightest, from the shadow of a darkening cloud. Neither man can escape the specter of self-preoccupation. From this point of view, Joe's beleaguered fiancée, Sarah King, is typologically more Wedding-Guest (captive audience) than prospective bride.

If Joe Welling is a self-confident, many-sided “man of ideas” (a phrase that also happens to epitomize neatly the intellectual range and diversity of the polymathic S. T. Coleridge), Wash Williams is an extremely vulnerable, shame-plagued man obsessed with a single idea: his traumatically violated “respectability” (Coleridge's own addiction-induced problems with shame and dubious respectability may come to mind here as well). Wash's obscure sense of sinfulness allies his personal nightmare with that of the guilt-ridden Mariner, but since Wash has thoroughly repressed his guilt, projecting it outward as hate, we had best postpone the Mariner parallels for a little while. Wash quite simply hates women—all women—and the ineradicable trauma that gives rise to his murderous loathing of half the human race has its typological roots in Coleridge's “Christabel.”

Four motifs link Wash's experience to that of Christabel. Originally, Wash is innocent, virginal, worshipful. He undergoes a sexual trauma. The exhibition of female nakedness that brings on the shock becomes allied in his mind with the source of all evils. But finally, and paradoxically, he cannot help resembling, in the most blatant and dramatic way, the very being he both fears and hates. That is because Wash's story, like that of Christabel, is a tale of unavowed love, love of a kind so distorted through suppression and denial that the force which generates it is manifested as something demoniacally threatening and foul. If Joe Welling's capacity for love was crippled by hypertrophy of the ego, Wash Williams' love is distorted through his extreme vulnerability to terrifying internal rebellions against the fragile structure of his idealism. For, as Coleridge sums it up in “Christabel,” “to be wroth with one we love / Doth work like madness in the brain” (ll. 412-413).

The virginal “maiden” (l. 388) Christabel is as “lovely” (l. 23) as she is pious, “Like a youthful hermitess, / Beauteous in a wilderness, / Who, praying always, prays in sleep” (ll. 320-322), and the baleful Geraldine, who will administer such an irreparable shock to her innocence, is likewise “Beautiful exceedingly!” (l. 68). So too Wash, when young, was “a comely youth,” who with “a kind of religious fervor” had been careful to “remain virginal until after his marriage” to a similarly attractive woman, “tall and slender” with “blue eyes and yellow hair” (123, 125). Wash was the most worshipful of courtly lovers to his young wife: he “kissed her shoes and the ankles above her shoes” (126). Christabel doesn't grovel before Geraldine's feet in this way; after all, Geraldine is simply a mysteriously abandoned lady whom Christabel has happened to meet at midnight in a forest where she has gone to pray for her distant lover. Yet Coleridge's imagery, too, focuses on a foot fixation: Geraldine's “blue-veined feet unsandaled were” (l. 63); Christabel's bedroom lamp is “fastened to an angel's feet” (l. 183); after the seduction, the blood “Comes back and tingles in her feet” (l. 325). In any event, Wash and Christabel are total innocents; neither knows anything of physical love. Wash doesn't understand why his wife has acquired three other lovers even though he worships her so unreservedly. And Christabel suspects no possible evils when she urges lonely Geraldine to come home with her and “share your couch with me” (l. 122).

There is also a “couch in the room” (WO 126) of Wash's mother-in-law's house, where Wash has been summoned for a dramatic display presentation: Wash's mother-in-law wants to have her daughter march into the room naked and to observe how Wash will react. Of course, Wash suspects nothing; he has simply responded to his mother-in-law's invitation (even though he had dismissed his wife earlier for her accumulated infidelities) because he wants his wife back. “I hated the men I thought had wronged her,” he says (127), just as Christabel guilelessly and sympathetically accepts Geraldine's story about being helplessly abducted by “five warriors” (l. 81). When Wash begins to tell George about the shock Wash is about to receive, Wash's “voice became soft and low” (127). In strikingly similar fashion, when Christabel is walking in the woods toward the place where Geraldine will be, “The sighs she heaved were soft and low” (l. 32). Both Coleridge and Anderson deftly use the phrase “soft and low” to help build up a mood of suspense before the shocking event to ensue.

It is the same shocking event in both cases: a revelation of nakedness to unexpecting eyes. Wash hears his wife's mother outside the door, “taking the girl's clothes off”; then she pushes his naked wife through the door and stands “in the hallway waiting, hoping we would—well, you see—waiting” (127). Wash is so horrified that although he doesn't succeed in murdering his mother-in-law on the spot, he does hit her with a chair (rescued by the neighbors, she dies of fever a month later). As for Christabel, when Geraldine drops her silken robe, the revelation is literally unspeakable: “Behold! her bosom and half her side— / A sight to dream of, not to tell! / O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!” (ll. 252-54). Christabel provides no model for Wash's violent response; she conforms to the myth of passive womanhood and has no defense against Geraldine's demoniacal seduction. But there is a parallel in the two protagonists' repression: Christabel is cursed by being made permanently unable to speak of the evil that has happened to her, and Wash, too, nurses his shock and dismay mostly in silence, consistently shunning contact with all other human beings (until at long last he feels able to tell his story to George).

Though in one respect, Wash's trauma is a comic-grotesque version of Christabel's (nothing worse has been inflicted on Wash than a view of the nakedness of his own lawfully wedded wife), his fate is tragic, too. The psychological damage Wash undergoes is immense because he feels he has lost his “respectability.” He was made to learn too much too fast. He can never forgive the grossness of his mother-in-law's pedagogic technique, for it has summoned up within him the sexual awareness that his idealistic mentality had so powerfully repressed for so long. He feels defiled, shamed—but of course he wants to repress that feeling, too. So he defensively projects the feeling of pollution and shame onto his mother-in-law, his wife, all women. He is not dirty; they are.

So Wash is now convinced that women are evil: “‘Bitches,’ he called them” (122). Men he simply pities because they are controlled by these self-same “bitches”: “‘Does not every man let his life be managed for him by some bitch or other?’ he asked” (122). The “bitch” motif is repeatedly sounded in “Christabel,” too:

And what can ail the mastiff bitch?
Never till now she uttered yell
Beneath the eye of Christabel.
Perhaps it is the owlet's scritch:
For what can ail the mastiff bitch?

(ll. 149-153)

Anderson's coarse allusive humor accentuates the comic-grotesque mood of Wash's tale.5 But surely there is enough, too, of Coleridgean “sorrow and shame,” “rage and pain” (ll. 674, 676). Wash, in hating what he loves, has come to hate not only women but “life, and he hated it whole-heartedly, with the abandon of a poet” (122). (In view of the “Christabel” parallels that we have seen and the “Ancient Mariner” parallels that we have yet to look at, the word “poet” is doubly apropos.) When Bracy the bard has a dream revealing the evil potential of Geraldine, he laments to Christabel's father, “This dream it would not pass away— / It seems to live upon my eye!” (ll. 558-59). Trying to rid himself of analogous visions of traumatic horror, Wash says to George, “Already you may be having dreams in your head. I want to destroy them” (125). Good dreams may lead to bad ones; better not to dream. But Wash is enough of a poet to know that this is impossible.

In fact, it is impossible for Wash to stop loving what he hates: he deeply loved his wife after his courtly, idealistic fashion (“I ached to forgive and forget” [127]), and he can never banish either her image or the unconscious feelings of love it arouses in him still, despite his consciously willed loathing. He calls his wife “a foul thing come out of a woman more foul” (124), but in his own appearance he expresses—in fact, he physically embodies—the foulness he professes to despise: “He was dirty. Everything about him was unclean. Even the whites of his eyes looked soiled” (121). Wash calls women “creeping, crawling, squirming things,” but he himself admits to George that he “crawled along the black ground” to his wife's “feet and groveled before her” (124, 126). That is to say, in his descriptive language Wash cannot help but unwittingly compare women with himself, drawing an unconscious likeness and thereby expressing an unconscious attraction. Again, the prototype for Wash's unconscious attraction to what he consciously rejects may be found in Christabel's behavior toward Geraldine. When Geraldine's eyes suddenly shrink up and turn serpent-like, Christabel “passively did imitate / That look of dull and treacherous hate” (ll. 605-06). How could such a look of hate appear in “eyes so innocent and blue” (l. 612) as those of the loving and lovely Christabel? Coleridge's explanation is plain and penetrating: he calls such unwilling imitation “forced unconscious sympathy” (l. 609). It is unconscious love (unwilling imitation, the sincerest form of unconscious flattery), love of what is consciously rejected and denied.

The two themes of supposed female foulness and of “creeping, crawling, squirming things” lead us, finally, to the parallels between “Respectability” and Coleridge's “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” parallels quite as striking as those with “Christabel.” But here again, as in the case of “A Man of Ideas,” the contrast with Coleridge's Mariner is fully as important as the comparison. Joe Welling, we recall, shares the Mariner's compulsion to narrate, his obsession with cornering a captive audience, but lacks any trace of the Mariner's obsessive guilt, his never-satisfied need for expiation. Wash Williams, on the other hand, is even more guilt-ridden than the Mariner: in his obsession with a nightmarish female apparition of foulness and horror (a theme as basic to “Ancient Mariner” as to “Christabel”), he effectively incorporates the Coleridgean theme of dread. But in his great distaste for vermiform crawling creatures, he still embodies a state of mind that the Mariner, to his credit, brilliantly transcends. While the Mariner achieves at least a momentary redemption by blessing the sea-snakes, Wash Williams never comes to satisfactory terms with the earthworms.

Let us look more closely, in turn, at the two Mariner-motifs that preoccupy Wash: female foulness and crawling creatures. When George innocently asks Wash if his wife is perhaps no longer living, Wash replies,

She is dead as all women are dead. She is a living-dead thing, walking in the sight of men and making the earth foul by her presence. … My wife, she is dead; yes, surely, I will tell you, all women are dead, my mother, your mother,6 that tall dark woman who works in the millinery store and with whom I saw you walking about yesterday—all of them, they are all dead.


Wash's envenomed portrait of archetypic woman as a living-dead thing whose presence is a contamination mirrors Coleridge's famous presentation of the leprous-looking woman Life-in-Death, who wins the soul of the Ancient Mariner:

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

(ll. 190-94)

Her “looks were free”—even this hint at wantonness may be easily related to Wash's disgust at the coarse display that has demolished his respectability. To Wash, his wife is a living-dead thing, someone who has made his life a life-in-death, as the leprous-looking woman has made the Mariner's. (Interestingly, in view of the Wash's trauma over nakedness, the next line in the Coleridge poem is “The naked hulk alongside came” [l. 195].) Or we may say that Wash's wife, though alive, is pictured as dead in his vengeful wish-fantasies, for he says, “Why I don't kill every woman I see I don't know” (124).

The connecting link between the themes of female fatality and crawling creatures in Wash's free association misogynist harangue is the specific idea of rottenness, also derived from Coleridge's “Ancient Mariner.” Continuing his diatribe about women, Wash adds, “I tell you there is something rotten about them. I was married, sure. My wife was dead before she married me, she was a foul thing come out of a woman more foul” (124). Coleridge writes:

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

(ll. 123-26)

The theme of women's rottenness (the rotten deep related to the leprous-looking woman) merges in Wash's vision, too, with repellent “things” that “crawl”: “I would like to see men a little begin to understand women. They are sent to prevent men making the world worth while. It is a trick in Nature. Ugh! They are creeping, crawling, squirming things, they with their soft hands and their blue eyes. The sight of a woman sickens me” (124). The Mariner's and Wash's nightmares each exhibit a double disgust: with a repellent female and with repulsive things that crawl.

What is the connection between these two motifs in psychological terms? Since serpentine or worm-like creatures, things that squirm and creep and crawl and feel soft or slimy, are not female symbols but quite evidently phallic emblems, what is the connection between this emphatic disgust at male sexuality and the equally obvious odium directed at a fatal female? The combination, for both Wash and the Mariner, would seem to indicate a repudiation of sexuality as a whole. But the Mariner impressively recovers from this. In one of the most dramatic visionary conversions of Romantic literature, he learns to bless the water-snakes; they are transfigured for him, and his albatross/cross, his burden of guilt, drops away. For Wash, no such deliverance is available. He even fantasizes about killing women, as the Mariner killed the albatross (and, indirectly, the two hundred crewmen). We might say that Wash's equivalent of the Mariner's albatross (a white bird, an emblem of innocence and purity) is Wash's now-dead ideal of women's purity, but Wash can't bring himself to admit that he had anything at all to do with “killing” it.

The reason for Wash's refusal to implicate himself is that Wash cannot separate the phallic worm-image from his trauma over the “rotten” female. For it is Wash's trauma-inducing wife who first tried to give him some lessons about the facts of life, and she also played flirtatious games with the metaphors of worms and seeds. As Wash worked in the garden, his wife “ran about laughing and pretending to be afraid of the worms”; then when planting time came, Wash tells George, “she handed me the seeds that I might thrust them into the warm, soft ground” (126). Wash never quite gets the point of this metaphoric sexual instruction, except on the unconscious level. He senses that his hands, which planted the seeds, are somehow connected with the traumatic sexual awakening occasioned later by his wife's sudden display of her nakedness, and that is why even now Wash takes “care of his hands” (121), the one part of his body that he wants to keep symbolically clean. (He also uses his hands to do telegraph work, a cerebral occupation, suggesting careful, conscious control.) But the sexuality he has rejected expresses itself in the rest of his body: he calls women foul and rotten, yet in keeping the rest of his body bad-smelling and dirty, he symbolically shows an unconscious affirmation of likeness, of attraction, to the women he supposedly rejects. Clean hands vs. dirty body, clean and lofty idealism vs. hidden or repressed (“dirty,” “rotten”) wishes—Wash is locked into a never-resolvable conflict, a nightmare worse than the Mariner's, a nightmare more like that of the spellbound Christabel, also enchained by a love she cannot admit or confess to herself.

Water, a symbol of the unconscious mind that controls the ungovernable behavior of the symbolically named Wash and Welling, unites them with each other and with Coleridgean Mariner-thematics as well. Like the Ancient Mariner, both Wash and Welling convey and embody visions of deeply problematic or troubled love. Wash's visionary fervor is not so different from Welling's: both are problematic poets. (We recall that “There was something almost beautiful” in Wash's voice as he told his “story of hate”—he had become “a poet”; “Hatred had raised him to that elevation” [125].) Wash's story of traumatic disillusionment is a tale of hate, but it hides an unavowed love, an unconfessed attraction to sexuality, to the women he maligns. At the deepest level, Wash still aches to forgive and forget. His hate hides love. Joe is also an embodied conflict or contrast: his insight conceals his blindness. Joe's loving visionary absorption in daily epiphanies makes him resemble a force of nature, oblivious to the individual personalities of his captive auditors, whom he lectures and hypnotizes into silence. In creating these profoundly moving, impressively complex psychological portraits, Anderson has proved himself no mere copyist of Coleridge, but one of the strongest remakers of that poet's rewarding, troubling legacy.


  1. I find in the critical literature no detailed analyses of these two stories, nor any attempt to look at them from a Coleridgean perspective. Goebel (148, 151) mentions Coleridge, but only with reference to Anderson's supposed kinship to Emerson. Pickering (37-38) compares Anderson's Enoch Robinson to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, but misreads Coleridge; Pickering sees the Mariner's blessing the water-snakes as a loss rather than a gain in creative power. My earlier article on Anderson contains two brief footnotes on Coleridge (Bidney 271, n.7; 272, n.9).

  2. This ties in well with the approach to Willard's development that we find in Shilstone's essay (passim).

  3. Compare Knight (97): names in “Kubla Khan” are “so lettered as to suggest first and last things: Xanadu, Kubla Khan, Alph, Abyssinian, Abora. ‘A’ is emphatic; Xanadu, which starts the poem, is enclosed in letters that might well be called eschatological; while Kubla Khan himself sits alphabetically central with his alliterating k's. Wordsworth's line of first, and last, and midst, and without end, occurring in a mountain-passage (The Prelude, VI.640), of somewhat similar scope, may be compared.”

  4. It's odd that Joe calls it a miracle instead of a disaster. But “miracle” certainly underlines the Coleridgean motif, “miracle of rare device” (“Kubla Khan” l. 35). And the word also expresses Joe's sense of the primacy of his own miraculous state of visionary transport over any mere material event in the external world.

  5. In view of Faulkner's well-known admiration for Anderson, we may perhaps speculate that Eupheus Hines, in Light in August (e.g., 141), borrows some vocabulary (“womansinning and bitchery”) from Wash. In other respects, the two characters differ greatly, but they are alike in that each is his own worst enemy.

  6. Wash's emphasis on mothers in this context of accusation recalls Schapiro's analysis (61-92) of “Christabel” as embodying regressive narcissistic conflicts between “good” and “bad” mother-images. Beres (passim) applies similar categories (derived from Melanie Klein and others) to the study of Coleridge's “Ancient Mariner.”

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H., et al., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 1962. Vol. 2.

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1958 (orig. pub. W. B. Huebsch, 1919).

Beres, David. “A Dream, a Vision, and a Poem: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Origins of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 32 (1951): 97-116.

Bidney, Martin. “Anderson and the Androgyne: ‘Something More Than Man or Woman.’” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (1988): 261-273.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1912. Vol. 1.

Faulkner, William. Light in August. Ed. Noel Polk. New York: Random House, 1987.

Goebel, Walter. Sherwood Anderson: Aesthetizismus als Kulturphilosophie. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitaetsverlag, 1982.

Knight, G[eorge] Wilson. The Starlit Dome. London: Methuen, 1941.

Pickering, Samuel. “Winesburg, Ohio: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Southern Quarterly 16 (1977): 27-38.

Schapiro, Barbara. The Romantic Mother: Narcissistic Patterns in Romantic Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983.

Shilstone, Frederick W. “Egotism, Sympathy, and George Willard's Development as Poet in Winesburg, Ohio.West Virginia University Philological Papers 28 (1982): 105-113.

Ray Lewis White (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15352

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 American town in the 1890s. But neither of these approaches sufficiently explains the greatness of Anderson's achievement in Winesburg, Ohio—why readers since 1919 have read the book with a new sense of the power of writing. For Anderson captures in words the most elusive and the most buried of human impulses and motivations; in short, he fulfills the aim of his dedication of his book to his mother, Emma Smith Anderson, “whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives.” It is through Anderson's understanding and expression of the buried aspects of human character that he reaches genius in Winesburg, Ohio.

In the first of the Winesburg, Ohio stories, “Hands,” Anderson brings the reader near the town but not actually into the town. Wing Biddlebaum, the central character, has lived near the town for twenty years but has not in any sense been a part of it. His decaying little house sits in a field near a ravine and away from the road to town, so Wing must look across a field that is planted to clover but that bears only mustard weeds to see even ordinary life passing him by.

Nicknamed for the continuing nervous movements of his hands (which in season can pick amazing amounts of berries), Wing has told and will tell no one his secret: that he, born Adolph Myers, was for years a public schoolteacher in Pennsylvania; that he was accused of misusing his hands; and that he was driven from the area instead of being hanged, as the townspeople had first planned. The reader must accept Anderson's statement that Wing Biddlebaum is so innocent that he has never comprehended and can never comprehend the nature of the accusation against him. His behavior as a teacher is described thus: “With the boys of his school, Adolph Myers had walked in the evening or had sat talking until dusk upon the schoolhouse steps lost in a kind of dream. Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads. As he talked his voice became soft and musical. There was a caress in that also. In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's effort to carry a dream into the young minds” (31).

In the Pennsylvania school, a retarded pupil had dreamed of sexual activities with the innocent schoolmaster and had recounted his completely imagined actions as if they had really happened. The teacher was expelled from his community and from his lifework. After fleeing to Ohio, Myers has lived near Winesburg as Wing Biddlebaum ever since, alone in “a ghostly band of doubts” (27), with neither friend nor companion. Recently, George Willard has become curious and has occasionally come to walk with the little man—not, certainly, as the possible source of a newspaper story but as the source of an interesting acquaintanceship.

Here in the first Winesburg story, Anderson uses a narrative technique that is also found in the best of the twenty remaining stories: a physical peculiarity hints to the reader the presence of a psychological peculiarity. The unusually active hands of Wing Biddlebaum lead the reader to awareness that one of the few intellectuals in Winesburg, Ohio has an unusual mental and psychological constitution. The hands “became his distinguishing feaure, the source of his fame. Also they made more grotesque an already grotesque and elusive individuality” (29). Wing is not physically crippled by his hand movements, nor is he intellectually crippled by what has happened to him. Yet he is emotionally crippled, eternally frozen and fearful by the inexplicable (to him) events of twenty years ago. He is endowed with the love and motivation necessary to be a great teacher, but untrue, hysterical accusations based on community misunderstanding of the erotic dreams of a retardate have victimized him.

To present-day sophisticates in matters of sexual desire and frustration, Wing's complete ignorance of the “horrors” of which he was accused those long years ago may seem implausible. But the reader must simply accept this character as a completely Platonic personality, unable to conceive of the crimes of which he was accused—which were, of course, homosexuality and pedophilia. Self-ignorance and public stupidity have destroyed the good that Wing Biddlebaum could have given to a world already starved for intellect and inspiration. His life, intended by nature for growing clover, has produced instead only dense and useless mustard weeds.

If the reader is ready to suspect that unhappiness and frustration come to Anderson's grotesque characters merely because they are cursed with living in or near Winesburg, attention should be paid to the fact that Wing's terrible trauma—his emotionally crippling event—happened twenty years ago in Pennsylvania. Not all agony and grotesquerie come from Winesburg, Ohio.

If “Hands” brings the reader close—geographically and thematically—to the town of Winesburg, “Paper Pills,” the second Winesburg story, is the most inviting introduction to the element of the grotesque in the Winesburg stories. The story concerns the sudden, brief, and enigmatic marriage of an older doctor and one of his younger patients. Anderson compares the richness and texture of their story to some of the fruit of the apple trees that grow near Winesburg:

It is delicious, like the twisted little apples that grow in the orchards of Winesburg. In the fall one walks in the orchards and the ground is hard with frost underfoot. The apples have been taken from the trees by the pickers. … On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy's hands. One nibbles at them and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness. One runs from tree to tree over the frosted ground picking the gnarled, twisted apples and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples.


Similarly, the sensitive and perceptive reader will understand the unexpected attraction, the sweetness, of the manifestly twisted human personalities in Winesburg, Ohio.

“Paper Pills” is the story of Doctor Reefy, the most competent and likable of Winesburg's four physicians. Anderson presents him as one who is coping adequately with what life has dealt him: his loneliness. Years ago, he had married a tall, dark girl, who is never named, but the following spring, he suddenly lost her to an unspecified disease. Ever since her death, the doctor has worn the same articles of clothing; he has sat, usually alone, in his drab and musty office; he has tried only once—and failed—to open the window of that office to the outside air and light; and he has in those years alone been unsentimentally friendly with only one person, John Spaniard, the Winesburg nurseryman.

Doctor Reefy, with his grotesquely malformed knuckles, has a peculiar habit: he writes down upon pieces of paper his “thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts” (37). He stuffs these fragments of paper continually into his pockets, so that eventually the particles of thoughts become hardened into little round balls—the “paper pills” of Anderson's title: “he worked ceaselessly, building up something that he himself destroyed. Little pyramids of truth he erected and after erecting knocked them down again that he might have the truths to erect other pyramids” (35).

Doctor Reefy is the true philosopher of Winesburg, Ohio—the person who has faced the problem of evil, of life's unfairness and injustices. Despite his manifold unspecified and discarded thoughts, he has achieved no unified theory to explain the vagaries and meaninglessness of human existence. From his thoughts the doctor “formed a truth that arose gigantic in his mind. The truth clouded the world. It became terrible and then faded away and the little thoughts began again” (37). Thus, “Paper Pills” demonstrates Anderson's typical use of grotesquerie: a character, somewhat physically unusual, is hurt deeply by life, ponders over his state of anomie, and realizes that there are no gods to whom to pray but nevertheless copes with the grayness that is life for him.

The most interesting grotesque of “Paper Pills” is not Doctor Reefy but the unnamed young woman to whom he so briefly and happily was married. In telling her story, Anderson uses concepts from psychology—here, the importance of dreaming and emotional displacement. When the young woman's parents died, she inherited considerable wealth. She was courted by several young men, typified by two: “a slender young man with white hands, the son of a jeweler in Winesburg, [who] talked continually of virginity” (37), and “a black-haired boy with large ears, [who] said nothing at all but always managed to get her into the darkness, where he began to kiss her” (37). The young woman, properly fearful of the pale, virginity-obsessed youth, comes to see that “beneath his talk of virginity … there was a lust greater than in all the others” (37). In her three dreams about this youth, she imagines him holding, turning, and staring at her body; and three times “she dreamed that he had bitten into her body and that his jaws were dripping” (37).

Surely in unconscious fear of the pale and dangerous suitor, the woman lets the dark and silent suitor seduce her (and in the seduction bite her shoulder). Subconsciously threatened by one suitor and actually bitten and impregnated by the other, she comes, motherless, to Doctor Reefy for childbearing advice. First, she sees him in his office, efficiently and kindly pulling the teeth of a suffering woman. Then the miracle: in some aspect of Doctor Reefy, bearer of huge, gnarled knuckles, perhaps in his gentleness as healer of pain and wounds, this young woman, hurt and “bitten” in life, “discovered the sweetness of the twisted apples”; and “she could not get her mind fixed again upon the round perfect fruit” (38). The two characters immediately fall in love and in the autumn marry, to the amazement and confusion of the townspeople. During their few months together, the doctor “read to her all of the odds and ends of thoughts he had scribbled on the bits of paper” (38). She loses her unborn (and to the doctor, unimportant) child and dies in the spring of an unspecified disease. Since then, Doctor Reefy has continued to sit alone and to write his thoughts about life upon scraps of paper, thoughts that come—necessarily and inevitably—to nothing.

Because Elizabeth Willard is the central character in two of the Winesburg stories, “Mother” and “Death,” she is one of the more fully realized of the grotesques in Anderson's stories. The reader learns a great deal about this frustrated woman, from her unhappy youth, spent without a mother to guide her, to her happier demise, at only forty-five, and the personification of death as a handsome gentleman-caller who comes to greet and escort her.

In “Mother” (a title that makes Elizabeth Willard represent certain universal qualities of motherhood), the reader learns of a crisis in the woman's life. She must defend her son, George, from the influence of her husband, Tom, who would have the boy learn mainly to win friends and influence people on the road to social and financial success. Like Wing Biddlebaum and Doctor Reefy, Elizabeth exhibits a slight physical grotesquerie—facial smallpox scars. She is always listless and exhausted: “Although she was but forty-five, some obscure disease had taken the fire out of her figure” (39), making her a “tall ghostly figure, moving slowly through the halls” (39) of her hotel. But this woman's grotesquerie is more clearly psychological than physical—her inability to fulfill her girlhood dreams of escape or to directly commission her son George to achieve his own escape and happiness. For although the boy and the mother sympathize with each other, they cannot express their communion or sympathy verbally. She has forgotten how to communicate, and he has never learned to speak forthrightly to his silent and suffering mother.

In “Mother,” the imagery used to describe Elizabeth Willard's life involves an easy identification of her with a mistreated cat that she sees through her bedroom window. In this seeming “picture of village life” (41), the gray cat, belonging to the druggist, Sylvester West, competes with Winesburg baker Abner Groff for the bread of life. The cat streals food to survive, and the baker, in an enormous rage, tries to hit and kill the cat. So closely and personally does Elizabeth Willard identify with this cat that “once when she was alone, and after watching a prolonged and ineffectual outburst on the part of the baker, Elizabeth Willard put her head down on her long white hands and wept” (41). The scene of struggle “seemed like a rehearsal of her own life, terrible in its vividness” (41).

Imagery from the theater—the melodramatic “scene” between cat and baker, the repeated brutal “rehearsal” of the woman's life—continues, when Anderson describes the youthful and rebellious Elizabeth Willard as having been an unhappy adolescent, a frustrated actress, who wished to escape from the town of Winesburg with the troupes of traveling actors who passed through her father's hotel, thinking that away, somewhere, elsewhere, she could be happy. In her frustration and boredom, she became an easy conquest for traveling actors and other men and found it emotionally gratifying, but she wondered why completing the sex act did not affect the worldly men as romantically as it repeatedly affected her.

Theatrical imagery continues further when the ill, aging woman is called upon to dramatically defend her son from his father. She will paint her face with old theatrical makeup to render herself once more beautiful; and she will “act,” play out a histrionic scene in the lobby of the hotel. She will defend young George from Tom's vicious influence by stabbing her hated husband to death and then somehow herself dying: “As a tigress whose cub had been threatened would she appear, coming out of the shadows, stealing noiselessly along and holding the long wicked scissors in her hand” (47).

In Winesburg, Ohio, the great scenes that are planned are seldom successfully played out as scripted. And so it is that Elizabeth Willard, at the end of “Mother,” sits in her room in weakness and darkness. When her son suddenly appears to announce quietly his eventual departure from the town, something she has longed to do herself for so long, she is, as usual, unable to voice her total approval and delight and can only recast her husband's overheard advice about George being smart and successful. Although Elizabeth is now assured that George will in time leave Winesburg, he will do so not of her direct urging. Her imagined theatrical scene of murder and vengeance will never be performed, and this sad woman will remain alone with her delusions and her thwarted ambitions.

In “Mother,” Anderson uses in the word “adventure” for the first time in Winesburg, Ohio (42)—a term that he thereafter uses frequently to indicate that a character has come to the one brief moment, the one epiphany, the one telling instant, that captures and communicates the essence of that character's personality, leaving nothing more to be said or learned about him or her. When Elizabeth Willard, worried that she has not been visited by George for several days, overhears Tom's practical advice to him about getting ahead, she must then prepare for and execute her one “adventure”—her just and murderous release of both her son and herself from the hold of Winesburg, Ohio. Often in Anderson's stories the described “adventure” is the first and presumably the only time that a character realizes how frustrated he or she is and therefore tries to take strong measures—usually unsuccessfully—toward satisfaction, rebellion, or self-completion.

“Death,” written after Anderson completed most of the other Winesburg stories, adds detail and pathos to Elizabeth Willard's unhappy story, including loss of her mother when she was five. Here Anderson applies the word “adventure” five times to her lifelong quest for love. Elizabeth recalls “her girlhood with its passionate longing for adventure and she remembered the arms of men that had held her when adventure was a possible thing for her” (222-23). “In her girlhood and young womanhood,” he narrates, “Elizabeth had tried to be a real adventurer in life” (224); in her youthful affairs with various men, “she had never entered upon an adventure prompted by desire alone” (224); and “in all the babble of words that fell from the lips of the men with whom she adventured she was trying to find what would be for her the true word” (224).

Anderson also changes the operative metaphor for Elizabeth's frustration and longing, replacing the theatrical, feline imagery of “Mother” with the more traditional imagery of circumvented romantic love. Here Anderson recounts her one-time almost-lovemaking with Doctor Reefy. For her, at forty-one, the episode is the closest to happy acceptance and understanding that she will experience. Having repeatedly contemplated her approaching death as the ultimate patient wait for her beautiful male lover, she declines in health and dies on a Friday in March in the afternoon (Christlike?). She was mute for a month from paralysis, unable to tell her beloved son George of the money, hidden in the wall of her bedroom, that she has kept ever since her youth to effect her own and now, she hopes, his escape from Winesburg.

The last words spoken over the gaunt and tired corpse of Elizabeth Willard reveal Anderson's belief that even in the most unlovely and grotesque human beings the observant witness can find a bit of secret sweetness hidden in the “twisted apples.” With Elizabeth lying dead in her hotel room, her son in his grief finally understands the essence of her life and says: “The dear, the dear, oh the lovely dear” (232). He does not know that four years earlier, in a moment of understanding, Doctor Reefy had thought of the unhappy woman visiting his office and muttered, “You dear! You lovely dear! Oh you lovely dear!” (227). In turn, Doctor Reefy did not know that one of the numerous men with whom Elizabeth had adventured in her youth “in the moment of his passion had cried out to her more than a hundred times, saying the same words madly over and over: ‘You dear! You dear! You lovely dear!’” (223).

In contrast to the useful and well-coping Doctor Reefy is Anderson's next grotesque character, the misanthropic and explosive Doctor Parcival. He, too, has a measure of physical grotesquerie: “His teeth were black and irregular and there was something strange about his eyes. The lid of the left eye twitched; it fell down and snapped up” (49). This perhaps self-proclaimed physician has arrived mysteriously in Winesburg and has lived there mysteriously. He mysteriously seeks out George Willard to anoint as his disciple in misanthropy. The psychological grotesquerie of Doctor Parcival is easy to diagnose: he has suffered from an inferiority complex since childhood, having been reared by a mother who loved his less-civilized brother better and having failed to become a Presbyterian minister. He has taken no good care of himself physically, socially, or professionally in Winesburg. This masochist, in reaction to his deep inferiority complex, preaches to George Willard a doctrine of individual primacy, challenging the youth to become superior to common people.

This unhappy man has his “adventure” (55) one day in August, when George visits his office to hear more of the doctrine of superiority. When the doctor is summoned to aid a young girl who has been struck down by horses in the street, the physician refuses to go. For this man, refusing to give medical help in an emergency is a deliberate act of cruelty, and he predicts that his arrogant refusal will bring the enraged townspeople to hang him by the neck from a lamppost on Main Street. This does not in fact occur because the doctor's refusal—like his self-importance—has not been noticed by Winesburg's citizens. Frustrated for now in his “adventure,” his sought-after martyrdom, his attempt to matter to people, his expected crucifixion nonetheless will, he asserts, sometime surely come. Doctor Parcival commissions George to write a book based on his philosophy, that “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified. That's what I want to say. Don't you forget that. Whatever happens, don't you dare let yourself forget” (57). There is, alas, no evidence that Doctor Parcival, his self-predicted martyrdom—comparing himself to the most famous martyr in history—or his quite absurd if wonderful-sounding philosophy has impressed George Willard, or anyone else in the world.

Anderson might have originally conceived the four-part story “Godliness” as a novel; it covers the most pages and the most time of all the Winesburg stories. It recounts the growth of agricultural industrialization in the Midwest and one man's religious fanaticism and its effects on his daughter and grandson. Locating “Godliness” in American history is easy, for the central turning point is the Civil War and its effects on the Bentley family, who live on a farm outside Winesburg.

Jesse Bentley's brothers died in the Civil War, and his father subsequently retreated from responsibility. Intended for a career as a Presbyterian minister, Jesse, the weakest of the Bentley sons, leaves his seminary studies to operate the family farm. Uninformed about traditional agriculture, he is willing to try new, perhaps scientific ways of producing crops in the unpromising fields. Jesse brings from the city a wife, Katherine, who is however unlikely to survive a life of hard labor on a northern Ohio farm before mechanization: “Jesse was hard with her as he was with everybody about him in those days. She tried to do such work as all the neighbor women about her did and he let her go on without interference” (67). This maltreated wife becomes the first victim of the harsh treatment and fanatic dedication of Jesse Bentley.

Wealth is not Jesse's sole object. As he becomes successful in farming, he tries to unite his fundamentalist Presbyterian religious beliefs with his robust financial drive. Believing in the Old Testament doctrine of a “covenant” or bargain between God and the righteous man, Jesse comes to see himself as God's agent in an unrighteous world. “Look upon me, O God,” he prays, “and look Thou also upon my neighbors and all the men who have gone before me here! O God, create in me another Jesse, like that one of old, to rule over men and to be the father of sons who shall be rulers!” (70). He derives his beliefs from the Old Testament, with its emphasis on the covenant, rather than from the New Testament, with its emphasis on love, and seeks the direct commission from God that the covenant implies. He desires to found a dynasty near Winesburg, Ohio: “It seemed to him that in his day as in those other and older days, kingdoms might be created and new impulses given to the lives of men by the power of God speaking through a chosen servant. He longed to be such a servant” (70). The Bentley dynasty is to begin with the birth of Jesse's first child, a son, to be named David: “Jehovah of Hosts … send to me this night out of the womb of Katherine, a son. Let Thy grace alight upon me. Send me a son to be called David who shall help me to pluck at last all of these lands out of the hands of the Philistines and turn them to Thy service and to the building of Thy kingdom on earth” (73).

But the child born to Jesse and Katherine Bentley is a girl, and Katherine dies in childbirth. The fanatic's desire to found an invincible dynasty is frustrated. He resents his undesired female offspring, and the child, Louise Bentley, finds little love or joy in her isolated farm environment. The father, prospering still and expanding his farm, sends her to board with the Hardy family in Winesburg in order to attend school. Here the unloved and resented Louise Bentley has her own “adventure” (92), the occasion that forms and fixes her behavior for the rest of her life.

Feeling cut off as if by a wall (one of Anderson's recurring images of human anomie) from all other people, including her cold, religious father, Louise is yet eager to belong among others. This rich but naïve farm girl secretly witnesses a scene of lovemaking between one of the Hardy women and a lover. Wanting desperately to be cherished by someone, Louise writes a note to John Hardy, the son: “I want someone to love me and I want to love someone” (94). He responds, and afterward, fearful that Louise has become pregnant, John Hardy and Louise Bentley marry. But the fear of pregnancy proves false. The two are nevertheless married—a situation not promising for the endurance of young love. To them is eventually born one child, a son named David, who in his turn grows up in maternal lovelessness and resentment. “It is a man child and will get what it wants,” Louise thinks. “Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it” (96). David Hardy is the victim of his mother's ill-nature and hatred, just as Louise herself is victim of Jesse's ill-nature and neglect.

In the narration of “Godliness,” Anderson commits several infelicities; perhaps, if the story began as a novel, he had to reshape it into a brief Winesburg, Ohio story but kept some of the freedom that is allowed in longer narrative but inappropriate in the short-story form. For example, in the third part of “Godliness,” called “Surrender,” he describes Louise Bentley Hardy as “from childhood a neurotic, one of the race of over-sensitive women that in later days industrialism was to bring in such great numbers into the world” (87). How much better Anderson does when he merely describes unusual behavior instead of diagnosing it with a medical term such as “neurotic.” In the four parts of this story of three generations of Bentleys and Hardys, he too often reaches for historical breadth, lecturing the reader on the nature of industrialism and its dehumanizing influence upon American people. Put simply, in “Godliness,” as in the other Winesburg tales, Anderson should show instead of tell.

Yet there are moments of satisfying narration in “Godliness,” as when young David Hardy, troubled or threatened by fears, simply turns his face and hides his eyes from the world; as when Louise Bentley, first wanting love from a human, tries to seduce but merely unnerves a farmhand; as when David runs away from home for the first time, and Louise treats him for once with proper maternal love and becomes to him literally a different (and perhaps disconcerting) woman; as when David moves permanently to the Bentley farm to live and the entire Bentley household becomes a sunny and comforting place.

When David comes to live with his grandfather, he becomes the male heir and vehicle through which Jesse will try to establish his godly dynasty in the valley of Wine Creek. Jesse finds himself with the beloved youth in a wood one day soon after. Jesse, feeling again in tune with God and confident of his rewards for the faithful, goes through a ceremony among the trees that invokes a sign from God: “Into the old man's mind had come the notion that now he could bring from God a word or a sign out of the sky, that the presence of the boy and man on their knees in some lonely spot in the forest would make the miracle he had been waiting for almost inevitable” (85). Jesse, too, now finally has a symptom of physical grotesquerie—“he had been threatened with paralysis and his left side remained somewhat weakened. As he talked his left eyelid twitched” (81)—and as he fervently prays to his God, the old man holds David and shouts to the sky: “Here I stand with the boy David. Come down to me out of the sky and make Thy presence known to me” (86). So frightened is David that he cries out against “a terrible man back there in the woods” (86); the grandfather, ignoring the degree of his grandson's terror, simply thinks that his God does not yet approve of him.

Later, when he is fifteen, David Hardy is once again frightened in his grandfather's wood, and this occurrence is the boy's “adventure” (97) as well as his final appearance in Winesburg, Ohio. Having received from his God a most bounteous harvest on his many farms, Jesse Bentley decides in the autumn that a complete biblical ceremony of thanksgiving is in order. He takes with him his grandson and a newborn lamb so that he can reenact the Old Testament ritual of sacrifice. The old man in his intensity so terrifies the boy that David runs away from the frightening fanatic and shoots a stone with his slingshot. Thinking that he has killed the evil, terrifying figure, he concludes: “I have killed the man of God and now I will myself be a man and go into the world” (102). David is never heard from again. The fanatical old Jesse, when questioned, mutters only: “It happened because I was too greedy for glory” (102). Thus the curse of the Bentleys is carried from generation unto generation. Jesse Bentley's conviction that he must become a prophet of the God of the Bible makes him one of the more easily diagnosed grotesques in Winesburg, Ohio, one of those who have seized upon a truth and, living by that single truth, have become grotesque while that truth becomes a lie.

Not all the characters in Winesburg, Ohio are grotesque. Some of the townspeople, grotesque only occasionally, are capable of functioning quite well in their careers and in the life of their community. Such a reasonably well-adjusted person is Joe Welling in “A Man of Ideas.” Son of “a grey, silent woman with a peculiarly ashy complexion” (103) and a now-deceased man of some political prominence, Joe (the usual “Joe” of the world) is briskly efficient at selling products for the Standard Oil Company and goes about daily life. Only now and then does he trouble his neighbors with fits of unstoppable talking. Because the ideas he expresses in his “logorrhea” are true but unimportant (life is burning up, oxidizing; rain has fallen recently in a neighboring county), the town's citizens are wary of this “tiny little volcano that lies silent for days and then suddenly spouts fire” (103), this occasional oracle with gold-tipped teeth (his physical grotesquerie?) who will surely marry the uncolorful Sarah King, a woman as ashy and silent as Joe's mother.

Midway through Winesburg, Ohio and immediately after the attempted light humor of “A Man of Ideas” comes “Adventure,” one of the best narrated and most completely realized stories of the grotesque. George Willard is of no importance in this story, and little external or topical matter is involved in its plot, so “Adventure” is the best single “separable” story of the cycle to illustrate of the author's subject matter and technique.

There is little physical grotesquerie in “Adventure.” Alice Hindman's one unusual feature is that her head “was large and overshadowed her body” (112); and as she aged, “her shoulders were a little stooped and her hair and eyes brown. She was very quiet but beneath a placid exterior a continual ferment went on” (112). This ordinary-seeming woman, as Anderson masterfully constructs her, exemplifies his theory that the buried life is the best subject matter for fiction. For Alice Hindman's emotional life is buried deeply beneath the placid surface that she presents to the world everyday as she clerks efficiently in Winney's Dry Goods Store, becoming pensive and brooding only on rainy days, when there are few customers to attend, and when she must turn inward for matter to contemplate.

In “Adventure,” the reader learns of the events of eleven years of Alice Hindman's life, from age sixteen until the moment of her present “adventure” at age twenty-seven, when her life becomes forever set, desperate, and hopeless. No great trauma begins this woman's secret despair; when she is sixteen, simply “betrayed by her desire to have something beautiful come into her rather narrow life” (112), Alice becomes physically intimate with Ned Currie, a predecessor of George Willard on the staff of the Winesburg Eagle. Their courtship is interesting, for Alice, at sixteen, is quite liberated for her time. She states her desire to accompany Ned, unmarried, to Cleveland so that he can advance his career as a newspaperman there while she works to help support them: “I do not want to harness you to a needless expense that will prevent your making progress. Don't marry me now. We will get along without that and we can be together. Even though we live in the same house no one will say anything. In the city we will be unknown and people will pay no attention to us” (113). Confronted with a young woman confident of her own mind in their affair and willing to love him on equal terms, Ned, in typical male fashion, immediately reverses his emotional direction. From wanting Alice to become his mistress, he now wants her to become the passive object of his love who waits patiently at home while he goes off to heroically earn enough money to support her as he desires. Ned promises to return for her when he has sufficient funds for their wedding and married life together, and he makes love to her on the evening before his departure from Winesburg: “It did not seem to them that anything that could happen in the future could blot out the wonder and beauty of the thing that had happened. ‘Now we will have to stick to each other, whatever happens we will have to do that,’ Ned Currie said as he left the girl at her father's door” (113-14). Of course, as the reader expects, Ned forgets about Alice as soon as he moves from Cleveland to distant Chicago, where his new friends make his life urbanely interesting and exciting.

“Adventure” is the story of Alice Hindman left behind, alone in Winesburg. Anderson describes three points in her loneliness to demonstrate the development of her extreme isolation. By twenty-two, six years after being left alone, Alice has lost her father to death, seen her mother become a carpet weaver, and begun to clerk at Winney's. As money was the problem six years ago, she saves the money she earns, “thinking that when she had saved two or three hundred dollars she would follow her lover to the city and try if her presence would not win back his affections” (114). She resists friendships offered by other young Winesburg adults and looks only backward upon her one quick adolescent affair. She “felt that she could never marry another man. To her the thought of giving to another what she still felt could belong only to Ned seemed monstrous” (114-15). Thus, working and saving for a “purpose” and yet surely aware of her abandonment as eternal, not temporary, Alice “began to practice the devices common to lonely people” (115). She prays at night in her upstairs bedroom, but her words are intended not for her God but for her lover. She becomes possessive about the very furniture in her room, forbidding anyone else to touch it, since she can have and hold tangible objects, as she surely cannot have and hold Ned. The money she earns at her job, she pretends, will become abundant enough to generate sufficient interest income to support her husband and herself; she remembers in particular, and surely not ironically, Ned Currie's love of travel. Continually she whispers, weeping to herself: “Oh, Ned, I am waiting” (116).

Alice, growing older and lonelier in her little Ohio town, is given, for better or worse, a gift of self-understanding not vouchsafed to most of the grotesque characters in Winesburg, Ohio. She is frequently overwhelmed by a “fear of age and ineffectuality” (116); she “realized that for her the beauty and freshness of youth had passed” (117); “she did not blame Ned Currie and did not know what to blame” (117); and “an odd sense of relief came with this, her first bold attempt to face the fear that had become a part of her everyday life” (117). When Anderson moves to Alice's life at twenty-five, he shows Alice losing her mother (who although older than Alice is fully engaged with living) to remarriage. Alice herself joins the Winesburg Methodist Church for fellowship, and in a feeble attempt at courtship, she allows Will Hurley, a drugstore clerk, to walk her home from Wednesday evening church services. But Alice is utterly unable to invite Will to stay with her or to call a new love into her barren life. The church and the man are of no help, Alice realizes; “I want to avoid being so much alone. If I am not careful I will grow unaccustomed to being with people” (118).

And then comes the “adventure” for which Alice Hindman's story is named, the event in her life that both demonstrates her grotesquerie and encapsulates the meaning of her life. One rainy night in the autumn of the year when she is twenty-seven, Alice tries to comfort herself with imaginings and dreams of happiness. She “took a pillow into her arms and held it tightly against her breasts. Getting out of bed, she arranged a blanket so that in the darkness it looked like a form lying between the sheets and, kneeling beside the bed, she caressed it, whispering words over and over, like a refrain” (118-19). The Ned Currie fantasy that she has held for the eleven years is no longer enough: “She did not want Ned Currie or any other man. She wanted to be loved, to have something answer the call that was growing louder and louder within her” (119). The call of repressed and irresistible desires lures Alice Hindman from her desperation into the “adventure” (119) of her life.

Suddenly frantically afraid of age and unloveliness, Alice runs naked out of her house, into the street and into the falling rain, feeling somehow that the rainwater will refresh and rejuvenate her. The falling rain is effective, as “not for years had she felt so full of youth and courage. She wanted to leap and run, to cry out, to find some other lonely human and embrace him” (119). One other human being, probably another very lonely one, does appear in the darkened Winesburg street. Alice, naked, calls to him, “Wait!” (119)—waiting, the act she has been performing for eleven years now. But this other person, the man the desperate Alice Hindman finds, is an old and rather deaf man, unable to answer her call, or to fulfill her desires, or perhaps even to see her in the evening's darkness. Dropping to the wet ground, humiliated by her own actions, Alice Hindman literally crawls back into her house. Safe among the furniture of her lonely bedroom, she blockades her bedroom door with a dressing table, walling herself into her own room and her most private self. She weeps uncontrollably and, “turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg” (120).

Oh, yes, indeed, responds the superficial reader; certainly the grotesque people of Winesburg, Ohio, are doomed to live and die alone. But certainly, concludes the more thoughtful reader at the conclusion of the story “Adventure,” all the world's people are doomed to live and to die alone, no matter how well they delude themselves with fantasies of closeness and intimate love. Nowhere else in Winesburg, Ohio does Anderson more movingly and fully unite his philosophy with his narrative technique than in the story of the tenderly pathetic and grotesque Alice.

“Respectability” is one of the important stories in the initiation of the youthful George Willard, but it also contains one of the most striking and extreme instances of the grotesquerie of human appearance and character.

In an unusual introduction, Anderson directly addresses the reader: “If you have lived in cities and have walked in the park on a summer afternoon”; and “had you been in the earlier years of your life a citizen of the village of Winesburg, Ohio” (121). The author then introduces Wash (for “Washington”) Williams, who is likened to “a huge, grotesque kind of monkey, a creature with ugly, sagging, hairless skin below his eyes and a bright purple underbody” (121). Always dreadfully unclean—except for his always immaculate hands—Wash Williams, the most physically grotesque character in all of the stories, has for years been the dependable telegraph operator in Winesburg. The finer citizens of the town are disgusted by his filth and his omnipresent, malevolent misanthropy, for the clearly dislikes both women and men. Living at the New Willard House, to which he staggers home drunkenly each evening, Wash Williams becomes an object of curiosity to George, and they have several times almost come to conversation. George's recent walks about town with Belle Carpenter inspire this disreputable telegraph operator to give George his most precious advice, his direst warning about life.

One night in darkness outside of town, sitting on some decaying railroad ties, Wash Williams (the name being ironic for this outwardly filthy man) tells George a story of hatred and loathing—a hatred and loathing so pure and so emotionally expressed that, to George, it seems that the voice telling the tale is that of a poet speaking life's truths. To the anxious George and to the expectant reader, the autobiography of Wash Williams is frightening and chilling.

Years ago, in the larger city of Dayton, Ohio, a youthfully clean, and physically and emotionally virginal young telegraph operator married a woman who “was tall and slender and had blue eyes and yellow hair” (123). The respectable daughter of a dentist, she joined her respectable and worshipful young husband in setting up a respectable home in the still larger city of Columbus, a home complete with the usual respectable furnishings and with a backyard especially for vegetable gardening.

In their first spring of gardening, young Wash Williams was digging with his spade and “turned up the black ground while she ran about laughing and pretending to be afraid of the worms I uncovered. Late in April came the planting. In the little paths among the seed beds she stood holding a paper bag in her hand. The bag was filled with seeds. A few at a time she handed me the seeds that I might thrust them into the warm, soft ground” (126). The imagery is that of another Adam and Eve, complete with their innocent original garden, and yet there is also the heated sexual imagery of postlapsarian human intercourse. In an even more courtly vision of innocent, youthful love, Wash Williams remembers of his garden: “There in the dusk in the spring evening I crawled along the black ground to her feet and groveled before her. I kissed her shoes and the ankles above her shoes. When the hem of her garment touched my face I trembled” (126). Perhaps such worship of a woman by a man soon became intolerable to her; perhaps she had not, as her husband had, remained virginal until marriage; or perhaps enthusiastic outdoor gardening does not equate with enthusiastic indoor lovemaking. For whatever reason, after two years of marriage, Wash Williams learns, his adored wife has taken three lovers who regularly come to her in their once-romantic honeymoon cottage. Consumed with a bitterness as intense as his virginal love had been, he quickly gives her all their money and sends her home, as rejected and damaged, to her respectable family in Dayton, Ohio.

And yet Wash Williams's embitterment is not, with this grave betrayal, complete, for one more episode completes and sets forever this man's misogyny. Wash, still in love with his unfaithful wife and summoned by his mother-in-law, probably for a reconciliation, visits her family home in Dayton. Sent to wait in the parlor—the most “respectable” room of the house—Wash hears argumentative words, and his wife is thrust naked into the room where he waits. Presumably he is to respond to her nakedness and in passion's heat reclaim her as his wife. Rightly blaming not the wife but the mother-in-law for this new and awful assault upon his ideals, Wash tries to beat the older woman to death. But like most desires in Winesburg, Ohio, this desire for just vengeance remains unfulfilled, for the mother-in-law dies of an unrelated fever a month after Wash's trauma in the parlor. Now the reader knows why Wash Williams is misanthropic and misogynistic, why he keeps his hands so immaculately clean of emotional and physical involvement and feels so cleanly righteous inwardly, yet neglects his filthy outward appearance. The reader learns, once more, that it is not only in Winesburg that traumatic events occur, events that can lead to psychological grotesquerie, for the “adventure” that ruins Wash's life takes place in Dayton, a city seemingly without the constrictions and catastrophes that supposedly occur only in such narrow, repressive towns as Winesburg.

“The Thinker” is the first of a series of four stories—the others being “Loneliness,” “‘Queer’” and “Drink”—that deal with the quiet men and boys of Winesburg. The buried lives of the unobtrusive and unaggressive citizens are brought into contact with George Willard, Anderson's recurring character, so that the author may narrate their “adventures,” their moments of epiphany.

“The Thinker” concerns the life of Seth Richmond, eighteen. Seth's father was killed in a street duel with a newspaper editor in Toledo, Ohio, after the newspaper editor had coupled the father's name flagrantly with that of a schoolteacher. Since then, Virginia Richmond reared her only child, Seth, in Winesburg. She has taught him to ignore all references to the dead father's imperfections and to think of him as having been a thoroughly good and gentle man. Perhaps it is Virginia's ignoring of the facts of life that has led her son into quietude and placidity. But his silence has brought the youth the sobriquet “the thinker,” although behind Seth's quiescence there is neither high purpose nor especial cerebral activity.

As Wing Biddlebaum in “Hands” had to overlook an agricultural field to see people and events passing him by on the road of life, the roadway to Winesburg, Seth Richmond, who lives with his mother out of town at the end of Main Street, must from his isolated, once-grand home look from his distance at the road of life—that is, to see “wagon-loads of berry pickers—boys, girls, and women—going to the fields in the morning and returning covered with dust in the evening. … He regretted that he also could not laugh boisterously, shout meaningless jokes and make of himself a figure in the endless stream of moving, giggling activity that went up and down the road” (128).

And as the townspeople think (wrongly) of Seth, as he goes among them, as deliberative, measured, and deep in this thoughts, so his mother, unable to understand her unusual child, has an “almost unhealthy respect for the youth” (130). But “the truth was that the son thought with remarkable clearness and the mother did not” (130). To contrast Seth's maturity with his mother's naïveté, Anderson has the boy at sixteen run away from Winesburg and spend some days at a fairground and horse race. Virginia Richmond writes down the reproofs with which she will sting Seth's conscience upon his return. But on his homecoming he rationally explains that it was only his pride that set him on this most unsatisfactory and uncomfortable adventure, and the mother is silent, unable to address at all her son's wayward behavior.

The youth's contact with two of his Winesburg contemporaries—George Willard and Helen White—further reveals his nature and continues the narration of his “adventure.” His relationship with George Willard, his longtime friend, is peculiar—seemingly of George's making and not Seth's, for George finds in the quiet boy a listener to hear of his dreams and plans. On the present evening in “The Thinker,” Seth has walked silently among the citizens of Winesburg in quiet disgust. They are carrying on their meaningless and yet necessary daily pleasantries and banalities. Seth finds George in his room at the New Willard House, ready to maturely smoke a pipe and brag of trying to write a love story. Perhaps, George comments, he must be in love before he can execute a proper love story. Would Seth mind telling Helen White that George is in love with her? Seth is in no mood tonight to listen to George's bragging or to play Cupid for George's literary endeavors; further, disgusted by his additional useless and misused words, Seth leaves his friend and walks through Winesburg at dusk, only to witness again the clots of friendly folk who apparently belong to and constitute the wholeness and harmony of human society, yet who are removed, as if walled off, from the life of Seth Richmond: “feeling himself an outcast in his own town,” Seth “began to pity himself, but a sense of the absurdity of his thoughts made him smile. In the end he decided that he was simply old beyond his years and not at all a subject for self-pity” (137).

But Seth Richmond's own interest in Helen White has just now been stirred by George's meretricious suggestion, so he walks to Banker White's mansion, where he finds Helen and invites her to walk with him. The two young people have been lifelong friends, and tonight Seth, after hearing so many wasted words from the people of Winesburg, somehow wants to say significant words to someone himself. On this pleasant summer evening they stroll quietly past a kissing man and woman and sit in the wooded garden that surrounds the Richmond house. In his economic description of this nighttime walk, Anderson brilliantly objectifies and dramatizes the buried life, the unconscious mind, of Seth Richmond.

As Seth and Helen walk toward his family home, he holds her hand and recalls to himself, scarcely consciously, an event of a few days before. Running an errand in the lovely country near Winesburg, he “had stopped beneath a sycamore tree and looked about him. A soft humming noise had greeted his ears. For a moment he had thought the tree must be the home of a swarm of bees” (140); then, “looking down, Seth had seen the bees everywhere all about him in the long grass. … The weeds were abloom with tiny purple blossoms and gave forth an overpowering fragrance. Upon the weeds the bees were gathered in armies, singing as they worked” (140). In the present, still holding Helen's hand, Seth remembers this wonderfully bucolic scene and imagines himself lying in the flowery grasses again, this time with Helen White at evening; then, in his imagined romantic scene, “a peculiar reluctance kept him from kissing her lips, but he felt he might have done that if he wished” (140). In the present, with the real-life Helen beside him, Seth immediately releases her hand, apparently unable to proceed, even in fancy, with kissing her. Unable to act upon his sexual impulses, he reverts to unusual behavior—braggart talking to Helen, of his having to grow up, of his having to amount to something in life, of his having to leave Winesburg immediately to get on with his new manhood.

And it seems that nature itself cooperates with Seth Richmond in his blustery talking, for great instances of thunder and lightning accompany his important words, promising heavy summer rain. “Helen White was impressed,” narrates Anderson. “This boy is not a boy at all, but a strong, purposeful man” (141). But the more Seth talks instead of acts, the less enchanted Helen becomes with him, until Seth says words of good-bye forever, and Helen in “a wave of sentiment” pulls his head down to kiss him. But “the act was one of pure affection and cutting regret that some vague adventure that had been present in the spirit of the night would now never be realized” (142). Sensing that in Seth she is dealing with an adolescent and not, after all, with “a strong, purposeful man,” Helen lets her hand fall and more or less sends Seth, as if he were a little boy, inside the house to his mother: “You go and talk with your mother. You'd better do that now” (142). Seth, “perplexed and puzzled by her action as he had been perplexed and puzzled by all of the life of the town out of which she had come” (142), ends his adventure (or, better, his lack of adventure) by walking toward his mother, who is domestically and maternally sewing by a lighted window. Seth knows that he will never leave Winesburg, but that he will never belong there, that he will forever be separate, that “when it comes to loving someone, it won't never be me. It'll be someone else—some fool—someone who talks a lot—someone like that George Willard” (142). There is no hint that Seth will ever again, in any way, seek close connection with another human being; his life will surely continue to be an absence of adventure, a presence of anomie.

“Loneliness” is one of Anderson's bleaker stories of the grotesque. For in it he allows the main character no hope of reconstructing destroyed illusions that could keep away the chill reality of solitude and desolation in Winesburg, Ohio. The culprit who unwittingly destroys the older man's possibility of warm illusion is George Willard, still athirst for the inside story of human life and here willing to dominate a weaker personality to get that story. The trauma that creates the grotesquerie in “Loneliness,” as it did with Wing Biddlebaum in “Hands,” happens to the protagonist far away from the little Ohio town, this time in the vastness of New York City.

Enoch Robinson spent his youth near Winesburg and took with him to New York, not only his dreams of becoming a painter, but the essence of his early life in Ohio. He lived with his mother outside of town on a side road off Trunion Pike, in a farmhouse the front blinds of which were always kept closed. When Enoch was young, he was a contemplative, dreaming fellow who tended to walk in the very middle of roads until he disrupted the ordinary traffic of life and was angrily shouted “out of the beaten track” (167). Solitary by nature and dangerous to himself when among adults, Enoch, narrates Anderson, “was always a child and that was a handicap to his worldly development. He never grew up and of course he couldn't understand people and he couldn't make people understand him. The child in him kept bumping against things, against actualities like money and sex and opinions” (167-68). True to his innocent nature, early in his fifteen-year stay in New York, Enoch is struck by a streetcar and lamed, giving him the almost-requisite physical difference of Anderson's grotesque characters.

This child-man, destined for failure both as an artist and in his personal relationships, has many adventures in New York. He becomes drunk enough to be taken by the police and receive a frightening lesson in sobriety; he is tempted into sexual adventure by a streetwalker but then is frightened away from her and is laughed at by her and by a passing male stranger. He goes about with other young would-be artists, but sputteringly inarticulate, he is unable to explain to them his intentions in his art; and he gradually becomes isolated in his room—a room, says Anderson, “long and narrow like a hallway. … The story of Enoch is in fact the story of a room almost more than it is the story of a man” (168).

Just what Anderson intends to communicate to the reader through the spare description of Enoch's bare New York room, his personal space, long and narrow, is not entirely clear; but this room, hall-like and yet leading nowhere, becomes the setting for an imaginary life, with which the art student can comfortably cope: “With quick imagination he began to invent his own people to whom he could really talk and to whom he explained the things he had been unable to explain to living people” (170), “people of his own mind, people with whom he could really talk, people he could harangue and scold by the hour, servants, you see, to his fancy” (171).

Although he is solitary among his imagined playmates in his peculiar room, Enoch tries again to play games with real life, for he is visited by lust and loneliness and the desire “to touch actual flesh-and-bone people with his hands” (171). Thinking to satisfy his sexual urges and to play grown-up, he finds a more ordinary apartment; he marries the woman who sits conveniently near him in art class; and he begins to practice what he considers adult behavior—or, as Anderson writes, “He dismissed the essence of things and played with realities” (171). He illustrates advertisements for a living, he votes in elections, he reads a daily newspaper, he discusses possible government ownership of railroads, and he fathers two children—or at least, the author cannily suggests, his wife bears two children while she is married to Enoch.

But the childlike Enoch Robinson cannot long be happy playing at marriage and middle-class. Wishing once again to be alone with the playthings of his mind, he rerents the old, narrow apartment near Washington Square. When he fortuitously inherits money on the death of his mother back home, he gives his wife eight thousand dollars with which to divorce him and move to Connecticut and marry a real estate agent, that person most opposite to a dreamy artist. Then, safe again in his hall-like room, he repeoples his surroundings with the pliant comrades of his imagination.

But characters in Winesburg, Ohio are allowed little peaceful happiness, and events conspire, in the form of a very flesh-and-blood woman, to drive Enoch away from the city: “Something had to come into his world. Something had to drive him out of the New York room to live out his life an obscure, jerky little figure, bobbing up and down on the streets of an Ohio town at evening when the sun was going down behind the roof of Wesley Moyer's livery barn” (173).

This woman, who is simply a woman from next door and is possibly only seeking innocent relief from her own loneliness, repeatedly invades Enoch's sanctuary. By her huge and female adulthood, she comes to dominate his weak childishness, until he orders her away in uncontrolled, infantile rage. Unfortunately, he refers to his imagined playmates: “Then I began to tell her about my people, about everything that meant anything to me. I tried to keep quiet, to keep myself to myself, but I couldn't” (176). “A look” (176)—surely a look of recognition that she has been dealing with a nearly deranged person—comes into her eyes, and she leaves Enoch's now-polluted apartment: “Out she went through the door and all the life there had been in the room followed her out. She took all of my people away. They all went out through the door after her. That's the way it was” (177). Of all the sadness in Winesburg, Ohio, this is saddest: that Enoch Robinson has come back, desolate and totally alone, from New York to live out his years in Winesburg in a sparsely furnished room, that he somehow creates anew a consoling gathering of imaginary companions, and that by telling his story and his dreams to George Willard, he has once again destroyed his lonely solace. For at the end of “Loneliness” he says to himself, “I'm alone, all alone here. … It was warm and friendly in my room but now I'm all alone” (178).

That the Cowleys do not belong among the citizens of Winesburg is clear from the location of Cowley & Son's hardware store—not on the Main Street but on Maumee Street, near Voight's wagon shop and a horse-sheltering shed. The Cowleys, of “‘Queer,’” are indeed displaced persons, for a year ago, Ebenezer Cowley, the father of the family, sold his farmland and established the second (and scarcely needed) hardware business in Winesburg to follow that American dream of commercial success. His wife has died; the daughter is only mentioned and does not appear in the story; and Ebenezer himself is pathetically out of place with his long-worn but only good coat, his visible wen, his unwashed body, his storeful of useless and unneeded farm and shop supplies, and his all-purpose saying, “I'll be starched. … Well, well, I'll be washed and ironed and starched!” (193).

But it is Ebenezer's son, Elmer Cowley (both names hint at country origins), who is most unhappy in the town of Winesburg; and it is Elmer Cowley who is the grotesque character of “‘Queer.’” The quotation marks in the story title indicate that “queer” (as in “unusual” or “odd”) is an epithet applicable, Elmer realizes, to all the Cowley family members. Elmer is described as pale, almost colorless in hair and skin, with protruding teeth and white-blue eyes—that is, he is slightly physically grotesque. Anderson illustrates the grotesquerie of Elmer Cowley in three ways: he shows his youthful rebellion against his nature and circumstances, presumably for the first time in his life; he contrasts Elmer's character with that of three other Winesburg area residents (Ebenezer Cowley, Mook, a farmhand, and George Willard); and he presents George Willard as the object of Elmer Cowley's resentment, for George represents to the odd young man all those regular people who seem to fit so conveniently and comfortably into life in the Ohio town.

Elmer's rebellion comes one day when, trying awkwardly to thread his shoelaces (George Willard can be seen from the back room of the Cowley store), Elmer hears a traveling salesman foisting off unsalable items onto the gullible Ebenezer. Elmer takes a gun and orders the salesman out of the store. Elmer cannot explain to his puzzled father this erratic, sudden, and dangerous uprising, his first rebellion against “queerness.” Instead of receiving sympathy from a wise and understanding father for his outburst against oddness, Elmer receives from Ebenezer only the saying “I'll be washed and ironed and starched!” (193).

Frustrated by his inability to explain himself, Elmer madly runs out of Winesburg and into the countryside, where he had lived until a year ago and where he understood life and his place in it. As Elmer trudges along the rural road, he thinks: “I will not be queer—one to be looked at and listened to. … I'll be like other people. I'll show that George Willard. He'll find out. I'll show him!” (194). But George Willard, as the reader knows, has his own problems and concerns and has only passing interest in the strange young man whom he has occasionally seen on the streets of Winesburg.

When he arrives at the rural homeplace, Elmer finds himself almost happy as he talks to Mook, a half-witted farmhand who worked on this land when it was the Cowleys' and who has stayed on to work for the new owner. To Mook, Elmer has no trouble communicating his worries and his pleasures, for Mook is easy to talk to. Mook “believed in the intelligence of the animals that lived in the sheds with him, and when he was lonely held long conversations with the cows, the pigs, and even with the chickens that ran about the barnyard” (195). To Mook, Elmer explains at length the troubles that the Cowleys have encountered since their unwise move to town; how the money from the farmland is dwindling away in poor business practices; and most important of all, how Elmer feels rejected and alone and simply cannot fit into Winesburg: “‘In the evening, there in town, I go to the post office or to the depot to see the train come in, and no one says anything to me. Everyone stands around and laughs and they talk but they say nothing to me. Then I feel so queer that I can't talk either’” (197). Suddenly, he realizes the oddness of his present circumstances—that a “queer” one is talking seriously to a half-witted one. Elmer ends his harangue with: “I had to tell someone and you were the only one I could tell. I hunted out another queer one, you see. I ran away, that's what I did. I couldn't stand up to someone like that George Willard” (197). As Elmer runs back toward town, Mook confides in his animal friends that Elmer may hurt someone and concludes of the episode: “I'll be washed and ironed and starched” (197).

Elmer's rebellion is now concentrated even more firmly on George Willard. At eight on the same cold November evening, Elmer mysteriously summons the newspaper reporter to walk with him on the town streets. But when the time comes to talk, he cannot explain himself or his enormous rage. He orders George away, only to summon him again near midnight, when a freight train is leaving Winesburg for Cleveland. For Elmer has decided to steal some of his father's money, flee the town of his persecution, and go to a city whose vastness will both hide him and give him comfort: “He would get work in some shop and become friends with the other workmen and would be indistinguishable. Then he could talk and laugh. He would no longer be queer and would make friends. Life would begin to have warmth and meaning for him as it had for others” (199-200). But once again, when the train is ready to leave and George Willard is nearby and sleepily curious about Elmer for the second time that evening, Elmer can only thrust the stolen money onto George, beat mercilessly upon the reporter's breast, and incoherently proclaim: “I'll be washed and ironed and starched” (200). Leaving George Willard no wiser for his interrupted sleep and his pains, Elmer Cowley departs from Winesburg, crying to himself: “I guess I showed him. I ain't so queer. I guess I showed him I ain't so queer” (201). But carrying himself with himself, Elmer Cowley will forever be, wherever he may be, a social isolate, a “queer,” a grotesque from Winesburg, Ohio.

“Drink,” the fourth story about the usually quiet men and boys of Winesburg, concerns Tom Foster, a native of Cincinnati who was orphaned there and brought at sixteen to Winesburg by his quite elderly grandmother. She wants the youth to grow up in this peaceful, tiny village, which she left decades ago. The grandmother worries that the enlarged town of eighteen hundred people will not be right for Tom; but this youth, quiet and pleasant, would fit into any society, for everyone likes him, even the tough guys and prostitutes among whom he innocently lived in Cincinnati.

Tom Foster is not one of Anderson's more physically grotesque characters; small for his age and topped with unruly black hair, his head is larger than ordinary and his voice softer, but otherwise he is quite average, quite unobtrusive, and quite inoffensive. Enjoying an easy life in Winesburg, Tom survives by doing such jobs as cutting wood, mowing lawns, and picking strawberries. He most enjoys the quiet things about the town, fits into all groups of men and boys standing or sitting about to talk, and delights in such sensuous little things as the fresh-roasting coffee in Hern's grocery, the bedewed shiny stones in a handsome driveway, the sound of rain falling at night on tin roofs, and the power of a passing winter storm. But into his almost idyllic and carefree life must come some complication, and spring is the mischief that disrupts Tom's: “The trees along the residence streets of the town were all newly clothed in soft green leaves, in the gardens behind the houses men were puttering about in vegetable gardens, and in the air there was a hush, a waiting kind of silence very stirring to the blood” (216). On such a night even Tom Foster, who usually stays peacefully “in the shadow of the wall of life” (212), must have an adventure.

But all the eighteen-year-old youth really accomplishes on this sublime spring evening is to become drunk and think wondrous thoughts, perhaps for the first time in his life. Such drunkenness and such thinking do not at first seem important enough to be considered an adventure, or a revealing moment in a Winesburg, Ohio story. To understand the momentous importance to Tom Foster of this evening of drinking, the reader must recall an earlier adventure in Tom's life, an adventure that occurred when he was younger and living in a questionable district of Cincinnati.

Tom Foster's previous adventure was the occasion of his first temptation to sexual knowledge, when a prostitute in the district where he worked and lived invited the innocent boy to her room: “He never forgot the smell of the room nor the greedy look that came into the eyes of the woman. It sickened him and in a very terrible way left a scar on his soul. He had always before thought of women as quite innocent things, much like his grandmother, but after that one experience in the room he dismissed women from his mind” (215). Not only were women dismissed from Tom Foster's mind, but he seems to have banished all deep emotions and serious feelings, leaving in their absence the placid and amicable chap so well liked in Winesburg for his blandness and his unforward presence. But such emotional repression must have its eventual outlet, and Tom's drinking is the first expression of the denied emotion that he has buried so deep that he is not even aware of it.

On this fine spring evening Tom lets himself fantasize about Helen White, whom Seth Richmond and George Willard and perhaps other young men of the town have also admired. To Tom, this pretty young woman seems “a flame dancing in the air” and he himself “a little tree without leaves standing out sharply against the sky” (216). When, to his fancy, “she was a wind, a strong terrible wind,” Tom is “a boat left on the shore of the sea by a fisherman” (216). Whatever importance should be given to these images of active female force and passive male object is unclear; but after Tom has these daring thoughts, he goes out into the night-time spring countryside near Winesburg to become gloriously drunk—that is, when safely alone, to free his emotions from their traumatic repression and to feel again something powerful, something forceful, something active.

The adventure of drunkenness works for this youth, who may henceforth be less divorced from life and its tearing and joyful emotions. For, as he explains to a kindly and puzzled George Willard later the same evening, as he is coming down from his drunken heights: “I wanted to suffer, to be hurt somehow. I thought that was what I should do. I wanted to suffer, you see, because everyone suffers and does wrong. … It hurt me to do what I did and made everything strange. That's why I did it. I'm glad, too. It taught me something, that's it, that's what I wanted. Don't you understand? I wanted to learn things, you see. That's why I did it” (219).

Like “Adventure,” “The Untold Lie” is almost completely separable from the other stories of Winesburg, Ohio. It is little concerned with George Willard or the town of Winesburg and can stand alone as a short story of great worth, although it lacks “Adventure”'s dramatic impact. “The Untold Lie” is hardly based on grotesquerie at all but is rather a study in contrasts and cycles and is perhaps Anderson's most optimistic philosophical fiction.

“The Untold Lie” is set in autumn near Winesburg, taking place in a few hours in the lives of two farm workers—Hal Winters, a young man who (like Shakespeare's Prince Hal?) cannot be tamed by outside forces but who could tame himself to the bonds of ordinary social life, and Ray Pearson, an older man who, long married and burdened with “half a dozen thin-legged children” (202), has become thoroughly tamed to the demands of marriage and fatherhood. The story is one of mostly silence, as the two farmhands quietly crouch to shuck corn in a field lovely with autumn's blazing colors. Ray and Hal work at their harvesting task almost automatically, until unexpectedly the younger man mutters: “Tricked by Gad, that's what I was, tricked by life and made a fool of” (204). Thus moved to express his smoldering anger, Hal continues: “Has a fellow got to do it? … Has he got to be harnessed up and driven through life like a horse?” (205). To his astonished companion Hal continues: “I've got Nell Gunther in trouble” (205); that is, on one of their courtship meetings he has impregnated the English teacher: “Perhaps you've been in the same fix yourself. I know what everyone would say is the right thing to do, but what do you say? Shall I marry and settle down?” (205).

Ray Pearson, thus startlingly appealed to for advice, cannot answer his young companion at all and walks wordlessly away from their common work, off across the fallow fields, where he is caught up by thoughts of the younger man's abrupt question about responsibility and freedom. Strangely, just such a dilemma occurred in Ray's youth: whether he should marry the woman who had so willingly gone walking in woods with him, or whether he should escape to the West Coast, where he might live freely and excitingly. As in other Anderson stories, this present moment of questioning of circumstances of long standing is assumed to be the first such mutiny in a character's life, his first need or opportunity to assert his individuality against the expectations of routine civilization.

Ray Pearson's silent self-questioning and potential insurrection gain dramatic impact when he goes to his bleak little tenant house, isolated among the rolling Ohio hills, where his shrewish wife and his half-dozen demanding children impatiently await him. There he is pushed into making a trip into Winesburg for food. Walking across a field toward the grocery stores, Ray is overcome by “the beauty of the country about Winesburg” (207) and suddenly “forgot all about being a quiet old farm hand and throwing off the torn overcoat began to run across the field. As he ran he shouted a protest against his life, … against everything that makes life ugly” (207). He recalls that when he was courting Minnie years ago, he promised her nothing; she had wanted sexual adventure as much as he, and biology had trapped him into marriage and parenthood.

Ray decides to warn Hal against making the same mistake, against completing the same cycle in human unhappiness. He runs madly and coatlessly across the plowed field toward the younger man, determined to be his oracle of escape and freedom and individualism. Then, as he runs, “he remembered his children and in fancy felt their hands clutching at him” (208); and suddenly seeing and coming upon Hal Winters, who is now dressed for courting and peacefully smoking a pipe of tobacco, Ray is unable to speak any words of his desperate warning. In fact, he says not a word, for Hal forestalls him with: “Well, never mind telling me anything. I'm not a coward and I've already made up my mind. … She didn't ask me to marry her. I want to marry her. I want to settle down and have kids” (208).

Thus does life cyclically and mechanically generate itself, Anderson seems to be saying—biology ensnares people into reproduction and childrearing, the prerequisites of civilization and progress. The price of this cycle and the social order that depends on it is, however, enormously high, and it is usually hopeless to elude. Even though Ray Pearson fails to say to Hal Winters anything at all, positive or negative, about being ambushed by fate into marriage—realizing that “whatever I told him would have been a lie” (209)—the reader is left to ponder whether Hal, in turn, will someday be faced with a questioning young male companion and be unable to advise either entrapment or escape, the only choices available to the individual as biology works its will. Optimistic? Yes. Pessimistic? Also yes. Truth, or lie? Both.

“Adventure” and “The Untold Lie” are both easy to enjoy and study singly, disjoined from the other stories in Winesburg, Ohio. But “The Strength of God” and “The Teacher” are two of Sherwood Anderson's greatest fictions, and they must be enjoyed and studied together, for they interrelate in event, in mood, and in style to form a unit that, in its completeness, demonstrates the quintessence of what Winesburg, Ohio is all about, of what grotesqueness and the buried life signify to Sherwood Anderson.

“The Strength of God” concerns the Reverend Curtis Hartman, who for ten years has been pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Winesburg, Ohio. The citizens are proud of his quiet, brown-bearded, and scholarly demeanor, and his stout wife, Sarah, grows “afire with secret pride” (147-48) as she rides with her respected husband in their carriage, although she is “worried lest the horse become frightened and run away” (148). But Curtis Hartman, who is in no way physically grotesque, has a hidden worry—he is secretly unhappy with his performance as minister of God: “he was much in earnest and sometimes suffered prolonged periods of remorse because he could not go crying the word of God in the highways and byways of the town. He wondered if the flame of the spirit really burned in him and dreamed of a day when a strong sweet new current of power would come like a great wind into his voice and his soul and the people would tremble before the spirit of God made manifest in him” (148). Each week, Hartman also worries at length about the sermon that he must deliver that Sunday morning, and frequently he comes to the little room in the tall bell tower of his church with anxiety, to meditate and to pray for the flame of the spirit.

This tall bell tower, freighted with its suggestively phallic shape, is central to the meaning of “The Strength of God,” for here the events occur that ultimately convince Hartman that he has found “the strength of God” for which he has so fervently prayed. In the room are a table upon which rests the Bible that the minister devotedly studies and a small window made of stained glass, the design of which shows “Christ laying his hand upon the head of a child” (148). “The Strength of God” begins in summer, when the warm weather requires for comfort that the small stained-glass window be open. The minister is, one Sunday morning, shocked to look over the pages of his Bible, through the open window, and into the bedroom of the house next door to the church, where he sees a woman lying in bed while smoking and reading a book. So shocked is he by the worldliness of this woman who, on the Lord's day, would smoke, idle about her room, and avoid church, that probably for the first time in his life, “he went down into the pulpit and preached a long sermon without once thinking of his gestures or his voice. The sermon attracted unusual attention because of its power and clearness” (149). Merely from seeing a woman reading and smoking, the minister begins to find “the strength of God” for which he has been praying.

Seeing Kate Swift, the schoolteacher who lives with her mother next door to the church and who enjoys lying reading and smoking in her bed, is more important to the Reverend Curtis Hartman than anything that has ever happened to him. For the first time since his cold and passionless marriage to a very proper woman, he has been tempted to expand his horizons in regard to warm emotion and bodily attraction. Within a few days he wants to look again through his stained-glass window at the woman's body, but he knows to keep his spying secret. With a stone he “broke out a corner of the window and then locked the door and sat down at the desk before the open Bible to wait” (150). Interestingly, the portion of the stained-glass scene that he broke away is that which shows the heel of the boy being blessed by Christ. Indeed, the reader easily assumes, the Achilles' heel of the Reverend Curtis Hartman has been found and punctured by the arrow of quite ordinary lust. And again on the coming Sunday, the minister's sermon is personal, powerful, and cogent, for again with “the strength of God,” he speaks to his congregation of personal temptation and godly forgiveness.

Anderson brilliantly handles Hartman's psychology. Over several weeks in summer and autumn, this developing character goes from horror at seeing the bare throat and white shoulders of a woman lying in bed to having a warm need to look again upon her throat and shoulders, to thanking God when she does not appear before his eyes to tempt him, to praying to be strong enough to repair the hole in the stained-glass window, to making feeble attempts at sexuality with his gelid wife, to abandoning his reticence about peeping at forbidden flesh, to rebelling and resolving to have and hold this wondrous female body just next door to the church.

For the “adventure,” the telling instant in the character's life, the action moves to the darkest and most bitterly cold evening of the year. In the dark and unheated bell tower, frigid wind blows about the Reverend Hartman through the broken stained-glass window through which he has for months been peeping into the warm and lighted bedroom next door. Here the Reverend Hartman approaches both dying of physical illness (equated with the near-death of his soul) and a spiritual revelation of strength from God, for which he has earnestly been praying.

Into the prevailing imagery of coldness and warmth, Anderson introduces and interweaves images of darkness and light. The minister has come to see himself as more Hellenic than Hebraic, has had to spend long night hours in the coldness and darkness of his bell-tower room to await the entrance of the woman next door into her warm and well-lit bedroom. At the same time, he has begun to grope his way from the darkness of a cold and passionless marriage into the heated and enlightened passion of full human nature. When she appears in her bedroom, Kate Swift habitually wears a white nightgown that to Hartman should suggest angelity more than lust; and on this final night of peeping from the darkness, over his Bible, and through the stained-glass window, the vision he sees is indeed overwhelming and monumental. This night the woman does not appear in her lighted room until late, and instead of dressing in her white gown and lying quietly abed, she falls upon her bed completely naked and “lying face downward she wept and beat with her fists upon the pillow. With a final outburst of weeping she half arose and in the presence of the man who had waited to look and to think thoughts the woman of sin began to pray” (155). In the warm lamplight of her bedroom, Anderson writes, “her figure, slim and strong, looked like the figure of the boy in the presence of the Christ on the leaded window” (155).

In the bell tower the Bible dramatically falls to the floor as the minister rises from his seated position. When the light finally goes out in the unhappy woman's bedroom, the excited minister eagerly breaks the rest of the stained-glass window with his fist, thinking that his season of temptation is over and that he has found the strength of God in the body of a woman. The reader is left to wonder whether the minister is deluding himself that he has found the light of happiness or the continuing darkness of a new if godly self delusion.

The first thing to say about “The Teacher” is that Kate Swift, the object of the Reverend Hartman's desire in “The Strength of God,” in this her own story is absolutely unaware of either her accessibility or her meaning to the peeping eyes of the preacher. In “The Strength of God” the reader learns, through Curtis Hartman, some information about Kate—specifically, that “the school teacher was thirty years old and had a neat trim-looking figure”; that she “had few friends and bore a reputation of having a sharp tongue”; that “she had been to Europe and had lived for two years in New York City” (149). Otherwise, in “The Strength of God,” the woman next door to the church who is so addictive and almost liberating to the repressed preacher could have been any attractive Winesburg woman who likes occasionally to smoke and to read in bed.

In “The Teacher” Anderson does not present a great deal of new information about Kate Swift. She lives with her widowed mother, we learn, and her health is not good, as she is in some danger of losing her hearing. When seen close, Kate Swift is neither physically beautiful nor especially physically grotesque: “Her complexion was not good and her face was covered with blotches that indicated ill health” (160); yet to an observer who sees her walking purposefully on the coldest, darkest night of the year, “alone in the night in the winter streets she was lovely. Her back was straight, her shoulders square, and her features were as the features of a tiny goddess on a pedestal in a garden in the dim light of a summer evening” (160).

In “The Teacher,” Anderson does expand upon the “sharp tongue” reference to her in “The Strength of God,” for “there was something biting and forbidding in the character of Kate Swift.” Since her return from Europe or New York five years ago, she has been “silent, cold and stern, and yet in an odd way very close to her pupils” in the schoolroom (161); George Willard is a recent graduate of the school. Only occasionally does Kate break from her iciness to tell to her pupils charming but seemingly irrelevant stories about such people as Charles Lamb and Benvenuto Cellini, only to immediately return to coldness and sternness. But since Anderson is more interested in the buried life of his characters than in their outward appearance and behavior, he confides to the reader about Kate Swift that “in reality she was the most eagerly passionate soul among them, and more than once, in the five years since she had come back from her travels to settle in Winesburg and become a school teacher, had been compelled to go out of the house and walk half through the night fighting out some battle raging within” (162). In the past, her battles with her own passionate nature have usually been settled by cold walks in the street; but in the present “adventure” of Kate Swift, Kate has a new problem, one perhaps not soluble by the usual vigorous exercise: her infatuation and lust for George Willard.

In consonance with the imagery of light and darkness and of warmth and coldness in “The Strength of God,” Anderson in “The Teacher” presents Kate's hot and hidden nature, usually bound down under her icy exterior, as emerging to focus on George Willard. On this particular night, so separately important to the Reverend Curtis Hartman and to the young newspaper reporter, “Kate Swift's mind was ablaze with thoughts of George Willard” (162); “in something he had written as a school boy she thought she had recognized the spark of genius and wanted to blow on the spark” (162-63). Thus for her “adventure,” the incident that marks her epiphany, Kate Swift leaves the huge base-burner stove in her mother's warm and well-lighted house to face the bitterly cold darkness of January and to end up with her former pupil in the well-lighted and well-heated office of the Eagle. There she ostensibly lectures him about writing creatively from life after knowing about life, but in reality she is drawn toward his boyish good looks and his manhood. As she is about to leave, “in the warm little office the air became suddenly heavy and the strength went out of her body” (165). She lets herself fall into the young man's ready arms, but then in sudden reluctance or sudden passion beats upon his face and then runs away into the cold night.

Now the reader understands why the schoolteacher is so late to appear in her bedroom while Curtis Hartman waits in his freezing, dark bell tower; why she throws herself naked onto the bed and beats her pillow in her lighted, warm bedroom; and why she finally kneels on her bed—naked, slim and boylike—to pray. The reader can only speculate about the substance of her prayer; most likely, she prays, like Alice Hindman in “Adventure,” that she herself will have the strength of God not to seduce a young student, that she will have the fortitude to learn to live and die alone, even in Winesburg, Ohio.

The reader who enjoys the stories in Winesburg, Ohio and who appreciates Anderson's narrative purposes and techniques might well wish for more, but Anderson wrote no more fiction about Winesburg, Ohio, and left for his masterpiece only the twenty-one stories published in the little yellow book of 1919. Why there are no more Winesburg stories is unclear, for it is unlikely that the author tired of them; more likely, he had to move on to new material. It is certain that he did have more Winesburg stories worth the telling, for on close examination of the stories that were written, there are intriguing references to other grotesque characters in the imaginary town.

These characters include Tom Willy and his birthmarked hands in “The Philosopher” (49); the once red-haired Bentley spinster who so adoringly rears David Hardy in “Godliness,” who speaks to the sleeping boy the romantic thoughts forbidden to her, and who becomes “ecstatically happy” (79) when his hand brushes her face in his sleep; Turk Smollett, “the half dangerous old wood chopper whose peculiarities added so much of color to the life of the village” (137) and whose boisterous social acceptance in “The Thinker” offends Seth Richmond; Mook, the half-witted farmhand who in “‘Queer’” talks to the animals and shares a warm outdoor fire with the distraught Elmer Cowley (195-97); the pipe-smoking grandmother of Tom Foster in “Drink,” who in advanced age lovingly tells her young grandson, “When you get ready to die then I will die also” (214); and Hop Higgins, the town's night watchman, who, on that cold January night in “The Teacher,” peacefully dozes before the stove in the hotel office and dreams of a career raising ferrets (139).

One may regret that Sherwood Anderson did not write the stories of these and other surely interesting grotesques among the residents of Winesburg; but he did not, and the reader is encouraged to pursue later volumes of stories written by this author: The Triumph of the Egg (1921), Horses and Men (1923), and Death in the Woods (1933). In these three volumes are many stories, some about grotesques, that individually rival the best of the Winesburg, Ohio stories—stories that on their own are interesting and well enough fashioned to shock the careful reader with their beauty and worth.

Margaret Ripley Wolfe (essay date winter 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9686

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 in 1941, he had also selected a hillside cemetery in southwestern Virginia as his resting place for all eternity.1 During this phase of Anderson's life, he drew strength and support from women, four in particular: Caroline Greear of rural Troutdale, Virginia, first his landlady and then his friend; Laura Copenhaver, a prominent Marion, Virginia, matron, valued by Anderson for her intellect and her beauty; social activist Eleanor Copenhaver, Laura's daughter, a Virginian by birth and a New Yorker by choice, who became his fourth wife; and the widow Mary Emmett who replaced her dead husband, Burton Emmett, a New York advertising executive, as Sherwood's benefactor.

Ultimately, Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson exerted the most enduring influence on the man and his legacy. The attention that he and his writings continue to command might have been substantially diminished had it not been for her stewardship of his literary estate. Nothing, of course, more firmly ensures an individual's place in the annals of history and literature than a concentrated, usable collection of papers. During the late 1940s and early 1950s. Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, a native Appalachian, organized and arranged the transfer of Sherwood's manuscripts and correspondence to the Newberry Library in Chicago. No less importantly, she subsequently welcomed the scholars who discovered his Virginia connections. When they called on her, she assisted them; and they became her friends and she, theirs.2

Such hospitality came naturally to this gracious, educated, and charming woman, but her devotion to Sherwood's memory likewise fueled her efforts. Amy W. Nyholm, who processed the Sherwood Anderson Collection at the Newberry Library, declared that Eleanor Copenhaver represented

perhaps the most perfectly all-in-one wife in history (bread-winner, sweetheart, nurse, secretary, press agent, travel companion, confidante but never critic, theme inspirer, business agent—unfailingly sweet, unfailingly strong, unfailingly activating, unfailingly believing—it is too much. But it's all true—it's all there).3

In essence, this marriage survived largely because Eleanor Copenhaver placed no demands on Sherwood Anderson. In the final analysis, as the last of his wives, she also subtly influenced scholars and firmly secured her husband's place in the recorded history of twentieth-century American literature.

Until Sherwood met Eleanor, he had been less than successful in maintaining long-term romantic involvements with the opposite sex. Nyholm made the extreme allegation that “All of Anderson's relationships with women began with rape and then, if the women were fortunate, worked up to friendship.”4 Biographer Kim Townsend, in a more even-handed manner, claims that Anderson, like Hamlet, “was confused by Woman.”5 Socially, economically, and educationally, he married above himself in all four instances; “first-rate women,” Cornelia Platt Lane, told her daughter. As wife no. 1, she had been left to provide for the three children that Sherwood sired. “He made me a school teacher and you a sculptor,” Cornelia remarked sardonically to Tennessee Mitchell, discarded wife no. 2. “What a pity it is he doesn't work faster so he can do more for women.” The second Mrs. Anderson, however, offered an apology for their former husband. “It's foolish of us to be down on him,” she observed. “He's as he is, a very charming person—maybe it's too much to expect more.”6

In late 1912, Anderson had experienced an epiphany, “conscious aphasia” as he himself later alluded to it, that released him from the conventions of family life and the mundane employment of mere mortals. It cleared the way for his pursuit of art for art's sake and the metamorphosis from frustrated businessman to full-time writer. On the first Monday of December, the Elyria, Ohio, Evening Telegram mentioned that the owner of Anderson Manufacturing Company, a roof-repair firm, had surfaced in Cleveland after a brief disappearance. Undoubtedly, the would-be writer had been experiencing enormous stress and was desperately attempting to get away from Cornelia who either had not been willing or able to give Sherwood the encouragement he required. Within a few weeks, Anderson made his way to Chicago where, for a relatively brief period, he worked for his former employer, Taylor-Critchfield, an advertising agency. In the Windy City, Sherwood spent some of his most creative years and garnered recognition as the founder of the Chicago school of literature. He abandoned the Illinois city when his free-spirited and unconventional marriage to Bohemian Tennessee Mitchell—named for Tennessee Claflin, a radical nineteenth-century feminist—came unwound. Since the bizarre and short-lived fugue of late November-early December 1912, Anderson had become an inveterate wanderer in pursuit of universal truths. From Cornelia's perspective, he had abandoned her and the children; Sherwood only knew that the desire to write impelled him.7

In 1925, some thirteen years after Sherwood Anderson's “transfiguration” had occurred in Ohio, the veteran writer and wife no. 3, Elizabeth Prall, journeyed to the Virginia highlands, in part to escape the oppressive heat of a New Orleans summer. The discovery of the Southern Appalachians and the demise of the third marriage coincided to produce another ending and yet another beginning, which, in Anderson's life, seemed to follow the rise and fall of his matrimonial ventures. He soon purchased land and supervised the building of a stone and timber house in the rural Grayson County, Virginia, community of Troutdale. Named for the creek that tumbled through it, Ripshin became his summer place and, in a very real sense, his “home.”

During his first summer in the mountains, Sherwood Anderson and Elizabeth Prall lodged with Mrs. Caroline Greear and her family. In 1942, not long after Anderson's death, Carolina Greear reminisced about his friendship with the family and the many kindnesses he showed them. “His coming,” Mrs. Greear surmised, “was one of the grandest things that ever happened to the Greear's [sic]. Up to that time we had gone along happily and secured a good job to help out the farm income; a new baby every twenty months or so; Sunday School to go to; an annual mourner's bench revival; and a comfortable home.” She admitted that there was “Not much variety, but a good life as lives go in a remotely situated mountain village in southwest Virginia.” Initially unaware that her new boarder was a writer and therefore hardly knowledgeable of his stature in the literary world, Caroline Greear recollected that “Mr. Anderson introduced himself and his wife in the gentlest, kindest and most musical voice I thought I had ever heard. His eyes were very black, soft, but penetrating, as if they were a sort of x-ray, making a picture of the person before him.” As for his attire, “He wore a white linen suit, bright blue shirt and a tie the color of a Kentucky Cardinal. His panama hat was soft and pulled forward and a thick batch of the black hair fell almost into his eyes.” Mrs. Greear had “not the slightest idea … what Mrs. Anderson wore.”8

Nor did the farm-wife-turned-landlady have any insight into the demons that tormented her guest. Following Sherwood Anderson's completion of Dark Laughter, a bestseller and the only one of his works that brought him any significant remuneration, the author entered upon a period of self-doubt, during which time he found writing tedious and sometimes almost impossible. Ironically, Anderson's economic circumstances as a writer had reached an all-time high. He and the publisher Horace Liveright had entered into an arrangement during April 1925, which should have freed him of financial worries. Liveright promised to pay Sherwood a hundred dollars a week in anticipation of forthcoming works. In turn, the author could expect 15 percent on future sales of new books and 10 percent on Modern Library reprints. For his part, he had to produce one volume per year.9 Eventually, this proved to be the deal's undoing; for it reminded Sherwood of the money-grubbing that he associated with the business world and against which he had rebelled several years earlier. Indeed, for the remainder of his life, he condemned the vulgar pursuit of wealth. He could afford to take the high moral ground on this issue, for something or someone always appeared to provide for him.

On another front, the aging author suffered the barbs of a new generation of writers that included the likes of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, men he had befriended. The criticisms found their cruelist expression in Hemingway's The Torrents of Spring, a parody of Dark Laughter and other of Anderson's works. Likewise, Faulkner also called into question the literary merits of a man who had been a mentor. In April 1925, Faulkner published a negative review of Many Marriages and an equally disparaging commentary on A Story Teller's Story in the Dallas Morning News. Such onslaughts proved particularly painful to an individual who even in the throes of success always harbored insecurities. Some ten years later, Anderson wrote to Theodore Dreiser that “‘Hemingway is the new man’” on the literary landscape. Then, he thought to add, “‘What praise lavished on him. Look out, Hemmy, they'll be trying to kill you off tomorrow. Or is it Bill Faulkner, or Thomas Wolfe.’”10 Elizabeth Prall, Anderson's wife at the time and Faulkner's former employer in a New York City bookstore, recollected of the mid 1920s that “The act of writing had always been natural for him [Sherwood], and now the process had become tortuous. He wondered if he had written himself out, exhausted all his themes.”11

Hoping that a change of scenery might alleviate this bout of depression and ease the struggle of writing his next book, Tar—a Midwest Childhood, the Andersons spent the summer of 1925 in Troutdale, Virginia, with the Greears. After Sherwood confided in them that he was a writer, they cleaned an abandoned cabin on their place and supplied a chair and desk to allow him the privacy that his work required. For lodging, meals, laundry, and a place to write, he paid a total of $2.00 a day for himself and Elizabeth. Mrs. Greear wrote that “It did not seem right to accept it, but he made me feel that is was really very little to pay for what I gave them. Years later I learned that Mr. Anderson said he too nearly dropped when he found out I meant for the dollar [for each of them] to include meals and much laundry.”12 Meanwhile, some of the locals, suspecting that Anderson might be a revenuer, placed him under surveillance. The author, it seems, had the habit of rushing outside the cabin to read aloud what he had just written. “When they heard him orating to the cornstalks,” Elizabeth Prall Anderson reminisced, “they concluded that … he was merely crazy.”13

Sherwood settled easily into the routine of family life, began roaming the surrounding countryside, and endeared himself to the Greears. Elizabeth later wrote that they “were amiable, hospitable people with five sons [and a daughter]: David, Philip, Solomon, John and Joshua, all of whom adored Sherwood.” He worked on Tar each morning and entertained himself with the boys in the afternoon. If they “went off on a possum [sic] hunt, Sherwood would be right there among them, as enthusiastic as the youngest of the boys.”14 On one occasion, after the children's excitement about “The Mighty Haag Show” had infected him as well, Sherwood “walked to the town [Marion] and hired the only two automobiles in the place and told [them] at supper that he wanted to take all of [them] to the circus,” which he did. When the first birthday celebration came around after Anderson's arrival in the mountains, he arranged to have records sent from New Orleans so the family could enjoy a range of spirituals as well as classical and dance music. “It is hard for any one [sic] to understand why small things could mean so much,” Mrs. Greear explained, “until they realize that we had been fairly well off all our lives, then for over four years there had not been one extra nickle [sic] in the whole family for any thing but the bare necessities.”15

A religious woman whose convictions bordered on fundamentalism, Caroline rationalized Sherwood's unwillingness to attend church services, his use of alcohol, and the divorces. She even indulged her famous guest in his penchant for mushrooms. “He would wander in the woods and bring home baskets full,” according to Greear. On one occasion, “they were covered with white worms.”

He came to the kitchen where I was painstakingly picking them off one by one. “Oh well,” he said, “if your [sic] a mushroom eater, you can't be too particular!” So I rinsed them off and cooked them, worms and all. With plenty of cream and butter, they tasted right prime. I would never have thought we would eat worms for anybody.16

Mrs. Anderson no. 3 admitted that she “was not as comfortable with the Greear family as was Sherwood.” “I was accustomed to having a house of my own, and though the Greears were intelligent, we had little in common,” she explained. “They lived in a near complete cultural vacuum and had nothing to think about but the exigencies of farm life.”17 “She was determined, however, to make the best of us,” Caroline Greear observed, “since it seemed to suit him to be there. She was always nice, kind and pleasant in every way but not so easy to know.” After their long afternoon walks when the couple explored the surrounding countryside, “He would come back talking of the most interesting people he had met on the way,” Mrs. Greear reported, “folks we saw all the time, but it had never occurred to me that they were particularly interesting.”18

During the summer, Sherwood “had made up his mind that he would settle down and live in this area.” He soon arranged for the use of “an old horse and an even older buggy and went meandering along the dirt roads that led through the mountains.” On one such trip, he came upon a “woman trudging down the road with a huge brass kettle balanced on her head. He stopped her and asked if she wanted to sell her farm.” On the spot, they struck a deal; she was a widow who wanted to return to her home in Georgia. According to Elizabeth Prall Anderson, “Sherwood bought the place on the spot, without a word” to her.19

Within the course of two years, Anderson engaged local workmen and supervised the building of Ripshin, which he often referred to as “the most beautiful house in the world.” He and Elizabeth then made an extended trip to Paris where his writing difficulties persisted and often left him severely depressed. Eventually, he experienced what wife no. 3 called “a curious nostalgia for Virginia and the earthy, folksy people we knew there”; so they returned. At the Smyth County Fair, in August 1927, Elizabeth and Sherwood watched trotting races; and Sherwood chatted with a man in the stands. During the course of the conversation, Sherwood learned that the two local newspapers, the Smyth County News and the Marion Democrat, had been placed on the market. The vision of becoming a country editor immediately took possession of him. He left the stands and “strode directly into the office of Arthur L. Cox, who owned both papers.” Cox explained the mechanics of local publishing, and Anderson “On the spot … told Cox that he would buy the papers and then he set about raising the money to pay for them.”20

Arranging the financing for this venture deterred Anderson not a whit. Off he went to New York City where he negotiated a deal with Burton Emmett, the head of a large advertising agency and a wealthy man. According to Elizabeth Prall, Emmett “had an absolute mania for collecting any scrap of paper that Sherwood had scribbled on. Sometime earlier he had asked to be permitted to buy Sherwood's manuscripts, but Sherwood had never been able to figure out why on earth anyone would want them, so he had done nothing about the request.” “Now,” however, “he needed the money.”21 Anderson negotiated a loan of $5,000 without interest, the full amount of the purchase. In return, he promised Emmett the original drafts of his published and unpublished manuscripts. Sherwood also agreed to attempt to persuade other authors to sell their materials to the advertising executive. Full payment of the loan came due five years hence, but Emmett had already voided the debt in March 1932.22

This loan hardly represented the first money that Anderson had accepted from the New York collector. On July 4, 1926, for example, Anderson had written Emmett, thanking him for his “so-flattering letter and the check—also under the circumstances flattering.” Apparently, the check represented an advance on some of Sherwood's manuscript materials, for the author said he would need “a little time to find something” that might be worth sending. “The money you have sent, my dear Emmett,” he promised, “shall go into stone and logs for my house. When it is built you will run up here some summer day and see it.”23 Anderson sometimes supplemented his income by taking to the lecture circuit, but, by the late 1920s, he had established a pattern of increasingly relying on the generosity of others. Indeed, following Burton Emmett's death, Mary, his widow, continued to bankroll Sherwood, providing him “a hundred dollars a month during the whole of his marriage period to Eleanor.”24 This interlude coincided with the years of the Great Depression when a monthly stipend in this amount was more than a trifling sum.

With the acquisition of the two small newspapers in Marion, Virginia, Anderson set about recreating himself as a country editor. Eventually, when this role became too restrictive, he turned the newspapers over to his son Robert. The county seat of Smyth County provided the small-town milieu and the companionship of male cronies that the author of Winesburg, Ohio seemed to find so necessary and appealing. It also offered what in that vicinity passed for urban amenities, those in closest proximity to his rural retreat in Grayson County. Furthermore, his status as newspaper editor and writer and his winter sojourns in Marion paved the way for his friendships with the remarkable Scherer-Copenhaver females. He gained access to the inner circle of a large, loving, and prestigious family and enjoyed the psychological and intellectual sustenance of these strong southern women. By his fourth marriage to one of them, he, at long last, found a feminine soul mate.

“Sherwood's new role as Country Editor was enormous fun for him,” his third wife Elizabeth remembered. “We moved into a small apartment over the printshop and Sherwood made himself a part of the everyday life of the town. He went to all the court trials, rode around with the sheriff, went to sheep shearings and auctions and came to know all about the people.” He invented Buck Fever, a boy from the hills, who made it big in the city working for the News and Democrat. Speaking through another of his imaginary characters, Mrs. Homing Pigeon, a genteel lady concerned with culture, public affairs, and reform, Anderson promoted the razing of a particularly ugly building, cleaning up the jail, assisting the local band, and constructing a new school for black students.25

Sherwood reveled in the new world that had manifested itself to him since his arrival in Troutdale some three years earlier as a burned-out writer. He had taken to southwestern Virginia as the proverbial duck takes to water; not so, Elizabeth. Nonetheless, she claimed to have tolerated her husband's eccentricities, assisted him in the newspaper business, and attempted to adjust herself to Marion, Virginia. Still, the marriage may have been doomed from its inception. Since making the move to the Upper South, the writer had treated his third wife rather shabbily. As Sherwood grew more enamored with the southern highlands, his affections for Elizabeth diminished.

The year 1928 proved to be pivotal, for sometime during the course of those twelve months, Sherwood and Elizabeth, in her words, “became acquainted with the Copenhaver clan.”26 According to Eleanor Copenhaver, Mrs. Sherwood Anderson no. 4, the family had first met her future husband when “he walked by the house, was impressed by it, and came to call. I think he fell in love first with the house, then with my mother, and then with me.”27 The house to which she referred was, of course, Rosemont, one of the most stately homes in Marion and a hub of the town's social life; and the mother, Laura Louise Scherer Copenhaver. According to Elizabeth, she was a “dynamic and forceful woman” who presided over “the First Family of Marion,” bringing to that task “the same energetic drive that she supplied to business.”28

Sherwood developed a great fondness for Laura Lou, as she was known to family and close friends, and spent a considerable amount of time with her, which raised some eyebrows in the sedate old town.29 Although she was a handsome woman, Sherwood's attraction to her probably operated on an intellectual plane rather than a physical one. At Sunday dinners and on other occasions throughout the remainder of their lives, Laura Lou and Sherwood debated and discussed a range of topics that included the Civil War and southern culture; he routinely chided her about her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.30 Laura Lou also served as his on-site critic and editor in Marion for some twelve years. “She was severe with him, and he would listen to her”; but, according to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, Laura Lou “never tried to reform him. Sherwood and Mother were real friends. He would jokingly tell her that she was not a puritan or a good Lutheran, and she would tell him that he was not a good pagan.”31 In what is believed to be a eulogy to Laura Lou written by Sherwood, she is described as “the center about which we all moved. … All her life she lived in one small town but something of her spirit went far out, so that people in many far places felt it.”32

Elizabeth, less enthusiastic than Sherwood about their newfound acquaintances, “resented the Copenhavers' cavalier disregard for the North and the way they half laughingly” but nevertheless annoyingly referred to her as a “damyankee [Elizabeth's spelling].” She also suspected Laura Lou of “instructing [Sherwood] in the ways of the South” and of finding him an all-too-eager student. Sherwood “had always been romantic about the South,” Elizabeth explained, “and had created the legend that his father was a Southern man, though he had traveled in the South only while serving in the Ohio forces during the Civil War.” For Sherwood, the Copenhavers and Rosemont may have personified the South of his fantasies.33

Late in 1928, probably during the Christmas-New Year holidays, Sherwood met Laura Lou's eldest daughter, Eleanor, an industrial secretary with the National Board of the Young Women's Christian Association in New York City. With the coming of the new year, Sherwood sent Elizabeth to California to visit her family. Shortly after her arrival on the West Coast, she received a terse letter from her erstwhile spouse. For a man who was often verbose in conversation and whose correspondence sometimes rambled, his message was surprisingly succinct; the contents, “‘I just wish you would not come back.’” It seemed as if he were “writing to an unwanted houseguest who had overstayed the welcome,” discarded wife no. 3 later remarked.34

The mid 1920s, then, represented the concluding passage of yet another personal chapter in Sherwood Anderson's life. Before the decade had spent itself, he commenced the next one. In what would be a fitting epilogue, the wanderer, having finally found his place, also acquired a new family and his fourth and final wife. According to Caroline Greear, Sherwood “was interested in only one woman in the world at that time, and he told us a good deal about her and her marvelous family.”35 As with so many other incidents in his life, Sherwood recast his first meeting with Eleanor Copenhaver to suit himself. In Perhaps Women published in 1931, he indiscriminately laced fiction and fact. “So there I was on my farm when that woman came …,” he wrote. “I remember that we walked under some trees while she spoke of it. She had herself been going to the factories. … I remember that the woman called me a coward. … ‘Come out of your shell. Go to the factories, it is a new age. … You who call yourself artists know nothing of the factories.’”36 Eleanor herself recalled that they had first met at Rosemont.37

Eleanor Copenhaver carried the bloodlines of two prominent Virginia valley families with matriarchal influences in the ascendancy, but the Copenhavers as well as the Scherers traced their ancestry to forebears who had been in America since the eighteenth century. Thomas Copenhaver arrived in 1728, and Jacob Daniel Scherer, 1752. One source claims that Copenhaver was of German origin, Koppenheffer; another, the Danish Kjobenhaver (ship's harbor).38 In any event, the Copenhavers had become a highly respected family in Smyth County, Virginia. The Scherers' patriarch in America, a German who hailed from the town of Oberbexbach adjacent to the Saar, had landed in Philadelphia, remained there for a brief period, and then journeyed to Guilford County, North Carolina, where he put down roots. His son, Jacob Scherer, born in 1759, became the first of this family's line of Lutheran ministers. In turn, one of his sons, Gideon, also a minister, organized the Southwest Virginia Synod and founded Colorado College in Texas. Yet another, John Jacob, likewise entered the ministry and served as a teacher and missionary in North Carolina and Texas before settling in Marion, Virginia, and establishing the female college there. John Jacob, Sr., sired three daughters, Laura Louise, May, and Katharine, as well as two sons, Luther and John Jacob, Jr. The latter also became a clergyman. Out of such a background emerged a strong commitment to religious service and civic duty, which manifested itself strongly in the first generation that grew up in Marion and carried over into the next as well.39 “If you were a Scherer, you were expected to do things,” John Jacob, Jr.'s, daughter, Mary Grace, explained.40

John Jacob Scherer, Sr., had acquired Rosemont, the stately old home on Main Street, in 1878; and his five children grew up next door to the college he had founded five years earlier. Marion Female College represented one of an estimated 2,000 institutions of higher learning organized in the interregnum after the War Between the States and before the First World War. More specifically, it reflected “a response to the emerging trend of collegiate education for women.”41 The life of the school and the life of the Scherers intertwined to such a degree that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. John Jacob, Sr.'s, daughters were educated there, and John Jacob, Jr., claimed that he was the only male graduate of the Marion Female Institute. Not only had he routinely built the fires, but apparently he also attended classes as well before going on to Roanoke College and then to Gettysburg Seminary. He pastored the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church in Richmond from 1906 to 1956 and became involved with wide-ranging social issues including penal reform and labor relations.42

Three of the college founder's children left Marion and made lives for themselves elsewhere; Laura Lou and May stayed on. “Miss May,” as she was known throughout her adult life, provided instruction in mathematics and Bible and served as dean from 1916 to 1946. She made trips into the surrounding hills to recruit girls for the college, looked upon them as her personal responsibility, supervised their education, and, when they had completed their course of study, dispatched them into the countryside as teachers.43 Laura Lou joined the faculty as an English teacher and remained one for some thirty years.44 Her husband, B. E. Copenhaver, also taught at the college before becoming superintendent of schools in Smyth County, a position he held for thirty-six years. The couple made their home at Rosemont, and their first daughter and the eldest of five children, Eleanor Gladys, was born there on June 15, 1896.45

Eleanor's father was respected about town and in local political circles, but, compared to his wife, he seemed stodgy, narrow-minded, and intellectually dull. Elizabeth Prall Anderson observed that he “remained in the background of the family and seemed … to be generally annoyed with everything around him.”46 Nonetheless, he established moonlight schools for illiterate adults and served on the Virginia Board of Education as well as the governing board of Radford College and participated in several aspects of community life. B. E. was less than thrilled about his daughter's marriage to Sherwood because he considered him “too old” and “too many times” married. Cordial but never congenial like the author and Laura Lou, the two men managed to make their peace. According to Eleanor, “They admired each other at a distance and became in a sense real friends.”47

B. E.'s wife and Eleanor's mother, Laura Lou, epitomized the strength and versatility of educated southern women of her generation.48 In addition to teaching at the college and mothering five children, she was one of the leaders on the local social scene and a stalwart in the Tea Club, described as the club in town. An acquaintance remembered that she conversed brilliantly, although somewhat in the vein of a monologue.49 She also possessed a sound business acumen, keen intellect, and charming personality. A dreamer of sorts, she reportedly had been known to sit under a tree reading poetry while the bread burned. She wrote religious pageants for the national Lutheran Church as well as other religious groups; her hymn, “Heralds of Christ,” appeared in the hymnals of various denominations. In addition to being a pillar of the local Lutheran Church, she also frequently spoke at regional and national religious conventions. She served on the Women's Literature Committee of the United Lutheran Church of America and shared an interest in foreign missions with her sister, Katharine Scherer Cronk, who held a seat on the Lutheran Board of Foreign Missions. Laura Lou also founded Rosemont Industries, which arranged the manufacture and marketing of mountain handicrafts to provide employment and income for scores of women in rural areas around Marion; after her death, the family changed the name to Laura Copenhaver Industries.50 This remarkable woman, according to her daughter Eleanor, “wrote a great many things, some of which were published in magazines like Harper's, Scribner's, and the Atlantic Monthly.51

Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson's heritage, therefore, included a firm sense of civic and religious duty, a commitment to education, and identification with independent-minded female relatives. Already steeped in the tradition of single-sex education as a result of her family's connections with Marion Female College, Eleanor attended Westhampton College in Richmond, a Baptist institution for women, from which she was graduated in 1917. She taught high school in Marion for a year and then enrolled at Bryn Mawr, completing a two-year social economy program there in 1920. Her association with Marion, Westhampton, and Bryn Mawr colleges, and, indeed, the entire tradition of women's colleges with their impelling sense of mission had a profound impact on her life as well as those of scores of other alumnae.52 Eleanor spent the summer of 1919 as a camp director for College Settlement in New York and, from that experience, her destiny as a community organizer unfolded. From 1920 until her official retirement in 1961, Eleanor pursued a career as a professional staff member with the National Board of the Young Women's Christian Association.53

The Copenhavers themselves and others in turn may have considered Eleanor Copenhaver a spinster carrying on in the service-oriented tradition of her forebears. While it is true that she had remained unwed and that she was employed by the National Board YWCA, Eleanor hardly conformed to the stereotype of a Bible-bound old maid. Nor was the YWCA the insipid organization that some might imagine. Attempting to improve human life on earth instead of expecting mankind to wait for long-deferred rewards in eternity, the “YW” from its inception had represented the Social Gospel in action. The Industrial Division, in which Eleanor operated, became a strong reformist entity devoted to educating and organizing working women. Eleanor, an unconventionally religious individual and not one influenced by sectarianism or dogma, embraced the YWCA's liberal goals.

Social work seemed an acceptable enough endeavor for a proper young southern woman of this era, but flirting with such radical activities as labor organizing was another matter entirely. In 1921, she had been accosted by members of the Ku Klux Klan in the South; in another incident, mugged in Chicago. No physical harm came to her, but the Marion newspapers reported the mugging and word spread around town. For a woman to have her name appear in print except at birth, marriage, and death stretched what some, B. E. Copenhaver among them apparently, deemed to be acceptable. “Everybody is asking naturally about it,” he wrote to his daughter. “They ask if it was in the day time. I am ashamed to tell them it was at 9 o'clock at night and that you were out by yourself.” He continued in the same vein: “If it is done again, I want you to realize that you are outside the bounds of propriety, and that besides endangering your life, you are trifling with the rights of your people at home—who have your name, and whom you should help to keep it inviolate.”54 At this point, the “southern belle” might have wilted from fear, succumbed to pressure from the patriarch, and returned home to make a suitable match with some vapid, but respectable man. Eleanor Copenhaver was no living stereotype.

Eleanor's work as the National Board YWCA's southern industrial secretary placed her in the eye of the storm when New South propaganda buttressed by its paeans to docile southern labor was blown to bits, at least temporarily, when workers with legitimate grievances challenged the prevailing order. Textile strikes began at Elizabethton, Tennessee, where women led the walkout. They also flared at Marion, North Carolina, where six strikers were killed; at Gastonia, North Carolina, where Ella Mae Wiggins, the Union's (National Textile Workers) most effective local organizer was shot to death; and at Danville, Virginia. Eleanor's 1928-1929 biennial report ran seventeen single-spaced, typewritten pages; of that, twelve dealt specifically with the South and represented some of the best contemporary, firsthand analysis to be found on the labor situation in Dixie during that era.55

By the late 1920s when she met Sherwood, Eleanor had fashioned a career for herself and made her mark as a social activist. She was thirty-two years old—independent, confident, and poised. All the same, the adjective that friends most often used to describe her was self-effacing. She avoided talk of herself and her work when she vacationed or visited in Virginia. Friends and relatives reported that “she knew who she was” and did not find it necessary to engage in self-promotion. Although Eleanor was short of stature and did not have a particularly good figure, some considered her pretty. She possessed a mane of black hair, usually cut short; her skin tone, medium to dark. Although one friend remembered that she had looked forward to seeing Eleanor step off the train in Marion wearing what was believed to be the latest fashion from the “Big Apple,” another acquaintance considered her more the “YWCA executive type” and not a really fashionable sort. Obviously, no longer just a small-town southern girl, she was a New Yorker and “very cosmopolitan,” a phrase that she reportedly often used to describe others whom she admired and knew in the social whirl of New York City.56 This was the woman that Sherwood Anderson met in her parents' home and the one who became the love of his life.

Sherwood and Eleanor became romantically involved after his marriage to Elizabeth disintegrated but a good three years before he was divorced. Initially, they kept their friendship under wraps, then selectively unveiled it to selected family members and friends. One of the couple's early public outings had been an excursion to Elizabethton, Tennessee, for a labor rally during the big strike there in 1929, but they also met clandestinely in various cities around the country. In a secret letter written in 1932, Sherwood mentioned that he would like to go down to a camp in North Carolina where Eleanor was working but that the radicals were the biggest gossips of all. Along the way, he began to deliver speeches and write articles about southern labor conditions.57 Although he was the author of Poor White (1920), by no stretch of the imagination should it be assumed that he developed this new interest independently. It came as a direct result of his romantic interest in Eleanor and was motivated more by hormones than by humanitarianism.

From Sherwood's published letters, it is quite clear that he was annoyed that Eleanor had such a busy, active life and refused to devote all of her energies to him. Her sexual reticence likewise grieved him. All the same, he persevered and prevailed; and in early March 1930, they became lovers in a pine thicket in Georgia.58 Sherwood was a great admirer of D. H. Lawrence probably because Lawrence had said nice things about his work. Perhaps influenced by Lady Chatterley's Lover published in 1928, in which the principal characters called their genitals “Lady Jane” and “John Thomas,” Sherwood and Eleanor named theirs “Clarisse” and “Abner.”

Sherwood finally persuaded Eleanor to marry him, and the local Lutheran minister performed the ceremony at Rosemont on July 6, 1933.59 She acquired a fifty-seven-year-old husband whose financial prospects seemed dim but whose literary reputation remained intact. He not only gained an interesting and economically viable wife who was some twenty years his junior but also full-fledged admission to the Scherer-Copenhaver ranks. He relished the social life they shared in the summer when he and Eleanor made Ripshin their base and their winter visits to Rosemont when she could get away from New York City. Whether playing croquet on the lawn at Ripshin, picnicking at the Hungry Mother's Park, sharing sit-down dinners at Rosemont, or commiserating about the various and sundry illnesses that plagued first one and then another of the clan, Sherwood entered into family life with gusto. He never seemed to alter the early assessment he made of his last wife. A few months after their marriage, in a letter to his friend Roger Sergel, he had declared: “Eleanor is a joy. She fits me better and helps me more than any woman I have ever known. I really don't know another woman like her for just sheer goodness and feeling.”60

Given Sherwood's track record with women and the couple's age difference, the marriage, considered a mismatch by acquaintances, contradicted reasonable expectations and succeeded. That Sherwood loved Eleanor there is no doubt, and she loved him. Still, she showed remarkable restraint and fortitude in dealing with him. On one hand, Sherwood wanted Eleanor with him all of the time; on the other, he feared the loss of her income. He never supported her. Indeed, Eleanor and Mary Emmett, the widow of the late Burton Emmett, kept him afloat throughout the 1930s. During the throes of the depression, the couple socialized with the American art and literary set and welcomed a steady stream of summer visitors to Ripshin, which, on occasion, left Eleanor physically drained and worried about finances. In the midst of all of this, they tried but failed to have a child; no conception occurred.61

The key to the survival of the near-eight-year marriage, which terminated only with Sherwood's death, may have been the amount of time they spent apart. Still, they seemed ecstatic about being together at Ripshin, in New York City, or on trips and extended vacations. Eleanor became executive director of the Industrial Division of the YWCA in 1938, which placed even greater demands on her time.62 Some three years thereafter, she arranged several months' leave to accompany Sherwood on a government-sponsored goodwill tour in South America. At a farewell party, Sherwood swallowed a toothpick; it lodged in his digestive tract and he died in the Canal Zone of peritonitis.

Although Sherwood Anderson's reputation as a writer rests largely on the books and short stories that he published prior to his arrival in Virginia, the sixteen-year interlude in the southern highlands proved to be his happiest times; and his marriage to Eleanor Copenhaver, those of greatest contentment. Eleanor's employment and the money that Sherwood received from Mary Emmett during the 1930s allowed him to be the dabbler and the dilettante that he was. He assumed, at his pleasure, the roles of writer, sage, correspondent, traveler, lecturer, observer, and farmer. When Henry C. Wallace, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of agriculture, visited Ripshin, Sherwood sought his advice. Wallace thought the place best suited for growing rocks. Although unsettled in his own mind about whether he wanted to be a roaming journalist or a fiction writer, Sherwood maintained the habit of “warming up” as he called it, by writing letters to friends and associates. He rarely worked in the afternoon or at nights, when he and Eleanor were at Ripshin. Customarily, he rose at 7:30 a.m., had breakfast, and spent four hours at his writing cabin. Sometimes, however, “he just couldn't write.” He'd say, “The pen wouldn't move.”63

As for Eleanor, friends and family alike have suggested that she had the capacity to assume several different personae, ranging from the helpless southern belle to the big-city sophisticate.64 This chameleon-like trait undoubtedly served her well in the emotionally charged environment of southern labor relations during the 1920s and 1930s. For approximately twenty-five years, longer than any other YWCA national staff member, she remained deeply involved with the work of the Industrial Department, almost from its inception in 1920 until its phase-out just after World War II. That unit represented the “YW's” most radical and most controversial unit.65 During her marriage, Eleanor struggled to maintain a separate identity as a professional. Although Sherwood pressured her to use his name, she proved reluctant, retaining her own at first and then gradually singing off as Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson. After his passing, she shed her inhibitions and enthusiastically donned the mantle of Mrs. Sherwood Anderson, literary widow.

Throughout the 1940s, following Sherwood's death, Eleanor continued her work with the YWCA. During WWII, she traveled about the country, investigating conditions of women workers in defense industries. In 1947, she received an appointment to work with a YWCA-sponsored labor project in Italy. Although she had accumulated approximately thirty years of service with the National Board, she was terminated in 1950, which, in her life, proved to be a watershed. In the lengthy citation that the organization presented her, the officials hailed her as “an interpreter of and a resource on matters pertaining to labor and the labor movement,” adding that “It is not often in one small and very modest person there is found so fine a mind and so zealous a spirit.” Eleanor's recorded comments, though brief, clearly showed her bitterness. “The ‘Y’ would never give me any time off,” she wrote, “and now they have fired me.”66

The specifics of the YWCA's actions remain less than clear, but the organization had entered into a period of retrenchment and cut its staff, others as well as Eleanor. Furthermore, red-baiters and witch hunters of the era targeted the “Y's” professionals who had been associated with labor education and organizing, and no one had stronger connections than she. Finally, during a stint of approximately two years in Italy, 1947-1949, working with a YWCA-sponsored labor project, Eleanor, in her handling of the organization's accounts, had made a serious error in judgment; she authorized an unsecured loan to an individual involved with a factory being nurtured by the “Y” and he absconded. All of these circumstances coalesced to make her termination an easier decision than it might otherwise have been for administrators anxious, in an organization under political fire from the extreme right, to demonstrate their conservatism.67

If Eleanor at this juncture found it to her liking to assume the role of literary widow or even to promote an image of Sherwood as “a kindly old dear,” she was only human.68 The decade had handed her some severe losses. It commenced with the deaths of her mother and her husband, both gone within an interval of four months, and culminated with what seemed to be the termination of her career with the National Board of the YWCA. Although Eleanor returned to the “Y” during the 1950s to work with the United Community Defense Services project and stayed on in one capacity or another until her retirement in 1961, her employment represented a job not a career, a means to an end not a calling.

As long as Eleanor's health permitted, she spent her winters in her New York City apartment and returned to Virginia for her summers at Rosemont and Ripshin. She maintained ties to liberal organizations throughout the remainder of her life while carefully preserving Sherwood Anderson's literary estate, managing it wisely to reap its financial potential, and fostering scholarship pertaining to his life and his work.69 She also acted as chief executive officer for Laura Copenhaver Industries and became the titular head and ruling matriarch of the Copenhaver clan. When she died in 1985, at the age of eighty-nine, her cremated remains came to rest beside her husband in the cemetery on Round Hill in Marion, Virginia. His monument, which bears the inscription “Life not death is the great adventure,” presides over them.


  1. Eleanor Anderson to Reds and Arthur Dove, 11 March 1941, in file labeled “Eleanor Copenhaver to Sherwood and Others, 1933-1950,” Sherwood Anderson Collection, Midwest Manuscripts, Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill. “At first I wanted to have him cremated and the ashes, put in the canal between the Americas,” Eleanor wrote, “but then I remembered he'd told me often he wanted ‘Life not death is the great adventure’ on his tomb and thought he'd like a simple stone in his Virginia hills—so I am bringing his body home.”

  2. Among the leading Sherwood Anderson scholars, Hilbert H. Campbell and Charles E. Modlin may have been closest to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson. They are English professors at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, editors of The Winesburg Eagle: The Official Publication of the Sherwood Anderson Society, and executors of the Sherwood Anderson literary estate. Eleanor gave her diaries from the 1930s, the years of her marriage, to Professor Campbell, and he graciously shared them with me. Following Eleanor's death, Modlin and Campbell opined that “in the entire annals of American literature, we can think of no other surviving spouse who administered the literary legacy of an author so wisely, so judiciously, or so graciously.” See “Obituary and Memorial Page: Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, 1896-1985,” The Winesburg Eagle: The Official Publication of the Sherwood Anderson Society, November 1985, 11. Ray Lewis White also enjoyed a warm friendship with Eleanor, and she entrusted to him the secret love letters that Sherwood had written her prior to their marriage but that she only discovered after his death. See Ray Lewis White, ed., Sherwood Anderson's Secret Love Letters: For Eleanor, a Letter a Day (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1991).

  3. Amy W. Nyholm, Reports to the Librarian, the Sherwood Anderson Collection, April 1948, 3, contained in the voluminous Sherwood Anderson Collection.

  4. Amy W. Nyholm to Stanley Pargellis (Special Report on the Hahn-Anderson Letters), 8 June 1962, Anderson Collection.

  5. Kim Townsend, Sherwood Anderson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 81.

  6. Ibid., 211.

  7. Ibid., 83-84. See also Diana Haskell, “The Sherwood Anderson Papers at the Newberry Library,” Sherwood Anderson: Centennial Studies, eds. Hilbert H. Campbell and Charles E. Modlin (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing Company, 1976), 80-82; William A. Sutton, Exit to Elsinore, Ball State Monograph Number Seven (Muncie, Ind.: Ball State University, 1967), 36-40, et passim; and idem, The Road to Winesburg: A Mosaic of the Imaginative Life of Sherwood Anderson (Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1972). The original notes dictated by Sherwood Anderson from his hospital bed are available in his papers contained in the Midwest manuscripts, Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill.

    In conjunction with Anderson's disappearance, he had written his wife the so-called “amnesia letter”; it contained several references to “Elsinore.” According to biographer Kim Townsend, “That is where this would-be literary man wanted to be, Hamlet the man he wanted to be.” The same literary reference appeared in the rambling notes that Sherwood dictated from his hospital bed. How much he knew of Shakespeare's Hamlet remains uncertain, but “Heading for Elsinore” meant that “he was on his way to becoming a literary figure.”

  8. Caroline Greear, “Sherwood Anderson as a Mountain Family Knew Him,” Anderson Collection; hereinafter cited as Greear recollections.

  9. Townsend, Sherwood Anderson, 216-17.

  10. Ibid., 218-31.

  11. Elizabeth Anderson and Gerald R. Kelly, Miss Elizabeth: A Memoir (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1969), 132. Interestingly enough, Elizabeth Prall Anderson, decades after her divorce, chose to publish as Elizabeth Anderson, omitting her own surname.

  12. Greear recollections.

  13. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 134.

  14. Ibid., 133.

  15. Greear recollections.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 134.

  18. Greear recollections.

  19. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 134-35.

  20. Ibid., 171, 177, 178-79. For Sherwood's impressions of these years and the building of his house, see Ray Lewis White, ed., Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs: A Critical Edition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 485-504.

  21. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 179.

  22. Sherwood Anderson to Burton Emmett, 30 October 1927, in Sherwood Anderson: Centennial Studies, 18-19, 57.

  23. Ibid., 4 July 1926, in Sherwood Anderson: Centennial Studies, 10.

  24. Amy W. Nyholm Report, 19 May 1955.

  25. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 180-85; quotation from 181-82.

  26. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 185.

  27. “An Interview with Mrs. Sherwood Anderson [Conducted by Charles E. Modlin and Hilbert H. Campbell, 23 August 1975, at Rosemont, Mrs. Anderson's home in Marion, Virginia],” in Sherwood Anderson: Centennial Studies, 70.

  28. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 185-86.

  29. Interview with Miss Carolyn Sheffey, a neighbor of the Copenhavers, 8 February 1992, Marion, Va.

  30. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 186.

  31. “An Interview with Mrs. Sherwood Anderson,” 71.

  32. “Laura Scherer Copenhaver,” signed “—A Friend,” printed material in the possession of Mary Grace Scherer Taylor, Mrs. Copenhaver's niece, Richmond, Va. Sherwood often used the salutation “Dear Friend” in correspondence with Laura Scherer Copenhaver. Mrs. Taylor graciously shared this item and other materials in her collection; copies are in the possession of the author.

  33. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 186, 191. See White, Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs, 259, 342. On p. 259, Anderson wrote, “We Andersons had been a ruined family and if my father had stayed in the southern country, from which he said he came, we would have sunk into the hopeless class of the poor whites.” On p. 342, he adds more detail: “My own father would have come up that way [lured to Chicago that is], from the North Carolina country. By his own story, or rather one of his stories, he would have been of Scotch-Irish blood but in another book of my own, A Story Teller's Story, I have told of how he, when he was in the company of Germans, became a German, when with Italians an Italian, when with the Irish an Irishman.”

  34. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 185-91; quotations, 187-89.

  35. Greear recollections.

  36. Sherwood Anderson, Perhaps Women (New York: Horace Liveright, Inc., 1931; reprint, Mamaroneck, N.Y.: Paul P. Appel, Publisher, 1970), 111-17.

  37. “Interview with Mrs. Sherwood Anderson,” 70.

  38. Mildred Copenhaver and Robert Madison Copenhaver, Jr., comps., The Copenhaver Family of Smyth County, Virginia (Radford, Va.: Commonwealth Press, 1981) holds to the German origin of the Copenhavers; a loose clipping from Presbyterian Survey, containing an obituary of Laura Scherer Copenhaver, associates them with Denmark. The latter is in the possession of Mary Grace Scherer Taylor.

  39. Transcript of Dr. W. T. Whitsett, “A Remarkable American Family,” from the Greensboro (N.C.) News, 9 October 1932, in the possession of Mrs. Randolph (Lois C. “Cookie”) Copenhaver, Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson's sister-in-law, Marion, Va., who graciously shared this and other materials with the author.

  40. Interview, Mary Grace Scherer Taylor, John Jacob Scherer, Jr.'s, daughter and Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson's first cousin, 3 May 1993, Richmond, Va.

  41. Thomas W. West, Marion College, 1873-1967 (Strasburg Va.: Shenandoah Publishing House, 1970), 1, 7-33.

  42. Taylor interview; and Mary Grace Scherer Taylor, Saints Alive!: A History of the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church, Richmond, Virginia: The First Hundred Years, 1876-1976 (Richmond: Dietz Press for the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1976), 23-65.

  43. Taylor interview; and “Miss May Scherer Passes Sunday,” Smyth County News, 12 October 1967.

  44. “Just Looking Around …,” The Lutheran Companion, 11 February 1959, clipping from the holdings of Mary Grace Scherer Taylor.

  45. “An Interview with Mrs. Sherwood Anderson,” 67.

  46. Anderson, Miss Elizabeth, 186.

  47. “An Interview with Mrs. Sherwood Anderson,” 69, 70.

  48. For some useful insights into the education of southern women and the nature of educated southern women, see Christie Anne Farnham, The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South (New York and London: New York University Press, 1994), passim; see also Dorothy D. DeMoss, “A ‘Fearless Stand’: The Southern Association of College Women, 1903-1921,” Southern Studies 26 (Winter 1987): 249-60; and Amy Thompson McCandless, “The Distinctiveness of Higher Education for Women in the Southern United States,” in The United States South: Regionalism and Identity, eds. Valeria Gennaro Lerda and Tjebbe Westerdorp (Rome: Biblioteca Di Cultura, 1991), 201-15.

  49. Sheffey interview.

  50. From clippings in the possession of Grace Scherer Taylor; and Laura Scherer Copenhaver's obituary, Smyth County News, 24 December 1940.

  51. “An Interview with Mrs. Sherwood Anderson,” 69.

  52. Ibid., 67. See Allen F. Davis, Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1941, Urban Life in America Series, ed. Richard C. Wade (New York, London, and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1968; Oxford University Press paperback, 1970), 33. See also Claire Millhiser Rosenbaum, A Gem of A College: The History of Westhampton College, 1914-1989 (Richmond, Va.: William Byrd Press for Westhampton College of the University of Virginia, 1989); and Virginia Wolf Briscoe, “Bryn Mawr College Traditions: Women's Rituals as Expressive Behavior” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1981).

  53. For a discussion of Eleanor's career, see Margaret Ripley Wolfe, “Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson of the National Board of the YWCA: Appalachian Feminist and Author's Wife,” The Winesburg Eagle: The Official Publication of the Sherwood Anderson Society 18 (Summer 1993): 2-9.

  54. Charles E. Modlin, ed., Sherwood Anderson's Love Letters to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1989), xiv.

  55. These opinions are based on the author's detailed study of National Board YWCA Records located in the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass., and also at the National Board YWCA headquarters, New York City, as well as the Southern Summer School Records, American Labor Education Service Papers, Labor-management Documentation Center, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. See also Mary Evans Frederickson, “A Place to Speak Our Minds: The Southern Summer School for Women Workers” (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1981).

  56. Steffey interview; interview, Charles E. Modlin and Hilbert H. Campbell, professors of English and Sherwood Anderson authorities, 21 May 1992, Blacksburg, Va.; interviews with Mrs. Randolph (Lois C. “Cookie”) Copenhaver, Eleanor's sister-in-law, and Mrs. David (Virginia) Greear, the wife of David Greear, one of Caroline Greear's sons, 7 February 1992, Marion, Va.

  57. White, Sherwood Anderson's Secret Love Letters, passim, are very helpful for this period. The reference to the radicals as gossips appears on 164.

  58. Modlin, Sherwood Anderson's Love Letters to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, xvii.

  59. Copy of original marriage certificate in the possession of the author from papers at Ripshin, Troutdale, Va., courtesy of Tom Copenhaver, Eleanor's nephew.

  60. Quoted in Amy W. Nyholm report, 15 January-20 February 1960.

  61. Data gleaned from careful study of copies of Eleanor's unpublished diaries in the possession of the author, originals with Hilbert C. Campbell, Blacksburg, Va., as well as Sherwood's published letters and diaries.

  62. New York Times, 4 December 1938; “An Interview with Mrs. Sherwood Anderson,” 68; Eleanor recollected that her appointment as executive dated from 1937, but the New York Times as well as minutes of the National Board of the YWCA establish the time of her promotion as 1938.

  63. “An Interview with Mrs. Sherwood Anderson,” 72, 76; Eleanor's diary entries, 1933.

  64. Copenhaver, Greear, Modlin, and Campbell interviews.

  65. Mary Van Kleeck, “Florence Simms,” The Woman Press, April 1923, 192-94; Richard Roberts, Florence Simms: A Biography (New York: The Woman's Press, 1926), 177-92; typescript of four pages (6-10), identified as historical background for Industrial Study with “Stewart 1937” penciled on it, from Library and Archives, National Board of the Young Women's Christian Association, New York City; and Annabel M. Stewart, The Industrial Work of the Y.W.C.A. (New York: The Womans Press, 1937), 10. “The Woman's Press” appeared with the and without an apostrophe; the author has punctuated it as it appeared at respective times.

  66. Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson to Stanley Pargellis, 14 February 1950, Correspondence File, Anderson Collection; minutes, National Board YWCA, 7 June 1950, Library and Archives, National Board of the Young Women's Christian Association, New York City.

  67. Assessment drawn from random materials and correspondence, National Board YWCA, New York City. Eleanor and Sherwood had been mentioned numerous times in various investigations. See Congress, House, Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States, 75th Cong., 3rd sess., August 1938, 379, 530-31, 538-39, 557, 565, 568, 569; Congress, House, Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States, 78th Cong., 1st sess., March-April 1943, 3105, 3147-48, 3163, 3179, 3190; Congress, House, Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States, 78th Cong., 2nd sess., September-October 1944, 10298, 10301, 10304, 10341, 10345, 10346, 10347, 10348; and House, Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of Communist Activities in the Los Angeles Area—Part 8, 83rd Cong., 1st sess., November 1953, 3639, 3670, and 3688. Existing evidence does not lend itself to the conclusion that either Sherwood or Eleanor was a communist.

  68. Nyholm to Pargellis, 24 April 1950.

  69. Jim Presgraves, a dealer in books and documents, Rural Retreat, Va., acquired some of Eleanor's personal papers (mostly returned checks and financial statements) when they were offered at auction following her death; he permitted the author to study portions of them.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Research Development Committee at East Tennessee State University, a grant from the Southern Regional Education Board, and an Appalachian Studies Fellowship funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and administered by Berea College, which financed portions of the research contained herein.

Christopher MacGowan (essay date autumn 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3385

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 important in the story, what has been missed is the degree to which these concerns are integrated into a tale that is a story about story-telling and story tellers, and the attenuated promise of both in an America oppressed by its patriarchal, religious, and industrial heritage.

In the tale, Anderson's narrator, Herman Dudley, claiming to be now a happily married adult, describes what he admits is still a very disturbing adolescent experience he had while working as a race-horse swipe. While working at the racetracks, Herman has for some weeks a close friendship with another young swipe, Tom Means, a would-be writer. With the help of Tom's “talking,” Herman comes to appreciate the joys of the nomadic, unconventional race-track life. However, once Tom moves away to another circuit, Herman becomes lonely, depressed, and subject to confusing reveries—although a black swipe, Bert, befriends him and helps him with his stable duties. One Saturday night, depressed at his social and sexual isolation, Herman leaves the stables to visit a seedy saloon, and after a couple of drinks is horrified to see his face reflected as a woman's in the cracked mirror behind the bar. After witnessing a fight between two customers, he returns to the stables to be startled, when asleep, by two tipsy negroes who apparently mistake him for a girl. Fleeing in terror onto the track, and then into a nearby field, Herman stumbles into the skeleton of a horse near an abandoned slaughter house. The fall into the bones defuses his hysteria. He spends the night in a haystack with some sheep, and runs away from the track the next morning.

Such readings as those of Irving Howe, Howard S. Babb and Welford Taylor, emphasizing the pressures of social conformity and the loss of youthful naivete, present Herman Dudley's plight as an inevitable consequence of growing up, although some other readings of the story have touched on its more ambivalent attitude to the forces shaping the adult Herman1.

Anderson himself saw “The Man Who Became a Woman” as differing in its degree of complexity from the adolescent trauma behind such earlier stories as “I'm a Fool,” conceding to Van Wyck Brooks that ‘I'm a Fool’ “is a story of immaturity and poses no problem,” and suggesting he look instead at three other stories, including “The Man Who Became a Woman” (Letters, 102). Something of what Anderson had in mind here, and in his declaration of Alfred Stieglitz that the Horses and Men volume contained “some new ventures in it” (Letters, 99) becomes clearer if we read the story as concerning the potential for writers and writing. We are invited to do this in the volume's dedication and introductory paeon to Theodore Dreiser. The world of writing inhabits this tale through the presence of Dreiser, and also through the appearance as a character of Alfred Kreymborg. These two figures offer a yard-stick against which to measure the performances of Tom Means and the tale-telling narrator, and to gauge what Herman Dudley loses when he falls into the horse skeleton—the experience which “burned all that silly nonsense about being a girl right out of me” (225). In having “all that silly nonsense about being a girl [burned] right out of me” Herman is also having his potential of being an artist burned out of him. Or, more exactly, almost burned out of him. For while Herman does not realize the full price of his social integration, he does feel “forced, by some feeling inside myself, to tell” his story (189). Herman Dudley may feel, along with a number of commentators upon the story—most recently Charles Modlin in Certain Things Last—that he is “putting the experience to rest” (Modlin xi), but Herman's story becomes an illustration of his failure to confront the key contradictions of his inner imaginative life.

Herman's narrative exhibits a recurring tension, surfacing every few pages, between confidence in his sense of his mature adult identity, and a continuing disquiet concerning the full significance of the events he relates. Herman cannot reduced his story to a chronological framework, although he tries. But the attempt produces only the tale of the attempt. The first half of the story rambles between various non-sequential events, before Herman tries to shape the past from the refuge of his present.

Herman's refuge in the present is characterized by a—literal—domestication of the feminine qualities that the story itself links to creativity and possible imaginative growth:

You see, I can think this whole thing out fairly now, sitting here in my own house and writing, and with my wife Jessie in the kitchen making a pie or something. … but I tell you what, I didn't think things out … that night.


While Herman thinks things out now, Jessie creates in the kitchen. Herman's claim of mutual support is actually a scene of separation, and Jessie's confined “making” is a necessary condition of Herman's feeling able to make his tale. Herman earlier provides another analogy to his tale telling—“like cleaning up the room you live in” from his days of being “a bachelor, like I was for so long” (190)—another separation of the feminine from the creative. But a third, his calling his tale “my knitting” (193), unconsciously reveals the violation of conventional sexual and domestic roles that, for Anderson, are necessary for imaginative “making.”

Horses are equated with feminine qualities throughout the story. Walking the gelding Pick-it boy in a circle in the gathering darkness, Herman confesses “I wished he was a girl sometimes or that I was a girl and he was a man” (200). Herman relates that on his last night at the track, he felt a desperate craving for a woman, but one “with something in her like a race horse” (202). After his experience in the saloon, he comes back to the stables and starts touching the horse, “running my hands all over his body, just because I loved the feel of him and as sometimes, to tell the plain truth, I've felt about touching with my hands the body of a woman I've seen and who I thought was lovely too” (217). The climax—and supposed resolution—of Herman's narrative, the fall into the horse skeleton, involves the negation of flesh and femininity, a skeletal male embrace, with breasts reduced to ribs:

I had fallen right in between the ribs of the horse and they seemed to wrap themselves around me close. And my hands, clutching upwards, had got hold of the cheeks of that dead horse and the bones of his cheeks were cold as ice with the rain washing over them. White bones wrapped around me and white bones in my hands.


Herman's failure as a tale-teller is set against the past and present achievement of Tom Means, who, Herman relates, “wanted to be a writer later and what he said was that when he came to be one he wanted to write the way a well bred horse runs or trots or paces.” Herman adds, “Whether he ever did it or not I can't say. He has written a lot, but I'm not too good a judge of such things. Anyway I don't think he has” (189). In addition to his profligate writing, Tom Means also separates the feminine from his writing ideal. Noting Tom's still unrealized ambition to write a biography of the driver Pop Geers, Herman comments:

I suppose Tom wanted to feel, when he became a writer, like he thought old Pop must feel when his horse swung around the upper turn, and there lay the strecht before him, and if he was going to get his horse home in front he had to do it right then. What Tom said was that any man had something in him that understands about a thing like that but that no woman ever did except up in her brain. He often got off things like that about women but I notice he later married one of them just the same.


Tom's earlier promise lay in his sensitivity to the imaginative, unconventional, vital qualities of race-track life, and his ability to articulate and share his passion in the “talk” that fires Herman's imagination. But the limitations of Tom's passionate talking are revealed by the contrast with Pop Geer's silence—“They called him, around the tracks, ‘The silent man from Tennessee’” (192). A further danger sign in Tom's “talk” is a self-consciousness about writing, what Herman calls “some notions about writing I've never got myself around to thinking much about” (189). In this story, Herman becomes not only a woman but also a horse, the climax of the tale finding him pursued as a woman, and actually running on the race track. For all of his limitations, Herman, not Tom Means, is the one who might articulate something of Pop Geers' ideals.

Tom and Herman's failures are measured against the presence in the story of two writers Anderson admired, poet and editor Alfred Kreymborg, and Theodore Drieser—the latter living three doors away in New York, on St. Luke's Place, when Anderson worked on this story.

Kreymborg appears as Tom Means' employer, “a tall black-mustached man” who owns the “pacing gelding named Lumpy Joe.” Although the character Kreymborg is initially presented as “trying the best he could to make the bluff” that the horse is “a real one” (186-87), after Kreymborg leaves, his bluffing turns out to be something of a double-bluff:

There was a story going about the stalls that Lumpy Joe … wasn't really named Lumpy Joe at all, that he was a ringer who had made a fast record out in Iowa and up through the northwest country the year before, and that Kreymborg had picked him up and kept him under wraps all winter and had brought him over into the Pennsylvania country under this new name and made a clean-up in the books.


Earlier in the story the morality behind such actions as Kreymborg's is linked to the free exercise of imagination unencombered by conventional, especially material and sexual, constraints. The figures around the tracks, Herman declares, were “about the best liars I've ever seen, and not saving money or thinking about morals, like most druggists, drygoods merchants and the others who used to be my father's friends in our Nebraska town” (186)2.

While Kreymborg is presented as a paternalistic, inventive rogue in the story, Dreiser's presence is more explicitly linked to the promise of writing. Following the dedication of Horses and Men to Dreiser (who had helped Anderson publish his first three novels) Anderson adds: “In whose presence I have sometimes had the same refreshed feeling as when in the presence of a thoroughbred horse.” And in light of this connection of Dreiser to the racehorse qualities in this and the volume's other stories, it may be no coincidence that in the short impressionistic piece titled “Dreiser” that precedes the stories the writer is described as “lumpy” (xi)—a designation that “Lumpy Joe” may pick up.

As well as these general thematic associations introduced by the volume's prefatory matter, some specific details in the story suggest Dreiser's presence as a kind of unifying force linking the potential of Herman Dudley and Tom Means. Tom Means, Herman notes, “was five years older than me.” Dreiser, born in 1871, was five years older than Anderson. The name Herman is both the name of Kreymborg's father, as Anderson would know, if only from the poem “Misterman Kreymborg” in Kreymborg's 1916 volume Mushrooms; and also Dreiser's first name as he was christened (thus Herman's Dudley's initials are actually the same as the young Dreiser's).

On his final evening at the track Herman is the self-designated protector of the horses, but abandons the stables to enter one of the miners' bars. Typically the outcast “fly girls” of the towns, having come to the stables, and touched the horses, arrange dates for “up town after supper” (195). By contrast, the conventional women of the town stay indoors on a Saturday night to look after the children. The men—deprived by a division they themselves sanction—find release from the drudgery of mining in the bars.

By entering the bar Herman tries to join this exclusive world of male values, but in terror he sees in the “old cracked looking-glass back of the bar” his face reflected as that of “a lonesome and scared girl” (207). A similar dislocation characterizes the miner, “one of the cracked kind” (210), who enters with a child. When turning to beat up a man who has been taunting him, the miner recognizes the female side of Herman, thrusting the child into his care.

The miner's recognition of the dehumanizing aspects of industry (he mutters to himself “Rats, rats, digging in the ground—miners are rats”), the “feeling” Herman gets from the man “like the feeling you get maybe from a horse,” (211, 209), and the minner's acceptance of a maternal role, separate him from Herman's condemnation of the hellish male-created and ironically “man-eating” industrial landscape that he views just before entering the bar (206).

The miner is not only connected with the feminine, but also with the equally outcast negro, the miner's “lips were thick, like negroes' lips” (210). Like the miner, the two black men who stumble into the stable later that night also recognize the female side of Herman, and their aggression, like that of the miner, scares him. The adult Herman notes that the social segregation of negroes separates them from white women. And with the negro swipe, Burt, Herman can never be as close as he was to the white Tom Means, because “there's been too much talk about the difference between whites and blacks” (194-95). Burt's potential to reinforce and continue the imaginative growth begun by Tom's “talk” is denied by “talk” now as division.

Although the adult Herman retains a sensitivity to what he sees as the potential of the negro and the injustices of racial segregation, the sensitivity remains largely abstract. His running away from the racetrack is effectively his severing of his connections with his closest black friend. The whiteness of the horse skeleton's embrace takes in the world of white, as well as male, hierarchy.

The social mores that divide the potential forces in men, women, horses, and negroes, and stifle the full expression of imagination through writing, are manifest most clearly in “The Man Who Became a Woman”—as in much of Anderson's work—through the oppression of industrialism and religion. Both aspects of the heritage are represented by Herman's fall into the horse skeleton.

The legacy of the now disused slaughterhouse near the track is a stench that promises a fatal accident, for the “horses hated the place” (203) and rear and try to run from it. It had existed to make a last “dollar or two” from “an old wornout horse” (224). Herman's fall into the horse bones reads like a pastiche of the language of conversion experience, a conversion to the constrictions of what Anderson—in common with many writers of his time—saw as the Puritan heritage of repression and materialism:

And when I fell and pitched forward I fell right into the midst of something, still and cold and white.

… I fell and pitched forward and my side got cut pretty deep and my hands clutched at something. I had fallen right between the ribs of the horse and they seemed to wrap themselves around me close. …

There was a new terror now that seemed to go down to the very bottom of me, to the bottom of the inside of me, I mean. It shook me like I have seen a rat in a barn shaken by a dog. It was a terror like a big wave that hits you when you are walking on a seashore, maybe. … So the wave comes high as a mountain, and there it is, right in front of you and nothing in all this world can stop it. And now it had knocked you down and rolled and tumbled you over and over and washed you clean, clean, but dead maybe.

And that's the way I felt—I seemed to myself dead with blind terror. It was a feeling like the finger of God running down your back and burning you clean, I mean.

I burned all that silly nonsense about being a girl right out of me.


Herman feels an identification with Christ (a wound in his side), and a sense of terror and the annihilation of self that in conversion experience prefigures the acceptance of God's will. Subsequently, Herman literally becomes a kind of passive shepherd, spending the night in a “straw stack” with for disciples “about a dozen” sheep (226). Next morning Herman goes through his own version of the Fall. His acute sense of the sinfulness of flesh producing acute shame at his nakedness. As he runs from this now-fallen world, his last view of Burt is as a devil figure, swinging and lunging a pitchfork at the other men.

Herman is finally a victim of his heritage, just as his father was. When the father, “a retail druggist,” dies, his legacy to Herman is not only the four hundred dollars his mother gives him “to make my start in the world,” but also the social and sexual dislocation that causes his mother to immediately reject him and all males, and to move West “to her sister in California” (185). Herman's flight is effectively the end of his struggle against this dislocation. His story tells the three-fold tale of the present making itself the prisoner of the past—in the defeat of his father, of the young Herman, and of the present Herman. For Anderson, the escape from such defeat lies in breaking the bounds of this rhetorical, temporal and cultural constriction—for Herman Dudley to learn from Herman Dreiser. But the sexual and imaginative aridity of the present that Herman desperately offers as a superior condition marks his fearful acceptance of the heritage of his father, and of the Fathers.


  1. Irving Howe, Sherwood Anderson (New York: William Sloane, 1951), 160-64; Howard S. Babb, “A Reading of Sherwood Anderson's ‘The Man Who Became a Woman,’ PMLA, 80 (1965): 432-35; Welford Taylor, Sherwood Anderson (New York: MLM, 1977), pp. 65-67. See also Frank Gado, Sherwood Anderson: The Teller's Tales (Schenectady: Union College Press, 1983), pp. 15-17; Glen A. Love, “Horses or Men: Primitive and Pastoral Elements in Sherwood Anderson,” in Hilbert H. Campbell and Charles E. Modlin, Sherwood Anderson: Centennial Studies (Troy: Whitston, 1976): 235-47; Lonna M. Malmsheimer, “Sexual Metaphor and Social Criticism in Anderson's ‘The Man Who Became a Woman,’” Studies in American Fiction, 7 (1979): 17-26.

  2. Perhaps in the spirit of this particular tribute to the imagination as creative “liar,” Kreymborg protests in the opening pages of his autobiographical Troubador that he knows nothing of his name-sake character in the story, and “nothing about horses and horse-dealers. …” “Naturally not. The work is a work of fiction” (21-22).

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Letters of Sherwood Anderson. Ed. Howard Mumford Jones and Walter B. Rideout. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953.

———. Horses and Men. New York: Huebsch, 1923.

Babb, Howard S. “A Reading of Sherwood Anderson's ‘The Man Who Became a Woman.’ PMLA 80 (1965): 432-35.

Gado, Frank. Sherwood Anderson: The Teller's Tales. Schenectady: Union College Press, 1983.

Howe, Irving. Sherwood Anderson. New York: William Sloane, 1951.

Kreymborg, Alfred. Troubadour. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925.

Love, Glen A. “Horses or Men: Primitive and Pastoral Elements in Sherwood Anderson.” Sherwood Anderson: Centennial Studies. Ed. Hilbert H. Campbell and Charles E. Modlin. Troy: Whitston, 1976. 235-47.

Malmsheimer, Lonna M. “Sexual Metaphor and Social Criticism in Anderson's ‘The Man Who Became a Woman.’” Studies in American Fiction 7 (1979): 17-26.

Modlin, Charles ed. Certain Things Last: The Selected Stories of Sherwood Anderson (New York: Four Walls, 1992).

Taylor, Welford. Sherwood Anderson. New York: MLM, 1977.

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

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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 impact of the machine age on men and women—and developed it within the context of the new South of his observations.

Changing conditions were precipitating a cultural crisis. In broadest terms, traditional ideologies glorifying the sanctity of white womanhood and the chivalry of the southern gentleman were collapsing in the wake of new economic forces. Anderson demonstrates this stress in the gender relationships between his characters, in both the bourgeosie and working class. His exploration of tawdriness and domination, reveals, if unwittingly, connections between ideology and sexuality, specifically how the failure of the former leads to the twisting of the latter. The tragedy of the novel is that for women this juncture does not become an opportunity for liberation, but rather, for self-defeating actions, and in some cases, a perverse allegiance to the old system. The new South is merely the substitution of one master for another.

Beyond Desire is primarily set in the fictional mill town of Langdon, Georgia. Red Oliver is the protagonist, a young man who is more a non-hero than an anti-hero. He is predominantly a malleable, wandering half-participant in the action. The episodic plot mirrors Red's wavering self. Red flees from a failed liaison with Ethel and accidentally falls in with North Carolina strikers. Doris thinks he is sexually attractive. He almost gets together with Molly, and is finally shot by Ned Sawyer, Louise's brother.

In a world of less empowered southern gentlemen, of dehumanization and emasculation among workers, of a new south left to imitate the North, Anderson situates his five major female characters, three bourgeoisie and two proletarian. Fittingly, in a fragmenting society, each operates in isolation. All, however, must define themselves against a common system; these reactions, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, are in some degrees both similar and disturbing.

The first character, Susan, Red's mother, is largely a caricature of the old South's pure womanhood. She married Red's father, a doctor, with the hope of living in the genteel ante-bellum style, fancying herself a gentlewoman. Red's family had come from a distinguished line of aristocrats. Their mansion had been built by Red's grandfather, a Confederate surgeon. It had been opulent: “great people of the old South built generously” (59). But, by the 1920's, the house was dilapidated and the rooms mostly empty.

Red's father, Doctor Oliver, had proved unambitious and uninterested in wearing the mantle of a great man. He even had a flippant bedside manner, and took death lightly. Like his fellow southerners, he suffered from a morbid ineffectuality, not bothering to resist the house's decay. As such, Susan, whose status was established through marriage, is constantly frustrated and bitter. The older ideal, which Susan seeks, is summed up by the narrator:

Women of the South, of the Old South, in the old Doctor Oliver's day, were ladies. The Southern white men, of the slave-owning class, made great talk of that. “I don't want my wife to soil her hands.” The women of the old South were to remain always the white spotless ones.


Critically, the passage reiterates that such a system, such an ideological conception of a “lady,” is only possible in the master/slave society, where the white patriarch has absolute control. Now, not only have changed socio-economic realities made such control impossible for men like Doctor Oliver, but he has also actively abdicated the role.

Susan's response to her life below expectations is anger towards her husband, and finally, sexual estrangement: “Go away. I do not want to sleep with you anymore” (22). She does find some solace from her dysfunctional marriage in religious revivalism; her animated participation is represented as a release valve for her suppressed libido. Finally, though, Susan reveals little self or social awareness. She is incapable of imagining an alliance with either working class or black women. Her religious escapism is just another ideological opiate.

Ethel Long is presented as far more self-aware than Susan. Ethel was educated at the University of Chicago, and only returned to Langdon to be the town librarian. In the North, she became critical of the provincial narrowness of the southern way of life. She describes herself as “not in the true Southern woman tradition, at least not in the old tradition,” and the narrator says, “Ethel was a modern. [None of] that old talk of a fine Southern civilization … making gentlemen, making ladies” (106, ellipsis by Anderson). She positions herself outside the tradition because of her superior intellect, but also because she can admit to possessing sexual desire: “there was that dream of a spotless white southern womanhood. She had herself thoroughly exploded that myth” (105). Ironically, however, she is a virgin at twenty-nine, having successfully fended off a rape attempt by a northern financier. Physically, she is still pure womanhood.

Ethel's narrative frequently revolves around her relationship with men, her father, Red, and Tom Riddle. This is the summer she has resolved to end her chastity—literally forsaking the myth she has ideologically repudiated. Ethel's father, Judge Long, is the closest approximation to what remains of the Southern Gentleman. He had a respected position in Langdon, almost not willing to help Ethel get a job because of the possible taint of favoritism: “I'm a Southern gentleman and a Southern gentleman doesn't do such things” (133). Ethel acknowledges his integrity and decency; he was “a good man, an honorable man. He didn't tell little lies. He didn't chase off secretly after brown women” (139). Ethel, however, rejects him for his weakness, or rather, his lack of total command. She thinks, “he was really a humble man, too humble” (116).

Half-consciously, Ethel has internalized the ideology of gender; as Anderson portrays her. Psychologically, she believes that males should dominate, and when they do not, they are less than men, less than desirable. Ethel muses on her father's ancestors when the family owned slaves, and projects on them a raw potency: “Why read when you can ride abroad over fields and command slaves? You are a prince” (111).

Ethel extends the dissatisfaction with her father onto other men, seeking in them an intensified masculinity, a search which often plunges into masochism. There is some similarity with Susan Oliver, both, as bourgeois women, receive status from the men they are allied with, the stronger the man, the higher the status. However, here, it is far more psychologically complex. Ethel (like the South in limbo between old and new) is caught between two ideological worlds—rejection and internalization. Ultimately, what may be happening is that the exposure of the older ideology reveals the oppressions it sought to mask. Ethel's reactions are a reflection of the suppressed violence at the core of oppression; as social symbolism they are symptomatic of the ideological crisis.

The persistent desire of Ethel for male subjugation becomes evident through fragmentary glimpses into both her conscious and unconscious mind. Most graphically, she fantasizes about a man, “Beat me. Beat me. Make me nice. Make me beautiful” (107) and “Pluck her. Bite her. Eat her. Hurt her” (110). On a slightly more articulate level, she thinks, “I guess I want a brute of a man, one who will pay no attention to my whims” (121) and “If a woman could find a man, even a brute man who would stand up” (138). She wants “American men able to do it, who dared to try doing it. Unscrupulous men, daring men, masculine men” (110). Ethel's atavism and masochism differs from Susan Oliver who, still without self-consciousness, responds in outward directed anger. Ethel suffers from a divided mind, directing her anger both inward (desire for pain) and outward (rejection of male compromise).

This divided mind is apparent when Ethel first thinks of herself as a woman who “dreams sometimes of a new freedom, separate from men's freedom.” And, she declares, “Men having failed in America, women trying something.” But, she undercuts this possibility of emancipation with, “Were they really?” (108), and, “But perhaps we want punishment” (107).

In the end, unable to choose a separate freedom, Ethel marries Tom Riddle, a lawyer. Like the pun in his name, Riddle is an anomaly. He is a Southerner who is not a Southerner. The marriage itself is dispassionate—necessarily lacking the illusions of chivalry and true womanhood—the couple sleeps in separate bedrooms. It is an imperfect accomodation, but, for Ethel, unable to free herself from notions of male power, it is the best available choice.

Ethel's decision to marry Riddle is made understandable in comparison to her relationship with her father's new wife, Blanche. Shortly before Ethel's return to Langdon, he remarried a younger woman. Blanche and Ethel have an ambivalent relationship; “the two women did not like each other. They did. They didn't” (137). On the one hand, they are rivals for the father/husband's attention. On the other, their commonalities are stressed—both are disappointed with the Judge.

At one point, Blance is frustrated by the Judge's age and ineffectuality. She thinks, “I am wanting something I guess you are too old to give me.” Further, the narrator, in an apparent reading of her deeper feelings, offers an internal monologue:

I want to bloom. Here I am a pale woman, not very well. I want to be spread out, thickened, and broadened, if you please, made into a real woman. I guess you can't do it to me, damn you. You aren't man enough.


Blanche is shown to share Ethel's sado-masochistic impulses. Ethel speculates about Blanche that “what his [Judge Long's] new woman needed was a good beating. ‘I'd give her one if she mine’” (139). This is internalization of ideology (when men aren't man enough), the result is a twisting of personality, a distortion of desire.

Blanche and Ethel's relationship reaches a pivotal climax. Blanche comes to Ethel in hopes of erotic or romantic communion, “the hand continued creeping up and down her body, over her breasts, her hips. … Blanche's lips touched Ethel's shoulder.” For an instant, Ethel almost accepts the advance: “there was a queer dawning notion of womanhood, something even noble, something patient, something understanding” (222-23). She is on the verge of an ideological epiphany, or at least, a movement away from a divisive desire for male control. They speak of men:

“They won't do. They won't do.
“I hate them.
“I hate them.
“They spoil everything. I hate them.”


But, at the moment of decision, Ethel says, “We let them. We even go towards them. There is something in them we want” (223). Suddenly, the women engage in a physical brawl in which Ethel throws Blanche to the floor. She decides to marry Tom Riddle, for “she had got back the thing by which she lived, her contempt” (224).

Ethel's inability to adequately define herself outside the received ideological system is seen, to a lesser degree, in the relatively minor character of Louise Sawyer, who studies economics at Columbia. In many respects, Louise is the most liberated woman. She does not mourn the old South's passing. She even imagines the undermining of middle-class authority, saying of the working class, “they'll begin more and more to realize that there is no hope for them—looking to people like us [the bourgeosie]” (338). She correctly analyzes the old aristocratic ideal in terms of black oppression, “Robert E. Lee. An attempt at kindness built into it. It's sheer patronage. It's a feeling built on slavery” (338). She thinks that capitalism is washing away the ideal. Yet, for all her rhetoric, at an important juncture when she looks at her brother Ned wearing his National Guard outfit, defending North Carolina against communism, she says, “I guess it's us women, falling for you men in your uniforms … you men going out to kill other men … there's something savage and ugly in us too. There must be something brutal in us too” (337). And this is what happens. Ned kills Red Oliver; the strike is suppressed.

Fundamentally, it is not just bourgeois women who cannot escape internalized sexism. A central proletarian character is Doris, a young woman still full of vitality. Her husband Ed, though, is listless and passive, “Ed Hoffman wasn't a very strong man. She would have liked a strong young man” (69); “Ed couldn't do and go. He was always feeling done up and had to lie down” (70). Later, he is upset about conditions and says, “I'd like to get up a union here and I ain't got the nerve” (78). Again, the novel emphasizes the emasculation of factory work; its reduction of traditional male power.

Doris never displays anger towards Ed, rather, she takes a condescending view, “Ed was almost like a girl in some things” (72)—revealing her excessive valorization of masculinity. At one point, after watching a movie about the wealthy, Doris has, like the bourgeois women, a mild masochistic urge, “a queer feeling inside … after seeing such a show sometimes, she wished some rich wicked man would come and ruin her just once.” She contemplates if Ed has a similar fantasy—“it would have been funny if Ed wished, just for awhile, that he was rich and could live in a house like that and ruin such a young girl” (83)—but she dismisses him as not up the task.

Like Ethel, Doris has what appears to be an erotic or romantic relationship with another mill woman, Grace. Every night, the two women rub each other's tired bodies. On the one hand, their friendship is positive and empowering. On the other, however, it never reaches a self-conscious level. Rather, it is shown not as an instance of female solidarity but as a a lesser substitute for Doris's tepid marriage; “she'd rub Grace all over … what she did to Grace she also did to Ed” (77).

In the Langdon mill, the values of the middle class are duplicated; a woman's identity is established by her relationship to men. Thus, the women feel a vague dissatisfaction about the inefficacy of their men. They are never able to see the problem in terms of economic class; if they did, they would be less concerned about the machismo of their mates, and more committed to their collective power. Here, the latter does not exist; the result is stasis and acquiescnce.

Red's role in the novel is especially important at closure, the pessimistic ending which includes the collapse of the strike and his pointless death. As mentioned earlier, he is often an aimless drifter in the narrative, but at the same time a symbol of hope for the South. However, he never lives up to his billing. Despite his good looks, his personal quest to prove his masculinity goes unsatisfied. On one date, he is too awkward and vacillating to make a pass, and thinks later, “Suppose a man could make a woman out of her. How is that done? How absurd really. Who am I to call myself a man?” (21).

It is through his haphazard involvement with the labor movement that he feels stirrings of manhood. Once, in the factory when mistaken for a Communist, Red is flattered; it implied “that he was something braver and finer than he was” (291). Later, Red's short tenure with the Communist-inspired North Carolina strike bolsters his ego, briefly becoming like them, “harder, more unscrupulous, more determined” (270)—truly being Red. His Marxist machismo begins to win Molly's heart. But the strike is broken by the militia, and Red is killed by Ned Sawyer, completing the narrative's macabre circle.

Finally, Anderson seems intent on upholding prevailing views on gender. At the same time, he is revealing more than he may intend. In internalizing this ideology, each woman is stymied, unable to imagine a collective consciousness, each trapped in either individualistic hostility (Susan Oliver towards her husband) or individualistic flagellation (Ethel's desire to be beaten). Without concurrent ideological deconstruction, remaking the world means changing one domination for another. A courageous Communist agitator is better than a ruthless Riddle, but neither brings freedom nor authenticity.

Clarence B. Lindsay (essay date 1995)

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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, unreasonably perhaps, by several dust jacket statements praising the stories' sense of place. Although I was convinced that these particular stories had little sense of anything, let alone place, I found it a difficult issue to engage. While it's easy enough to imagine elements that might be present in a successfully achieved sense of place, not one of those features necessarily has to be there. Even more problematic, at least in respect to contentious assertions, is that the presence of one or several of these constituent elements does not guarantee a feeling of place. So, feeling then that I could say little more than. “No they don't, for me these stories have no sense of place,” I abandoned the issue, spent my venom on other more arguable issues and forgot about it.

The second source of my interest in this particular subject springs directly from some difficulties that I had with these two early novels. After doing a fair amount of work with Winesburg, Ohio, I had turned my attention back to the first two novels which I had pretty much forgotten in my absorption in Winesburg, Ohio. I had convinced myself that the general critical dismissal of those two novels must be based on the same kind of naive and often passé critical assumptions of those who had, I felt, praised Winesburg, Ohio, for all the wrong reasons. But after several rereadings I didn't have anything especially new to say. Those first two novels weren't very good—didn't excite me the way that Winesburg, Ohio did. I once again folded my critical tent and stole away.

But last year while reading Kenny Williams' A Story Teller and a City, a study of Anderson's urban fiction, I found that several of her theses quickened my interest and focused my thinking. Williams is anxious to place Anderson in the general setting of urban fiction and Chicago fiction in particular. She feels that Anderson needs to be seen as a “significant urban voice analyzing both the phenomenon of the American city and the effects of urbanism upon a group of characters” (23). For reasons that will emerge, at least tangentially toward the end of my essay, I don't, finally, agree with Professor Williams, don't accept her thesis that Anderson was interested in the city, its “impact on the human” (31) to use her phrase, in the way Professor Williams assumes him to be. Quite apart, however, from any specific agreement or disagreement, her remarks made me aware that in those first two novels it is precisely when the plots take their heroes out of their villages and into the city that the writing goes dead—the plot becomes implausible and the characters so often begin to seem inert, lifeless.

It is one of the commonplaces of Anderson's criticism to remark on the apparently inexplicable transformation of Anderson from these two first mediocre novels to the miraculous achievement of Winesburg, Ohio. I want to examine the possibility that it was the fictive treatment of the city that both obscured and delayed Anderson's emerging aesthetic. I want to suggest that there was something not only in the city but the way he imagined the city (or failed to imagine it) that was terribly at odds with aesthetic principles that amounted to moral convictions.

It is not especially contentious to say that in Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson realized place most effectively. What is interesting, at least to me, is that he does not capture that sense of place the way that we would most likely expect him to. The characters' speech in Winesburg, Ohio, what little there is, while effective in a number of ways, is certainly not a precise rendering of local speech either in vocabulary or style. In fact, some of the most memorable, effective speech is that which is most unrealistic. I am thinking of such things as the curious but nearly identical phrases “Oh, you dear, you lovely dear” uttered by Elizabeth Willard's young passionate lover, by Dr. Reefy her thwarted lover of later middle age, and by her son George after her death. The slightly stilted, unrealistic phrasing becomes a metaphor of their common passion rather than being exactly realistic speech. Or statements like the stranger in “Tandy” who says “I am a lover and have not found anything to love” (144). Such peculiar unusual pronouncements take on a resonance, easily become representative speech rather than accurate speech. Nor does the sense of place depend on physical description of setting, the other element that we might expect. There is surprisingly little description of either landscape or physical settings such as houses. (One student of mine from Clyde, Ohio claimed to recognize her own home in the description of Banker White's house, described simply as a big brick house.) No, the feeling of place in Winesburg, Ohio depends on neither language or physical description but on other more subtle qualities. If we can locate what was difficult or problematic in Anderson's treatment of the city, perhaps we can in turn see what he did especially right in his successful realization of the Winesburg community and in the process perhaps discover one or several aspects of Anderson's aesthetic.

I spent several readings of those first two novels trying to put my finger on exactly what caused the peculiar discomfort I experienced once Sam McPherson and Beaut McGregor arrive in Chicago.1 At first, I thought it had something to do with the way these characters (and the narrator who conveys their thoughts) confront and move through urban space. Sam and Beaut will occasionally reflect on the cityscape or the notion of the city. These thoughts and/or images are usually hackneyed. For example, consider Sam's unwitting journey into a seedy section of town where “he was suddenly aware of the faces of women looking at him” (Windy 119). In a series of hallucinatory images Anderson presents a fairly tired, clichéd drama of sleazy seductive evil. “The voices called, smiles invited, hands beckoned.” (Windy 119) Men, apparently deeply mortified by their own physical desires, have “their coats turned up about their necks, their hats pulled down over their eyes” (Windy 119). When they finally submit to the siren's call they “sprang in (the doorway) as if pursued” (Windy 119).

In the entire scene there is a certain melodramatic exaggeration of the city's sexual evil, a cloying, miasmic sense of sin: “In the air was lust, heavy and hideous” (Windy 119), and Sam reacts with nearly a cartoonish country bumpkin's prudishness. “It [the lust] got into Sam's brain and he stood hesitating and uncertain, startled, neverless, afraid” (Windy 119). To be frank, this all seems a bit comic, nearly a parody of the pastoral innocent's confrontation with the big, bad city. And immediately following Sam's paralysis, he remembers something revealing. “He remembered a story he had once heard from John Telfer, a story of the disease and death that lurks in the little side streets of cities, and ran into Van Buren Street and from that into lighted State” (Windy 119). This memory of Sam's may help to reveal why this city scene and others are so unconvincing. The fiction serves only to reintroduce and reinforce the most clichéd of rural mythologies in respect to the city. Kenny Williams wants us to believe that Anderson and his protagonists approach the city with the shining myth of success, the Horatio Alger rags to riches story, only to find out the city's reality (89).2 The passage just cited, however, clearly indicates a more complex truth. The city's evil, the “reality,” is also part of an elaborate rural mythological structure. Anderson's characters, and I think Anderson himself, see the city, when they actually do stop to see it, through the fictive structures of their rural myths. In a way they are like Tom Sawyers who can't see the life in front of them, can only see the fictions of their education. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that there is no factual basis for such scenes but rather that the experience is palpably filtered through a literary prism and consequently seems unconvincing, or “unrealized.”

But perhaps a more serious problem than the way the urban space and content is navigated is the fact that for the most part it simply doesn't seem to be there at all; or rather it's there but doesn't seem to be seen, confronted. Sam McPherson and Beaut McGregor are constantly on the move. They swing back and forth through the city, walk constantly through the streets, sometimes covering enormous distances in a sentence or two, unencumbered and apparently untouched by the surroundings. It's true that there are similar instances in Winesburg, Ohio of such unawareness of physical surrounding; but somehow we expect the urban environment to impinge, to intrude more on characters' consciousness. We especially expect such an awareness when the city's disorder and chaos is supposedly of such concern to Beaut McGregor, when “the one vast gulf of disorder” (Marching 113) is what drives McGregor to his implausible notion of “forcing men to do the simple thing (march) full of meaning rather than the disorganized, ineffective things” (Marching 118). This great disorder of the spirit, this chaos which is Chicago, remains, however, an unrealized abstraction, stated but never plausibly imagined and consequently never viably connected to the agonizing ponderings it (the urban experience) is said to have stimulated. Beaut and Sam are too preoccupied to experience what they are moving through. And in Beaut's case ironically he is often so preoccupied with the issue of disorder, his plans for his peculiar marching, that he can't see the city which supposedly is the very condition which demands order. Often we are told how either Beaut or Sam will wander oblivious to the life without seeing the people. “McGregor walked slowly through the streets without seeing the people” (Marching 155). Such inattentiveness is, I think, a trope of the characters' general distraction, their intense inner life which precludes any sort of alertness to the outside. And their disengagement is in turn a trope of Anderson's own failure to engage imaginatively the city.

So far I have focused on two possible explanations for the unrealized city in these early novels: the literary or mythic structures through which the city is “seen;” and the peculiar inattentiveness to the urban experience of characters and narrator which I've chosen to regard as a trope of Anderson's failure to engage the city. Perhaps by looking at how Anderson successfully conveyed a sense of place in Winesburg, Ohio, I can focus on one more related failure in his treatment of the city. If there is one unchallenged critical commonplace regarding Winesburg, Ohio, it is that Anderson there examines the compelling and often pathetic isolation of its citizens. But this is a commonplace in need of at least some modification.

Any of the tales will serve to demonstrate the seemingly impenetrable boundaries between the narratives which make up the various selfhoods in this small Ohio town. In “The Strength of God” the Reverend Hartman constructs his own drama of sin and redemption using Kate Swift as the fallen temptress. He does so completely ignorant of her own complicated selfhood. Her “affair” with George Willard (found in the subsequent “The Teacher” but the events of which occur just prior to the preceding story's conclusion) is over almost before it begins, ending after their first and only real embrace as she pounds his face with her “two sharp little fists” (165). She had wanted to urge him as a writer to attend not to the surface (implicitly false) of people's words but instead to the deep (implicitly real and therefore privileged as we like to say today) significant interior of their inner lives which is her way of articulating her own claim for that singularly special inner life. George Willard misinterprets her plea (or “text”) as sexual desire. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he doesn't comprehend fully, doesn't understand how intertwined her sexual desire—she does submit for a moment—is with her own urgent sense of self. After she has fled he is confused, certain that she was trying to tell him something but unsure of what it was. It is into this confusion that the lunatic Hartman, or so he must appear to George Willard, bursts with his incomprehensible, to George at least, conclusion to his own tale of successful resistance to sin. These two stories represent, then, the peculiar misinterpretations, the aesthetic miscalculations, that constitute the drama of personal relationships in Winesburg, Ohio.

While the drama of these selfhoods is marked by the aesthetic confusions and misinterpretations just described, it is a mistake to say that these selfhoods are isolated from one another. For they are clearly intimately connected. Hartman may not know the “real” Kate Swift, if there is such a thing, but his interpretation of her is central to his own being, the fiction that makes up his selfhood. The town may only be aware of her oddities, her peculiar “biting and forbidding” (161) quality, but they are intensely alive to her: “Everyone felt it” (161). Their interpretation of her may not be correct or complete, but they do interpret her, have an idea about her, know her in an intense way. In fact all the self hoods in Winesburg, Ohio are thus intimately bound together. Elmer Cowley's tortured fear of being seen as queer is inseparable from his sense of George Willard's normality: “George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of the town” (194). In contrast to the truly isolated consciousnesses of Beaut and Sam, who seem to float through their respective urban spaces unaware and unengaged, the Winesburg grotesques can hardly take a step without some sort of meaningful collision, some friction that stimulates their own sense of self. In “The Thinker” Seth Richmond overhears Tom Willard in an apparently familiar political discussion filled with boasts and loud certainties: “Something in the voices of the men talking in the hotel office started a chain of thoughts in his mind. He was lonely and had begun to think that loneliness was a part of his character, something that would always be with him” (133). Having moved away from those contentious voices, he then looks out the window only to see Abner Hoff, the town baker, standing at the back of his shop pretending not to hear someone calling to him from the front. Seth Richmond interprets the baker's look (“an angry sullen look” (133)) according to community interpretations of the baker: “… the fits of sullen anger for which Baker Goff was noted” (133). This interpretation immediately becomes part of his own self's desires: “Now, as he stood in the half-darkness by the window watching the baker, he wished that he himself might become thoroughly stirred by something …” (133).

It is precisely this remarkable interpretive intimacy that constitutes the “feeling of place” in Winesburg, Ohio. It is not the characters' language nor especially apt physical description which results in this especially fine realization of small town American life at the turn of the century. Rather it is the characters' alertness to these human textures of space's boundaries, a sort of human geography. Each of Winesburg's citizens formulates his own psychological life through imaginative fictionalizing of his fellow citizens. The psychological lives, the self hoods, of the citizens of Winesburg, are inseparable from each other.

So far I have been talking mainly about the characters' awareness, the web of intimately connected fictions, that create a sense of place. But it is also the reader's sense of connections which help to fashion sets of unities that in turn stand for place. Repeated contexts and settings (such as Tom Willy's saloon), repeated activities (berry picking, discussion of Tony Tip's chance in a coming race) become the formal equivalent of our own familiarity. For readers such repetitions, especially in the related tale format, carry the force of a past felt more than actually remembered so that an early reference to the berry pickers in “Hands” constitutes a sort of memory which resonates with subsequent references. The narrator and the reader share also repeated images and scenes which form various communities of specialized feeling or suffering. For example, we link Louise Trunnion's attempt to satisfy her own vague psychological spiritual hungers through sex (“Nobody Knows”) with the young Elizabeth Willard's sexual adventures which expressed her own spiritual restlessness (“Mother”). Later when we see Louise Bentley have her note of yearning misunderstood as a sexual invitation (“Surrender”), we see another instance when the sexual act is, in effect, a man's aesthetic misinterpretation of a woman's more complex message of selfhood. “Louise Bentley took John Hardy to be her lover. That was not what she wanted but it was so the young man had interpreted her approach to him.”

Winesburg is made up of a number of such communities of experience as distinctly separate in their emotional costumes and language as ethnic communities. For the reader (and for the narrator) they form unities out of the apparent chaos of isolations, unities which cut across social, gender and age boundaries. When we speak of community in Winesburg, Ohio we refer, I believe, to this extraordinary system of interlocking and overlapping communities of experience.

No such communities can exist in the Chicago sections of those first two novels because Anderson cannot imagine the lives of the city's citizens, cannot adequately imagine how they came to be. In Caxton, Iowa, the narrator is constantly in danger of being diverted from his protagonist, Sam McPherson. There rich stories compete for his attention, draw him away from Sam McPherson, threaten in fact the novel form which depends on the intense preoccupation with the protagonist. In a sense it can be argued that in order to continue to write a novel, Anderson had to move his hero out of the village because inside that village the narrator knew him too well or to put it another way knew others so well that he wouldn't have been able to keep his mind simply on him.

When Sam McPherson reaches Chicago he stays in a rooming house, the Pergrin house, where three of the eight tenants are from Caxton. The rooming house serves as a sort of half way house for the transition to Chicago. There the “thoughts and talk of the town (Caxton) pervaded the house and crept into every conversation” (Windy 114). The boarding house acts as a sort of aesthetic delaying technique which allows Sam and the narrator to adjust to the new world. When he and the narrator begin to encounter citizens we are struck by two things: first, when we do meet characters who have some sort of a story, some bruise where the sweetness has gathered, almost always that grotesqueness, which of course is their humanity, belongs to a past, a life disconnected to the city. For example, Major Eberly, the father of Edith and Janet Eberly, is a recognizable Anderson grotesque but his story remains severed from the emotional lives of his daughters. Janet, Sam's crippled confidante, becomes a tiresome, vacuous affirmer of tiresome vacuous truths because those truths are not rooted in a social or psychological context. We don't quarrel with them but she is dead, lifeless.

But even these disconnected grotesqueries are few. We are mainly struck by how dull and unexciting, uninteresting and undifferentiated these stories appear to be, the few that we actually are allowed to hear about. We perhaps might explain what I've been calling Anderson's failure of imagination as a comment on history. The grotesques that we meet in Chicago, the ones connected to Chicago all have the same story—they want to make money. The soul's hunger for power, for success, the American “success disease” as Anderson called it (The Letters of Sherwood Anderson 24), is expressed in only one way—the desire for money. In Winesburg each of the grotesques is marked by this same soul hunger, this same compelling need to distinguish himself from the common clay; but there is an extraordinary range for expressing the various superiorities—from Mook Wilson's dream of raising ferrets to Wing Biddlebaum's glorified teacher raised above an adoring community of students; from Wash William's misogyny to Alice Hindman's obsessive fidelity. But in Chicago, everyone seems the same. Anderson might argue, and in fact has so implied in these first two novels, that the real tragedy of history and industrialism is this aesthetic sameness of the city's citizens.

The problem with Chicago is that we can't (or Anderson can't) manage to distinguish among its hideousnesses. When describing the special ugliness of the street where Beaut McGregor lives in Chicago, “the street was complete in its hideousness” (Marching 54), the narrator goes on to say that the Great West Side of Chicago has hundreds of such streets” (Marching 54). And that is the problem; the ugliness repeats itself without variation, becomes ineffective and uninspiring. The undifferentiated ugliness of these city streets is then contrasted with the “inspiring” and “dreadful loveliness” (Marching 54) of Coal Creek, also the result of industrialism but remembered in a distinctly realized tableau which dramatizes the forces of history.

Faced by the sameness of the human stories, the undifferentiated hideousness of their lives, there is no digressive urge on the part of the narrator. Like his characters who are disembodied, disconnected to the life about them, he (the narrator) is trapped, in a sense, inside their disembodied consciousnesses. Chicago remains a city seen only from the outside, its voices unheard, its stories not relished.

Winesburg, Ohio is, of course, exactly the opposite. There the digressive impulse has been integrated into the formal structure. In fact the related tale format can be seen as the formal expression of an extraordinary intimacy with the community's myriad patterns of experience. This intimacy manifests itself in a form which insists on and allows for a pure democracy of engagement, both sympathetic and intellectual, a form which through its repetitions makes us see Mook Wilson the idiot as a spokesman for George Willard, makes us see the slatternly Louise Trunnion acting out the same drama of womanhood as the superior Elizabeth Willard and the intellectual Kate Swift.


  1. I must admit that “sense of place” is a peculiarly subjective issue. Kenny Williams, for example, apparently feels that Anderson is successful in this regard: “In addition to the expected general allusions to crowds, tall buildings, and other manifestations of urban life, the novel transmits a sense of place by specific references to fixed landmarks and recognizable sites.” (52) I may be merely pitting my subjective response against hers, but I would argue that sense of place cannot be established by place names alone, and moreover that those who are familiar with the “place” in question are perhaps not the best judges for they carry the place with them, easily invoked by the simple mention of a street name.

  2. This is another point that I would contest with Professor Williams. Her argument depends too often, I think, on the easy opposition of illusion (the city's glittering promise of material success) to reality (the spirit breaking poverty, the greedy corruption, the ugly slums and the sin-filled streets). In fact the city as repository of corruption has always been a companion mythology, existing alongside the more optimistic Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches mythology. To assume the reality of the “real” as it is represented by the catalogue of urban miseries is one aspect of a familiar romantic paradigm.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. “To Waldo Frank.” After Nov. 7, 1917. Letter 22 in Letters of Sherwood Anderson. Ed. Howard Mumford Jones and Walter B. Rideout. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953.

———. Marching Men. 1917. Ed. and Intro. by Ray Lewis White. Cleveland and London: Case Western Reserve UP, 1972.

———. Windy McPherson's Son. 1916. Intro. Wright Morris. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago P, 1965.

———. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. Ed. John H. Ferres. New York: The Viking Press, 1966.

Williams, Kenny J. A. Storyteller and a City: Sherwood Anderson's Chicago. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1988.

Douglas Wixson (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4147

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 published in Moberly, Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Peoria, and other Midwestern towns during the 1930s I discovered, not surprisingly, that Sherwood Anderson's name was invoked, sometimes deprecatingly but more often appreciatively. Critics and literary historians of the 1930s tend to gather the work of writers on the left whose subject-matter involved working-class people into a loosely-defined category called “proletarian literature.” It was a term the writers themselves frequently used without knowing for sure what it meant. “Proletarian” was a politically loaded term suggesting alignment with a Communist-oriented cultural movement in the 1930s that viewed society from a class perspective. To young radical writers like Joseph Kalar, Jack Conroy, Robert Cruden, Warren Huddlestone, Meridel Le Sueur, Sanora Babb, Joseph Vogel, H. H. Lewis, Paul Corey, and Ed Falkowski, proletarian sounded like a foreign import poorly translated into American working-class life: they used it without fully appreciating its origin or implications. Class, on the other hand, had unmediated meanings grounded in personal experience.

Possessing little Marx and less Engels, the Midwest literary radicals drew upon indigenous traditions of protest and progressive thought in responding to economic crises and the perceived failure of government to curb or eliminate them. The generation of Midwest radicals who came of age in the 1920s and produced most of their work in the economic Depression that caught them in its coils responded to the proletarian movement feelingly without participating in the ideological discussions taking place “east of the Hudson,” the expression the Midwesterners often used to indicate, from their perspective, the geographical location of East Coast intellectuals, implying both the latter's propensity to fruitless debate and their blindness with respect to events and people in the hinterlands. The pragmatic Midwesterners had little patience with long-winded discussions of political theory in John Reed Club meetings and New York “coffee pots.” Conroy liked to say that he had no interest in counting how many Marxian angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Fostered by editors like H. L. Mencken, John T. Frederick, Conroy, Richard Johns, Ben Hagglund, Noah Whitaker, Dale Kramer, Kerker Quinn, Frederick Maxham, and others, the Midwest radical writers hoped to carry on the work of Dreiser, Norris, and Anderson in laying bare the realities of Midwest existence.2 Like Sherwood Anderson before them, the young literary radicals viewed themselves as “untutored Midwestern story tellers.” Distinguishing them from Anderson, on the other hand, were issues of generational difference and historical circumstance—and the fact that Anderson's work achieved wide acclaim while theirs came under the shadow of literary oblivion during the Cold War which witnessed the decline of critical realism, as Maxwell Geismar points out, and the repressive effects of de facto censorship.

In a letter to his literary pen-pal in 1924, Warren Huddlestone, Joe Kalar describes the effect of first looking into Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Kalar had sold his collection of Lone Scout magazines to purchase Modern Library editions of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Whitman's poems.

At times (Kalar writes) I come upon a writer whom I envy. Then I bewail my apparent crudities—not realizing for a moment that I am seventeen and but starting out on my literary career, while the other is at the height of his creative power. There are very few present day writers that I feel I will not be able some day to surpass. Anderson is the greatest American today. My admiration for Ben Hecht is in the decline. Anderson, one feels, has guts to him. His stories flow deep, if slow. He has a solidity to him that is admirable. I am not well acquainted yet with Dreiser as yet—though I intend to be soon. Dreiser and Anderson are the leaders. …

And in a subsequent letter, Kalar compliments Huddlestone's story patterned on Anderson's “I'm a Fool”:

I can't forget “A Perfect Fool,” and the other story that you were so kind as to let me peruse. In them there appeared to be the kernel of a slumbering genius, a writer with talent who could take up the work when Anderson makes his exit, and do it well.

(Kalar 134-5)

Kalar and Huddlestone were two very young Midwesterners at the time who “met,” as most of the Midwest radicals did, through little magazines that served as circuits of communication connecting isolated young men and women living in small towns throughout the Midwest. Kalar, like Huddlestone, submitted juvenalia to the Lone Scout, the Bohemian, and other ephemeral magazines.

Born in a Slovenian community in northern Minnesota, Kalar had trained to become a teacher but abandoned the profession after a year in isolated Koochiching County. Unable to find employment as a journalist, he worked in paper mills and saw mills. During brief “proletarian nights”—to borrow the title of one of his poems—between days of factory labor, he slaked off the residue of flowery diction and preciosity, the “Victorian hangover,” as the radicals called it. Kalar began submitting his work to the new crop of radical magazines appearing in the late 1920s and early '30s—New Masses, Rebel Poet, Anvil, The Left. The aesthetic of early Depression-era “proletarian” writing called for narratives deriving from personal observation and experience, written with vigor and conviction. Personal narrative and documentary were welcomed. Factory life provided Kalar plenty of material; his writing quickly lost its jejeune romantic coloring on “the anvil of experience.”

Huddlestone, raised in Kokomo, Indiana, likewise got his start as a writer submitting pieces to the Lone Scout magazine, a publication of the Lone Scout organization which was the rural equivalent of the urban Boy Scouts except that the Lone Scouts gave attention to intellectual development. The publication served as a networking center for youngsters with literary aspirations living in widely scattered locales. An avid reader, “Hud,” as he was known, assisted his father, a housepainter, until work dried up in the early Depression. Unwilling to burden his parents, Hud tramped around the United States, hungry and homeless, an experience that supplied material for sketches and stories submitted to editors such as Conroy and Malcolm Cowley. What attracted Kalar and Huddlestone to Anderson's writing was the possibility that an “untutored” young person from the provinces might learn his craft through emulation and sharp observation. There was also the important question of form. Anderson had demonstrated, in fact argued, that “formless” story methods do greater truth to life than do formal techniques such as plot. “Life” was something the radicals were receiving in heavy doses in the early Depression. But how best to write about it?

The notion of writing as learned craft rather than divinely inspired “art” was attractive to the Midwest radicals who in demystifying literature hoped to make it more accessible, and in a sense, more democratic. Anderson had himself apprenticed his writing craft in trade journals: to Kalar, Huddlestone and others he was an “ordinary” person who, possessed of a wealth of experience, desired to communicate his vision of things from within the crucible of small Midwestern life—a crucible that continued to produce young people who longed to break out of their isolation and make contact through their writing. Anderson's example was instructive and emboldening.

Growing up during the early years of industrialism in this crucible of experience—the villages, mining camps, and small factory towns of the midlands with their sense of settled community—was an experience that the radicals shared; yet each had a different story to tell. Moberly, Missouri was, like Clyde, Ohio, a railroad division point whose central feature was the railroad station where destinies were engaged in the arrivals and departures of townspeople and visitors. Born in a nearby coal camp, Jack Conroy entered an apprenticeship in the Wabash railroad shops in Moberly at age thirteen. The railroad reading room and the Carnegie library in Moberly were his “university.”

As recording secretary of his union local, Conroy submitted his earliest writings to the Railway Carmen's Journal. Kalar, Huddlestone, Conroy, and other Midwest radicals grew up when the older rural economy and craft trades that Anderson celebrated in his early writings had begun to yield to industrial development and small town commerce. The radicals, with the possible exception of Meridel Le Sueur, raised no protest to the fact of industrialism itself, only to the terms on which it functioned. The “mad awakening” (131) that Anderson writes about in Poor White when “the giant, Industry, awoke” (133) was to them an established fact; a handful of intellectuals and artists-expatriates had fled to Europe in the 1920s seeking to escape it, but the Midwest literary radicals had no such option. They were exiles in their native land. Worker-writers like Kalar and Conroy felt the realities of industrialism in their aching muscles and heads numbed by noise and routine—the same mind-numbing dullness that Anderson had complained about in his factory jobs. After the failed Great Railroad Strike of 1922 in which Conroy, along with thousands of other striking railroad workers, was forced to find other employment, there seemed to exist little choice but continue as laborer. Writing would have to take place in-between factory shifts and during periods of unemployment, made anxious by family responsibilities. Moreover, to attempt to escape working class existence, as their intelligence and ambition appeared to prepare them to do, meant to abandon the very conditions which nurtured them and their writing—and which they hoped to improve through efforts to give them expression.

Anderson had found little literary matter in the talk of his fellow workers. They “talk vilely to their fellows,” he recalled later (A Story Teller's Story 148-50). “There was in the factories where I worked and where the efficient Ford type of man was just beginning his dull reign this strange and futile outpouring of men's lives in vileness through their lips. Ennui was at work. The talk of the men about me was not Rabelaisian” (148). Elsewhere, in commenting on Whitman's and Sandburg's views on workers, Anderson wrote: “already the democratic dream had faded and laborers were not my heroes” (107). The rejection of factory existence and of workers' values that Anderson expresses in his autobiography, A Story Teller's Story, seemed irrelevant to the Midwest radicals who, in the early years of the Depression, hoped through revolutionary struggle to forge a new existence for the factory worker, the dispossessed “proletariat.” On occasion, however, they expressed disgust with their fellow factory workers—their behavior and aspirations—in private correspondence. Their status—both worker and writer—placed them in an ambivalent position vis à vis other workers. This position was both a strength and a source of conflict.

In Worker-Writer in America I describe the ambivalent status, the necessary counterpart of the “proletarian night” in which the worker-writers struggled to create something of literary worth, had to do with the fact that although they worked in factory jobs and were of working-class origins, they thought like intellectuals. Accepted by their work colleagues on equal terms, nonetheless, they were perceived as being different in this respect: they read, liked to discuss ideas, and aspired to write. Forsaking the sleep of the ordinary laborer, they pursued their literary ambitions at night. The paradox of their situation was that unskilled labor left their minds hungry for intellectual stimulus, yet bodily fatigue demanded rest. During feverish nights, the brief interstices during which literary activity could occur, the worker-writer is released to his imagination. This liminal space, the correlative of necessity and aspiration distinguishes worker-writers from their factory colleagues. The hyphenation joining worker and writer engenders ambivalences within which creativity takes place.

More familiar to the general reader are the ambivalences incurred when working-class subjects cross class boundaries, such as occurs in the work of D. H. Lawrence, Jack London, and Sherwood Anderson. Literature has generally treated labor as a prison-house from which the bright youngster seeks escape through intellectual achievement. The situation of the worker-writer, however, engenders ambivalences of another kind, reconciled in the uneasy balance between the two statuses, worker and writer. Conroy felt comfortable in the familiarity of working-class existence—the existence in which Anderson felt alienated—which he was loath to exchange for something uncertain. Both Kalar and Conroy felt this. What promise in the early Depression years was there, after all, for a better life? In the streets were jobless white-collar professionals along with dispossessed factory workers. Kalar and Conroy craved recognition. Authorial status, reputation, would, on the other hand, introduce new ambivalences, the loss of the hyphenated status, separation from the workers' world. Such choices and constraints define their literary work and energize their writing.

The longing, isolation, frustrations expressed in Anderson's work, such as Winesburg, Ohio, spoke to the Midwest radicals in immediate ways. The breakup of communal life, such as Conroy had experienced in Monkey Mining camp and the Wabash shops, meant the loss of intimacy, of human connection. The Communist Party attempted to offer programs to build new futures and new existences among the dispossessed. Party rhetoric, Conroy perceived, would not salvage the destruction of a communal past, a conclusion that Anderson likewise reached after a brief period of support to Party ideals and signing of manifestos. A workers' culture, however rude, had once existed, at least as Conroy, Le Sueur, Ed Falkowski and other radicals had known it. Any authentic tradition on the left must reflect actual experience, not wishful thinking, and serve to reproduce the cultural memory of shared values lost with the destruction of older work communities and the emergence of a new consumer-oriented mass culture. The project the radicals set before themselves was to help establish rhizomatous circuits of communication and explore new forms appropriate to a workers' culture worth its name. This renewed culture would release workers from their spiritual prison, empower them. And it would occur within the conditions that presently existed—those that Anderson had accurately perceived in earlier manifestations—the cheap subdivisions, the false consciousness, the “new order of industrialism” when “thought and poetry died or passed as a heritage to feeble fawning men who also became servants of the new order” (Poor White 63-4).

This new culture would give voice to “those who do not write.” New forms were required, ones that corresponded to the conditions of working-class existence: the fact that most workers did not write or indeed even read literature; that the lack of time and education denied them access to literary tools; and that traditional literary forms were inappropriate. Most of the Midwestern radicals' early writing attempts had been instinctive affairs, unstructured and impressionistic, full of flowery diction and preciosity. Now Kalar and others began to talk about the “sketch” form. Anderson provided both models and justification for their efforts. The “plot-less” stories of Winesburg, Ohio reflected things as they were lived: “it was certain,” Anderson wrote, “There were no plot short stories ever lived in any life I had known anything about” (A Story Teller's Story 162). The problem, as Anderson saw it, was that people had got the notion from their reading of how a story should be told, and in the process “spoiled the tale in telling” (255). Plots were a trick, he wrote, to lure readers. They were of little use in exploring the buried lives of Midwest small-town people: a story should take its own course.

Anderson and the radicals turned to the same sources for the “plot-less” sketch: the Russian storytellers. In an attempt to define a proletarian aesthetic, American radical critics often borrowed—sometimes inaccurately—from the Soviets. The word Ocherkism, a virtually untranslatable term meaning the making of stories or sketches, appeared in a 1931 New Masses essay written by Leon Dennen, an American living in Moscow. Among the forms available to the literary radicals was the “sketch.” In the Soviet Union, the sketch form—skaz—had served an important literary purpose during the first Five Year Plan: Gorki defended it vigorously against critics who viewed it as a lower form of art. Actually “sketch” stories were a very old form in Russian literature: in Gogol's “The Overcoat,” plot is reduced to the minimum, personal tone is correspondingly stressed, signaling the “transfer of focus from the narrative plane to the discourse plane” (quoted in Worker-Writer in America 298). Mikhail Bakhtin underscored the oral quality of the sketch, “a socially or individually defined manner of storytelling” in contrast to literary professionalism. The storyteller is not a literary man, Bakhtin wrote; “he usually belongs to a lower social strata, to the common people … and he brings with him oral speech” (Worker-Writer 298).

It is, however, a simplification to suggest that the Midwest radicals borrowed the idea of the sketch from Anderson alone—or the Russians. There were models and examples much closer to home. E. Haldeman-Julius, for instance, penned sketches of working class life for socialist publications like the Milwaukee Leader and the Western Comrade. Most little magazine contributors were familiar with Jack London's sketches of working-class life on the bum and with Mike Gold's 120 Million. The plotless nature, the personal narrative quality of the sketch, preserving accents and idioms, was a form suited to the purposes of the Midwest radicals. Conroy, Kalar, Le Sueur, H. H. Lewis and others made abundant use of it in their writing. H. H. Lewis's prose narratives represent perhaps best the early proletarian sketch in their subjective evaluation of events and in communicating the personality of the narrator through the writing. They are scenes, really, not fully developed narratives.

It was inevitable, given the immediacy and authenticity that Conroy sought for the Anvil, that the sketch form would predominate. It was the form that most fiction writers begin with: it need not be an amateur effort, however, as Gogol's work (and Anderson's) had shown. It seemed eminently suited for Conroy's purposes and the time. In the pages of Anvil writers like Erskine Caldwell, Nelson Algren, Meridel Le Sueur, Sanora Babb, Joe Vogel, as well as others whose names have been consigned unjustifiably to the dustbins of literary history, employed the sketch form to communicate the experience of “those who do not write”—black sharecroppers, women millworkers, migrant laborers and farmhands.

Apart from the limitations of time that hampered the literary radicals, there was a suggestion that too much attention to art deprived the subject matter, drawn from life, of its vigor and authenticity. The great realist writers like Balzac had made their writing seem real, concealing their art. Literary realism, however, had become conventional, losing “a quality of authenticity,” a term that to the radicals called forth the taste of dust, the grit of factory floors, and the poignancy (and anger) of families sitting on the sidewalk in front of their foreclosed homes. Conroy, Lewis, Le Sueur, and, to a lesser extent, Kalar, eschewed verisimilitude, transforming the materials of oral and extraliterary narrative to create verbal performances that call upon the reader's imaginative participation. They gave their attention to language and the manner of telling in portraying events and people, to the point that Mencken urged Kalar “to inject a little more dramatics in the episodes” (Worker-Writer 299).

One further point I wish to make briefly: the terms of the cultural transcription that the Midwest literary radicals contemplated were essentially social, occurring not within the solitude of the individual soul but through communication with others, something akin to Dewey's notion of “conjoint communicated experience.” The voices of “those who do not write” overheard in the factories and on the streets and parks where the unemployed gathered existed dialogically on the same level as the narrator's voice. The writer's task, at least as Conroy perceived it—and I think he was joined in this by the other Midwest radicals—was to be a witness to his time, to record the inner and outer struggles.

There is something radically different from traditional ideas of authorship in this attitude toward writing, toward literary production. For example, in Conroy's writing the authorial voice of the text is only one among many voices existing on the same level. The literary work contains no single subject but a multiplicity of utterances in collective arrangements. Inscribed in the writing are the circumstances of its production, the situation, for instance, of the worker-writer who crosses boundaries and the domain of literature, in which his or her status is still undefined and his work, sensitive to the marginalized voices of his culture, fundamentally anticanonical.

Sherwood Anderson—by all lights one who benefitted from the traditional view of authorship with its hierarchical scale of literary prominence—wrote Meridel Le Sueur in 1936 about the necessity of transforming such a view. Le Sueur, along with Conroy, Dale Kramer, and others had embarked on the project of publishing a new magazine entitled Midwest—a Review. Giving Le Sueur (and Kramer) editorial advice, Anderson wrote:

Why not really run your magazine in a new way … the wrongs and injustice done writers for example quite forgotten. Let us all work for it, free, but let no man sign his work. There is all this talk, as you know, of giving up individuality, etc., let's see how deep it goes. Let's see how many of us are really interested in good work, the good life, and how many only in getting printed, getting our names up.

(Midwest 1 (November 1936):33).

Anderson's letter to Midwest challenged the radicals—after all, they had spoken of “democratizing” literature! It was a radical idea, to say the least, the proposal to abandon assigning the name of an author to the work. Was Anderson serious, or simply taking to a logical consequence the radicals' talk of doing away with individuality? Whatever the case, the Midwest radicals had in mind something quite different from Anderson's rather disingenuous proposal. Their project was to deconstruct the notion of authorship which privileges the dominant culture and marginalizes the work of creative people—including women, blacks, workers. The status of author in the traditional sense was closed to the literary radicals of the 1930s, owing to the conditions of literary production which they had attempted to alter and the social content of their work. If as a result of personal conviction, prevailing conditions of literary production, and economic necessity they sought alternatives to arborescent scales of literary reputation, they nonetheless, owed immense debts to those who had succeeded in ascending these scales. It is fair to argue, therefore, that the “greats” of Midwestern literature—Anderson, Dreiser, Garland—and the Midwest literary radicals of the 1930s comprise a continuous tradition of literary expression that focuses on both the social circumstances and inner lives of people in the isolated villages and factory towns of midland America. Theirs was a considerable achievement, for in different ways they all strove to give voice to “those who do not write.” The tragedy is that in doing so, the literary radicals, rightful epigones of the great naturalist-realist writers of the Midwest, themselves fell into obscurity, so that the task before us now is to recover them—and through them regain those lost voices.


  1. Anderson's poem first appeared in Unrest, 1931, edited by Jack Conroy and Ralph Cheyney, along with poems by Midwestern literary radicals such as H. H. Lewis, Joseph Kalar, Kenneth Porter, W. D. Trowbridge, and Jim Waters.

  2. Little magazine editor and Conroy's Anvil printer, Ben Hagglund, found a model in Anderson's Marion, Virginia newspaper. See Worker-Writer in America 278.


Anderson, David D. Sherwood Anderson: Dimensions of His Literary Art. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1976.

Anderson, Sherwood. Story Teller's Story. Ed. by Ray Lewis White. Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1968.

———. Beyond Desire. New York: Liveright, 1932.

———. Letter to the Editor. Midwest 1 (November 1936):33.

———. Marching Men. Ed. by Ray Lewis White. Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1972.

———. Poor White. New York: Modern Library, 1925.

———. Sherwood Anderson's Notebook. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926.

———. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Milestone Editions, 1960.

Conroy, Jack and Ralph Cheyney, ed. Unrest. 1931. New York: Henry Harrison, 1931.

Dennen, Leon. “Soviet Literature.” New Masses 6 (November 1931):23-24.

Kalar, Joseph. Joseph A. Kalar, Poet of Protest. Ed. by Richard G. Kalar. Blaine, Minnesota: RGK Publications, 1985.

Modlin, Charles E. Sherwood Anderson, Selected Letters. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.

Townsend, Kim. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

White, Ray Lewis, ed. The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.

Wixson, Douglas. Worker-Writer in America: Jack Conroy and the Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism, 1898-1990. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Zandy, Janet. Liberating Memory: Our Work and Our Working-Class Consciousness. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Bernard F. Engel (essay date 1998)

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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” declares that he will “dare to sing” no matter what, that he will not be crushed by “the machine.”1 Anderson's readers know that for him the machine stood for industrial civilization, the social pattern that he believed had often broken his fellow Americans. The singer, gifted with spiritual vision, will trust confidently to “the terrible strength of indomitable song.”

As with most of us, however, Anderson's ambitions exceeded his grasp. His “song” is too abstract, too removed from the particulars of experience that poetry, the art of the concrete, demands. Here and elsewhere, Chants gives a rhetoric of generalized loss, of baffled incomprehension too easily accepting the romantic-sentimental notion that the speaker is a specially victimized self in a heartless world. This “hunger” for an “understanding” he cannot attain places Anderson with his contemporaries Thomas Wolfe and Ross Lockridge, Jr. as a member of that well-populated sect which, despairing of an accurate statement of the ethereal, turns to puzzled complaint, inquiry, and protest in the hope that in their threshing about they may stumble onto discoveries as yet unmapped. In “The Cornfields,” Anderson rightly speaks of his visionary persona as one “dizzy with words.”

But though the abstraction and often windy rhetoric in Chants limit its impact, the verse does present a useful interpretation of Anderson's principles. The major argument in the poems is that there is in America, in the very land itself, a seldom recognized afflatus that could inspire in people a religio-aesthetic understanding of themselves and of their fellows. This spirit is symbolized especially by the corn, the crop that in its sturdy naturalness seemed to Sidney Lanier to represent “the poet-soul sublime” (“Corn”2), and that in its fecundity, its ability to feed much of the world, awed Anderson's Midwestern predecessor Frank Norris, the author of that set of novels which has been termed a “serial about cereal.”

The corn, however, could not make up for America's aesthetic deficiencies. Anderson sided with Henry James and others who felt that America does not yet have the material for first-rate literature. According to the prose “Foreword” to Chants, good verse expresses an unworldly beauty that arises only after a society has lasted for many generations. The people of Middle America, Anderson says, “hunger for song,” but they have too few “memory haunted places”: they have, indeed, only “the grinding roar of machines.” The consequence is that “We do not sing but mutter in the darkness.” Anderson therefore means to awaken his countrymen. He would urge them to look not to the machine-dominated city but to the land that he saw as the only valid source of inspiration.

The tragedy of the speaker's life is presented in “Song of Stephen the Westerner.” Stephen says that he came out of the land, the corn-rows where he had lain for ages (Midwestern cornfields were not ages old; but Anderson was seeking to heighten his effect, not to give a history lesson). Stephen heard mankind's noises, especially the sound of his fathers killing each other (the Civil War?). Thoroughly awakened, Stephen says, he then went to the city, where though he shouted his alarm men did not see him because he was no larger than a mote of dust. In a passage reminiscent of the nostalgia that was a favorite emotion of 19th-century poets, he recalls pleasant evenings on the farm when “the old things were sweet”—the simple food, the women who, though they had forgotten “old singers,” still knew glimmerings of the divine that more traditional societies were aware of. Desperate always, Stephen declares that he has killed his beloved “on the threshing floor”—meaning, it seems, that he has severed his agrarian roots. Now he will build in the city a “new house” and will sing a new song: he has no time to “bury my beloved,” to mourn the passing of rural ways. His condition is comparable to that of Matthew Arnold's speaker in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”: he is aware that one world is dead, the other is almost, as Arnold put it, “powerless to be born”—almost, because Anderson's speaker declares that, though standing “raw and new by the coal-heaps,” he will build and sing. The seeming optimism of this ending does not outweigh the near hysteria of most of the poem. Stephen is attempting to find a role in a world wherein he senses that he is an alien.

Declarations that he will sing beside the coal lack the depth of feeling that appears in poems portraying the role of the bard in the agrarian economy. “Song of the Middle World” describes the mission Anderson's man would prefer. Sounding, I am afraid, more like Bing Crosby than Walt Whitman, he declares that he would be a singer of assurances, “crooning to the moon” while his listeners feel the “grace of old gods” in their hearts. He would have his songs “sweep forth” from the mines of the Alleghanies to the farms of Nebraska, the territory he calls “Great cradle-land of giants where my cornfields lie.” Letting the factories close, he would turn to the “Promise of corn,” the crop whose rows form aisles running into the dawn and on to the throne of gods.

The role of the sexual, of overwhelming importance in the prose stories of Winesburg, Ohio, is less emphasized in the poems. In “The Stranger,” the love of a woman is said to have made the cornlands the possession of the speaker. In “Song of the Love of Women,” the speaker addresses women as his sisters, talks of unsatisfying love-making “In the doorway of the warehouse,” and urges women to join him in, one may take it, the cornfields where the spark of the divine could unite him with them. In “Salvo,” the speaker finds in lovemaking a Wordsworthian moment of revelation that enables him to see himself as a “Thin rift in time.” In such a moment, he recalls, the love of a woman made time halt, thereby creating him. The reader may take this to mean that the “rift” delayed his move toward death and made him a fulfilled being. But the interlude was brief: the speaker has taken up his old burdens, and will pass them on to the next generation. Love did not solve his problems. It did, however, temporarily ease them and thereby, the reader may deduce, provided a glimpse of what a fulfilling life could offer.

One who believes that a divinity or, at least, a spirit, exists in the land is likely to develop a ritual for attaining contact with it. “The Cornfields,” the first poem in Anderson's book, tells of a rite to be carried out in the Midwestern fields. Declaring that he is “pregnant with song,” the speaker at first expects to conceal himself; he will hide his songs in holes in the street. He believes that in the urban world the would-be bard who does not want to risk condemnation as a subversive must act in secrecy. But in the second stanza, he changes his stance. He awoke one night, he says, to find that he had been freed from his bonds, the chains that have caused everyone to forget the fields, the corn, the west wind and have made them unable to “find the word in the confusion of words”—Anderson's own recognition that in verse he does not, cannot, seek le mot juste.

Seizing his opportunity, the speaker tells how he found a “sacred vessel” and ran to place it in the fields. In his desperation he debased himself, eating the excretions of his people's bodies and then dying into the ground. But he reappeared in the corn, where he was touched by the wind and awoke to “beautiful old things.” The sacred vessel, filled with corn oil, now waits in the fields. The speaker will cause his people to renew the worship of gods; he will set up a king before them, a king who is apparently to be himself, since he announces that the people may eat the flesh of his body. His new knowledge has made him strong, determined to bring love to his fellow humans. He is careful to say that the sacred vessel “was put into my hands”—he is not himself a god, but is one to whom a god has given an assignment. The speaker therefore has acquired a divine impetus. The singer of songs has been transmuted into a priest who must awaken his community to its needs and chart its path to fulfillment.

The speaker in “The Cornfields” is not giving a specifically Christian message. James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890) had shown Anderson's generation that communion rituals appear in many cultures. Sometimes, however, Anderson does use Christian imagery. In the poem “Spring Song,” this imagery is combined with suggestions of sexual fulfillment as the speaker sees men worshipping at a shrine in the seasonally dead forest. The spirit of God hovers above; the speaker tells his countrymen to press their lips to his, to see him as “Christ, come to life.” This act brings spring. God continues to hover as the farmers plant the corn. The speaker declares that he will press men's bodies down on the new-plowed ground and will “have my sacred way with you.” The planting and growth of the corn have become a ritual of communion in which the connection between divinity and mankind is achieved not by eating or drinking from sacred vessels, but by an act of sexual love. The result will be an understanding, a recognition of the existence of divinity within the land that the people work.

City dwellers who find themselves impelled to the bardic will run to the fields because in their urban homes there is no possibility that they could express the spiritual. Anderson's poem “Chicago” is free of the brag asserted in Sandburg's famous poem on the city, and it does not attempt to reconcile brute reality with suggestions of traditional beauty in the manner of Benjamin Franklin Taylor (1819-1887), the city's first well-known poet, who in his “Chicago” linked lovers and roses with the mechanical. Anderson's persona is both an old man and a child. He wants leisure, but there is none; he declares that love will save him but finds that his lover does not appear. The “word” he needs will not come to him in “the confusion of words” that is city life.

Yet there are grounds, faint but discoverable, for a measure of optimism even if one does not accept religious suggestions. The speaker in “Song of Industrial America” feels himself to be one of the “broken things” that all of us in the West (meaning Chicago) have become. Twice in the sixth stanza, however, the speaker says that this situation is “part of the scheme.” He does not explain; one takes it that Anderson believes people's lives are governed by a design, whether they recognize this power or not. There is, the speaker says, a beginning underway: “faint little voices do lift up.” Reasons for a spare optimism include the intoxication of American place names and the memory of old men the speaker knew in his village boyhood. These people were a generation of wagon makers and pioneers, most of whom, one gathers, were not especially admirable but whose ranks nevertheless produced Lincoln and Whitman. This old generation was succeeded by “Chicago triumphant,” by the age of ugly factories, of elderly millionaires whose developments crushed others (Anderson, no radical, observes that this destruction was not intended by the rich; presumably he thought it was also part of the “scheme”). The speaker shouts out his songs despite the roar of industry. He avers that God reached down to touch him, but then he backtracks to declare that notion a lie and rephrases his statement to say that the face of God looked down at him—that is, he was not singled out as a bard but at least he was made aware, as his fellows were not, of God's watch over mankind. He urges others to have the confidence to lift their voices in song. Somehow, the speaker believes, the rise of Chicago and industry is part of a divine plan people do not yet understand but that they may take heart in.

Religious belief and a generalized optimism provide one way of withstanding the pressure of mechanized life, of holding to the expectation that one day human existence will be better. Another pathway to improvement, hinted at and sometimes openly suggested, would be what Anderson terms “revolt.” His stance is not at all programmatic; he does not advocate specific changes, whether reform movements or Socialist or Communist revolutions. In “Industrialism,” rebellion is represented by a woman, “My mistress/Terrible.” This mistress has thin hands—as the women in Anderson's poems often have—yet they were strong enough to kill off “all old beliefs,” the faiths of past generations. The aim of rebellion, however, is not merely to kill the old; it seeks to clear the ground for new ways and creeds. She waits now “beside the mill” to take up the sword of Christ or to encourage those who “dare/for her,” who will fight for the goal she would lead humanity toward. This outcome presumably would include worshipful recognition of the spiritual underlying human lives. The urge to rebellion is more declarative in several poems. “Revolt” says that the old agricultural ways have been abandoned, often forcefully. Now “my men,” apparently those who would overthrow the industrial way, are assembled, aware that the era of “madness and washing of hands has been done,” that the time for bemoaning industrialism has passed. Whatever the future they fight toward, it will include the delights of apples and cornfields, and the “whoring of men for strange gods”—here meaning a search for new ways of existence.

Always present in the poems is the urge to run west, to escape into the cornfields that not only symbolize renewal but seem themselves to offer it. In “Song of the Mating Time,” the speaker, seemingly half man and half spirit, waits in the fields for his “little sister,” the citizen of the city, to join him in flight through the “soft midwestern nights,” running west of Chicago through the corn to destinations the speaker does not specify.

The merely political, and the booklore of the past, do not provide the light Anderson's speaker is seeking. In “Song of the Soul of Chicago,” the voice is that of a workingman who finds at least a fragment of inspiration on the city's bridges, objects Anderson perhaps felt to be more aesthetic than most features of urban life. The man here, indeed, approaches Sandburgian brag in proudly comparing himself and his peers with the sewerage that is swept along by “a kind of mechanical triumph.” He declares that “we'll love each other or die trying.” His people reject the voices of bards because “we Americans from all over hell” want “to give this democracy thing … a whirl.” This poem, however, is the only indication in the book that Anderson considered political ends a reasonable goal.

As for books and the bookish, the poem “Mid-American Prayer” reminds the reader that in Anderson's day the up-to-date blamed what they inaccurately termed “Puritanism” for the nation's inadequacies. The speaker declares that the true faith came to him out of the ground, that the New Englanders who “brought books and smart sayings into our Mid-America” destroyed that faith. The speaker restored his belief only after long and lonely meditation in the corn, in which he defied “the New Englanders' gods” and sought “honest, mid-western American gods.” He prays that divinity will “lead us to the fields,” will enable Midwesterners to find their way out of confusion and feed the world by returning to the cornlands that are, he believes, their proper home.

Like his peers, Anderson did not seem to recognize that the New England influence he condemned was itself inherited from the European culture he admired. His respect for that culture was one cause of the complexity in his attitudes toward World War I. Though he later would write that he had opposed U.S. participation in the war, his biographical statements were not always accurate. The fact is that, though in Chants he sometimes spoke of the war as proof of American moral failure, he also voiced hope that the war would be a cleansing moral experience. The same notion appeared in some of his prose. In a letter to M. D. Finley, dated November 27, 1916, Anderson—positing two unattractive alternatives—even wrote that he'd rather young men would die at Verdun than undergo the “spiritual death” of residence in Chicago (Sutton, 394). And in September 1917, after the publication of Marching Men, he wrote to a newspaper inquirer that he was a “strong believer in compulsory military service” (Sutton, 397). Life in an Army company, he said, is “exactly like living in a family … A spirit of understanding of his fellow man comes to the individual soldier” (Sutton, 397). (Anderson obviously had no combat experience. He had joined the Ohio National Guard in 1895, and was called up for the Spanish-American war in 1898, but was still in training camp when the war ended. He spent the post-war months of January to April 1899 with his outfit in Cuba (A Story Teller's Story, 199).

The Foreword to Chants observes that a country comes to the maturity needed for “song” only after it has experienced the long history that the U.S. lacks. In his view, the European countries then engaged in World War I had the necessary far-reaching memory. Ideas related to these speculations appear in several poems. In “Night,” the speaker seems to reflect the struggle in Americans' minds as they sought to remain neutral yet feared that the Allies might lose. “We,” he says, are in the longest night of our lives; he ends pleading “Dear France—/ Put out your hand to us.” France, it seems, represents a nation that through its art (and perhaps also through its military struggle) exhibits qualities he thinks the U.S. should have. In “War,” the speaker asserts doubt as he sees men from Nebraska and Kansas, Ohio and Illinois, run from the factories and fields to take part in the fighting. Their participation raises questions that hurt, he observes. Perhaps he suspects that the men's behavior demonstrates the presence in Americans of a warlike spirit he does not want to acknowledge. The war also brings to life in the cornfields gods we had not known, perhaps gods associated with militarism rather than those the speaker would prefer to see.

Anderson's most extended verse appreciation of the war is in “Mid-American Prayer.” The speaker here suggests that Americans had grown “fat” in their cities, forgetting the fulfilling life of fields and prayer they once knew. He thinks of “lean men” fighting, of a time when Midwestern hands, “no longer fat,” will be qualified to touch “the lean dear hands of France,” at a time “when we also have suffered and got back to prayer.” The war is “terrible,” but it may bring to America “out here west of Pittsburgh” a redemption, a “hardness and leanness” accompanying lives “of which we may be unashamed.” Anderson thus places himself with those like Teddy Roosevelt and Marianne Moore who, though professing to deplore the costs of war, have seen it as a purifying force, one that may bring to life virtues suppressed in the materialistic everyday world.

Such fatuous theorizing is countered, however, in other poems that, though equally moralistic, reflect on the significance of combat. The speaker in “We Enter In” sees that by sending its troops into battle the U.S. has shown itself to be no better than the Europeans. It has been as material-minded as they, and consequently has failed in its mission to remake the world. “Dirge of War” reflects that the battlefield has made Americans face the failure they have hidden and, moreover, has caused them to become one with the hatred they should not have allowed themselves to feel.

Anderson did not work out a systematic position with regard to the war, and his suppositions about it ended with the Armistice. Ideas concerning the existence of some controlling force or power also were suggested but not developed. These speculations might have led him to primitivism. But though Anderson's people had been shell-shocked by the city, he was cautious about finding a spirit in nature (agriculture is an activity of human farmers, not of nature itself). Suggestions of primitivism appear in, for example, the notion of gods lying for ages in the fields until they are awakened by planters (and, in a few wartime poems, by militarism) Yet, in “Song of Industrial America,” the speaker suggests that there is an underlying “scheme” that directs even the wrenchings of life in the city.

Anderson did not say directly in Chants whether he saw a relationship between gods in the fields and the “scheme” he saw in the city. The strongest indication that a force exists in untamed nature is in “Forgotten Song.” Here the speaker declares that behind the modern human world there is a strength that is both “magnificent” and hateful, an opponent as well as a companion, one strong and challenging rather than comforting. The poem finds this now unrecognized presence to be represented by the wolf, known today only in its guise as the economic distress that lies in wait at people's doors, but once a physical adversary, one who in struggle with humankind became their lover and their enemy. People have forgotten the wolf, “God's challenge to all,” in the “bitter night” of their lives. But he still lurks far back in their minds. The speaker urges humans he loves to run with the wolf, to become again as natural, as God-following as this ancient foe, and fellow creature, who embodies realities people now fail to see.

Chants expresses hunger for that unwordly romantic beauty that is forever unattainable, its eternal distancing contributing to its fascination. Critical views of Anderson's accomplishment in verse have varied. There is near unanimity in the opinion that the Chants are negligible as art. Bernard Duffey is perhaps the most severe in his judgment that the poems are “as bad a case of maundering … as the whole Chicago Liberation, so ready in formless effusion, was to produce” (Chicago Renaissance, 203). David D. Anderson concurs in this dismissal of the poems as aesthetic creations, but finds them significant as experiments by the author in expressing his feelings, rather than the ideology he espoused in prose, and as exercises in developing his writing style (33). Walter B. Rideout suggests that the emphasis on planted fields shows a fondness for symmetry arising from what he sees as Anderson's “obsessive” need for order (169). The most favorable critic is Philip Greasley, who, in the tradition of what has been called Whig history, sees the Chants as an affirmation, the forging of “an optimistic myth for … urban-industrial man” (210).

To the finding that Anderson's verse maunders, one suitable reply is that so does much of his prose. Realist critics sometimes fail to recognize that one virtue of poetry is that it can quickly expose weakness and falsity that these critics accept in prose. My own reading finds the Chants worth attention. They provide a distinctive angle of attack on several of Anderson's themes. Among these are the importance of the American landscape, especially that of the Midwest; the insistence that divinity lies in the land and the consequent effort to develop a communion ritual; the visionary sense of alienation; the effort, only partly successful, to find release in the sexual; the occasional speculations on the possibility of revolution; the desire to see World War I as morally uplifting and the postwar suggestion that Anderson had been among the opponents of U.S. entry into that war; the sparse gestures toward primitivism; and the tentative effort—to my mind, not nearly as systematic and assured as Professor Greasley would have it—to develop an affirmative understanding of the possibilities of a fulfilling life in urban-industrial America; and the yearning of many young writers of Anderson's time for something more profound than the prosperity and quasi-democracy of America seem to offer.

These responses are not those of the wolf, of the indomitable will that he sometimes asserted, but those of a baffled, though not defeated, citizen of Chicago. One must not, however, see Anderson as merely another disappointed Romantic, a cisatlantic kissing cousin of J. Alfred Prufrock. Anderson's literary contemporaries might run from Main Street, seek an unfound door, find the principal value in modern life to be grace under pressure, or see only a forever receding green light. One may instead adopt William Faulkner's appraisal, said of his prose but applicable also to his verse, that Anderson's work represents “the vast rich strong docile sweep of the Mississippi Valley, his own America.”


  1. A version of this paper was read at the Sherwood Anderson Memorial Conference at Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia in April 1991.

  2. Association of “corn” with running and other footwork ignited a revelry of punners. Walter Rideout told me that Anderson enjoyed this verbal podiatry.

Works Cited

Anderson, David D. Sherwood Anderson: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

Anderson, Sherwood. “Chicago Culture.” Chicago Daily News (Chicago: February 20, 1918), p. 7.

Anderson, Sherwood. A Story Teller's Story. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve UP, 1968. Edited by Ray Lewis White.

Anderson, Sherwood. Mid-American Chants. New York: John Lane, 1918.

Duffey, Bernard. The Chicago Renaissance in American Letters. East Lansing: Michigan State College P, 1954.

Faulkner, William. “Sherwood Anderson: An Appreciation.” In Ray Lewis White, ed. The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina P., 1966, p. 195.

Greasley, Phillip. “Myth and the Midwestern Landscape: Sherwood Anderson's Mid-American Chants.Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson, ed. David D. Anderson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Pp. 210-16.

Rideout, Walter B. “Sherwood Anderson's Mid-American Chants.Aspects of American Poetry: Essays Presented to Howard Mumford Jones. Richard M. Ludwig, ed. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1962. Pp. 149-70.

Sutton, William A. The Road to Winesburg: A Mosaic of the Imaginative Life of Sherwood Anderson. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1972.

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Sherwood Anderson Long Fiction Analysis