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Sherwood Anderson is described as a man who, despite trying a variety of jobs, marriages, and locales, was dogged by a sense of living an unfulfilled life. Do the unfulfilled characters in his fiction generally have such an awareness? Or do theydiffer from their author in this respect?
What does Anderson gain from using a newspaper reporter as his narrator in Winesburg, Ohio?
Anderson calls his Winesburg characters “grotesques.” Are his grotesques ever likable? Are they ever beautiful?
Each of Anderson’s characters is said to achieve an epiphany, “a special insight or revelation.” What evidence do you see that these epiphanies actually do the characters any good?
Do you see any instances of Anderson’s style being less simple than it seems to be?
Other Literary Forms
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Sherwood Anderson published seven novels, collections of essays, memoirs, poetry, and dramatizations of Winesburg, Ohio, as well as other stories. He was a prolific article writer and for a time owned and edited both the Republican and Democratic newspapers in Marion, Virginia. In 1921, he received a two-thousand-dollar literary prize from The Dial magazine. While employed as a copywriter, Anderson wrote many successful advertisements.
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Sherwood Anderson, a protomodernist, is generally accepted as an innovator in the field of the short story despite having produced only one masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio. In his work, he not only revolutionized the structure of short fiction by resisting the literary slickness of the contrived plot but also encouraged a simple and direct prose style, one which reflects the spare poetry of ordinary American speech. Anderson’s thematic concerns were also innovative. He was one of the first writers to dramatize the artistic repudiation of the business world and to give the craft of the short story a decided push toward presenting a slice of life as a significant moment. His concern with the “grotesques” in society—the neurotics and eccentrics—is also innovative as is the straightforward attention he pays to his characters’ sexuality. Anderson’s contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck were influenced by his work, as were several later writers: Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Saul Bellow, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Raymond Carver.
Other literary forms
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In addition to Winesburg, Ohio, which some critics regard as a collection of loosely related short stories, Sherwood Anderson produced three volumes of short stories: The Triumph of the Egg (1921); Horses and Men (1923); and Death in the Woods, and Other Stories(1933). He published two books of prose poems, Mid-American Chants (1918) and A New Testament (1927). Plays: Winesburg and Others was published in 1937. Anderson’s autobiographical writings, among his most interesting prose works, include A Story Teller’s Story (1924), Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926), and the posthumously published Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs (1942). All three are such a mixture of fact and fiction that they are sometimes listed as fiction rather than autobiography. Anderson also brought out in book form several volumes of journalistic pieces, many of which had appeared originally in his newspapers: Sherwood Anderson’s Notebook (1926), Perhaps Women (1931), No Swank (1934), Puzzled America (1935), and Home Town (1940). The Modern Writer (1925) is a collection of lectures.
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Sherwood Anderson was not a greatly gifted novelist; in fact, it might be argued that he was not by nature a novelist at all. He was a brilliant and original writer of tales. His early reputation, which brought him the homage of writers such as James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, was established by the stories published in Winesburg, Ohio, The Triumph of the Egg, and Horses and Men. Anderson had published two novels before Winesburg, Ohio and was to publish five more, but none of these achieved the critical success of his short pieces.
Anderson’s difficulties with the novel are understandable when one sees that his great gift was for rendering moments of intense consciousness—“epiphanies,” as James Joyce called them—for which the short story or the tale is the perfect vehicle. The novel form requires a more objective sense of a world outside the individual consciousness as well as the ability to move characters through change and development and to deal to some extent with the effect of character on character. The best parts of Anderson’s novels are those scenes in which he deals, as in the short stories, with a minor character trapped by his own eccentric nature in a hostile world.
Another serious limitation to Anderson’s talent as a novelist was his inclination to preach, to see himself as a prophet and reformer and to make sweeping generalizations that are as embarrassing as they are inartistic. Even in Poor White, probably his best novel, his characters run to types and become, finally, representative figures in a social allegory. In his worst novels, the characters are caricatures whose absurdity is not perceived by their author. Anderson’s style, which could at times work brilliantly, became excessively mannered, a kind of self-parody, which was a sure sign that he had lost his grip on the talent that had produced his best and earlier work.
Winesburg, Ohio is without doubt Anderson’s great achievement. It is a collection of tales striving to become a novel; indeed, most critics regard it as a novel, a new form of the novel, which, though perhaps first suggested by Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915), took on its own expressive form and became the model for later works such as Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1924) and William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished (1938). A few of the Winesburg stories, such as “Godliness,” are marred by a tendency to generalization, but on the whole they assume the coherence and solidity of such masterpieces as Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which bristle with implications not only about the life of their times but also about the present. If Anderson had published only Winesburg, Ohio, he would be remembered and ranked as an important minor American novelist.
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Anderson, David D. Sherwood Anderson: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967. This critical biography argues that all of Anderson’s work, not just Winesburg, Ohio, must be considered when attempting to understand Anderson’s career and his place in the literary canon.
Appel, Paul P. Homage to Sherwood Anderson: 1876-1941. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: Author, 1970. A collection of essays originally published in homage to Anderson after his death in 1941. Among the contributors are Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, and William Saroyan. Also includes Anderson’s previously unpublished letters and his essay “The Modern Writer,” which had been issued as a limited edition in 1925.
Bassett, John E. Sherwood Anderson: An American Career. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2006. Bassett reevaluates the accomplishments in Winesburg, Ohio and Anderson’s other novels and short stories, but focuses more than previous studies on his nonfiction, autobiographical, and journalistic writing. Also discusses how Anderson coped with the cultural changes of his time.
Campbell, Hilbert H., and Charles E. Modlin, eds. Sherwood Anderson: Centennial Studies. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1976. Written for Anderson’s centenary, these eleven previously unpublished essays were solicited by the editors. Some of the essays explore Anderson’s relationship with other artists, including Edgar Lee Masters, Henry Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, and J. J. Lankes.
Dunne, Robert. A New Book of the Grotesques: Contemporary Approaches to Sherwood Anderson’s Early Fiction. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2005. Offers a new interpretation of Anderson’s early fiction by looking at it from a postmodern theoretical perspective, especially from poststructuralist approaches. Describes how the early novels laid the groundwork for Winesburg, Ohio before it examines that novel.
Ellis, James. “Sherwood Anderson’s Fear of Sexuality: Horses, Men, and Homosexuality.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Fall, 1993): 595-601. On the basis of biographer Kim Townsend’s suggestion that Anderson sought out male spiritual friendships because he felt that sexuality would debase the beauty of woman, Ellis examines Anderson’s treatment of sexuality as a threat in male relationships in “I Want to Know Why” and “The Man Who Became a Woman.”
Hansen, Tom. “Who’s a Fool? A Rereading of Sherwood Anderson’s ‘I’m a Fool.’” The Midwest Quarterly 38 (Summer, 1997): 372-379. Argues that the narrator is the victim of his own self-importance and is thus played for a fool. Discusses class consciousness and conflict in the story.
Howe, Irving. Sherwood Anderson. Toronto, Ont.: William Sloane, 1951. This highly biographical work explores why Anderson, a writer with only one crucial book, remains an outstanding artist in American literature. The chapters on Winesburg, Ohio and the short stories are noteworthy; both were later published in collections of essays on Anderson.
Papinchak, Robert Allen. Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. Introduction to Anderson’s short stories examines his search for an appropriate form and his experimentations with form in the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, as well as the short stories that appeared before and after that book. Deals with Anderson’s belief that the most authentic history of life is a history of moments when a person truly lives, as well as his creation of the grotesque as an American type that also reflects a new social reality. Includes comments from Anderson’s essays, letters, and notebooks, as well as brief commentaries by five other critics.
Rideout, Walter B. Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America. 2 vols. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2007. A thoroughly researched biography that draws on existing biographies of Anderson as well as interviews with his friends and family members.
Rideout, Walter B., ed. Sherwood Anderson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Treats Anderson from a variety of perspectives: as prophet, storyteller, and maker of American myths. Three of the essays deal with Winesburg, Ohio, including a discussion of how Anderson wrote the book. Includes an appreciation of Anderson’s work by William Faulkner and a chronology of significant dates.
Small, Judy Jo. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Provides commentary on every story in Winesburg, Ohio, The Triumph of the Egg, Horses and Men, and Death in the Woods. Small summarizes the interpretations of other critics and supplies historical and biographical background, accounts of how the stories were written, the period in which they were published, and their reception.
Townsend, Kim. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. In this biography of Sherwood Anderson, Townsend focuses, in part, on how Anderson’s life appears in his writing. Supplemented by twenty-six photographs and a useful bibliography of Anderson’s work.
White, Ray Lewis, ed. The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson: Essays in Criticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966. This collection of essays treats an important variety of subjects, including isolation, Freudianism, and socialism in Anderson’s texts, as well as his development as an artist.