Sherwood Anderson Biography

Sherwood Anderson, although he enjoyed considerable success both critically and financially, was already forty years old when his first work, Windy McPherson’s Son (1916), was published. Up until then, Anderson had made his mark in the business world, but after a nervous breakdown, he quit his job to pursue a literary career full-time. Winesburg, Ohio (1919) remains his best-known and most admired novel. A loose collection of overlapping anecdotes about small-town life in the nineteenth century, Winesburg is an unflinching consideration of individuals in pursuit of the elusive American Dream. Maybe trying to make up for lost time, Anderson also wrote four other novels as well as a number of short stories, plays, and editorials before he died in 1941 at the age of sixty-five.

Facts and Trivia

  • Anderson had a very spotty education as a child, as his parents were forced to move frequently to find work.
  • After moving to Chicago on his own as a young teen, Anderson made ends meet by working as a farm hand and in factories. Between 1898 and 1899, he served in the Spanish-American War.
  • Sherwood Anderson founded the company Anderson Manufacturing, whose claim to fame was a top-selling product called “Roof-Fix.”
  • Anderson was instrumental in getting both William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway published.
  • Anderson’s gravestone reads: “Life, not death, is the greatest adventure.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101

Sherwood Anderson was born in Camden, Ohio, a small town near Dayton, on September 13, 1876; he was the third of seven children of Emma and Irvin Anderson. His mother was of Italian descent. His father was a sign painter who was far from being an economic success but who had been a cavalryman in the Union army during the Civil War, where his training as a harness maker was particularly valuable. Gradually the local, independent saddlery was superseded by the harness factories, and craftsmen such as Irvin Anderson became redundant and impoverished. Emma Anderson took in laundry to supplement the family income. The social and economic circumstances of his parents clearly influenced Sherwood’s later thinking and his choice of themes for his stories. In 1884, the Anderson family moved from Camden to Clyde, Ohio, near the Lake Erie city of Cleveland, which is frequently mentioned in Winesburg, Ohio (1919).

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For a time after 1896, Anderson worked in a Chicago warehouse before enlisting for service in the Spanish-American War, from which he was discharged with the rank of corporal. Thereafter, he enrolled in Wittenburg Academy at Springfield, Ohio, and graduated in June, 1900, becoming an advertising salesman and copywriter in Chicago. In 1904, he married Cornelia Lane, the first of the four wives whom, as he said, he tried “blunderingly to love.” During those years he became a professional success, writing what he called “rather senseless advertisements,” but he was spiritually unsatisfied. Accordingly, he moved to Elyria, a small town on the periphery of Cleveland, and in 1906 founded the Anderson Manufacturing Company, which produced paint.

For a dozen years Anderson was rather successful economically, and he took satisfaction in his family; however, his success was not wholly fulfilling, and he engaged in extramarital affairs, overindulged in alcohol, and started writing a novel. One day he left his office, was found walking the streets of Cleveland, and was hospitalized for a mental breakdown. Upon his release he returned to Chicago to join the band of writers (including Ben Hecht, Floyd Dell, Theodore Dreiser, and Carl Sandburg) who were the leading spirits within the Chicago Renaissance.

Anderson showed the novel on which he had been working before his breakdown to his new acquaintances in Chicago. They recommended it for publication, and Windy McPherson’s Son (1916), largely autobiographical, offered many indications of the nature of Anderson’s subsequent writing, though it cannot be regarded as a major work of fiction. The character Windy McPherson is a thinly veiled portrait of Anderson’s father; his son, Sam, gropes with the loneliness and oppressiveness of a small town (Caxton, Iowa) and tries to kill his father. He goes to Chicago, becomes successful, and marries advantageously—only to renounce the world of business and financial security in an endeavor to “find truth.” In many ways the early episode imitates Huckleberry Finn’s supposed killing of his father, Pap, which impels Huck’s Mississippi River odyssey in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), but the rest of the story, with its exploration of loneliness and aspiration, success and withdrawal, previews the very essence of Winesburg, Ohio.

In the same year, 1916, Anderson divorced Lane and married Tennessee Mitchell. Then, in 1917, he published Marching Men, a novel set in the central Pennsylvania coal mining region that highlighted the failure of a movement to organize the miners against the oppressiveness of cheerless, stultifying routine. In Mid-American Chants (1918), Anderson attempted his hand at poetry but with slight success. His models were Spoon River Anthology (1915), by Edgar Lee Masters, and the verse of Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Gertrude Stein. It was in the following year, 1919, that he first gained widespread recognition with the publication of Winesburg, Ohio, a series of frequently interconnected stories treating the unfulfilled potential, the unsatisfied craving for sexual satisfaction, and the tyranny of mediocrity and orthodoxy in small-town America.

During a trip to Europe in 1921, Anderson met writers Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, and James Joyce. During this year Anderson became the first recipient of the Dial award; the next year it was awarded to T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land (1922). Many Marriages (1923) shocked some readers by its sexual frankness, which was considered an element of the new realism of literature that was most apparent in the work of D. H. Lawrence and that resulted, in large part, from the emphasis placed by Sigmund Freud on the role of sex in human personality and behavior. Anderson saw his characters as suffering from thwarted emotions.

Anderson divorced Mitchell in 1924 and married Elizabeth Prall. They went to live for a time in New Orleans (he had been there earlier, when he was writing Many Marriages). There he met William Faulkner, who was then working as a newspaperman, and he influenced Faulkner in both subject matter and style, encouraging him to become a novelist. Anderson’s Dark Laughter (1925), a novel that contrasts the spiritual sterility of the white population with the irrepressible optimism and endurance of black people, is at once the most mature of his novels and the one closest in technique and philosophy to those of Faulkner, who was indubitably his superior in prose fiction technique and psychological exploration.

In 1927, Anderson settled in Marion, Virginia, and edited two local newspapers, one Democratic, the other Republican. In 1929, he divorced Prall. With the onset of the Depression, Anderson joined Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, and other distinguished leftist writers in advocating a new order based on workers’ interests. His political interests were not new: In Hello Towns! (1929) and Nearer the Grass Roots (1929) he had sung the merits and shortcomings of the small towns of America, those sources of “every phase of life.” Perhaps Women (1931), a polemical study, proposed that a solution to the problem of the mechanical sterility of modern life might be found in the political leadership of women.

In 1933, Anderson was married, for the fourth time, to Eleanor Copenhaver. That year he published a collection of short stories, Death in the Woods, and Other Stories. Subsequently he wrotePuzzled America (1935), social essays; Kit Brandon (1936), a novel showing characters still trapped in constraining environments; Home Town (1940), essays; and memoirs. In 1937, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He died in Colón, Panama Canal Zone, on March 8, 1941, while on a tour sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Hart Crane, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and many other modern American writers were directly or indirectly influenced by Anderson. No less than Faulkner declared that Anderson was “the father of my generation of American writers and the tradition of American writing which our successors will carry on.”

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