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Sherwood Anderson was among the first American authors to explore the influence of the unconscious upon human behavior. A writer of brooding, introspective works, his ”hunger to see beneath the surface of lives” was best expressed in the bittersweet stories which 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 won der at the potential beauty of life with despair over its tragic aspects.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Living and Observing Everyday Life in Ohio
Born in 1876 in Ohio to an out-of-work harness maker and a washerwoman, Sherwood Anderson was raised in the small town of Clyde, which later served as the model for Winesburg in his celebrated short story collection Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life. In Clyde, while coming to hate the self-sacrificing drudgery to which his mother was reduced and the irresponsibility of his alcoholic father, Anderson first learned the art of telling stories while listening to his father tell the entertaining anecdotes for which he was known. Attending school infrequently, Anderson took a number of temporary jobs to help his impoverished family, working as a newsboy, a housepainter, a field worker, and a “swipe,” or stable hand. These experiences, along with the awkward sexual initiation described in his Memoirs (1942), later provided thematic and incidental material for his fiction.
From Businessman to Artist
After a brief stint in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, Ander son married, became an advertising copywriter in Chicago, and then went on to manage his own paint factory, the Anderson Manufacturing Company, in Elyria, Ohio. His commercial success, however, did not satisfy his awakening artistic aspirations, and he spent his spare time—and a fair amount of company time—writing fiction.
Scholars have noted that the year 1912 marked a watershed in Anderson’s artistic and professional life. In November of that year, overworked and beset by various worries, Anderson suffered a mental breakdown; as best as can be determined from the conflicting accounts in his writings, he suddenly walked out of his office in the midst of dictating a letter and was discovered four days later many miles away, babbling incoherently. Shortly afterward his marriage and business failed, and he returned to Chicago to resume work in advertising. There he met such writers of the Chicago Renaissance as Floyd Dell, Carl Sandburg, Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht, and Bur ton Rascoe, who read his early fiction and encouraged him. Most of his early stories were printed in Masses, Little Review, Seven Arts, and other “little” magazines.
Anderson attained recognition as an important new voice in American literature with the appearance of Winesburg, Ohio in 1919. Published the same year that World War I concluded, the book exhibits many of the bleak aspects of modern life that concerned writers after a prolonged period of strife and sorrow. For example, reacting perhaps to the return of shell-shocked soldiers from the trenches of modern warfare (and the renewed interest in psychology they caused), Anderson focuses on individuals rather than on groups, and regards these individuals as isolated and alone. Some critics denounced the book as morbid, depressing, and overly concerned with sex; others, however, praised it for its honesty and depth, com-paring Anderson’s accomplishment with that of Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky in its concern with the buried life of the soul. Commentators noted that Anderson achieved a fusion of simply stated fiction and brooding psychological analysis—”half tale and half psychological anatomizing” was famed critic H. L. Mencken’s description— which reveals the essential loneliness and beauty of ordinary people living out their lives during the twilight days of agrarian America in a fading Ohio town.
Outside Influences and Changes in Style
Ander son’s style was shaped during the 1920s by the works of Gertrude Stein, particularly her Three Lives, while his personal philosophy reflected that of D. H. Lawrence. In such stories as ”Unused” and ”The New Englander,” he attempted to write with the simple, repetitive verbiage and rhythms of Stein and to develop Lawrence’s beliefs concerning the psychologically crippling effects of sexual repression. Exploring the psychological undercurrents of life in industrialized America, Anderson wrote some of his strongest works in the 1920s, though he was compelled to continue working in advertising until 1922. That year he received Dial magazine’s first annual Dial Award for his accomplishment in The Triumph of the Egg and the cash award enabled Anderson to leave advertising and to devote himself full-time to writing.
In 1927, with the earnings from his novel Dark Laughter—the only commercially successful work of his lifetime—Anderson settled in the town of Marion, Virginia, where he bought two weekly newspapers which he wrote for and edited. He spent much of the rest of his life in rural southwestern Virginia among the small-town people with whom he had always felt a warm kinship, occasionally publishing collections of his newspaper columns and essays on American life. His final collection of short fiction, Death in the Woods, appeared in 1933 during the Great Depression and sold poorly. He wrote little during the last few years of his life, declaring that writing was a dead art in America and that the future for artistic achievement lay in motion pictures. While on a cruise to South America in 1941, Anderson died of peritonitis after accidentally swallowing part of a wooden toothpick at a shipboard banquet. He is buried just outside Marion, with his chosen epitaph inscribed upon his gravestone: ”Life, not death, is the great adventure.”
Works in Literary Context
Writing In Between Literary Movements
Though writing in a period of industrialization and urbanization at the beginning of the twentieth century, Sherwood Anderson avoided the Naturalistic style of writing, popularized by writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair. While Naturalists focused on urban settings and viewed the world as a hostile, dangerous place, Anderson chose small towns as his settings, and focused on the individualized experiences of lone characters. Thus, Anderson’s style is more akin to the Modernists—who focused on the individual rather than the crowd—that followed him. The style and outlook of Winesburg, Ohio and of Anderson’s three other short story collections— The Triumph of the Egg (1921), Horses and Men (1923), and Death in the Woods, and Other Stories (1933)—were influential in shaping the writings of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, and many other American authors.
Two important ramifications of his aesthetic stance are his views of plot and characterization. He bitterly attacked the stories of O. Henry and others for their ‘poison plots’—stories that sacrificed characterization and fidelity to life for the sake of striking turns of event. Anderson expected a writer to have utter loyalty to the characters in his imagination. His typical stories, then— both unique and typically modern in eschewing strict plots—offered a compelling model for other writers.
Anderson wrote his Winesburg, Ohio during a time period marked by increased industrialization, and the vast migration of workers from small towns to large cities. Due to this depersonalizing mechanization and the wide-scale experience of anonymity in urban life, both writers and readers became interested in narratives of small town or rural communities and their idiosyncratic characters. Many writers—such as Anderson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Bret Harte, and James Lane Allen—sought to preserve the manners and customs, or ”local color,” of the regions in which they were raised or lived.
Anderson’s stories are set in a small town in Ohio during the late nineteenth century, in the interim period between the end of the American Civil War and the rise of industrialism. The stories themselves feature characters in isolation, yet taken as a whole, these characters produce the character and identity of the town. In ”Hands,” for example, the secrets of the town’s ostracized school master are revealed; in “Respectability” the ugliest man in Winesburg explains that his hatred of women came from his manipulative mother-in-law. As Professor David D. Anderson reflected:
Winesburg is refuge, it is nurturer, it is prison, it is point of departure; it provides, sometimes simultaneously, psychological support and spiritual torment as it plays its active part in the lives of its people, providing at once the walls that isolate them, the values that alienate them, and the ideals that liberate them.
Works in Critical Context
Critics agree that Anderson’s short stories best convey his vision of life, which is often despairing but tempered by his folksy, poignant tone and sense of wonder. ”In Anderson, when all is said and done,” wrote Henry Miller, ”it is the strong human quality which draws one to him and leads one to prefer him sometimes to those who are undeniably superior to him as artists.”
Anderson was long called a leader in ”the revolt from the village” in American literature, an often-quoted appellation given him by Carl Van Doren in a 1921 essay. But while he examined the troubled, darker aspects of provincial life, he saw the small town as an essential and admirable part of America, and he attacked Sinclair Lewis and Mencken for their incessant satirical gibes at village vulgarity. Hostile reviewers of his works called him ‘Sherwood Lawrence’ (a reference to the controversial writer D. H. Lawrence) and tended to portray him as a writer obsessed with sex, though the next generation of American writers made his treatment of sexual relations seem tame by comparison. And some critics and readers who had early enjoyed Anderson’s books found them, in later years, stylistically and thematically adolescent and repetitive: reviewing Death in the Woods for New Republic in 1933, T. S. Matthews spoke for many critics when he wrote that he was ”so used to Anderson now, to his puzzled confidences, his groping repetitions, his occasional stumblings into real inspiration that perhaps we tend to underrate him as an American phenomenon. Or perhaps we no longer overrate him.” However, Theodore Dreiser spoke for many of Anderson’s readers when in 1941 he wrote:
Anderson, his life and his writings, epitomize for me the pilgrimage of a poet and dreamer across this limited stage called Life, whose reactions to the mystery of our beings and doings here … involved tenderness, love and beauty, delight in the strangeness of our will-less reactions as well as pity, sympathy and love for all things both great and small.
Winesburg, Ohio is one of the most critically discussed books within the American short story tradition. It has been interpreted in a variety of ways: as commentary on social and sexual mores in small town rural America; as an allegory of the sociopolitical changes occurring at the turn of the twentieth century; and, by feminists, as a glimpse of the determined gender roles that stifled women before the Industrial Revolution. In general, however, critics agree that the great strength of the work lies in its use of local color and subtle characterization. Writing in 1927, critic Cleveland B. Chase commented that the novel’s really effective episodes are rarely those that bear directly on the main story; much more often they are detached vignettes, sketches of minor characters, “colorful” episodes inserted to describe a desired atmosphere.
- Anderson, David D., ed. Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
- Burbank, Rex. Sherwood Anderson. London: Twayne, 1964.
- Chase, Cleveland B. ”Anderson’s Writings.” In Sherwood Anderson. New York: Robert M. McBride, 1927.
- Rideout, Walter B., ed. Sherwood Anderson: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
- Small, Judy Jo. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1994.
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