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Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941)


Writer whose prose style, derived from everyday speech, influenced American short story writing between World Wars I and II. Anderson made his name as a leading naturalistic writer with his masterwork, Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a picture of life in a typical small Midwestern town, as seen through the eyes of its inhabitants. Anderson's episodic bildungsroman has been compared often to Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.

"The young man's mind was carried away by his growing passion for dreams. One looking at him would not have thought him particularly sharp. With the recollection of little things occupying his mind he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint his dreams of his manhood." (from Winesburg, Ohio)

Sherwood Anderson was born in Camden, Ohio, the son of Irwin and Emma Smith Anderson. His parents led a transient life, moving from one place to another after work. His father had served in the Union Army but eventually ended up keeping a small harness-repair shop and then working as a house-and-barn painter, though calling himself a "sign-writer." Anderson attended school only intermittently, while helping to support the family by working as a newsboy, housepainter, stock handler, and stable groom. At the age of 17 Anderson moved to Chicago. There he attended business classes at night, and spent his days as a warehouse laborer. In 1895 he joined the National Guard. During the Spanish-American war Anderson fought in Cuba. "I prefer yellow fever in Cuba to living in cold storage in Chicago," he wrote to his brother Karl. After the war Anderson returned to Ohio, for a final year of schooling at Wittenberg College, Springfield.

For the next few years Anderson moved restlessly around Ohio. From 1904 his life calmed down for some time with marriage to Cornelia Lane, a college-educated woman of prosperous family, and with work as a paint manufacturer in Elyria. All his free time Anderson spent with writing. In November of 1912, he walked out of his office and left a note to Cornelia: "There is a bridge over a river with cross-ties before it. When I come to that I’ll be all right. I’ll write all day in the sun and the wind will blow through my hair." During the emotional collapse he wandered, dazed, four days around Cleveland,  and  went to Chicago too.

Later Anderson claimed, that his wife was unsympathetic to his attempts at writing. However, most likely Cornelia's attitude was encouraging, overall – she held advanced beliefs, was interested in literature, attended concerts, and contributed a paper on 'Social Conditions in Russia' for the Fortnightly Club. Anderson took a job as a copy-writer at the Taylor-Critchfield Advertising Company, visiting his family on weekends. In Chicago he joined the so-called Chicago Group, which included such writers as Theodore Dreiser and Carl Sandburg.  After  divorce, Anderson   spent a summer at Camp Owlyout, a colony for avant-garde women, with Tennessee Mitchell, a sculptor and musician, who had ended her relationship with Edgar Lee Masters. Occasionally Anderson danced with Tennesse and the other women when they assembled on the dance ground wearing Grecian robes. They married in 1916 but lived in separate apartments in Chicago a good part of their married lives.

Anderson's two first novels were Windy McPherson's Son (1916) and Marching Men (1917), both containing the psychological themes of inner lives of Midwestern villages, the pursuit of success and disillusionment. His third novel, Winesburg, Ohio, was "half individual tales, half long novel form", as the author himself described it. It consisted of twenty-three thematically related sketches and stories. Written in a simple, realistic language illuminated by a muted lyricism, Anderson dramatized crucial episodes in the lives of his characters. "My own vocabulary was small," Anderson once said. "I had no Latin and no Greek, no French. When I wanted to arrive at anything like delicate shades of meaning in my writing I had to do it with my own very limited vocabulary." Many of the tales have moral lessons weaved into them. The narrative is united by the appearance of George Willard, a young reporter, who is in revolt against the narrowness of the small-town life and who acts as a counterpoint to the other people of the town.

Anderson's book was rejected by several publishers. One of them handed him a copy of a novel by an Anglo-American author, saying "Read this and learn how to write." The individual tales of Winesburg, Ohio, and Anderson's other collections of short stories, The Triumph of the Egg (1920), Horses and Men (1932), and Death in the Woods (1933), directed the American short story away from the neatly plotted tales of O. Henry and his imitators. Anderson's emphasis was on the development of his characters, their motivation, and psychological process. In his Memoirs (1942) he said that he had thought that the novel form, being brought in does not fit an American writer.

In 1921 Anderson received the first Dial Award for his contribution to American literature. He travelled widely in Europe. While in Paris he met Gertrude Stein, whose work he much admired. "She is an American woman of the old sort, one who cares for the handmade goodies and who scorns the factory-made foods, and in her own great kitchen she is making something with her materials, something sweet to the tongue and fragrant to the nostrils." After Anderson returned back to the United States, he settled in New Orleans, where he shared an apartment with William Faulkner. Anderson helped Faulkner to publish his first novel, Soldier's Pay (1926).

After separating from Tennessee Mitchell, Anderson married in 1923 Elizabeth Prall, who had worked as a bookstore manager in New York; also Anderson's third marriage broke down but with Eleanor Copenhaver, a social worker, he managed to maintain a stable family life. Their love letters were published in 1991. Anderson's letters between 1916 and 1933 to his mistress and friend, Marietta D. Finley, a manuscript reader for the Bobbs-Merrill Company in Indiana, were collected in  Letters to Bab (1985). Marietta, or "Bab" as he called her, dutifully kept his letters and typed them up with a carbon copy, but Anderson destroyed hers. 

Anderson's novel Dark Laughter (1925) became a bestseller. In the story the disillusioned protagonist travels down the Missisippi imagining the kind of book Mark Twain might now write. From New Orleans Anderson moved to New York for some time, and from there finally to Marion, Virginia, where he built a country house, and worked as a farmer and journalist. He travelled again in Europe and wrote to his son John, a young painter: "I've a notion that, in America, you will be less bothered with homosexuality inclined men. However the arts have always been a refuge for such men. They are, as I think you have guessed, the less vigorous men. There is some distinct challenge of life they do not want to meet, and can't meet." In 1927 he bought both of Marion's weekly newspapers, one Republican, one Democrat, and edited them for two years. Anderson wrote columns under the pen name Buck Fever. To earn extra income he continued his series of lectures throughout the country.

When Anderson separated from Elizabeth Prall in 1929, he gave the editionship of the newspapers to his son Robert. Commissioned by Today magazine, Anderson studied the labour conditions during the Depression and published his articles in Puzzled America (1935). With encouragement from Eleanor, Anderson began compile notes for his memoirs.  Anderson's newspaper pieces were collected in Hello Towns (1929), Return to Winesburg (1967) and The Buck Fever Papers (1971).

Anderson was among the earliest American writers, who responded to Freud's theories, and his best works influenced almost every important American writer of the next generation. He also encouraged William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway in their writing aspirations, although they eventually turned against him. Hemingway parodied Anderson's style in The Torrents of Spring (1926). Stein declared that Anderson was "a much more origial writer" than Hemingway.

Anderson died of peritonitis on an unofficial good-will tour to South America, at Christobal, Canal Zone, on March 8, in 1941. He had swallowed in New York a three-inch toothpick in the olive of one of his martins, and boarded then the Grace Line's Santa Maria bound to Panama. Anderson fell seriously ill on the ship. At his autopsy it was found that the toothpick had projected through the lower part of the colon into the the abdominal cavity. Anderson was buried at Round Hill Cemetery in Marion.

After his death, Anderson's reputation soon declined, but in the 1970s, scholars and critics found a new interest in his work. During his lifetime Anderson wrote two autobiographical works, A Story Teller's Story (1924) and semi-fictional Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926). His Memoirs and  Letters (1953) were published posthumously, as the more definitive The Memoirs of Sherwood Andereson (1969). In A Story Teller's Story the author explained why he disregarded dates in his autobiographies: "I think it was Joseph Conrad who said that a writer only began to live after he began to write. It pleased me to think I was after all but ten years old. Plenty of time ahead for such a one. Time to look about, plenty of time to look about."

For further reading: Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America, Volume 1 by Walter B. Rideout (2006); Sherwood Anderson: An American Career by John Earl Bassett (2005); Sherwood Anderson and the American Short Story by P.A. Abraham (1994); A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson by Judy Jo Small (1994); A Study of the Short Fiction by R.A. Papinchak (1992);Winesburg, Ohio: An Exploration by Ray Lewis White (1990); A Story Teller and a City by Kenny J. Williams (1988); Sherwood Anderson by K. Townsend (1987); Sherwood Anderson: Centennial Studies, ed. by H. Campbell and C. Modlin (1976); Sherwood Anderson: Dimensions of His Literary Art, ed. by D. Anderson (1976); Sherwood Anderson: Essays in Criticism, ed. by W. Rideout (1974); The Road to Winesburg by W. Sutton (1972); Sherwood Anderson by D. Anderson (1967); Sherwood Anderson by B. Weber (1964); Sherwood Anderson by R. Burbank (1964); Sherwood Anderson: A Bibliography by E. Sheehy and K. Lohf (1960); Sherwood Anderson by J. Schevill (1951); Sherwood Anderson by I. Howe (1951)

Selected works:

  • Windy McPherson's Son, 1916 (rev. ed., 1921)
  • Marching Men, 1917
  • Mid-American Chats, 1918
  • Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life, 1919
    - Pikkukaupunki (suom. Leena-Maija Reunanen, 1955) / Pikku kaupunki (Leena-Maija Reunanen, 1967)
    - TV drama in 1973, dir. by Ralph Senensky, starring Jean Peters, Joseph Bottoms, Timothy Bottoms, Albert Salmi; Chicago Heights, 2009, prod. 923 Films, dir. by Daniel Nearing, cast: Mercedes Kane, Brian Harris, Benny Stewart, Barbara Hogu, Tovah Hicks, Jason Coleman
  • Poor White: A Novel, 1920
  • The Triumph of the Egg: A Book of Impressions from Amerivcan Life, 1920 (with  Tennessee Mitchell,  photographs by Eugene Hutchinson)
  • Horses and Men: Tales, Long and Short, from Our American Life, 1923
  • Many Marriages, 1923
  • A Story Teller's Story: The Tale of an American Writer's Journey through His Own Imaginative World and through the World of Facts, with Many of His Experiences and Impressions among Other Writers--Told in Many Notes--in Four Books--and an Epilogue, 1924
  • Dark Laughter, 1925
    - Musta naurua (suom. Toini Aaltonen, 1943)
  • Hands, and Other Stories, 1925
  • The Modern Writer, 1925
  • Notebook: Sherwood Anderson's Notebook, Containing Articles Written During the Author's Life as a Story Teller, and Notes of His Impressions from Life Scattered through the Book, 1926
  • Tar, A Midwest Childhood, 1926
  • A New Testament, 1927
  • Hello Towns!, 1929
  • Alide and The Lost Novel, 1929
  • Nearer the Grass Roots, 1929
  • The American Country Fair, 1930
  • Perhaps Women, 1931
  • Beyond Desire, 1932
  • Death in the Woods and Other Stories, 1933
  • No Swank, 1934
  • Puzzled America, 1935
  • Kit Brandon: A Portrait, 1936
  • Plays: Winesburg and Others, 1937
  • Five Poems, 1939
  • A Writer's Conception of Realism. An Address Delivered on January 20, 1939, at Olivet College, 1939
  • Home Town, 1940 (photographs by Farm Security Photographers)
  • Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs, 1942 (edited by Paul Rosenfeld)
  • The Sherwood Anderson Reader, 1947 (edited by Paul Rosenfeld)
  • The Portable Sherwood Anderson, 1949 (edited by Horace Gregory)
  • Letters of Sherwood Anderson, 1953
  • Sherwood Anderson's Short Stories, 1962 (edited by Maxwell Geismar)
  • Return to Winesburg: Selections from Four Years of Writing for a Country Newspaper, 1967 (edited by Ray Lewis White)
  • Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs: A Critical Edition, 1969 (edited by Ray Lewis White)
  • The Buck Fever Papers, 1971 (edited by Welford Dunaway Taylor)
  • Sherwood Anderson / Gertrude Stein: Correspondance and Personal Essays, 1972 (edited by Ray Lewis White)
  • The "Writer's Book", 1975 (a critical edition by Martha Mulroy Curry)
  • France and Sherwood Anderson: Paris Notebook, 1921, 1976
  • Sherwood Anderson, the Writer at His Craft, 1979 (edited by Jack Salzman, David D. Anderson, and Kichinosuke Ohashi) 
  • Teller's Tales 1983 (selection and introduction by Frank Gado)
  • Selected Letters, 1984 (edited by Charles E. Modlin)
  • Letters to Bab: Sherwood Anderson to Marietta D. Finley, 1916-33, 1985 (edited by William A. Sutton)
  • The Sherwood Anderson Diaries, 1936-1941 (edited by Hilbert H. Campbell)
  • Sherwood Anderson's Love Letters to Eleanor Coperhaver Anderson, 1989 (edited by Charles E. Modlin)
  • Sherwood Anderson: Early Writings, 1989 (edited by Ray Lewis White)
  • Sherwood Anderson's Secret Love Letters: For Eleanor, a Letter a Day, 1991 (edited with an introduction by Ray Lewis White)
  • Certain Things Last: The Selected Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson, 1992 (edited and introduced by Charles E. Modlin)
  • Southern Odyssey: Selected Writings of Sherwood Anderson, 1997 (edited by Welford Dunaway Taylor and Charles E. Modlin)
  • American Spring Song: The Selected Poems of Sherwood Anderson, 2007 (edited by Stuart Downs)

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