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Sherwood Anderson, American

ISSUE:  Summer 1941

I first met Sherwood Anderson in the summer of 1913 at one of the little shops converted into studios, relics of the World’s Fair of 1893, which stand on the edge of Jackson Park in Chicago. He was in his workman’s clothes (he was then a house painter) but dangled a manuscript instead of a paint pail. He was then nearly forty, but seemed younger, though there was something a little grim and repressed in his manner, unlike the buoyant and genial disposition which later was so habitual. Perhaps he realized that this was a somewhat momentous occasion. The opening chapter of the novel which he proceeded to read was a piece of stark realism in the manner of Dreiser, who that year was living in Chicago. I do not know whether Sherwood met Dreiser at that time, but he did meet Floyd Dell, who recommended to John Lane in London the publication of “Windy McPherson’s Son” as a piece of Americana.

Anderson thus began his writing career under the influence and patronage of the realists at the time when realism was being modified by symbolism. In 1919 his next book, “Winesburg, Ohio,” showed clearly the quality which was to become his characteristic, the extension of the realistic method by a groping sense of the significance behind the trivial human phenomena which he recorded so accurately. Individually the sketches of persons and episodes which make up the volume seem to reflect a suggestion from the “Spoon River Anthology.” Together they add up to a unit, and “Winesburg, Ohio” is a character sketch of a town. This construction marked less emphatically two later volumes of short stories, “The Triumph of the Egg” and “Horses and Men,” which consolidated his reputation in this field. A novel published in 1920, “Poor White,” opens, like “Windy McPherson’s Son,” with superb realism, but falls off into rather feeble romance. In 1925, however, with “Dark Laughter,” Sherwood Anderson achieved a genuine triumph, and took his place among our leading novelists.

Hitherto his career had been of a highly indeterminate character, of which we gain elusive glimpses through his two autobiographies, “Tar” and “A Story Teller’s Story.” The latter is by no means an organized narrative, but rather a post-impressionist picture of a life, with planes and cubes thrown together to catch the light. His father kept a harness shop in the small Ohio town where Sherwood spent his boyhood as related in “Tar.” He left home early, it would seem, and spent many years in learning and practicing life—sporting life at race tracks, farming life in field work, industrial life in a bicycle factory, military life in the Spanish War, business life as a writer of advertising copy. One event stands out because of his frequent reference to it. After having become the proprietor of a clothespin factory, which bade fair to make him a prosperous bourgeois, he walked out on that prospect and took to the open road, doubtless in the mood ascribed to young Tom Edwards in “An Ohio Pagan”: “. . . as he walked in the dusty roads under the moon, he thought of American towns and cities as places for beautifully satisfying adventures for all such fellows as himself.”

In these years he supplemented his own experience by vast areas of conversation, in which he gathered the reports of life by others, first of all his father, who was a natural story teller, then Judge Turner and Alonzo Berners. When he had a run of luck in gambling or had saved a little money he took a few weeks off to haunt libraries. His pages thus offer a profusion of tramping, fighting, talking, toiling, seeing, reading, thinking; but it is all life, felt with extraordinary sensitiveness and rendered with verve and color. One of the books which impressed him was “The Education of Henry Adams.” His own story might be called “The Education of Sherwood Anderson,” and put forth as an account of the curriculum of life as opposed to that of the schools.

This education was directed, at first instinctively, later with increasing intelligence, to the making of an American artist. Very early he realized the sterility of the divorce between the formal culture of his time, personally directed from New England, and the natural cultural inheritance of the country gained through its absorption of a hundred racial strains. “I was to see,” he cries, “the grip of the old New England, the Puritan culture, begin to loosen. The physical coming of the Celts, Latins, Slavs, men of the Far East, the blood of the dreaming nations of the world gradually flowing thicker and thicker in this body of the American, and the shrewd shop-keeping money-saving blood of the Northern men getting thinner and thinner—.”

It was this sense of abundance which characterized Anderson as a writer of the Middle West. The economy of New England had no appeal to him, nor did the safety-first philosophy of worldly success. He took life and all of it with gusto, and he reveled in its richness and color. “I have never for a moment,” he wrote, “subscribed to the philosophy of life as set forth by The Saturday Evening Post, The Atlantic Monthly, Yale, ‘Upward and Onward,’ ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ etc. There was always within me a notion of another aspect of life—at least faintly felt—a life that dreamed a little of more colorful and gaudy things—cruelty and tragedy creeping in the night, laughter, splashing sunlight, the pomp and splendor of the old tyrants, the simple devotion of old devotees.”

One cannot fail to be reminded in these passages of his contemporary, Vachel Lindsay, who had so much in common, by temperament, attitude toward life, and experience, with Sherwood Anderson. They were both prophets and priests of democracy in the years of its last glory.

A rough generalization in regard to writers of fiction divides them into two classes, those who start from a theme or a plot, and whose problem it is to find material with which to give it flesh and blood, and those who find their inspiration in the stuff of life itself, and whose problem is to discover in that substance a significance or a pattern which will justify its treatment as a unit, Sherwood Anderson was unmistakably of the second type, He was overwhelmed by the abundance of the material pressing on him for expression. He saw it as tales, stories wandering among the realities about him, naked, waiting to be clothed, while he sat, to use his own figure, like a tailor fashioning clothes for them from his imagination. His lyrical preface to “The Triumph of the Egg” pleads for them:

Tales are people who sit on the doorstep of the house of my mind.

It is cold outside, and they sit waiting. I look out at a window.

The tales have cold hands Their hands are freezing. A short thickly-built tale arises and threshes his arms about.

His nose is red and he has two gold teeth. . . ..

I am a helpless man—my hands tremble.

I should be sitting on a bench like a tailor.

I should be weaving warm cloth out of the threads of

thought. The tales should be clothed.

They are freezing on the doorstep of the house of my mind.

Sherwood Anderson felt the supreme joy of creation as he moved in his world, giving life to the creatures of his imagination. His characters are the children of his body, as well as of his mind—Wing Biddlebaum, Hugh McVey, Elizabeth Willard, Kate Swift, Jesse Bentley, Tom Means. “They had lived within me, and I had given a kind of life to them. They had lived for a passing moment anyway in the consciousness of others beside myself.” One is reminded of Wordsworth’s rapture over inanimate nature by Anderson’s intoxication with the spectacle of even the most humble life going on about him. An example of the power of trivial circumstance to stir him to imaginative activity is given in “A Story Teller’s Story.” He was looking out of his window one day upon his neighbor’s garden where he saw a man picking potato bugs off the vine while his wife was scolding him for having forgotten to bring home some sugar. “I was unconscious,” he writes, “of a dinner being put on a table downstairs in my house, unconscious of any need of food I would ever feel again, unconscious of the regime of my household, of the affairs of my factory. A man and a woman in a garden had become the center of a universe about which it seemed to me I might think and feel in joy and wonder forever.”

This rapture in the face of the teeming reality of the world is the source of the almost uncanny excitement which we feel in Anderson’s most noteworthy stories, especially those in which he extends by intuition the mental experience of men and women who in physical form pass across his vision. In his direct perception of them he resembles Chekov, and like Chekov he allows no pattern or structure to interfere with the immediate appeal of fact. Western art of fiction or of the stage tends to be centripetal; it draws attention to a group of characters whose interrelations develop into a plot. In Russian stories and plays, such as “The Cherry Orchard,” the action is centrifugal; it diffuses attention and carries it beyond the immediate action to more remote implications of a life that is unrevealed but none the less significant. This is an essential quality of Anderson’s stories. They reach outward into the unknown, and this sense of something beyond to which humanity vainly aspires brings him near to Maeterlinck. His characters are indubitably real in the things they do and say; and yet this reality is but jetsam and flotsam on the sea of the unconscious. And as with Maeterlinck his absorption in reality passes over into mysticism. The Man in the Brown Coat says: “I’ll tell you what—sometimes the whole life of this world floats in a human face in my mind. The unconscious face of this world stops and stands still before me.”

Many of Anderson’s stories are concerned with the frustration of human life that comes from isolation, the inability of one being to come near, to enter into understanding with another. One might infer from the repetition of this theme that it was a reflection of his own suffering, but in fact he seemed to be the least inhibited of beings in his intercourse with others. This constant reaching out for human relations on his part, which revealed itself in such genial and sympathetic companionship, was, however, in essence a defense against a loneliness in which he saw the deepest of human tragedies. There is the story “Unlighted Lamps,” in which father and daughter remain strangers. The Man in the Brown Coat symbolizes by that garment his isolation from his wife. “We sit together in the evening but I do not know her. I wear a brown coat and I cannot come out of my coat. I cannot come out of myself. My wife is very gentle and she speaks softly, but she cannot come out of herself.”

Sherwood Anderson found in the short story of varying length a form admirably fitted to his hand. Sometimes it is a mere sketch, as in “Milk Bottles,” or it may be a novelette, which in “Out of Nowhere into Nothing” is exactly proportioned to its function. Within the dimensions of the short story he could rely entirely on the experience of his characters, which came to him by observation or valid intuition. In his novels he was driven to extend that experience by imagination. In “Windy McPherson’s Son” and “Poor White” it is plainly to be seen where truthful fiction gives way to badly imagined romance.

“Poor White” opens with a hauntingly real picture of Hugh McVey, an overgrown lout of a boy, living with his father on the mud bank of a river town, asleep much of the time, infested by flies, earning a few cents by cleaning saloons and outhouses. A New England woman takes hold of him, arouses his ambition, teaches him to control his awkward body and fix his wandering mind. With his great physical strength he becomes a terrific worker and an inventor of machines to multiply his work. All of this may be read as an allegory of the uncouth, powerful masculine West, disciplined by the feminine hand of New England; but when the hero passes into the hands of his enemies, prosperity and marriage, he passes likewise out of the real world.

“Dark Laughter” is the story of John Stockton, a reporter with a flair for facts, whose wife Bernice wrote stories for the magazines. Naturally she looked down on her husband. He did not resent this but it bored him. So one day he walked out of the apartment, made for Oldtown, where he had been brought up, and as Bruce Dudley found a job in Fred Grey’s carriage factory. There he worked beside Sponge Martin, who taught him to paint carriage wheels. Grey’s wife Aline looked at Bruce, who reminded her of a man she had once wanted, and engaged him as a gardener. Fred Grey, one of Anderson’s best understood characters, found the only course compatible with his dignity in ignoring the triangle which was forming, and from which two characters eventually stepped out on the road to freedom.

This pattern of life guided by frail intelligence and wavering will shades off into a background of humanity, a chorus of primitive men and women strong in instinct. One of Bruce Dudley’s memories is of a steamboat excursion:

From the throats of ragged black men as they trotted up and down the landing-stage, strange haunting notes. Words were caught up, tossed about, held in the throat. Word-lovers, sound-lovers—the blacks seemed to hold a tone in some warm place, under their red tongues perhaps. Their thick lips were walls under which the tone hid. Unconscious love of inanimate things lost to the whites—skies, the river, a moving boat—black mysticism—never expressed except in song or in the movement of bodies.

Later the drama played by Bruce and Aline is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. “The two Negro women in the house watched and waited. Often they looked at each other and giggled. The air on the hilltop was rilled with laughter —dark laughter.”

“Dark Laughter” contains all the distinguishing notes of Anderson’s fiction. What marks it as an advance on his earlier novels is that here he has achieved an artistic unity through a clearer view and a stronger, more persistent grasp of his material and its meaning. That material is, as always, experience, and its meaning is in the contrast between the logic of events, of an actual situation, and that of intellectual discrimination and classification.’ Fred Grey relies on a classification, a conventional simplification of life known as marriage, within which such things as Bruce and Aline meditate do not happen. Bruce and Aline are thrown back on a primitive situation. At first they are among the characters, of whom Anderson has given us so many, who are “all mussed up.” It is the desire for stability and meaning that causes Bruce and Aline to integrate themselves with one another.

Throughout “Dark Laughter” runs another principle which Anderson has always exemplified: it is the importance of art as a means of mastering the crude material fact of the world. He is repelled by the notion of art as something external, decorative. It is this conception on the part of Bernice which disgusts Bruce with the meretricious life in which she would entangle him, symbolized by “that story Bernice was writing about the man who saw the wax figure in a shop window and thought it was a woman.” What attracts him to Sponge Martin is the latter’s closeness to reality and his power of manipulating it to a perfect result. “Sponge could fill his brush very full, and yet handle it in such a way that the varnish did not drip down, and he left no ugly thick places on the wheels. The stroke of the brush was like a caress.” So Bruce comes to hold the pragmatist’s view of art as a process of making the world a different place in which to live:

Perhaps if you got the thoughts and fancies organized a little, made them work through your body, made thoughts and fancies a part of yourself—they might be used then— perhaps as Sponge Martin used the brush. You might lay them on something as Sponge Martin could lay varnish on. Suppose about one man in a million got things organized a little. What would that mean ? What would such a man be ? Would he be a Napoleon, a Caesar?

It is evidence of Anderson’s unconscious absorption of the spirit of the age in which he so completely lived that his fiction offers so many points of contact with the characteristic philosophy of the time.

When Sherwood Anderson felt the urge to write his masterpiece he settled for a winter in Marion, in the southwest corner of Virginia. There he bought a newspaper, and later a second—one Democratic, the other Republican, for the news was the same and the editorial column only needed reversing. He peopled his staff with a number of appropriate characters, the sports writer, the society editor, the man about town, who became so real to his rural readers that when they came to town they asked for them at the newspaper office. He wrote “Dark Laughter”; with the proceeds he bought a farm twenty miles out of town, and built a house largely with his own hand and brain. There he lived a modest life of a country squire, interrupted by many journeys. He was an indefatigable rolling stone. As a sage he sat in council for the young at writers’ conferences; he lectured at colleges and literary clubs on literature and small town journalism; he met friends everywhere and expanded in his talk. He very nearly abandoned fiction for direct reporting of life as he found it in conversation. When I asked him once about making a trip to Mexico he refused because he feared that language would stand in the way of his daily diet of human stuff.

With his neighbors at Marion his relations were delightful. They accepted him as one of them. On a visit I made to him an episode occurred which might have been one of the unclothed tales sitting on his doorstep. Sherwood was driving us to Marion and took a side road which speedily showed itself as the wrong road. Woods enclosed it like a tunnel. The ruts were too deep for the wheels, and the car balanced precariously on the raised center and one side bank. The road was muddy and slippery. It was raining. Finally the car slipped off its perch and sank into the ruts from which the efforts of three men could not lift it. There was nothing to do but push forward on foot. Soon there appeared a clearing with a saw mill, which was apparently a front for something less legal. A half-dozen men came to our help with great cheerfulness, lifted the car out of the ruts, turned it around, and blew up a flat tire, when there appeared a big truck, completely filling the tunnel, and confirming our uncomfortable feeling that we were where we had no business to be. The truck stopped, a man got out and advanced menacingly. Sherwood moved toward him with a little uncertainty in his steps. Suddenly a bright look came to his face. “Thank God,” he said, “I went to that man’s wife’s funeral last Sunday.” The bond so established held. The truck was driven crashing into the trees to make room for us to pass. And as we drove cautiously back to the highroad Sherwood discoursed of the life and character of our benefactor. A day or two later, on the way to the Tennessee Valley, we learned of the death of Thomas Wolfe, and Sherwood fell into reminiscence of his dead friend, with racy anecdote and subtle characterization, full of affection and insight. These two occasions remain among my last memories of Sherwood Anderson—with his appreciation of the distorted and incongruous elements of life, at once humorous and sympathetic. What a friend he was! And as a writer a friend to all humanity, simple, unpretentious, sincere; modest in his claims on his public, generous to his contemporaries in the field. His contribution to American literature was of definite importance; his influence on a younger generation remains, and, more than this, his example.


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