Sherwood Anderson

The works of the American writer Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) are graced by a psychological complexity absent from earlier American fiction. His stories stress character and mood, and his style is laconic and colloquial.

Sherwood Anderson was born on Sept. 13, 1876, in Camden, Ohio, the third of seven children. His father was an easygoing, improvident man whose itinerant habits resulted in spotty educations for his children. Sherwood had no formal education after the age of 14, although he did attend Wittenberg College for a short time.

Anderson had a belated writing career. He served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, then began a successful business career in advertising. But it was while owning and managing a paint factory in Elyria, Ohio, that he began, about 1908, to write stories and novels.

The turning point in Anderson's life came in 1912, when, suffering from nervous exhaustion and amnesia, he suddenly deserted his factory. The next year, with his brother Karl, a well-known painter, he went to Chicago and fell in with the "Chicago group"—Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, and others—through whose efforts his earliest work was published. Windy McPherson's Son (1916), his first novel, uses his father as the prototype for Windy, a drifter and teller of tall tales.

A second novel, Marching Men (1917), and a collection of prose poems, American Chants (1918), followed. Then Anderson published his masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a series of fictionalized sketches of "grotesques," his term for people defeated by false dreams, people whose illusions have left them vulnerable to profound hurts from which they never recover. Perhaps the best sketch is "Hands," the story of Wing Biddlebaum, a mournful eccentric who recounts his traumatic experience: he was once a loving small-town schoolteacher, but narrow-minded townspeople, acting on nothing more than a child's agitated and false report, branded Wing as a sexual deviant, drove him from the town, and almost lynched him.

The unity of Winesburg, Ohio, established by the presence of a perceptive observer (George Willard, a young reporter) and by the pervasive theme of human frustration, has led some critics to regard the book as a novel, a view taken by Anderson himself. Regardless of its genre, it is a significant expression of a theme associated with D.H. Lawrence—the psychological damage wrought by an industrial civilization—rendered with extraordinary compassion.

Despite his late start, Anderson was a prolific writer. Poor White (1920), a novel, was followed by The Triumph of the Egg (1921), a collection of stories, the most notable of which is "The Egg," a haunting symbolist tale of a man who has violated his nature by accommodating himself to his wife's ambitions. Many Marriages (1923), a novel, was followed by Horses and Men (1923), a collection of stories which includes "I'm a Fool," a superb, sympathetic treatment of the theme of American bravado.

Anderson's biggest money-maker, however, was the relatively weak novel Dark Laughter (1925), which attempts to measure the white man's crippling anxiety against the black man's tuneful laughter but succeeds only in contributing albeit unwittingly, to racial stereotypes.

Anderson was a heavyset Midwesterner with a leonine head and masses of wavy hair. He was comfortable only in casual clothes. An eccentric man, he once, in the 1920s, bought and edited two rival weekly newspapers in Marion, Va., one Democratic and one Republican. He was married four times; he had two sons and one daughter by his first wife.

Having deserted Ohio for Chicago, he traveled extensively in Europe. Although he continued to write until his death, his later work received scant attention. He died of peritonitis at Colon, Panama, on March 8, 1941.


Further Reading on Sherwood Anderson

For a long while the chief obstacle to an understanding of Anderson's life was his own notoriously unreliable autobiographical writings: A Story-Teller's Story (1924), Notebook (1926), and Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926); the posthumously published Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs (1942) was reedited by Ray Lewis White in 1969. Probably the best studies of Anderson and his work are lrving Howe, Sherwood Anderson (1951), and James Schevill, Sherwood Anderson: His Life and Work (1951). More recent are Ray Lewis White, ed., The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson: Essays in Criticism (1966), and David D. Anderson, Sherwood Anderson (1967).