Sherwood Anderson
Sherwood Anderson; drawing by David Levine

William Faulkner once called Sherwood Anderson “a one- or two-book man.” That was in 1953, twelve years after Anderson’s death, and Faulkner probably felt he was generous to allow room in eternity for a volume of Anderson’s short stories—The Triumph of the Egg or Horses and Men. Anderson’s many books continue to drift in and out of print—novels, stories, assorted tracts, unreliable autobiographies, prose poems—but salvage attempts have not proved very successful. The only book that has never disappeared from view is Winesburg, Ohio (1919), one third of what has come to seem a midwestern trilogy—its Purgatorio perhaps—which also includes Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915) and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Steet (1920). Anderson felt Winesburg was part of a spiritual awakening: “There is a something that broods over our Mid American landscapes that can save us all if we will but give our selves,” he wrote in 1920.

The pared-down prose of Winesburg was inspired in part and blessed by Gertrude Stein, and adopted and groomed by Hemingway till it became little more than a mannerism. The style is effectively at odds with the fidgety insomniac lives of the people of Winesburg that Anderson took as his subject. Inexpressiveness is the major theme of Winesburg. Characters never find the words they want to say, or find them only when they are talking to animals or half-wits or blank walls. It is a moment of release for Anderson’s surrogate, George Willard, when he mutters big words into the dark sky: “Death, night, the sea, fear, loveliness.” Anderson’s peculiar genius was to give the illusion that the stunted bodies of his characters had their own language, one that the sympathetic, all-knowing narrator of Winesburg could understand. His method was to probe the tics and quirks of his characters until their private histories emerged. One of the best, and the first written, of the linked portraits of Winesburg is called “Hands.”

The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name…. The hands alarmed their owner. He wanted to keep them hidden away and looked with amazement at the quiet inexpressive hands of other men who worked beside him in the fields, or passed, driving sleepy teams on country roads.

From Wing’s expressive hands Anderson derives the story of a devoted school-teacher who years earlier was hounded out of a Pennsylvania town, when his wandering but harmless hands alarmed the townspeople.

The sexual candor of Winesburg, with its voyeuristic ministers and exhibitionist spinsters, shocked many reviewers. (“There are more naked women in Winesburg than one might think,” John Updike recently observed.) Certainly Anderson’s sensitivity toward homosexuality in stories like “Hands” was enlightened for its time. Anderson claimed to be dismayed by the rakish reputation he acquired in the Twenties but one suspects he liked it. “Was I not later to be called, by one of our American critics, ‘The Phallic Chekhov’?” he asked proudly in Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs. He also liked to think of himself as the American Lawrence: “He is in the modern England what I am in the modern America.”

But Anderson’s remarks about sex are always milder than he thinks, and when he wrote to women on the subject he tended toward abstraction and diffidence. The letters he wrote to his friend and patron Marietta Finley, published now for the first time in Letters to Bab, give one a sense of what he may have sounded like in private. His vague pronouncements in these letters sound more like Hardy than Lawrence: “The door to sex understanding that has been torn open leads into a lovely country but one must go in—devout, humble, willing to wait.” He places a Victorian emphasis on work over love: “As a matter of fact I am very strongly sexed but hard work, constant thinking…consume strength that might otherwise go into sex expression.” The more than three hundred letters Anderson sent “Bab” were apparently among the results of such sublimation. The letters date from September 1916, when Anderson was forty and had just published his first book, Windy McPherson’s Son, to 1933, when he was planning his last, Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs.

The years between 1916 and 1926 were Anderson’s most productive period; during these ten years he published virtually all his best work—Winesburg, A Story-Teller’s Story, Dark Laughter, Tar, and such well-known stories as “I Want to Know Why.” He writes to Miss Finley with the increasing confidence of a man who has finally discovered his trade. He had tried many others.

He was born in Camden, Ohio, in 1876. His father was a harness maker when machines were rendering harness makers obsolete, and a sign painter at a time when, as Anderson remarked in A Story-Teller’s Story, “The day of universal advertising had not yet come.” The windbag of Windy McPherson’s Son, whose main occupation is telling Civil War stories, is modeled on Anderson’s father. His mother, forced to take in washing to help support the family, wore herself out and died at age forty-two of consumption. Two recurring motifs in Anderson’s work, patricide and maimed women, give a sense of what he must have thought of his parents.


When he was young Anderson worked as a newspaper boy, a farmhand, a laborer in a warehouse and in a bicycle factory. He joined the army in 1898, and was stationed in Cuba at the end of the Spanish-American War. His attendance at school, which had always been sporadic, came to an end with a year at Wittenberg Academy, where he prepared for college courses he never took. Later, as he pursued a career in business, he became the president of a mail order firm and founded a company in Elyria, Ohio, that distributed paint. When he began writing to Miss Finley he had given up his business ambitions. In a dramatic gesture that never ceased to amaze him (and that recurred, in various guises, in his fiction) he walked out on his first wife and his three children when he was thirty-six years old, and left Ohio. He was living alone in Chicago and supporting himself by writing advertising copy while he worked on the sketches that were to become Winesburg.

The letters he wrote to Miss Finley were intended for publication. In 1916 he made a proposal which she apparently accepted:

Suppose instead of just writing you letters which may concern themselves with personal things, a cold in the head etc., I write you instead my observations on life and manners as they present themselves to me here and now….

When these things come to hand type them, putting on date and making a carbon copy. At the end of six months or a year we will see if we haven’t material for a book that would be of interest to others.

The letters are of interest as a record of Anderson’s preoccupations—with writing (both stories and ad copy), women, and modern America—at a crucial time in his career. Bab seems to have kept almost all of Anderson’s letters, and he kept almost none of hers. He is honest enough, or cruel enough, to tell her why: “Most of your letters…say nothing at all.”

Since Anderson writes mainly about himself in his letters we don’t learn much from them about Marietta Finley. She lived in Indianapolis, where she sometimes wrote cultural notices for the local papers. During a visit to Chicago in 1914 she was introduced to Anderson by some of his bohemian friends; she was twenty-four and he was thirty-eight. During the following years he would visit her when his advertising job in Chicago allowed him to travel through Indiana. She seems to have admired the bits of Winesburg he showed her on these visits, and she had enough money to help support him and his family during the 1920s. In the one letter of hers from this period that has survived she begs him to accept one hundred dollars a month for the next few years: “It is my gift…to the human man who has bravely looked on life.”

The photograph of Finley on the cover of the book shows a determined woman with a firm mouth and shrewd eyes. (When Anderson told her, “Your face is long like the face of a horse,” he meant it as a compliment.) One suspects she saw through many of Anderson’s pretensions, but adored him anyway. Although the book jacket refers to Finley as Anderson’s “mistress,” their relations seem to have been more amicable and epistolary than romantic and sexual. He clearly thought she could be trusted to preserve his letters to her and she did, until the Anderson scholar William Sutton tracked her down in 1962 and convinced her to let the letters be published.

Anderson used his letters to Bab in part as a notebook. Drafts of stories and poems are worked into the letters without indication. “New days are here,” he wrote Bab in 1917. “The sap runs in trees. Let’s be creeping. Let’s be creeping away.” As Sutton usefully points out, these lines, slightly revised, appeared later in the poem “Song of the Mating Time” (in Mid-American Chants, 1918).

Anderson seems to have felt that this was the proper tone, solemn and incantatory, to take with women. He often addresses Bab as “Dear Woman,” and in one letter he tells her:

I am writing these snatches of things to women, to all women, to one woman, I am telling her of my life, of a man actively engaged in the grim wrestle of modern industrial life.

Anderson’s impersonal manner probably concealed a good deal of fear. “Most women simply frighten me,” he confessed to Bab. “I feel hunger within them. It is as though they wished to feed upon me.” He seemed to be summing up their relationship of fifteen years, when he wrote her in 1929:


As for women, to be frank, my dear, our experience has been not unlike others I have had with other women. Much has been offered to me in the way of women, in the flesh. I have taken what I felt clear and clean in taking. When I no longer felt that I have stopped, sometimes only after much bitterness. I have gone sometimes away from women with fine bodies and fine minds and have taken gladly women to whom I had no obligation, because to do so cleansed me like writing good prose.

Anderson’s search for “cleanness” in his relations with people meant that he was always leaving them, and he tried to turn this inconstancy into a philosophy. His letters to Bab are packed with what in Winesburg he called “the truth of abandon.”

Why yes—that’s true enough about shutting of doors but the terribly sad thing is not to shut them. As for myself I think that if there is a note of distinction in me at all it lies in a certain power I have to challenge and rechallenge myself to the door shutting.

To Bab, who wanted to marry him, such remarks must have seemed at best evasive. (Anderson did in fact divorce his first wife, in 1916, but not to marry Bab. At the end of the year he married Tennessee Mitchell instead, a painter who had been the lover of Edgar Lee Masters. The correspondence with Bab continued, however, for another seventeen years. Meanwhile, in 1928, she married a neuro-surgeon from Indianapolis.)

As if the point still might not be clear, Anderson closed the letter about shutting doors with a little story:

Here before me is a long stretch of fields and in the distance a town. I put down my pencil and immediately a scene is enacted. Across the fields tramps a man in boots that are heavy with mud. He has a beard and wears an overcoat that is torn at the pockets. He is going to town to buy meat and has $3. Suddenly an impulse comes to him. He begins to run. Tears come into his eyes and he runs harder and harder. He is fifty years old and has been married thirty years. He is a farm hand. He has made up his mind to desert his wife and family and run away. He runs so hard across the field because he wants to get into town and board the train before his courage fails.

Anderson used variants of this scene in several tales and novels, most memorably in the story in Winesburg called “The Untold Lie.” He believed in it (“What an intense study the mind of the man running in the field. My mind can play with it for hours”), and used a version of it to justify the course of his own life.

Like other twice-born people, Anderson saw his life as split in two. There were the thirty-six years that ended when he left his respectable life as president of his mail-order paint company in Elyria, Ohio. And there was the time of freedom and creation that followed his flight to Chicago, in 1912, from this Silas Lapham-ish existence. “One morning my mind became a blank,” he tells Bab, “and I ran away from Elyria.” He apparently had a mental breakdown, and was discovered four days later in Cleveland, with no idea how he’d got there. But back in Elyria he made preparations to leave for good.

Anderson told this story again and again, always with different details, and it has had an immense appeal to young American writers as the story of a man who left the world of business to pursue a life in art. But the break wasn’t as clean as Anderson claimed. He had started writing tales and novels before leaving Elyria, and the job he took in Chicago was hardly an escape from business. His choice of writing advertisements has in fact baffled many critics. “Why, discontented and unhappy with his business career, did he go…into advertising?” James Schevill, Anderson’s biographer, asks. His answer is that Anderson still needed to support his family in Ohio, and since he had had some experience writing ad copy, this was a convenient job. But the letters to Bab suggest a more obvious reason for Anderson’s choice of career. He liked it.

Of course he complains. He tells Bab what it feels like to write a story—“a mood comes on me…. Every gesture, every word of the people about carries significance”—and be interrupted:

Now if you can understand what it means at such times to have a man come to my office door and tell me that I am to go into a room with other men and drone for hours over the question of the advisability of advertising a new kind of hose supporters….

Anderson thought of advertising as an industrial use of words, as opposed to the craftsman’s use of words in literature. He knew the distinction could be blurred. Donald Davidson, the Fugitive poet, reported that in 1925 Anderson told an audience at Vanderbilt of “the great modern magazine, with its columns of advertising to which the literary columns were merely the bait.”

But Anderson was clearly proud of his work for the Long-Critchfield Company. “I write smart advertisements,” he tells Bab, and in his memoirs he brags of “writing damn good copy.” In 1917 he wrote that “the advertising business is one that binds itself peculiarly to what I wanted to do in life. I do not understand why more novelists did not go into it.” As late as 1927, after the financial success (his only one) of Dark Laughter had given him a few years of freedom, Anderson considered returning to advertising, not primarily to make money but because he missed the camaraderie of the office. “By separating myself from the labor of the world I had perhaps separated myself from the world too,” he wrote to Bab. What stopped him was the thought that “immediately the advertising company would begin to advertise. Have your advertising writing done by Sherwood Anderson—the great writer.”

The Twenties were the heyday of advertising in the US and there is still much to be written about the relations between advertising and literature in this period. For Anderson, who often confessed to a certain “slickness” in himself, advertising was clearly appealing. The glamour and sexual allure of advertising were still alive to him when he wrote his last novel, Kit Brandon (1936), at the age of sixty. Kit, his heroine, looks “like a professional model, stepped out of the advertising pages of The New Yorker.” She reads “words in advertisements like this…’Slim, straight swagger lines. A coat with casual informal elegance.”‘ A few pages later, when Anderson is describing Kit’s clothes, he slips into the language of advertisements, with no punctuation to warn the reader:

Oh, what beautiful shoes are made for our American women! Where in the world can they be equalled for beauty? They are so trim—trim as were the clipper ships.

And Anderson continues: “Kit did most of her fast sailing in a trim little sports model car.”

Anderson wrote most effectively when he gave free rein to his own voice, as in his raucous autobiographies, or when he assumed the narrating voice of one his characters. Though he said he admired Huckleberry Finn above all other books, he confined his own first-person fiction to his excellent short stories. Some of the best and best known of these are set at the racetrack, and it is instructive to compare them to the early stories of his protégé Hemingway. Hemingway often uses horses and bulls as props for tests of manhood. For Anderson the horses exist in their own right, as tests of one’s identity. Hemingway’s “My Old Man” (from In Our Time) is obviously modeled on Anderson’s “I Want to Know Why.” Each story is told by a boy who is “crazy about thoroughbreds” (Anderson) or “nuts about horses” (Hemingway). But while Hemingway’s real subject is a boy’s dawning awareness of the corruption of his jockey father, Anderson’s boy has a much more complicated problem. He can’t understand how the trainer he admires, and with whom he shares an awareness of what a horse is thinking (“I could just in a way see right inside him”), can seem so “clean” in his dealings with horses and yet enjoy the company of whores.

At the tracks the air don’t taste as good or smell as good. It’s because a man like Jerry Tillford, who knows what he does, could see a horse like Sunstreak run, and kiss a woman like that the same day…. What did he do it for? I want to know why.

Though he published six novels Anderson wasn’t really a novelist. The novel form confused him. He could find no place in it for the voice of the raconteur, the storyteller. In none of Anderson’s novels is there a narrator like the sophisticated, jaded, winningly digressive teller of “The Egg,” who recounts his father’s botched attempts to run a chicken farm (“Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms. One hopes for so much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned. Small chickens, just setting out on the journey of life, look bright and alert and they are in fact so dreadfully stupid. They are so much like people they mix one up in one’s judgments of life…”).

Instead Anderson tried to write novels that were like greatly expanded sections of Winesburg. In the brief sketches of Winesburg the self-effacing narrator entered the minds of the characters at will; since they were inarticulate, only an all-knowing narrator, a sort of hovering moral conscience of the small town, could make their stories known. When Anderson used a similar narrative voice in the longer stretches of Poor White (1920) the results were often wearying. The inner life of his lethargic main character, the inventor of machinery Hugh McVey, is so dreary and methodical that the most effective passages take on an absurdist tinge:

Hugh went into one of the residence streets of the town and counted the pickets in the fences before the houses. He returned to the hotel and made a calculation as to the number of pickets in all the fences in town. Then he got a rule at the hardware store and carefully measured the pickets. He tried to estimate the number of pickets that could be cut of certain sized trees and that gave his mind another opening. He counted the number of trees in every street in town. He learned to tell at a glance and with relative accuracy how much lumber could be cut out of a tree.

The rhythmic litany is as striking in its way as Beckett’s account of Molloy moving his pebbles from pocket to pocket.

Dark Laughter (1925), best known as the butt of Hemingway’s boring parody, The Torrents of Spring, has a much closer identification of narrator and character. It is another of Anderson’s fantasies about flight; this time the hero leaves his newspaper job and his wife (who writes bad but lucrative short stories) in Chicago to live among the (laughing) black people along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. In Dark Laughter Anderson experimented—often in heavy-handed prose that lent itself to parody—with what French critics call style indirect libre, in which a character’s thoughts and unspoken words are conveyed not in a first-person interior monologue but in the third person, with an appropriate change of tense (from present to past, from future to conditional). Thus Dark Laughter begins:

Bruce Dudley stood near the window that was covered with flecks of paint and through which could be faintly seen…the brown waters of the Ohio River. Time very soon now to push the windows up. Spring would be coming soon now. Near Bruce at the next window…[italics mine].

In Hemingway’s parody: “Spring would soon be here. Could it be that what this writing fellow Hutchinson had said, ‘If winter comes can spring be far behind?’ would be true again this year?”

In Kit Brandon (first published in 1936 and long out of print) there is an interesting formal return to storytelling. Kit tells her story to a narrator much like Anderson, who records it, with commentary. “We were together for that purpose,” he writes, “that I might get her story as one more of the multitude of curious, terrible, silly, absorbing or wonderful stories all people could tell if they knew how.” Kit loves to drive, and she tells the narrator, who is ostensibly studying working conditions in South Dakota, “I’ll tell you about when I was a young girl, if you’ll let me drive the car.” The story Kit has to tell is a picaresque account of a girl who grows up in a poor family in the Tennessee hills. After an ambiguous incestuous experience with her father she runs away to work in a mill town, and gets involved with the spineless son of a powerful bootlegger. When the emptiness of their marriage makes her lonely and restless, she becomes a rum runner for her father-in-law. She isn’t satisfied with this life either, and at the end of the novel she is searching for “some sort of work that did not so separate her from others. There might be some…other puzzled and baffled young one with whom she could make a real patnership in living.”

As in most of Anderson’s novels, the best thing in Kit Brandon is a single episode. Kit and three friends—two men and a girl called Agnes from the mill where Kit works—go out to the fields to drink moonshine. One of the men has a passion for horses, but he’s poor. “He couldn’t own…a horse, couldn’t get one and so…he became a horse.” As Kit explains:

Bud took something from his pockets. It was, she said, a pair of hoofs…. The cousin strapped the hoofs on his hands and got down on all fours.

“He was a horse,” she said.

…He could prance, trot, singlefoot, pace. He could do the slow gallop and the fast gallop.

Readers have always recognized the centrality of this scene in Kit Brandon, but it has baffled interpreters. Irving Howe writes of “the way a boy at the mill went through an act…of prancing, trotting, and neighing like a horse.” But Henry Miller gets closer to the visionary strangeness of the scene when he remarks that it is “about the man who became a horse, who got down on all fours and was a horse for ten or fifteen minutes.” Metamorphosis is Anderson’s theme here (as it is in another fine story, “The Man Who Became a Woman”).

Anderson himself offers several interpretations of the scene. The first is that of Kit’s friend Agnes, a socialist and union organizer at the mill. “There was, she said, something rotten in the fact that Bud, with his love of fine horses and wanting one, had to come down to being a horse.” This interpretation is countered in the narrative when the four friends approach an elegant house where rich people who own horses are having a party. Agnes throws a brick through the large window that separates them from the dancers inside. They are pursued by men from the party and run away. Bud turns into a horse again and scares the pursuers off. Bud seems to express both working-class humiliation and working-class vitality and triumph.

Bud’s relation to horses is balanced in the symmetry of Kit Brandon by Kit’s relation to her car. Irving Howe has argued that “the car becomes a sexual fetish” for her. While this is true, Anderson sees more than sex in what Howe calls the “inverted relationship Kit establish[es] with her car once she abandons hope in human relationships.” One of Anderson’s major aims in the tracts he wrote in the Thirties, especially in Perhaps Women, was to redeem the machine. He writes of Kit’s car as though it were alive, like a horse. She “could get more out of a car without hurting the car. Like many modern people, she had got the feel of machinery down into her veins, into all of her body.”

Anderson has written as well as any other American about the peculiar intimacy people can have with machines. This brings him together with his friend Hart Crane (also from Ohio, and a writer of advertising copy). In his manifesto “Modern Poetry,” Crane could have spoken for Anderson when he predicted:

Machinery will tend to lose its sensational glamour…. For contrary to general prejudice, the wonderment experienced in watching nose dives is of less immediate creative promise to poetry than the familiar gesture of a motorist in the modest act of shifting gears.

Like many others of his generation Anderson was fascinated with Henry Adams’s meditations on modern industrial force and its effects on American life. He wrote Bab in 1925, “That man is nearer me than any other American.” Anderson and Crane shared the conviction that machinery had to be humanized and given a place in the imagination; otherwise people would be increasingly mechanized. “Will you take the factories, the inside and the outside of the factories, as you once took rivers, fields, grassy slopes of fields?” Anderson asked, in Perhaps Women.

Kit Brandon reads at times like a first draft, and one of Anderson’s friends reported that he was so exhausted after he wrote the book that he didn’t have the energy to correct the proofs. His liberal use of ellipsis marks, as though more words were to come, strengthens this impression (“The feeling workers get in the great factories of America…no poets among them yet to sing of it…the song, coming some day”). Still, it remains an interesting book, especially in the ways it reveals Anderson’s continuing preoccupation with machines, the mechanized language of advertising, and storytelling.

Anderson died in 1941 in the Panama Canal Zone, where an attack of peritonitis cut short his plans for an unofficial goodwill tour of South America. He had written little since the publication five years earlier of Kit Brandon. Within months of his death the first ambivalent assessments of his work appeared, including Lionel Trilling’s influential dismissal of most of it: “Anderson’s greatest influence was probably upon those who read him in adolescence, the age when we find the books we give up but do not get over.” But Anderson will survive his critics, as he has survived his parodists. Since many of Anderson’s best books are hard to come by—A Story-Teller’s Story, Poor White, and Horses and Men are out of print—the modest contributions Kit and Bab make to the Anderson oeuvre may seem anachronisms, like signposts leading to ghost towns. But Winesburg is still unquestionably there, and most of the outlying works of this essential American writer will continue to find publishers, and perhaps readers.

This Issue

January 30, 1986