Sherwood Anderson was a fiction writer who chronicled small-town American life and seemed to speak with the voices of the people. He published his first novel at the age of 40, Windy McPherson's Son, in 1916. He published eight more novels, three collections of short stories, two notable memoirs, and several other books of nonfiction prior to his death on March 8, 1941. His most famous book is Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Small-Town Life (1919). Even today, this set of tales set in a fictional midwestern town is considered one of the greatest works of American literature.
Sherwood Anderson was born September 13, 1876, in Camden, Ohio. He was the third of seven children born to Irwin M. and Emma Smith Anderson. When Sherwood was eight, the Anderson family moved to Clyde, Ohio, after his father's business failed. Reportedly, the Anderson family was one of the poorest families in Clyde. It was not long before Sherwood had to share some responsibilities of providing for his family, which caused him to neglect his education.
In 1896, a year after his mother's death, Sherwood Anderson moved in with his brother Karl. He worked as a manual laborer until he enlisted in the army, where he served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After his discharge Anderson returned to Chicago where he worked for Crowell Publishing Company.
In 1900, Anderson moved back to Ohio to attend Wittenberg Academy. He married his first wife, Cornelia Lane, soon after. His desire at this period was to be a professional businessman, but he seemed ill prepared for such a venture despite managing a mail-order business and two different paint manufacturing firms. In 1912, Sherwood suffered psychological problems, causing him to abandon both his family and his business career. Supposedly, he walked out of his office while dictating a letter. Several days later he was found in a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Unable to reconcile this aberrant behavior with either his wife or his employer, he moved back to Chicago.
Sherwood Anderson published his first novel, Windy McPherson's Son, in 1916. His second novel, Marching Men, was published two years later. Winesburg, Ohio appeared in 1919, and overnight Anderson became one of the giants of American letters.
Similar to Jean Toomer's Cane, Winesburg, Ohio is a series of vignettes—sometimes called a composite novel or short-story cycle—that are linked by a predominant theme or themes. Whereas Cane evokes the experiences of African Americans in both the North and South during the first decades of the twentieth century, Winesburg, Ohio is set in a small town in which everybody calls their neighbors by their first names.
It is widely accepted that his former hometown, Clyde, Ohio, and its residents inspired Anderson. Curiously enough, Anderson and Toomer were correspondents during the time Toomer was writing Cane, and Anderson is said to have given literary advice to the younger writer. Both collections are considered early examples of literary modernism.
During this period Anderson was generous toward other writers, including William Faulkner. He helped get Faulkner's first novel, Soldier's Pay (1926), published, and he wrote a letter of introduction to Gertrude Stein for Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately, both Faulkner and Hemingway broke with Anderson after they had established their careers. However, Faulkner never forgot the debt he owed the older writer. In “Sherwood Anderson: An Appreciation,” he wrote that Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, his collection of short stories in The Triumph of the Egg (1921), and several other short stories in Horses and Men (1923), made him realize that at his best Anderson had been a giant in an earth populated by pygmies.
Although Anderson published three successful collections of short stories, The Triumph of the Egg (1921), Horses and Men (1923), and Death in the Words and Other Tales (1933), his novels after the publication of Poor White (1920), Many Marriages (1923), Dark Laughter (1925), Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926), Alice and the Lost Novel (1929), Beyond Desire (1932), and Kit Brandon: A Portrait (1936), never received the critical acclaim that he enjoyed earlier in his career. However, he did write two notable memoirs:A Story Teller's Story (1924) and Sherwood Anderson's Notebooks (1926).
Anderson also suffered in his personal life. His marriage to his second wife, Tennessee Mitchel, ended in divorce in 1924. The following year he married his third wife, Elizabeth Prall. They bought farmland beside Ripshin Creek, about four miles outside of Troutdale, Virginia. They called their house Ripshin Farm. 1n 1927, Anderson bought the Marion Publishing Company in Marion, Virginia, and he became editor of two weekly newspapers. The articles he wrote during this period were collected in a book called Hello Towns! (1929).
His marriage to Elizabeth Prall ended in 1928, and he married Eleanor Copenhaver in 1933. He and his new wife traveled extensively. They were en route to South America, aboard the cruise liner Santa Lucia, when he developed peritonitis from accidentally swallowing a toothpick. He was taken to the hospital in Colon, Panama, where he died March 8, 1941.
Sherwood Anderson was interred at the Round Hill Cemetery in Marion, Virginia. As he had requested, the inscription on his gravestone read: “Life, Not Death, is the Great Adventure.”
See also: Department Stores and Mail Order Catalogs; Gilded Age; Modernism
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