- Nancy BungeNancy BungeProfessor Emerita, Michigan State University
After watching his family struggle financially as a boy, the adult Sherwood Anderson threw himself into making money and, unlike his father, he supported his family well. But he also wrote fiction in order to discover and face the truth. On November 28, 1912, the tension between Anderson’s life and the dispositions he uncovered through his writing became so strong that he walked out of his office and vanished for four days. He had no clear memory of where he had been, but he realized this event signaled that he needed a life that coordinated more successfully with his values. He sold his business and moved to Chicago, where he began writing the short story collection generally considered his masterpiece: Winesburg, Ohio.
Anderson subsequently moved through marriages to Tennessee Mitchell and Elizabeth Prall while writing a series of novels about men struggling to establish good relationships with women: Poor White (1920), Many Marriages (1923), and Dark Laughter (1925). In 1925, Anderson retreated with Prall to the Virginia countryside, where he bought two newspapers and wrote whatever the newspapers needed, sometimes in the folksy voice of a character named Buck Fever. After that marriage ended, Anderson met and married Eleanor Copenhaver, a social activist who helped educate Anderson about the lives of working people. These experiences informed his next novel, Beyond Desire, a pessimistic work about relationships that holds out one element of hope: a socially aware woman named Louise whom the narrator suggests would make a great wife if she met a courageous man. And, indeed, Anderson’s marriage to Eleanor lasted the rest of his life. Perhaps because he had resolved his marital issues, in his last novel Anderson moved outside his own experiences; Kit Brandon focuses on a female protagonist who muses about the difficulties of marriage in modern life.
Anderson realized that one’s culture inevitably shapes one, and so throughout his career his novels contain asides that worry about industrialism’s negative impact on his contemporaries’ ability to connect with one another. Toward the end of his career, Anderson produced nonfiction books that address his concerns directly. In A Story Teller’s Story (1924) and The Modern Writer (1925), he suggests that authors must resist the forces corrupting society. In Perhaps Women (1931), he argues that in cooperating with the machine, men have become impotent, so all hope of redeeming society rests with women. In No Swank (1934), when he writes of authors he admires, he praises their generosity, not their craft. And, indeed, literary achievement mattered far less to Anderson than did writing the truth in a way that could help his contemporaries imagine ways to redeem their lives.
- North American Literatures
Updated in this version
Text re-written to reflect recent changes in scholarship.