Sherwood Anderson: Biography, Books & Short Stories

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore the life and work of Sherwood Anderson. We'll look at the context, influence, and impact of Anderson's writing on American literature.

Context

If you've read much American literature, you're probably familiar with John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. You might not, however, be as familiar with Sherwood Anderson, who is considered one of the most important influences on these other writers. Anderson, for example, is credited with providing Faulkner with some of the complex psychological elements that are so definitive of his novels. Throughout his career, Anderson earned respect and praise from writers and critics alike and a reasonable, although never large, readership.

In addition to his haunting stories and characters, Anderson himself was a likable and unique individual, so much so that he remains a fascinating personality for many of his readers. Many elements of Anderson's life and writing remain somewhat unclear, such as the details of his famous nervous breakdown and his hesitancy to describe his writing models. These unknowns about his life, however, seem to contribute to Anderson's reputation as a sort of mysterious or even mythical writer.

Although his work was often haunting, Sherwood himself was generally well liked despite his eccentricities.
Sherwood Anderson

Life

Anderson was born in 1873 in Clyde, Ohio, a small town that was one of the main inspirations for Winesburg, Ohio, one of Anderson's most respected and influential works. Although Anderson dropped out of school at 14 and was mostly self-taught, he was an avid reader and quickly developed his writing abilities. Following his mother's death, Anderson briefly left Clyde for Chicago, but soon left to fight in the Spanish-American War. After a relatively uneventful tour, he moved back to Chicago where he became a respected advertising copywriter and married his wife, Cornelia Lane, in 1904. During this time, Anderson began writing fiction as well as essays.

Tired from the stress of his position, Anderson left his job in 1907, returned to Ohio, and started his own mail-order paint company. Despite his financial success, Anderson soon made a sudden change; in one of the most notorious and bizarre incidents in his literary career, Anderson had a sudden nervous breakdown that resulted in him walking in a trancelike state for four days and forgetting who he was. Many still speculate that there is more to the story than has been told, and Anderson himself admitting to using the ambiguity of the event to his advantage.

Following the nervous breakdown, Anderson dedicated his life and career entirely to his writing. Anderson left his wife and remarried in 1916, the same year that he published his first novel, Windy McPherson's Son. Anderson then gained a wide reputation as a good writer with the publication of Winesburg, Ohio, and quickly became friends with many other writers in Chicago. In the 1920s, Anderson got divorced, remarried, and began editing literary journals in addition to producing his own writing.

By the 1930s, Anderson began putting much of his energy into writing essays, many of which dealt with political issues. In a strange death that contributes even more to the mythical legacy of Anderson, he died in 1941 as a result of accidentally swallowing a toothpick that punctured his intestines, which resulted in a deadly infection.

Works

Anderson's first novel was Windy McPherson's Son, which was published in 1916. The novel, like many of Anderson's, paralleled much of his life. It was met with mixed reactions, with many feeling that it was not refined enough. The publication of a collection of short stories titled Winesburg, Ohio, however, won Anderson a tremendous amount of praise. Anderson's short story collections were what would define his positive reputation and include Triumph of the Egg: A Book of Impressions From American Life in Tales and Poems (1921), Horses and Men (1933), and Death in the Woods and Other Stories (1933).

Despite his success with his short stories, Anderson pushed himself to compose novels as well. Some of the more successful were Marching Men (1917), Poor White (1920), and Many Marriages (1923), which F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed was his best. Although his novels sold fairly well overall, Dark Laughter was Anderson's only bestseller. Anderson also composed a handful of essays, which include The Modern Writer (1925) and A Writer's Conception of Realism (1939).

Style

Anderson's works are known particularly for their unique psychological depths, which is in part a product of Anderson's innovative use of Freudian psychology. Many of Anderson's characters are defined by their loneliness, secrecy, and disillusionment. Often the events or crises that Anderson describes are left somewhat unresolved and emphasize the complexity and irreducibility of human psychology.

The vividness of city of Winesburg is one of the crowning achievements of the collection; here is a map that Anderson drew of the city.
Winesburg

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