Sherwood Anderson is a writer whose reputation is based primarily on a single book, Winesburg, Ohio. Yet whether that book is a novel or a series of short stories, whether it is an exposé of a small town's moral decay or a nostalgic recreation of the small town before it was ruined by industrialization, whether it is sex-obsessed or highly moral — these questions have been debated for the half a century since Winesburg was published in 1919. One thing is certain: Anderson does exhibit in his book a collection of characters who are frustrated and lonely, characters who are inhibited by convention and twisted by materialism, and characters longing for love and freedom but unable to communicate their needs. Interestingly, Sherwood Anderson was just such a person.
Anderson was born in Camden, Ohio, in 1876, the third of seven children. His father was a skilled harness maker whose once-successful business was gradually ruined by the factory-made harnesses that were capturing the market. Therefore Irwin Anderson turned from harness making to various odd jobs, drifting with his growing family from one town to another during Sherwood's early years. Finally, in 1884, the family settled in Clyde, Ohio, the town where they were to live for the next ten years and which Sherwood was eventually to describe under the fictitious name of Winesburg, Ohio.
Sherwood's mother, Emma Anderson, did her best for her family during these hard times, but her health was failing. Stoically, she watched her husband realize his failure as a provider and take refuge in drink and story-telling; as for the children, they attended school intermittently because they had to work whenever they could. As Sherwood grew up, he had a variety of jobs: newsboy, stable groom, errand boy and factory hand; his willingness to do anything for money earned him the nickname of "Jobby" Anderson.
Meanwhile, the future author was storing impressions, though there is no indication that at this point in his life he had any idea of being a writer. When his mother died of overwork and tuberculosis in 1895, Sherwood was eighteen and anxious to escape to Chicago, but his years in Clyde would remain with him always, becoming the basis for Windy McPherson's Son and Winesburg, Ohio, as well as for other stories and autobiographical accounts. His debt to his mother is evident in the tribute he paid her in the dedication to Winesburg: "To the memory of my mother, Emma Smith Anderson, whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives, this book is dedicated."
Between 1895 and 1900 Anderson had a variety of experiences; he worked in Chicago, soldiered in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and the occupation afterward, and finished high school at Wittenberg Academy in Springfield, Ohio. Then he got what he considered a really good job, writing advertising copy for a firm in Chicago. Anderson evidently worked hard at this, did well, and became known as a hustler and as somewhat of a dandy. He courted and eventually married Cornelia Lane, a college graduate and sorority girl from a well-to-do family. At this point, young Anderson seemed well on the way to success as a businessman.
The small family — they soon had a son — moved to Elyria, Ohio, in 1907 and Anderson became president of a mail-order paint business. The "roof-fix man" as he called himself in ads, did the expected things: He played golf, attended meetings at the Elks Lodge, and participated with his wife in literary discussion groups. The couple now had three children and seemed happy and successful. Sherwood Anderson seemed to be another Horatio Alger.
Then in November of 1912, when Anderson was thirty-six years old, he suddenly walked out. As he told it afterward, he was in the middle of dictating a letter to his secretary when he stopped and said, "My feet are cold, wet and heavy from long walking in a river. Now I shall go walk on dry land." There is some doubt that the break for freedom was quite as deliberate as that, but certainly Anderson did leave Elyria and was found dazed and sick in Cleveland four days later. It is now known that about a year earlier Anderson had begun to drink excessively, chase women, and neglect his business in order to write, but his way of telling it is much more dramatic and, for years, the American public idolized Sherwood Anderson as the champion of art in its fight against materialism.
By February of the following year, Anderson had left Elyria permanently and settled in Chicago where he again sold advertising but where he was pursuing his dream of becoming a successful writer. In Chicago he met and found encouragement from other authors, among them Carl Sandberg, Theodore Dreiser, Floyd Dell, and Ben Hecht. With their help, he got his first story published; that was in 1914 in Harper's. He also began writing for The Little Review, an avant-garde quarterly, and in 1915 he wrote some of the Winesburg stories, several of which were published in The Masses, The Little Review, and Seven Arts. During this period, too, Anderson read with admiration one of Gertrude Stein's books and decided that he too could develop a style of his own.
When his first book, Windy McPherson's Son, was published in 1916, Anderson felt that he might yet succeed as a writer, and the following year he published Marching Men. The first of these novels is obviously autobiographical, for the protagonist, Sam McPherson, is a poor boy from a small town who wins wealth and discovers its inadequacy. In an unsatisfactory conclusion, Sam decides that love is the answer to his problems. The second novel, Marching Men, describes the exploitation of men in a mining town. The protagonist of this novel gets the miners to work together against the industrialists but he discovers man's isolation is not overcome so easily. Both of these novels try to sell an idea, but Anderson's third book, Mid-American Chants (1918), tries instead to communicate emotion. This volume of free verse is not very good poetry, but it was excellent preparation for writing the evocative stories published in Winesburg in 1919.
From that point on in his career, Anderson averaged more than a book a year, but only occasionally did his later work equal the stories in Winesburg. Yet Anderson found himself acclaimed and honored wherever he went. In Europe, in 1921, he was made welcome by Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford. Back in the States, he won a Dial writing prize of $2,000, launched a successful lecture career, and became, for a while, a friend of a yet-unknown writer named William Faulkner.
By 1929, however, ten years after Winesburg, Anderson's third marriage had ended in disillusion, his books were not being well-received, and his protégé's — Hemingway and Faulkner — had turned against him in parodies of his style. Anderson had tried for a time to settle down in Marion, Virginia, even becoming owner and editor of two weekly newspapers there, but even that proved disappointing. The rest of his life was spent wandering, writing, and lecturing, but Anderson never found happiness. His ironic end came in 1941, when Anderson was sixty-five. He died in the Panama Canal Zone of peritonitis, caused by swallowing a toothpick while eating an hors d'oeuvre. The final irony of his life was the notice which appeared in the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram: "Sherwood Anderson, Former Elyria Manufacturer, Dies."
During his lifetime, Anderson published seven novels, but only one, Dark Laughter (1925), had been a best seller. His three personal narratives — A Story Teller's Story (1924), Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926), and Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs (1942) — are interesting but unreliable as sources of fact about his life. His one fine accomplishment was Winesburg, Ohio, a moving narrative about the inarticulate men and women in small towns all over America.