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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941)

[7201] Dorothea Lange, Lobby of Only Hotel in Small Town (1939), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-021148-E DLC].

Born in southern Ohio, Sherwood Anderson was the middle child of seven. His father, a harness maker, moved the family around a great deal during Anderson’s childhood in search of work. In 1894 the family settled in Clyde, Ohio, which probably served as the model for Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, though Anderson claimed he had no particular town in mind. After working in a variety of jobs and serving in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, Anderson married into a successful business family and began managing businesses himself in 1906. Six years later he left both business and family and moved to Chicago, where he began his literary career. In Chicago he met many writers involved in what became known as the “Chicago Renaissance,” including Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. In 1916 he published his first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son, about a man who leaves a small town in Iowa to search for the meaning of life. In 1917 he published Marching Men, which follows a lawyer’s efforts to reform the factory in his town. These works, like much of his other writing, examine individuals’ search for meaning in small towns, removed from the developments of modern industry.

Anderson’s best-known work is Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a collection of connected stories about residents of a small midwestern town. This work applied some of the experimental techniques of modernism (multiple perspectives and an interest in psychology in particular) to fiction and met with critical praise for its innovation and realism. Anderson’s style of storytelling is simple, though the ideas his work contains are complex; following the lives of characters repressed by a society unsympathetic to individual desire, the stories reveal the inner workings of characters in conflict with societal expectations. Reviewing Winesburg, Ohio, a Chicago Tribune writer noted that “Mr. Anderson is frequently crude in his employment of English; he has not a nice sense of word values; but he has an intense vision of life; he is a cautious and interpretative observer; and he has recorded here a bit of life which should rank him with the most important contemporary writers in this country.” H. L. Mencken called the book “some of the most remarkable writing done in America in our time.”

None of Anderson’s many subsequent publications proved as successful as Winesburg, Ohio. He published numerous novels and collections of stories and essays in the next two decades, including the novels Poor White (1920), Many Marriages (1923), and Beyond Desire (1932), as well as the short-story collections The Triumph of the Egg (1921) and Horses and Men (1923). The simplicity of his prose style and his choice of subject matter influenced many writers who followed him, most notably Hemingway and Faulkner, but these writers tended to belittle his contribution to literature and to their own work. Anderson died of peritonitis en route to South America on a goodwill trip.

Teaching Tips

  • Students may find Anderson’s spare tales confusing; their lack of narrative commentary and surprising plot developments might leave students wondering about “the point” of each story as well as the collection as a whole. You might start a class on these texts by addressing students’ confusion, finding out what perplexed them about these characters’ behavior, and asking them to speculate on what Anderson might be exploring in these plot twists. They will likely begin to notice that the three main characters have somehow been thwarted in the attainment of their desires and lash out in helpless protest against the restrictions in their lives.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What does Elizabeth Willard want for her son George? Why does she want “to cry out with joy” at the end of the story and why has “the expression of joy . . . become impossible”?
  2. Comprehension: What troubles Elmer in “Queer”? Why is he so threatened by George Willard? What is he trying to escape at the end of the story?
  3. Context: What links these stories together? What picture do they draw of the pressures of living in a small town?
  4. Exploration: Sherwood Anderson’s fiction may in part be considered “regionalist,” writing that tends to look at areas of America removed from the more settled and populated areas of the Northeast. What links do you see between Winesburg, Ohio and earlier stories we now label as “regionalist”? What connections can you make to the work of Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, for example, or to that of other writers in Unit 8? Where do Anderson’s stories seem to diverge from the work of earlier regionalists?

Selected Archive Items

[3062] Carl Mydans, House on Laconia Street in a Suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio (1935), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-000658-D].
Suburban scene of houses, street, and sidewalk. Anderson’s most acclaimed work, Winesburg, Ohio, was likely based on his own childhood experiences in Ohio.

[5965] Carl Van Vechten, Sherwood Anderson (1933), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-42477].
Photograph of Anderson seated in front of wall of books. Anderson, who frequently wrote about the Midwest, was often considered a regionalist.

[5966] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Sherwood Anderson, Central Park (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-117920].
Although Sherwood Anderson is often considered a midwestern regionalist, this photograph was taken in New York, an important center for many modernist writers and visual artists.

[7201] Dorothea Lange, Lobby of Only Hotel in Small Town (1939), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-021148-E DLC]. 
This photograph of a hotel lobby depicts one of the many intimate settings provided by small-town life. Such an environment contrasted sharply with the hustle and bustle of America’s rapidly growing cities.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6