On My Obsession with Sherwood Anderson

Revisiting Winesburg, Ohio again and again

HUMANITIES, Fall 2017, Volume 38, Number 4

The body of Sherwood Anderson, a writer famed in his own day and nearly forgotten in ours, is buried on the slope of a grassy hilltop in Marion, Virginia, a quiet town nestled in a valley of the Blue Ridge, near the border with Tennessee and North Carolina. Standing out amid scores of weathered tombstones is a sleek monument of modernist design, bearing vague resemblance to an upside-down ice cream cone—the work of one of Anderson’s longtime friends, the sculptor Wharton Esherick. Chiseled into it is an epitaph the writer composed himself: “Life not death is the great adventure.” Nearby, visible from the crest of the hill, I-81 invades the solitude with the drone of cars and trucks racing past on their way to someplace else. My wife has family an hour down the interstate, and many times driving from Washington, I, too, have zoomed by without a thought, without even knowing Anderson was there.

A Distant Embrace
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A Distant Embrace

—Photograph by Robert Hite

Winesburgh, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson cover art
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—Penguin Books, 1946. Cover art by Robert Jonas

This seems crazy to me now, given my timeworn fixation with the man and his work, particularly Winesburg, Ohio, a cycle of interconnected short stories, first published in 1919. The book brings to vivid life an American small town, home to a cast of romantics and eccentrics marooned in a pastoral paradise at the dawn of the twentieth century. I first encountered it in English class during the spring semester of my senior year of high school.

Today I own more than a dozen copies of Winesburg in various editions, but the one I prize most is that soiled paperback with a broken spine, printed in 1952, through which I first entered Anderson’s world. Its cover features a pencil sketch of a young man in a suit and tie, holding his hat in one hand and embracing a young woman with the other. He looks as if he’s leaning in for a kiss. Opposite the title page is a hand-drawn map of Winesburg, displaying a cluster of three-dimensional buildings near the corner of Main and Buckeye streets, several of which are labeled Hern’s Grocery, Sinning’s Hardware, Biff Carter’s Lunch Room. The surrounding white space hints at the town’s remoteness, suggesting a world contentedly self-contained. Most of all, though, my teenage mind thrilled to Anderson’s chapter titles, which promised insight into the mysteries of existence: Godliness, Surrender, Terror, Adventure, Respectability, Loneliness, An Awakening, Drink, Death, Sophistication, Departure—“brave words, full of meaning,” as Anderson wrote, each of which finds expression in the life of a particular inhabitant of Winesburg. Any of the book’s tales might easily stand on their own but are instead linked by geography and, very often, the oracular presence of George Willard, a young newspaper reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, through whose eyes we come to know the town.

My own understanding of Winesburg has shifted wildly over the years. Initially, typical for a self-absorbed teenager, my reading of Anderson’s book had more to do with me than with him or any of his characters. Growing up in the sprawl of suburban Chicago, I yearned for the permanence that Winesburg represented—old houses, dirt roads, families rooted to the land, living and laboring together for generations. A place where people worked with their hands and consumed only what they produced. I sensed a kind of authenticity in that style of living that was lacking in my upper middle-class world of highways, strip malls, corporate office parks, and chain restaurants. In my mind’s eye, Winesburg offered a slower pace. People there walked, sat out on their front porches talking, greeting neighbors, watching the sunset, counting the stars in the clear night sky. You couldn’t see many stars where I came from. Winesburg contained within it the promise of how the world used to be and might be again—literally brighter, more colorful, more alive.

I see now that what Anderson meant to evoke in Winesburg was not nostalgia but alienation. He describes the inhabitants of Winesburg as “grotesques”—people who have fallen through the cracks of life, succumbed to weakness and doubt, and worst of all, closed themselves off from each other. They are isolated outcasts, repressed, stifled, stunted. Most of the book takes place at night, as if Winesburg’s inhabitants are scavengers, sneaking through the darkness in search of understanding—something none of them ever finds. Anderson’s opening chapter, “The Book of the Grotesque,” is his great philosophical statement about human nature: that each of us goes through the world alone, seeing only with our own eyes, fixated on our own experience, incapable of real understanding. Winesburg is not a place of promise and hope; it’s desolate and brutal, as isolated emotionally as it is geographically.

How could I have missed this? How could anyone view Winesburg as an ideal to be sought after? I blame Anderson himself. After all, he unwittingly undermines his own grim message with the empathy and kindness he injects into his stories. Even as Anderson tries to convince us of our own inescapable selfishness, he describes a carpenter, who while fixing a bed for an elderly writer, grows upset at the memory of a brother who died in the Civil War. “He, like the old writer, had a white mustache, and when he cried he puckered up his lips and the mustache bobbed up and down,” Anderson writes. “The weeping old man with the cigar in his mouth was ludicrous.” Ludicrous! Even today, I pause nervously at his use of the word. “I only mentioned him,” Anderson goes on, “because he, like many of what are called very common people, became the nearest thing to what is understandable and lovable of all the grotesques in the writer’s book.” Anderson, then, not only gazes directly at the pain and ugliness of life, but does so with kindness in his heart.

Barely a day has passed in more than 20 years during which my thoughts haven’t turned, however fleetingly, to Anderson, “the minor author of a minor masterpiece,” as he once described himself. Winesburg has become my life’s great literary obsession, though for reasons that remain obscure even to me. Perhaps it’s because I encountered it at exactly the right age, as I was preparing to leave home for the first time. As much as anything, Winesburg is about the disillusion of growing up. In Anderson’s stories, maturity approaches by fits and starts, sneaking up on its innocent victims before exploding with the power of revelation. This is the moment of “sophistication,” he writes, when we begin to adopt “the backward view of life.” We are shocked to discover our smallness and insignificance, to sense our own mortality.

Many of us now scoff at our adolescent selves, all too quick to disown the confusion and pain we felt. Anderson never does. Even when we abandon the field to maturity, he remains, unembarrassed and waiting for us should we ever return. For me, his book is a portal to my eighteenth year, a wormhole leading back to childhood, through which I can reconnect with my younger self.

So it was with some excitement that one spring morning, I pulled off the highway and drove into Marion, the county seat of Smyth County, where Anderson lived and worked the latter part of his life. Here he had married the daughter of a prominent family; built a comely house of locally quarried stone; purchased two area newspapers—one Democrat, one Republican—for which he wrote regularly under the folksy pseudonym “Buck Fever”; and in short order became a beloved figure, whom the townspeople admired for his utter lack of pretension and ready, belly-aching laugh. Anderson still wandered the country frequently, each year spending months away from his estate, which he named “Ripshin,” for a gentle stream that bisects the property. But, in Marion, finally, he seems to have found contentment in the same sort of small-town existence from which he had fled years before. After a lifetime preoccupied by the search for human understanding and a sense of belonging, he ended up more or less where he had begun.

I parked on Main Street, much of it probably unchanged since Anderson’s day, and had a look around. A stately courthouse in the Palladian style, an old theater with a marquee promoting country-music acts, a historic hotel, redbrick buildings lined with mom-and-pop shops packed with antiques, jewelry, and snacks. More than a few storefronts stood conspicuously empty with “For Lease” signs in their large bay windows, and the streets were bare of people.

Climbing back into the car, I made my way to the cemetery and drove until I spotted Anderson’s monument. I was impatient to lay a hand on the stone, to share an intimacy with this man, who even in death meant as much to me as any living person. Leaving the car in the road, I strode up the hill and knelt at the monument’s base. It was a glorious, bright May morning, with Marion and the green valley beyond bathed in sunlight—a moment ready-made for transcendence. After nearly 20 years of worship, there I was in Anderson’s presence, closer to him than I will ever be. What I was expecting I cannot say. A mystic gust of wind? A soft whisper from the other side? Instead, I felt only emptiness—and a strangely fresh sense of loss. A few feet from the monument, obscured by dead grass, a stone marker was set into the dirt. “SHERWOOD ANDERSON.”

His body lay underfoot, where it had resided since being interred in March 1941. A funeral procession of some 30 cars had motored slowly up the hill to lower his flag-draped casket into the earth. A choir from the local college sang and a pair of Lutheran clergymen gave readings. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” Anderson had died unexpectedly in a Panama hospital a few weeks before, midway through a sea passage to South America. He had planned an unofficial diplomatic mission to hobnob with writers and poets from the region—and, without doubt, hungered as much for their adulation as for their acquaintance. By then, his career had lost its sparkle—indeed, he had become an anachronism, a cautionary figure in the minds of younger writers, a warning of the costs of intellectual complacency. Even his masterwork, Winesburg, Ohio, had fallen in esteem. Anderson and his book symbolized an antique time already distant from the minds of most Americans, and yet not far enough gone to invite their sympathy or affection.

But the people who gathered at the cemetery that morning had known not just the writer but the man—and for them, his legacy was to be found not on the printed page but in the gentle memory of his humanity. After the funeral, a local cabinetmaker invited a group of men back to the workshop he kept behind his house. Many times, he and Anderson had idled away the hours there, chatting amid the sawdust. He secured some wood in a lathe, and the men took turns carving it into a goblet. When finished, they filled it with wine and passed it around, toasting Anderson’s memory. “We did not look at him through his books or magnify him through his fame,” one of them said, according to a reporter who was there. “We found and loved the man for what he was.”

Oh, how I’d like to drink from that cup! More than 70 years later, standing above Anderson’s body, I felt a peculiar need to come to know him as they had, as a companion, as a friend—to discover something more of the man than can be found in his books. For a moment—and yes, this is weird—I felt the urge to dig him up. Thankfully, the impulse faded as quickly as it had arisen, replaced by the knowledge that Anderson was as remote now as he had been at the moment he drew his last breath. Yet some part of him—the grip of his handshake, the gleam in his eye at a well-told joke—remained present, for a time, in the minds of those men who had assembled in the cabinetmaker’s workshop.

Over time, our view of Anderson has inevitably narrowed. Any life, including his, can be reduced too easily to its component parts. Consider Julian Barnes’s novel Flaubert’s Parrot, which offers parallel characterizations of the great French writer Gustave Flaubert. In the first, Flaubert is the celebrated author of Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, blessed by fortuitous circumstance and easy success. Born into a prosperous, stable family, he enjoys close friendships, achieves numerous professional and sexual conquests, and is deified in his own lifetime as the father of French Realism. In the second, Flaubert nearly dies in infancy, suffers from epilepsy, is kicked out of school, crippled by grief at the deaths of friends and family, finds himself incapable of love, contracts syphilis from a meaningless sexual encounter, fails at numerous writing projects, is resented by jealous contemporaries, and dies alone, exhausted and impoverished, his life’s work being picked apart by petty critics.

Both interpretations are accurate; they describe the same man at the same time in the same place. The real Flaubert, the Truth of his existence, isn’t to be found in any single detail, good or ill, but in the complex and delicate accumulation of facts, disparate and contradictory.

To see Anderson in motion requires a leap of imagination. It is an odd fact, but apart from a few pictures, he left behind only traces. By comparison, thanks to radio and film, the younger writers he influenced and mentored retain much of their vitality. Anyone with an Internet connection can watch Hemingway cheering from the stands at a bullfight in Spain or listen to Faulkner read from As I Lay Dying. You can study them as embodied human beings fully engaged in the act of living. Not so with Anderson. Perhaps his celebrity dimmed too soon, but whatever the reason, he is nowhere to be found. There are no movies of him making his way through the world, no recordings of his voice. Would I be so determined to chase after him if there were? If I could simply turn on my computer and observe him playing croquet (his favorite diversion) on Ripshin’s freshly mown lawn or hear the gravel in his smoker’s baritone?

What’s left is merely a smattering of grainy photographs—flat, colorless, still, silent. For years, I’ve sought them out wherever I could find them, hoping that a delicate exposure of light and a candid moment might have conspired to preserve a sense of Anderson’s physical bearing, the figure he cut. English writer Geoff Dyer, in Out of Sheer Rage, the story of his own tragicomic search for the literary hero of his youth, D. H. Lawrence, is similarly obsessed by the inadequacy of static images. “The more I looked at my collection of Lawrence photographs,” he writes, “the more insistent became the feeling that I did not know what Lawrence looked like.” The sensation is all too familiar. Anderson’s likeness never appears fixed. He can be unrecognizable from one photograph to the next, a chameleon forever changing its color. Part of this, of course, reflects his late arrival on the literary scene. Fewer images of him exist from the early days, before he abandoned his wife and children in Elyria, Ohio, and at age 37, made his way to Chicago, leaving behind his life as the struggling owner of a paint factory to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. Fame arrived even later, only after the publication of Winesburg, Ohio, in 1919, when Anderson was 42. The man captured in the majority of photographs, then, is already middle-aged, explaining his seemingly accelerated decline and lending the false impression of a life strangely compressed.

Taped to the plaster behind my computer are two photographs of Anderson. One of them, my favorite, offers a rare glimpse of the writer before he became a writer. It dates from 1900, when Anderson was just 24 and living with his sister in Chicago. He was on the hunt for advertising work, having completed a few college-preparatory classes at the Wittenberg Academy back in Ohio, and was only recently returned from Cuba, where his National Guard unit had been deployed during the Spanish-American War. (Too late to see combat, Anderson passed his time guarding prisoners and playing poker.) In the photograph, he stands sideways to the camera and against a wall, wearing a black fedora and a wool overcoat with a popped collar. The left side of his face is swathed in light, the right consumed by a shadow that projects a ghostly figure onto the wallpaper behind him. A lock of hair playfully astray; a cherubic smile revealing straight, strikingly white teeth; a lit cigarette resting lazily between fore and middle finger—you might easily mistake him for a matinee idol or the Rat Pack crooner of a later generation. Badda bing, badda boom! He is optimistic, confident, poised to make something of himself, aware to the possibilities of life. The image is infused with the excitement of youth, one of the few in which you sense Anderson gazing back from within the frame, not at all displeased by what he sees.

In the other picture, taken nearly a quarter century later, perhaps a year or two before Anderson’s death, we are the ones who gaze—through the six-pane window of his writing cabin at Ripshin. The scene brings to mind something Anderson once observed in his 1924 memoir, A Story Teller’s Story, about the power of language, that great sentences “are like windows looking into houses,” where “something is suddenly torn aside, all lies, all trickery about life gone for the moment.” He sits hunched over a desk before a sheaf of papers, head down, lips pursed in concentration. His once-abundant mop of brown hair has receded and grayed. He wears glasses, a loudly striped tie, and a tweed jacket. I wonder, Did he always dress up for work? Behind him is a chair of rough-hewn wood. Had a friend among the local craftsmen built it for him? By this time, Anderson’s reputation had so waned, his literary powers so much deserted him, that one imagines it an act of supreme courage for him to sit down at that desk. The hopeful aura permeating the earlier image is gone. We see Anderson near the end of a life that hasn’t quite panned out as that younger man had surely dreamed. The viewer might even question whether the pensive figure depicted here is the same person—and there is room for doubt, until we notice the cigarette, still casually perched in the same spot between his fingers.

But for all the change in his appearance and literary fortunes, Anderson remained locked into a kind of permanent adolescence. He wrote no less than three memoirs, all partially fictionalized, in a fumbling attempt to make sense of his childhood, his troubled relationship with his father, his desire for something better than what he had. This helps explain why Winesburg, Ohio retains so much of its appeal to the young. Nearly a century after publication, it remains one of the most taught books in American literature seminars, according to book critic Michael Dirda, second only to The Great Gatsby. Even back in Anderson’s day, among its most enthusiastic readers were the literary icons of the next generation—Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, and William Saroyan. Several of them befriended Anderson and sought his counsel. He was instrumental, for example, in getting Hemingway’s first book published, and sometime later, told a young Faulkner that he should consider writing about Mississippi. They both paid him back with novels—Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring and Faulkner’s Mosquitoes—that parodied his style and mocked his personality. Perhaps the strength of his influence was such that the sons felt compelled to kill the father before surpassing him. Faulkner later reconciled with Anderson, declaring in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that he and his generation of writers were “all of us children of Sherwood Anderson,” but Hemingway, who owed the greater debt, never apologized.

Their betrayals, hurtful though they were to Anderson, speak to something not uncommon in how people relate to him and his work. Literary critic Irving Howe, in his 1951 biography of Anderson, writes: “When I read Winesburg, Ohio in my adolescence, I felt that a new world had been opened to me, new possibilities of experience, new dimensions of emotion. Not many years later I found myself rejecting Anderson’s work: I was impatient with his vagueness, superior to his uncertainty. Yet he still meant more to me than other writers of unquestionably greater achievement.” I might easily have written those words myself. For years, I have idolized Anderson for the austere rhythm of his prose, his desperate quest for self-knowledge, his empathy and kindheartedness. But he was also vain, immature, sentimental, even pathetic, and despite his best efforts, a stranger to himself. Even so, my affection for him remains. As Anderson wrote in a letter to Van Wyck Brooks, a prominent literary critic who had recently savaged the work of his childhood hero, Mark Twain, “Surely the thing has to be undertaken as a labor of love and love should stomach imperfections.”

Anderson himself possessed an unusually sharp critical eye and plainly realized when his own work, all too often, fell short. Still, he pressed on, driven by an almost religious fervor with regard to the redemptive power of creativity. “The object of art is not to make salable pictures,” he wrote in a 1927 letter to one of his sons, a novice painter. “It is to save yourself.” Depressive by nature, he suffered two nervous breakdowns, both of which sent him reeling aimlessly about the countryside in a kind of fugue state. More than once he seriously contemplated suicide. Known primarily for his short stories, he also produced a number of second-rate novels, both early and late in his career, which most critics judged to be as much a labor to read as they had been for him to write. Still, at least Anderson was laboring on Anderson’s own terms; he no longer felt the pangs of self-loathing that had assaulted his conscience during his time as an advertising copywriter in Chicago. There he had earned a meager living while honing his abilities as a wordsmith. For a man of limited education, the experience could only have improved his prospects. But as the years elapsed without his being able to separate himself from what he sneeringly called the “universal whoredom” of advertising, Anderson grew despondent over the soullessness of the job. (Even after publishing Winesburg, he remained, for a time, unable to earn an independent living.) He came to view himself as a sellout, a slave to the same voracious capitalism that he believed was devouring the best aspects of American life.

Yet eventually he did escape, and for all the disappointment that lay ahead, freely pursued a life of his own choosing. He found his Ripshin. This goes some distance toward explaining his continuing hold on me. I was born 100 years after Anderson, and like him, came of age in the Midwest. But there’s more to our kinship. We are both late bloomers: As children, neither of us took any great interest in books, but as adults, consumed them with abandon, in part, to assuage our feelings of intellectual inferiority. Likewise, we are refugees: Just as I took flight from my hometown’s preoccupation with money and status (landing, ironically, in Washington, D.C., the beating heart of that culture), Anderson ran from what he later called “the dreams of sudden wealth and power” that gripped the Ohio of his early manhood. Finally, we are both searchers: Anderson’s peripatetic wanderings colored the map, as he repeatedly ventured forth in pursuit of meaning, authenticity, place, belonging, and connection. I, too, seek those things.

My work as a journalist has led me far away from the boring Chicago suburb where I grew up, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed it. But now, like Anderson a century ago, I find myself approaching middle age strangely unsatisfied. It’s not unhappiness I feel so much as an unsettling sense of drift. The years pass ever more rapidly in a blur of ephemeral concern, and lately I’ve taken to wondering if I’m spending them as I should. Anderson’s spiritual companionship has long been a source of comfort to me, a suggestion that I am not alone in my grappling—or fumbling, as it more often feels. Imagine my joy, then, at finding this inscription in blue ballpoint ink, dated December 14, 1962, on the end paper of a collection of Anderson’s letters I had ordered from a used bookstore and that recently arrived in the mail:

 Sherwood, who meant so much to me in those early days when I was just beginning to find myself. At that time he could do no wrong—all of his feelings were laid bare with honesty—the honesty he knew. I can see now that there were certain things blocking his vision that lay within him. But I still get great pleasure from listening to him search aloud and I gently disagree with him.

Anderson’s struggles are all our struggles to a point—most of us try very hard to get beyond his searchings—some of us succeed. Sherwood is no longer the Writer but a man: a fine, honest, troubled man who we can all learn from. We get strength from his similar feelings; we learn from his mistakes; we sympathize with his failures.

I think this is what he wanted.

These words, written almost 15 years before I was born, were meant for someone else, but reading them, I had the sensation of having received a long-delayed letter from a dear friend. Sherwood Anderson is gone, but the kindness and understanding he released into the world still grows and will for as long as he has readers. Wherever I go in my own searching, the faded yellow spine of Winesburg, Ohio stares out from the shelf, waiting patiently for my return. I can’t help but feel that the book and its author have yet to give up all of their secrets—that maybe, the art Anderson turned to for his salvation might just save me, too.