Writers of slender acquaintance: Sherwood Anderson

In the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were truths and they were all beautiful. – Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This is the beginning of acting upon an idea. Whether it will be a good idea only time will tell, but here is a beginning.

As anyone who reads my essays knows, I read a lot of books. Some of the books are newly issued works of promise, some are long remembered, well known classics, some are oddities that for one reason or another have captured my attention and imagination for a least a brief time.

Because I read many books, I encounter many writers. Some of these writers are famous, known by most of the American public even if only as a name that they know.  Some have had great recognition and renown but are not known to much of the American public at all. A few have had some recognition and appeal but deserve more.

As I have thought about this, especially since reading my most recently completed book, Robert E. Spiller’s overview of American literary history, it has occurred to me that someone ought to write a series of essays that look at one other group: writers whose place in the world of literature might be seen as precarious, writers whose work should be “discovered/re-discovered” by a reading public who may be hungry for something a little deeper and more challenging than the standard fare that gets the most attention these days.

Here I go, violating one of the military’s truisms: Never volunteer.

We all know (or we should, anyway) that the history of literature is full of writers being discovered or re-discovered. Our own literature has examples of each of these phenomena in the stories of John Kennedy Toole and Edward Taylor. In the former case a brilliant late 20th century writer was discovered only after he had killed himself in despair that he would never attain recognition, in the latter case a Puritan minister who wrote verses only as a way of working out his relationship with God was rediscovered, at least in part through the work of literary historians working through manuscript collections. (One might argue that Taylor was discovered, too, since he didn’t publish during his lifetime, but his manuscripts in leather bindings were in the Yale Library, so they were being preserved.) In both these cases the great worth of these writers’ work was acknowledged immediately and their works enjoy respect.

More problematic is the case of a writer such as Sherwood Anderson. Once highly respected by the literary community and appreciated by the public ( he had one best seller, Dark Laughter, and his other works from Winesburg, Ohio onward met critical success and enjoyed “mid-list” sales. As (or perhaps more) important, Anderson served as a mentor to two of American literature’s giants, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. So he seems, certainly, a significant writer and figure in American letters. But I find when I talk to people that almost no one has read his work other than the odd short story. And more and more I encounter readers whose taste and judgment I respect who haven’t read his work at all.

I don’t know why Anderson is now something of a forgotten writer. Perhaps his work isn’t assigned in courses anymore. I was fortunate enough to have met his work in a freshman English class where a brilliant instructor made us read Winesburg, Ohio, Steppenwolf, and Slaughterhouse-Five one right after another.  Three such different works on the same theme (the existential moment of self-realization) made for a pretty heady literary experience. (Thank you,  Dr. Tom Gladsky, wherever you are.)

The interlinked stories in Winesburg, Ohio revolve around a young man named George Willard who writes for the local newspaper. In stories like “The Philosopher,” “Nobody Knows,” and Hands” he encounters the cynical, the wanton, the lost and broken. The character called The Philosopher sums up the power of these stories with one beautiful and bitter line:

Everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.

What you will find is a writer who bridges the gap between the great 19th century approach to storytelling one finds in Twain and the more experimental work of his two Nobelist proteges Faulkner and Hemingway. You’ll also find a depiction of people and scenes of American life that, though nearly 100 years old, ring true.

You can read Winesburg, Ohio for free here or here or here.

Now. Go read….

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