Sherwood Anderson was born in Camden, Ohio, on September 13, 1876. His wanderings began in boyhood as his family moved from town to town in Ohio. In a succession of jobs, his father ran a harness shop, worked in harness shops, and painted signs, each occupation bringing in relatively less money for his large family. Sherwood, an active young boy, sold newspapers, picked up odd jobs, and wandered around the Ohio towns that were to become the settings for his later stories and novels. Although he read avidly, he had finished only one year of high school when he went to Chicago, in 1896, to work as a day laborer. After serving in the Spanish-American War and attending a prep school for a short time, he returned to Chicago and worked for an advertising agency. He did well in business and soon moved to Elyria, Ohio, where he managed a factory and sold a roof paint called “Roof Fix.” Outwardly, during those years, he led a conventional young businessman’s life, but at the same time he was trying–in poems, short stories, and novels–to record his puzzled impressions of American life.
Legend has it that Anderson simply walked out of his factory one afternoon in 1912, after deciding to leave industry for writing. Actually, the decision was neither that conscious nor that simple. The conflicts between life and his literary ambition had been growing for years, and he seemed to suffer a kind of breakdown. After leaving the factory, he wandered aimlessly for four days until he was discovered in Cleveland. He and his family subsequently moved to Chicago, where he took a job in advertising, similar to what he had done before. After more than a year, he quit advertising for good. He and his wife were divorced, and he set himself upon a course as a serious and solitary writer. In Chicago, as a member of a literary group that included Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, and Ben Hecht, and stimulated by Harriet Monroe’s Poetry (founded in 1912) and Margaret Anderson’s Little Review (begun in 1914), Anderson found an artistic climate in which he could write.
His first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son, the story of a midwestern boy’s revolt against his father and against his small hometown, appeared in 1916 but received little attention. Three years and several publications later, however, Anderson became well known and widely acclaimed following the publication of Winesburg, Ohio. The book is a loosely structured series of episodes dealing with life and character in a small midwestern town. Anderson portrayed, with enormous sympathy, the grim and quietly desperate lives in the small half-industrial town. The novel is centered on young George Willard as he learns to see and understand the town around him. Anderson concentrated on the weak, the characters beaten by life in a competitive and mechanical society.
Winesburg, Ohio made Anderson known as the authentic voice of the Midwest. The remarkable quality about this work of interrelated short stories is that a plot does not present itself. Anderson embarked here upon an experimental and extremely effective form of writing that was original and peculiar to him. His stories explored the psychological unconscious of his characters, which was new territory in 1919; they were often grasping to find the meaning of sex, love, life, and death. Anderson did this with a deftness and elegant simplicity that has been admired and imitated by a succession of twentieth century writers including Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, then later by Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver.
Anderson’s distinguished contemporaries Waldo Frank, Van Wyck Brooks, and Paul Rosenfeld admired and befriended him. Other writers, such as Dreiser and Hart Crane, valued his power and insight. Poor White, Anderson’s fourth novel, dealt with American society more comprehensively in presenting the wanderings of a lonely, inarticulate young man. The novel was well received; this success, in combination with the short stories in The Triumph of the Egg and Horses and Men, made Anderson one of the most frequently honored figures on the American literary scene in the early 1920’s. He received the first annual award given by The Dial in December, 1921. His fame spread to Europe, and a few years later Virginia Woolf wrote that “of all American novelists the most discussed and read in England at the present moment are probably Mr. Sherwood Anderson and Mr. Sinclair Lewis.”
About this time Anderson began to feel the influence of D. H. Lawrence strongly. He read Lawrence repeatedly and incorporated a stronger sexual motif into his own writings. Many Marriages expresses the point of view that Americans are crippled by the attitude that sexual discussion and experience should be repressed. Dark Laughter, in many ways his best novel, uses sex as one of several means for the hero to scrape away the superficialities of modern cosmopolitan life and return to the primitive and basic meanings of human experience.
After becoming successful, Anderson wandered around both the United States and Europe, finally settling in Marion, Virginia, where he edited two newspapers–one Republican, one Democrat. He continued to write, although after 1925 his work never reached the artistic heights or received the public acclaim of his earlier work. He died at Colón, in the Panama Canal Zone, while on a U.S. State Department mission, on March 8, 1941.
Critics during the 1920’s talked of the depth of his insight, of his warmth and concern for humanity, and of his genuine quality as a spokesman for the frustrations of unhappy, unsuccessful people. In the 1940’s and 1950’s a wide variety of criticism was unleashed against Anderson, some valid and some not. He is still regarded as a writer of warmth and sympathy who managed to create a new type of fiction through which to present his characters doomed by society. The short stories survive as the best of Anderson’s work. Many of them could fall into the category of prose poetry. The speed and ease with which his characters reach an epiphany or deep emotional experience are the trademarks that made Anderson an extremely important and innovative writer of the twentieth century.