In the autumn of 1915, while living in a bohemian boardinghouse on Chicago’s Near North Side, Sherwood Anderson began work on a collection of tales describing the tortured lives of the inhabitants of Winesburg, a fictional Ohio town, in the 1890s. Drawing on his own experience growing up in the agricultural hamlet of Clyde, Ohio, he breathed life into a band of neurotic castaways adrift on the flatlands of the Midwest, each of them in their own way struggling — and failing — to locate meaning, personal connection and love amid the town’s elm-shaded streets.
These “grotesques,” as Anderson called them, had allowed doubt and fear to overwhelm their better instincts. They were, the writer believed, casualties of a close-minded culture, condemned to live out a lonely, alienated existence. “Winesburg” quickly became a cultural byword, a metaphor for the yawning emptiness of rural life.
Today that book, “Winesburg, Ohio,” is a staple of high school English classes and an acknowledged classic — No. 24 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best American novels. But the path that the book, published a century ago on May 8, 1919, took to literary renown was anything but direct.
By the time the boutique publisher B.W. Huebsch read Anderson’s manuscript in August 1918, it had already been rejected on both sides of the Atlantic. Even London’s John Lane Company, which had put out Anderson’s previous works — two novels and a book of verse — when no New York publisher would touch them, dismissed it as “too gloomy.” But Huebsch, who had introduced American readers to James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, agreed to publish it.
Over its first two years the book, as skeptics had foreseen, sold a modest 5,000 copies. By contrast, Sinclair Lewis’s take on small-town life, “Main Street,” published a year later, surpassed 390,000 in sales during the same interval.
Anderson’s book fared little better with critics. Although some, including the literary kingmaker H.L. Mencken, lavished “Winesburg” with praise — “Here, indeed, is a piece of work that stands out from the common run of fiction like the Alps from the Piedmont plain,” he wrote — many reviewers were savage. The journalist Heywood Broun thought the book “monotonous,” while others complained that Anderson’s descriptions lacked depth and that his characters were one-dimensional “puppets with names.”
But the most vehement attacks targeted Anderson’s alleged preoccupation with sex. And indeed many of the “Winesburg” stories, in violation of the prevailing literary taboos, openly explored the destructive effects of stifled desire, sexual repression and perversion. Anderson became known as “the phallic Chekhov,” whose book, according to an anonymous reviewer in The New York Evening Post, “no man would wish to see in the hands of his daughter or sister.”
Perhaps nowhere was Anderson more despised than in his hometown, Clyde. The town’s head librarian burned copies of his book, and for many years, any patron of the Clyde Public Library who requested it was met with a scowl as she fumbled for the key to a locked closet where she stored, together with other “bad books,” a single copy that had somehow escaped the flames.
Writing in his memoirs two decades later, Anderson recalled that after “Winesburg” came out, “for weeks and months, my mail was loaded with letters calling me ‘filthy,’ ‘an opener of sewers.’” The criticism, he said, “made me ill.”
A hundred years on, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about. No modern reader would blush at Anderson’s treatment of sex, chaste by contemporary standards. “Winesburg” owes its longevity not to shock value but to how perfectly it captured a society on the brink of colossal change. Decades after the book’s publication, Waldo Frank, who had printed some of the early “Winesburg” stories in his magazine, The Seven Arts, remarked that Anderson had undertaken to describe “a Mid-American world that already then was a generation dead.”
Indeed, Winesburg — with its dirt roads, horses and gas lights, its farmers, shopkeepers and artisans — represented a rural culture soon to be swept by unprecedented social and technological ferment. When the superintendent of the United States census declared the American frontier closed in 1890, two-thirds of Americans still resided in small farm towns not unlike Winesburg. But by 1920, for the first time in the nation’s history, the majority of Americans were living in urban areas.
A number of factors contributed to this demographic shift, including a boom in American industry during World War I, which drew millions of workers to cities in search of jobs, large numbers of immigrants arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe, and the Great Migration of nearly half a million African-Americans from the South (including a staggering 10.4 percent of the combined black population of Alabama and Mississippi) to cities in the Midwest and the West and along the Eastern Seaboard.
At the same time, daily life was speeding up. In 1900 the horse remained the primary means of travel, and fewer than 14,000 automobiles — which most people viewed as playthings of the rich — bumped along the nation’s rutted roads; by 1920 there were nine million. Passenger trains more than doubled their ridership and tripled the number of miles traveled in the decade before the 1920 census, helping to make the railroads the country’s largest industry and biggest employer. Electric streetcars, first deployed in 1888, were now rumbling through thousands of towns and cities, heralding the age of the commuter. The noise and filth of urban living, helped along by the prejudices of affluent city dwellers seeking to escape growing racial and ethnic diversity downtown, led to the advent of “streetcar suburbs,” whose quiet, tree-lined avenues mimicked the small-town aesthetic of days gone by.
Other innovations, too — telephones, electric lights, subways, running water, sewage lines, paved streets, even house numbers — transformed how Americans lived. A combination of rising wages and shorter work weeks created a new class of consumers, people with the time and money to partake of all of those products spilling out of factories around the country.
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Before becoming a full-time writer, Anderson was also caught up in the new “money hunger,” rising to become the owner of a paint factory in Elyria, Ohio. But in 1913, after a nervous breakdown, he deserted his wife and children and moved to Chicago. There he fell into a literary milieu that the critic Carl Van Doren called “the revolt from the village,” made up of newcomers to the city who, like Anderson, trained their writerly attentions on the rural settings they had left behind. Its chief exponent was the poet Edgar Lee Masters and his “Spoon River Anthology,” published in 1915, a collection of verse ostensibly in the voices of villagers buried in the cemetery of a fictional Illinois small town. The book, with its dark view of small-town life, became an unlikely international best seller and inspired Anderson to begin writing the stories that were to become “Winesburg, Ohio.”
The village revolt soon ran its course, as did Anderson’s career. He continued to publish and enjoyed a few years of fame in the 1920s, even if his books, with the exception of his 1925 novel “Dark Laughter,” never sold well. He was soon overtaken by younger writers: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck — all took inspiration from “Winesburg,” with its simple, declarative rhythms and steadfast concern for the plight of common people.
Hemingway and Faulkner, in particular, sought Anderson’s advice and support, which he happily provided, acting as a mentor to both and helping to get their first books into print. As their fortunes rose and his declined, they sought to distance themselves from Anderson with novels that cruelly mocked his personality and his prose style: Faulkner’s “Mosquitoes” and Hemingway’s “The Torrents of Spring.”
Anderson died in March 1941 of an intestinal infection, having accidentally swallowed a toothpick at a New York cocktail party. But his literary influence continued to be felt — something Faulkner himself later acknowledged. In December 1950, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, he told the audience in Stockholm’s City Hall that he and his entire generation of American writers were “all of us children of Sherwood Anderson.”
Bruce Falconer is the senior editor of The American Scholar.
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