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Sherwood Anderson | Biography

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Early Life in Small Town America

Sherwood Anderson was born in Camden in southwestern Ohio on September 13, 1876, but grew up in Clyde, near Cleveland, Ohio. He attended school on an irregular basis until age 14. His father, Irwin McLain Anderson, was a day laborer, and Sherwood was the third of seven children. Irwin apparently tried to start a business as a harness maker, but he moved his family to Clyde when the business failed. In his semiautobiographical Horses and Men: Tales, long and short, from our American Life (1923), Anderson invents alternate details for his life: "My father was a retail druggist in our town, out in Nebraska." Anderson goes on to state he worked in the drugstore until age 19, when his father died, whereupon he says his mother gave him $400, and he moved to Chicago to begin a new life.

Eclectic Career

Life in Chicago was hard on Anderson, and working in a drugstore made him so sick he struck out as a tramp—hopping trains and working in racing stables as a groom. Anderson relates, "I came to Chicago, where I worked as a drug clerk for a time, and then, ... my health suddenly went back on me, perhaps because I was so sick of my lonely life in the city and of the sight and smell of the drugstore." Anderson took on a number of mysterious and unexplained aliases, including Jobby Anderson, Buck Fever, and even Zip Coon. He served in the Ohio Army National Guard and fought in the Spanish American War from April 1898 to May of the following year, attaining the rank of corporal and fighting in Cuba until discharged as a disabled veteran. Anderson then went into advertising, finally settling into a job as manager of a paint factory in Elyria, Ohio. He began writing short stories and novels in his spare time around 1908. But one day in 1912, Anderson walked out of the factory and disappeared. He showed up four days later in Cleveland "disheveled and mentally distraught," although later Anderson claimed he had faked illness in order to break with business and find some peace in which to write. He returned to Chicago to take an advertising position until his published work brought him enough income to write full time.

Recognition as an Author

While in Chicago, Anderson joined a group of writers known as the "Chicago group," which included novelist Theodore Dreiser and poet Carl Sandburg. Dreiser and Sandburg helped Anderson publish his earliest work, Windy McPherson's Son, in 1916. This was followed by a second novel, Marching Men, in 1917, and a collection of poems called Mid-American Chants in 1918. Although Winesburg, Ohio is cited as Anderson's masterpiece, it was Dark Laughter, a novel he published in 1925, that brought the author the greatest financial success. Although he intended this novel to be a comparison between the supposedly raw joy of laughter in the black man and the hollow laugh of the white man, it ended up mostly confirming racial stereotypes.

Anderson wrote in his letters and memoirs he did not believe in worldly success as an artist's end goal. Rather, an artist must continue the ongoing struggle to remain awake and alive. Anderson wrote that "what is to be got at to make the air sweet, the ground good under the feet, can only be got at by failure, trial, again and again and again failure." The concept is apparent in many of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio. In "Mother" Elizabeth Willard prays on behalf of her son, George, saying, "Do not let him become smart and successful either." Writing is also compared to the two different kinds of apples described in "Paper Pills." While the harvest of "successful" apples is shipped off for sale in the cities—where people live in apartments with books and magazines—the story of how Doctor Reefy courts and marries his wife is said to be "delicious," like the other rarer kind, the malformed and rejected apples that have been left behind. Anderson concludes, "Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples."

Later Life and Death

Anderson married four times. His first marriage was to Cornelia Platt Lane, with whom he had three children. Once he had established his career and fame as an American literary voice, Anderson made his home in Chicago, and from there traveled the world extensively. He died of peritonitis—an inflammation of the abdominal wall—in Panama on March 8, 1941, on his way to Chile. In his obituary supplied by his fourth wife, Anderson was listed as an agnostic and was cremated. His remains were laid to rest in Marion Smyth County, Virginia.

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