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An Introduction to Sherwood Anderson, Creator of Winesburg, Ohio

By Adrienne Rivera. Sep 13, 2017. 9:00 AM.

Topics: American Literature

Midwest writer Sherwood Anderson was born in 1876 and raised in Ohio. Like the characters in his most enduring work, Winesburg, Ohio, he lived most of his life in small towns. Much of his writing was inspired by the places he lived and the people he met during a somewhat transient childhood. Anderson was one of seven children born to his mother and father. His father, Irwin McLain Anderson, was a former Union soldier with considerable debts and a habit for drinking, forcing the family to move frequently. To compensate for his father's difficulties keeping a steady job, Anderson worked a variety of part-time jobs. The family eventually settled in Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson worked at different times as a newsboy, stable hand, printer's devil, and occasionally as his father's assistant when he found work as a sign painter. Anderson ended up leaving school in the ninth grade in order to support his family.

800px-Sherwood_Anderson_(1933).jpgBy the time he was eighteen, his mother had died of tuberculosis and his father went missing for weeks at a time before eventually becoming completely estranged from the family. With his eldest brother living in Chicago and attending the Art Institute, providing for the younger siblings fell entirely on Anderson. Still, during this busy time, Anderson found time to read, making good use of the school's lending library and the personal library of a school administrator who recognized his love of language and allowed him to borrow books even after leaving school.

In 1897, Anderson moved to Chicago where he stayed with his brother in a boarding house owned by the former mayor of Clyde. During this time, Anderson worked full time at a cold-storage plant, where he continued to work after relocating his younger siblings to Chicago. He managed to find time to take night classes after work and would have continued his education at this time if not for the start of the Spanish American War.

A member of the National Guard, Anderson served as a solider in Cuba and was not able to resume his studies until the war was over. Eventually he completed the equivalent of a high school education and began his career in advertising with help from a friend. He was quite successful, eventually leaving the firm to become president of another company. Anderson started his own paint production company while also publishing essays and short fiction in a style that eventually came to manifest itself in his sequence, Winesburg, Ohio. His success, though, was not without cost.

427px-Map_of_fictional_Winesburg,_Ohio.jpgOn November 28, 1912, Anderson went to work normally but during the course of the day began to act strangely. He left work and was missing for four days until he entered a pharmacy asking for help. Though many believe he was in a confused fugue state during his nervous breakdown, Anderson later went on to say both in public and in his memoirs that the breakdown was all an elaborate ruse to excise himself from his marriage and from the world of business so that he could start completely over as a writer without his work and family weighing him down. Whether or not this is true, he was afterwards free of his business responsibilities and he and his first wife divorced.

Anderson published his first novel in 1916 as part of a three book deal. His first two novels were titled Windy McPherson's Son and Marching Men. They did not make much of a splash in the literary world, but his third book, a sequence of short stories all set in the same fictional Midwest town, Winesburg, Ohio, was an immediate success.

Anderson continued to write for newspapers and publish short stories while pursuing his ultimate goal of writing novels. His later novels included works such as Dark Laughter and Many Marriages. Dark Laughter is his only novel to reach best seller status, though it has not had the staying power of Winesburg, Ohio.

Anderson died in 1941 from an infection and peritonitis brought on by swallowing a toothpick in an olive hors d'oeuvre on a cruise ship in Panama. In 1971 his Troutdale, Virginia home, where he spent the later part of his life, was designated a National Historic Landmark.

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Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.

 

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