Today in History – September 13

American writer Sherwood Anderson was born on September 13, 1876, in Camden, Ohio. He is best known for his short stories—”brooding Midwest tales”—which reveal “their author’s sympathetic insight into the thwarted lives of ordinary people.”1 Between World War I and World War II, Anderson helped to break down formulaic approaches to writing, influencing a subsequent generation of writers, most notably Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Anderson, who lived in New Orleans for a brief time, befriended Faulkner there in 1924 and encouraged him to write about his home county in Mississippi.

Portrait of Sherwood Anderson. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Nov. 29, 1933. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes…. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.

The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful…. For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.

From “The Book of the Grotesque”External. In Winesburg, Ohio, External by Sherwood Anderson. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1919.

Portrait of Sherwood Anderson, Central Park[New York]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, June 3, 1939. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

The third child of a harness-maker and house painter who had a fondness for storytelling, Anderson received an uneven education. As a young man, he was intent on establishing his financial independence. He married, had three children, and worked, with growing dissatisfaction, in the business world until 1912, when he suffered a nervous breakdown.

Between 1912 and 1922, Anderson worked as a copywriter at a Chicago advertising agency and wrote fiction in his spare time. In Chicago, he encountered writers Carl Sandburg, Floyd Dell, Theodore Dreiser, and others associated with the Chicago literary renaissance, a flowering of letters sustained by a group of young writers many of whom, like Anderson, had come of age in small midwestern towns in the late nineteenth century. The movement, which flourished from approximately 1912 to 1925, began as early as 1893, when several young midwestern writers were drawn together in Chicago for the opening of the 1893 World’s Fair.

Anderson’s first novel, Windy McPherson’s SonExternal, published in 1916 through the efforts of Theodore Dreiser and Floyd Dell, is an autobiographical work about a young man’s success in the business world that he later rejects. Anderson’s 1919 collection of short stories, Winesburg, Ohio External, is considered his finest work. In 1921, Anderson met writer Gertrude Stein, whose innovative writing influenced his development as a young writer. Anderson would later write in the autobiographical A Story Teller’s Story that the occasion of his reading Stein’s Tender Buttons was perhaps the first time he “really fell in love with words, wanted to give each word I used every chance to show itself at its best.”

A Literary Map of Ohio. Donald Wenty, Designer; Columbus: Martha Kinney Cooper Ohioana Library Association, 1983. Courtesy of the Ohioana Library Association. From the exhibition Language of the Land: Journeys Into Literary America

Beyond the last house on Trunion Pike in Winesburg there is a great stretch of open fields…. In the late afternoon in the hot summers when the road and the fields are covered with dust, a smoky haze lies over the great flat basin of land. To look across it is like looking out across the sea. In the spring when the land is green the effect is somewhat different. The land becomes a wide green billiard table on which tiny human insects toil up and down.

From “Departure”External. In Winesburg, Ohio External, by Sherwood Anderson. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1919.