By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly
Sherwood Anderson was a businessman in Elyria, OH, with a wife, three children, and a membership in the local country club. He operated his own business, the American Merchandise Company.
On the side, he did a little writing. When he worked in an advertising agency, he had a column in the Agricultural Advertiser. But by the age of 36 all he had published was a roofing catalogue.
And then, on a Thursday morning in late November 1912, Sherwood Anderson just walked out.
Sitting in his office, unable to work, he wrote a note to his wife.
“Cornelia: There is a bridge over a river with cross-ties before it. When I come to that I’ll be all right. I’ll write all day in the sun and the wind will blow thru my hair.”
Then he just walked out the door.
Three days later he walked into a pharmacy in Cleveland, 30 miles away, disheveled, but still wearing his business suit. He asked the druggist to help him figure out who he was and was admitted to the hospital back in Elyria.
Anderson later referred to his breakdown as a “fugue state,” explaining, “I cannot keep my footing on the side of the bowl of life.”
But after that point, no matter what else he did, he knew he was a writer.
Cornelia took him off to her family in Toledo to recuperate, and the advertising agency he had worked for took him back because he was so colorful.
Sherwood started hanging out with writers like Floyd Dell in Chicago, where he would read out passages of his work in progress. He met Ben Hecht, Burton Rascoe, Alfred Kreymbourg; had some short stories published; lived with a group of bohemians called “the little children of the arts.” He divorced the first wife and married the second.
Four years after his epiphany, Anderson’s first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son, was published, followed by Marching Men and a book of poetry, Mid-American Chants, in the next two years.
Sherwood tried to get out of the advertising business, even suggesting to his bosses that they fire him. He preferred to begin each day “by shoveling mud out of the temple,” he said, preparing to write.
Anderson finally hit his stride with his third novel. Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories about a small, fictional town, connected by the character of a young reporter. Five years after James Joyce’s Dubliners, it too captures the personality of one city by describing the people in short stories. One year before Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, it propelled Anderson into the role of spokesperson for provincial America. More prolific than his contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anderson averaged one novel per year throughout the twenties.
Anderson was now sought out by other writers in both New York and Chicago. 1921 began with an artsy party in Chicago where he befriended a young reporter, Ernest Hemingway. The famous writer gave the aspiring novelist advice and invited him to salons where the younger listened to the older expound on obscure modern writers who were worth reading.
One of his New York contacts, music critic Paul Rosenfeld, told Anderson of the growing literary scene in Paris, and offered to finance his first trip. So in May of that same year, Paul, Sherwood, and second wife Tennessee set sail, like thousands of other Americans, talented and untalented, for France. They toured cathedrals, saw a Picasso exhibit, met other writers.
A few weeks after their arrival, Anderson was on the rue de l’Odeon, looking at the English-language books in the window of Shakespeare & Co. The American owner, Sylvia Beach, came out to chat and found that he was a fan of Paris’ most well-known “unknown” American writer, Gertrude Stein. He had been greatly influenced by her Tender Buttons and Three Lives, both published in limited runs in 1914, while he was working on Winesburg. Beach wrote a letter of introduction, and Sherwood and Tennessee soon presented themselves at Stein’s salon at 27 rue de Fleurus.
Anderson later described the scene inside:
“Imagine a strong woman with legs like stone pillars sitting in a room hung with Picassos…The woman is the very symbol of health and strength. She laughs. She smokes cigarettes. She tells stories with an American shrewdness in getting the tang and the kick into the telling.”
Stein always admired those who were wise enough to admire her, and a life-long friendship began that day. When her partner Alice B. Toklas met the Andersons soon after, she readily approved, ushering Tennessee away from the fascinating conversation, as Alice did with all “the wives of geniuses.” This was the beginning of the writers’ salons at rue de Fleurus that were a magnet for the American writers in Paris throughout the 1920s.
Stein was two years older than Anderson and had only been published by small publishers in America. She needed a link to the mainstream media, someone who appreciated what she was trying to do and was appreciated by those who mattered. Her new best friend Sherwood was that link.
By the time the Andersons left Paris that summer of 1921, he had agreed to write an introduction to a collection of her work, Geography and Plays. Stein’s editor had advised that the preface by the more well-known Anderson would be very helpful, “not only as an aid to the general reader but also to us in marketing.”
Back in Chicago, Sherwood had dinner with his young admirer, Hemingway, and regaled him with stories of Paris life. Ernest and his new wife, Hadley, were planning a trip to Italy to live off her inheritance in the country he knew from the war. Anderson convinced them to go to Paris instead.
While Anderson published another successful novel, The Triumph of the Egg, and an important essay, “The Work of Gertrude Stein,” over 6,000 Americans flooded into Paris, including the Hemingways.
Arriving in December 1921, with a letter of introduction to Stein from Anderson, the young married couple lived on the Left Bank above a saw mill and sat in cafes drinking bottles of wine that cost 10 cents each.
By March Hemingway had gathered up enough courage to write to Stein, sending along Anderson’s letter. Any friend of Anderson was a friend of Stein’s, so Ernest was invited to present himself at the door of rue de Fleurus the next day.
Back in the US, Sherwood had given up his advertising accounts, roamed the country, and settled in New Orleans to write the promised preface for Gertrude. Hemingway wrote enthusiastically to him, “Stein and me are just like brothers, and we see a lot of her”; Gertrude sent Anderson a premature thank you note for introducing her to the younger writer.
Before the end of 1922, Sherwood had divorced Tennessee, explaining to Stein, “have run away from all my friends, including friend wife.” Hanging out at New York writers’ parties that included Theodore Dreiser and Fitzgerald, he met wife number three. When he received the first Dial magazine award of $5000, Anderson was able to go back to New Orleans to write some more. Gertrude returned the favor of his glowing preface by publishing an essay, “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” in the Little Review. This literary lovefest continued in print and private letters throughout their friendship.
Their protégé, Hemingway, meanwhile, had been published by independents in the Left Bank and by Liveright & Co., Anderson’s publisher in America. Every reviewer compared him to his older mentors, even suggesting that the three formed a “school.” Anderson and Stein had both struggled to be recognized by major publishers; Hemingway was now being pursued by them.
Imagine Sherwood and Gertrude’s surprise in 1926 when their “good pupil,” as they called him, turned against them with Torrents of Spring. A fierce parody of their style, Hemingway had tossed it off in ten days to get out of his contract with Liveright. Anderson was puzzled; Stein was infuriated. That was the end of her closeness with Hemingway. She went on to trash him in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and he responded in kind decades later in A Moveable Feast.
In December of ’26, Sherwood made his second trip to Paris, eager to introduce his third wife and kids to his literary friends. He was feted at salons and was one of the first to see Gertrude’s new short hair cut, proclaiming that it made her look like a monk.
During that trip, he had his last meeting with Hemingway, now flush with success from The Sun Also Rises. As Anderson described it later:
“He stood in the doorway. ‘How about a drink,’ he said, and I followed him down a stairway and across a street. We went into a small bar. ‘What will you have?’ ‘Beer.’ ‘And you?’ ‘A beer.’ ‘Well, here’s how.’ ‘Here’s how.’ He turned and walked rapidly away.”
The annual Stein-Toklas Christmas party that year was held in his honor, but there is some question as to whether Anderson showed up. Alice claims in her autobiography that he and Stein talked endlessly on two of their favorite subjects, Ulysses S Grant and Hemingway. Other sources claim Sherwood was too depressed to come, and Gertrude told him that she understood.
When the Anderson family left Paris, son John stayed behind to study at the Academie Julian, and visited Gertrude and Alice often.
The writers’ salons at rue de Fleurus ended in 1930 when Alice got tired of cleaning up after geniuses and wives. She sent notes which said, “Miss Stein no longer requires your presence.”
Anderson, however, was never dis-invited. When he returned to the States he bought a group of newspapers in Virginia and became a country publisher and active socialist.
The next time the old friends saw each other was when Stein and Toklas triumphantly toured the US in 1935 in the wake of the successful publication of The Autobiography. By this time, having divorced wife three and put his son in charge of the family newspapers, Anderson was living and writing in New Orleans. He was a frequent speaker for socialist causes, and had defended Stein in print against attacks on her writing. A fourth wife and failed attempts at teaching and lecturing—“I made a little money and often an ass of myself,” he wrote to Stein—didn’t alleviate his bouts of depression.
By 1941, Anderson had faded from public view but was still well respected among popular writers such as Thornton Wilder. In February, Wilder, Anderson and wife four embarked on a cruise to South America. At a cocktail party, Sherwood ate a hors d’oeuvre, toothpick and all, which lodged in his stomach and developed into peritonitis. The ship was forced to pull in to Colon, Panama, where Sherwood Anderson, aged 64, died at the American military hospital.
Back home in Ohio, the local newspaper headlined, “Former Elyria Manufacturer Dies.”
But the more appropriate epitaph is on his tombstone, “Life not death is the great adventure.”
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