“One Sunday in 1943 I was hitchhiking through Ohio; it was my last week end before sailing overseas with the army. I remember with an undiminished sense of exhilaration a journey I took along a side road that led to Clyde, [Sherwood] Anderson’s home town and model for Winesburg. As I should have anticipated, Clyde looked much like other American small towns and the few of its people with whom I talked were not particularly interested in Sherwood Anderson. But my pilgrimage nonetheless gave me a sense of satisfaction I could hardly have explained.”
So writes Irving Howe in his second book, Sherwood Anderson (1951). His first, by the way, was a life of Walter Reuther. Like me, Howe had read Winesburg, Ohio (1919) as an adolescent and, again like me, remained under its spell long after he had accepted Anderson’s limitations as a writer. A New York City native, Howe was 23 and bound for Alaska when he made his pilgrimage. I was 28, born in Cleveland (about 60 miles to the east) and had been hired as a reporter for the newspaper in Bellevue, a town six miles east of Clyde along Route 20.
The dominant business in Clyde and the region was and remains the Whirlpool Corp., the largest washing machine factory in the world. In 2003, the state put up a historical marker commemorating Anderson’s gift of immortality to the town, where he lived from 1884 to 1895. During my years in Bellevue (1981-1983), the only public nod to Anderson I remember was the Winesburg Inn. It seems no longer to exist though a cursory online search turned up the Winesburg Bar-B-Q. In a note appended to the 1966 reissue of Sherwood Anderson, Howe writes:
“Sherwood Anderson was a minor writer, though in a few crucial instances he did first-rate, perhaps even major, work. He was a minor writer, yet one who ought to be of special interest to Americans, for in his stories he evoked aspects of our experience – those feelings of loneliness, yearning, and muted love – which lie buried beneath the surface of our culture.”
I returned to Howe because I’ve been reading Sherwood Anderson: Early Writings (1989), a collection of his work as an advertising agency copywriter, edited by Ray Lewis White. This is probably the first time I have ever voluntarily read advertising copy and enjoyed it. Anderson entered the business at the age of 24 in 1900, working for the Woman’s Home Companion in Chicago. After a few months he moved to the Frank B. White Co., an advertising agency that catered to American farmers and their families. Anderson’s work appeared in such national publications as Country Gentleman, Farm and Fireside, and American Agriculturist.
Anderson’s prose is clean, plain and conversational, as it should have been, and occasionally glints with suggestions of his mature fiction. This, published in Agricultural Advertising in 1903, comes from a piece titled “About Country Roads”:
“You can imagine a fellow who spends his days in offices and his nights in all sorts of hotels looking forward with no little pleasure to a day on a country road among the farmers who buy the things he helps to advertise. When that fellow is fortunate enough to have for companion a man who understands the country and is full of love of it and when these two start off at sunrise down a road that follows the winding course of the Mississippi and no more to carry than a stout stick for the chance of knocking down nuts from the trees along the road; when all of these things work out in this manner, I say, one fellow is rather bound to have a good day ahead of him.”
Particularly interesting to readers of Winesburg, Ohio is a series of 10 “Business Types” Anderson wrote in 1904. They read like the work of a Midwestern, early-20th-century Theophrastus, with titles like “The Man of Affairs,” “The Good Fellow” and “The Discouraged Man.” Consider the opening of “The Good Fellow”:
“He is probably a fat man and it is sure he sleeps at night. He doesn’t always give you a contract and many, many times he sends you away without even a promise, but there is something more than contracts and promises in this advertising business, and sometimes an hour spent with the good fellow will net you a dozen contracts in other places. The real good fellow, like the real poet, is born, not made. His the pleasant, ringing laugh, his the cheerful belief in other men’s honesty and good intent. Peace be to him and may his lines forever fall in pleasant places.”
Now read the opening of the second story in Winesburg, Ohio, “Paper Pills,” written about 14 years later:
“He was an old man with a white beard and huge nose and hands. Long before the time during which we will know his, he was a doctor and drove a jaded white horse from house to house through the streets of Winesburg. Later he married a girl who had money. She had been left a large fertile farm when her father died. The girl was quiet, tall and dark, and to many people she seemed very beautiful. Everyone in Winesburg wondered why she married the doctor. Within a year after the marriage she died.”
In both passages, Anderson’s vision is inclusive, not fragmented. He sees and describes the totality of lives. “Paper Pills,” at four and a half pages, is the shortest story in Anderson’s collection. It’s sad, funny and deeply erotic, with a gothic hint probably suggested to Anderson by his reading of Freud. Doctor Reefy, though not his doomed, much younger wife, is someone we suspect we have known. His eccentricity has an inevitability about it. He embodies the “loneliness, yearning, and muted love” noted by Howe. This is one of several occasions when Anderson suffuses his words with the grace of a major writer, prompting Howe to caution:
“But in our mania for the grand, we brush past the fine.”