Saturday, September 13, 2014

`Made Up of Unspoken Connections'

Some writers are age-specific. I got Thomas Wolfe out of my system at thirteen and remain in remission. Same for Hemingway and an entire genre, science fiction. Some writers, the rarest of all, we read early and never stop loving. That would be Kipling. I read Proust the first time prematurely, at eighteen, but the encounter served to bolster my resistance to lesser writers. I returned to him happily a decade later and contemplate a third engagement. 

With Sherwood Anderson, my timing was fortuitous because he is a writer best read early, recalled fondly, and seldom or never returned to, like an old girlfriend. In the summer of 1970, I had just graduated from high school and was about to become the first person in my family to attend university. In rapid succession I read Winesburg, Ohio (which I reread a few months later, at school), Poor White, Windy McPherson’s Son, Horses and Men, The Triumph of the Egg and The Portable Sherwood Anderson. The infatuation was intense, uncritical and largely extra-literary. We shared an Ohio birth and boyhood, and I recognized some of the places he wrote about. I liked the idea of coming not from a backwater but from a place certified by literary treatment. I liked Anderson’s emphasis on character and on an America from closer to my parents’ time. Poor White came out in 1920 and The Triumph of the Egg in 1921, the years of my mother’s and father’s births, respectively, in Cleveland. 

In January 1981, after not reading Anderson for years, I went to work for my first daily newspaper, the Gazette in Bellevue, in north central Ohio. Seven miles to the west on Route 20 is Clyde, Anderson’s home from the age of seven, his model for Winesburg and the home of a Whirlpool washing machine factory. My flagging interest in Anderson’s work revived, again for largely extra-literary reasons. I reread his stories with nearby, radically transformed landscapes in mind. 

The infatuation, I’m both relieved and sorry to say, faded a long time ago. When the Library of America brought out Anderson’s Collected Stories two years ago, I borrowed it from the library and browsed around in it (“Paper Pills,” “I’m a Fool,” “Death in the Woods”), but never bought a copy. This time I heard echoes of Turgenev, one of Anderson’s rare non-American enthusiasms. I’ll keep my old Viking edition of Winesburg but I’m not likely to read it again, cover to cover. His prose too often is soggy and generic. He succumbs too often to sentimentality and the close-at-hand cliché. In his essay “The Prose Sublime,” Donald Justice makes no great claims for Anderson but quotes a lengthy and quite lovely passage from Poor White and says: 

“It is a classic instance of things coming together even as they pass, of a moment when things may be said to associate without relating. The feeling raised by this perception is one of poignancy; perhaps that is the specific feeling this type of the prose sublime can be expected to give rise to. Made up of unspoken connections, it seems also to be about them. Probably it is not peculiarly American, but I can recall nothing in European novels, not even in the Russians, which evokes and gives body to this particular mood.” 

Anderson was born on this date, Sept. 13, in 1876, in Camden, Ohio. He died March 8, 1941, in Colón, Panama.

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