Highlights of a Life
by Charles Modlin—Professor Emeritus, Virginia Tech
One day in Sherwood Anderson’s life, November 28, 1912, has assumed mythic proportions in the story of American literature. This was the day he “left business for literature,” simply walking out of his office as president of the Anderson Manufacturing Company (home of “Roof-Fix Cure for Roof Troubles”) in Elyria, Ohio, not only giving up a dream of becoming rich in American business, but also abandoning his responsibilities as a middle-class citizen, include a wife and three small children.
Although this account oversimplifies a process that took several messy, frequently unhappy years, it is nevertheless true in spirit, making Anderson the best-known archetype of the gifted American caught between the pull of riches, success, respectability, and family responsibility on the one hand and the call of creativity, probably to be accompanied only by penury and disappointment, on the other.
Anderson was born into a poor family in Camden, Ohio, on September 13, 1876, but spent his formative years in the town of Clyde, Ohio, which inspired the setting of many of his stories. He worked in Chicago as a laborer in 1896-1898, and then served in the Spanish American War. He attended Wittenberg Academy in Springfield, Ohio, in 1900, and then went to Chicago, where he soon gained some success as an advertising writer.
In 1904, he married Cornelia Lane of Toledo, fathered two sons and a daughter during the next several years, and displayed unusual talent for success in the mail-order paint business. Following a difficult period of marital and business problems, he suffered a psychological crisis, which led to his leaving this business and his family and returning to Chicago to pursue a writing career.
In 1916, Anderson divorced Cornelia and married Tennessee Mitchell. He also published his first novel that year, Windy McPherson’s Son. Then he gained wide recognition with the publication in 1919 of Winesburg Ohio. This book made Anderson a revolutionary force in both the form and subject matter of the American short story. During this time, he also published Marching Men (1917). Among the other notable books published by Anderson at the height of his reputation in the early 1920s were the novel Poor White (1920), the story collections The Triumph of the Egg (1921), and Horses and Men (1923), and the autobiographical A Story Teller’s Story (1924).
His marriage to Tennessee was not a success, and in 1922 he left Chicago for New York, then Reno, Nevada. After his divorce in 1924, he married Elizabeth Prall, and they moved to New Orleans. During this period he wrote Many Marriages (1923) and Dark Laughter (1925).
In the summer of 1925, the Andersons vacationed in Troutdale, Virginia. He liked the Grayson County area so much that he bought farmland beside Ripshin Creek, about four miles out of Troutdale, and built a house that he called Ripshin. In the fall of 1927, he purchased the Marion Published Company, in Marion, Virginia, 22 miles to the northwest, and became editor and publisher of two weekly newspapers, articles from which were collected in a 1929 book, Hello Towns. He and Elizabeth separated in late 1928 and 1933 he married Eleanor Copenhaver, a Marion native and national YWCA official. Under her influence, he traveled throughout the South, touring factories and studying labor conditions. Their marriage proved to be a happy one.
In the 1930s, Anderson began to write about labor conditions in the South. Among his publications in the 1930s are Beyond Desire (1932), Death in the Woods and Other Stories (1933); Puzzled America, a book of essays based upon his extensive travels throughout the United States (1935); and Kit Brandon, a novel (1936).
During this time, Anderson spent summers at Ripshin. He and Eleanor usually traveled extensively the rest of the year. They were en route to South America when he died of peritonitis in Colon, Panama, on March 8, 1941. Anderson never lost his zest for life, and his epitaph in Marion’s Round Hill Cemetery proclaims, as he directed, that “Life, Not Death, Is the Great Adventure.” The unusual grave marker was designed by artist Wharton Esherick.
Sherwood Anderson was a major influence on a younger generation of important writers, including Faulkner, Hemingway, Wolfe, Steinbeck, and others, both through his writings and his acts of personal kindness. It was through his influence, for example, that first books of both Faulkner and Hemingway were published.