Biography of Sherwood Anderson

On September 13, 1876 Sherwood Anderson was born to Irwin M. and Emma Smith Anderson in Camden, Ohio. He was their third child. The family was forced to move shortly after Sherwood was born because his father's small business had failed. They finally settled permanently in Clyde, Ohio in 1884. The income was rarely adequate without the added help of the children's income. Due to the difficulties, Anderson's father began drinking heavily and his mother died in 1895. Sherwood was eager to take on odd jobs and earned the name "Jobby". However, his interests caused him to miss school often. He finally left high school before graduating. In 1896, Anderson left Clyde for Chicago where his brother Karl was living. He worked as a manual laborer until enrolling in the army for service in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

After the War, he again followed his brother who had taken a job as an artist for the Crowell Publishing Company in Springfield, Ohio. In September of 1900, Anderson attended the Wittenberg Academy. Earning his food and lodging as a "chore boy" at the artists' boardinghouse, Anderson encountered a highly cultured environment. Ironically, the influence of the artists was most important to Anderson for his advance in the business world. The Crowell advertising manager secured him a job in Chicago as a copywriter. He was highly successful in this position. In 1904, he married Cornelia Lane, the daughter of a wealthy Ohio wholesaler. Although he hoped to become an artist, he lived as a bourgeois husband and father of three for a couple of years. He left Chicago for Northern Ohio in 1906 and over the next six years, he managed a mail-order business in Cleveland and then two paint manufacturing firms. Yet, Anderson increasingly spent his free time writing. On November 27, 1912 he disappeared from his office and was found four days later in Cleveland, disheveled and disoriented, having suffered a mental breakdown. In later writings, Anderson often referred to this episode as a conscious break from his materialistic existence and many younger writers picked up on this, praising his heroic spirit.

However much of the story was reconstructed, Anderson did respond to the pivotal moment and broke from his job in Elyria. Instead of becoming a Bohemian artist though, he rejoined the advertising agency in Chicago. He sent for his family, wrote the circulars as he once had, and continued to write feverishly in his free time. In 1914, he divorced Cornelia and married Tennessee Mitchell. That same year his first novel was published, entitled Windy McPherson's Son. Along with his second, Marching Men, of 1917, he later commented that his first novels were raw and immature. He is best known for his classic collection of tales, Winesburg, Ohio, which he had begun writing in 1915 and generally wrote in the order the stories appear in the text. The book was published in 1919 and received much acclaim, establishing him as a talented modern American author. He espoused themes similar to the later works of T.S. Eliot and other modernists.

Regardless of the success of his short stories and his desire to find a "looser form", Anderson felt pressured to write novels and Poor White was published in 1920. It was seen as a success and he was judged to be at the top of his form. The other publications which he published at the height of his repute included the story collections The Triumph of the Egg in 1921, and Horses and Men of 1923, and the autobiographical A Story Teller's Story, published in 1924. He made unsuccessful attempts at poetry, the first being a free verse collection entitled Mid-American Chants in 1918. He saw himself as part of the literary tradition of Whitman, Twain, and Dreiser, men who had appreciated the common American. His influence affected many of the upcoming writers, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Saroyan. He personally helped Hemingway and Faulkner publish their first books. He was given the first Dial award for distinguished service to American Letters in 1922 but soon was derided by the same publication when his popularity waned.

In 1922, Anderson separated from Mitchell before marrying Elizabeth Prall two years later. The faulty novel Many Marriages was published in 1923 and Dark Laughter in 1925. He traveled to Virginia and took such a liking to the countryside that he bought land there. In 1927, he also bought Virginia's Marion Publishing Company and became the editor of two newspapers. After another failed marriage, Anderson married Eleanor Copenhaver, with whom he finally appeared happy. They traveled a great deal and studied social conditions. Among his publications concerning this matter in the 1930s were Death in the Woods and Other Stories of 1933; Puzzled America, a book of essays; and Kit Brandon, a novel that he finished in 1936. Though his influence was dying out during this period, very significant American passages of prose exist in his writing through the very end. Many of these passages have been overlooked because of their place within a larger faulty work. In years since, Anderson has been rediscovered and appreciated as idealizing the modes of thought and societal themes he had been criticized for after his peak. Anderson died of peritonitis in March of 1941 on his way to visit Panama.

Study Guides on Works by Sherwood Anderson