Sherwood Anderson has long been surrounded by myth. A romantic's dream, he abandoned a successful, wealthy lifestyle for that of a struggling writer. He perfected the casual, lyrical style of writing most recognized by his successor William Faulkner, and was instrumental in getting both Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway published. Beyond the legend is a man who demonstrated all sides of the American dream: a working boy, a businessman, and a worldly artist in the same lifetime.
Anderson was born in Camden, Ohio. The third of seven children, his father was a veteran of the Union Army. The family was constantly on the move to follow Mr. Anderson's work, painting signs and houses, and Sherwood attended school sporadically, mostly working odd jobs to support the family. Despite a disorderly childhood, Anderson spent his formative years in the town of Clyde, Ohio, observing the small-town life that would form the basis of much of his later writing, including the seminal Winesburg, Ohio. Despite his many travels, Anderson would spend about half of his life in Ohio, experiencing the small-town life featured in his writing.
At seventeen, Anderson moved to Chicago, serving as a warehouse laborer by day and business student by night. He fought in the Spanish-American war for two years, and in 1899 he returned to Ohio for a final year of schooling at Wittenberg College in Springfield. He worked writing advertising copy and, in 1904, moved to Elyria, Ohio to marry Cornelia Lane. While in Elyria he was the president of two companies and earned a successful living in the mail-order paint business. Anderson was supposedly living the American dream-he had risen from a warehouse worker to a company president. But his "workaholic" tendencies caused him family troubles. When not at work, Anderson would spend his time writing, straining his relationship with Cornelia. His divided life cost him a psychological breakdown, and on November 28, 1912, Anderson walked out of his office to begin his writing career. Though the couple separated in 1914, Anderson continued to financially support his former wife and children.
Anderson's lauded flight from his company has been simplified to that one day in November, when he "left business for literature." In reality, the process took several messy years and came at the sacrifice of his family and business. Anderson is quoted as calling it "a conscious break from his materialistic existence." After he left Cornelia, he returned to Chicago to join a writers' group. In the same year, he published his first novel, Windy McPherson's Son, and married Tennessee Mitchell. He also published several short stories in the socialist magazine The Masses; these tales would later be written into his best-known work, Winesburg, Ohio (1919).
Six years later, Anderson, the son of a war veteran and migrant worker, traveled to Europe, meeting with several of the decade's "Lost Generation," including Gertrude Stein. Now fully entrenched in the artistic life of the 1920s, he moved to New Orleans to share an apartment with William Faulkner. Around that time he received the first Dial Award for his contribution to American Literature.
In 1928, Anderson, now married to Elizabeth Prall, was living on a Virginia farm and was the editor and owner of two local newspapers. In 1933, under the influence of his new wife, Eleanor Copenhaver, Anderson began to travel widely. During this time he toured factories and wrote about southern labor conditions. He wrote four new texts in the 1930s, his body of work now totaling twenty-seven titles. Sherwood Anderson died of peritonitis while travelling in Panama with Eleanor.
Despite an unusual background and a rocky start into writing, Anderson proved to be an influential force in shaping twentieth century American literature. Anderson found true happiness in his books and seemed to have been reborn on the day he left his company. He later wrote in his autobiography: "I think it was Joseph Conrad who said that a writer only began to live after he began to write. It pleased me to think I was after all but ten years old. Plenty of time ahead for such a one. Time to look about, plenty of time to look about."
Top: Van Vechten, Carl, photographer. "Portrait of Sherwood Anderson." November 29, 1933. Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964, Library of Congress.
Bottom: Van Vechten, Carl, photographer. "Portrait of Sherwood Anderson, Central Park." June 3, 1939. Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964, Library of Congress.