Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Sherwood Anderson (13 September 1876–8 March 1941), writer, was born in Camden, Preble County, Ohio, the second of five sons and third of seven children of Irwin McLain Anderson and Emma Smith Anderson. His father was a restless man who moved the family from one Ohio town to another before settling down in 1883 in Clyde, where he worked improvidently in the saddlery and harness business. His mother took in washing to supplement the family's income.

Early Years
Outwardly, young Sherwood Anderson was determined to escape the stigma of being poor by achieving material success and becoming respectable. Inwardly, he was a dreamy boy who sought refuge in reading. His mother nurtured his imagination, and her insightful observations awakened within him a curiosity about the human drama lying below the surface of everyday life. She died in 1895, and the next year Anderson left home for Chicago where he worked in a warehouse and took a business course at night at the Lewis Institute. In 1898, as war loomed between Spain and America, he enlisted in the army, but his company arrived in Cuba after the fighting ended.

Anderson returned to Clyde and in 1900 earned the equivalent of a high school diploma from Wittenberg Academy in nearby Springfield. He then moved back to Chicago and wrote copy for an advertising agency. In 1904 he married Cornelia Platt Lane, the cultivated daughter of a successful businessman and a graduate of the College of Women of Western Reserve University in Cleveland. They had two sons and a daughter. In 1906 they moved to Cleveland, where Anderson became president of the United Factories Company, a mail-order business that he hoped to expand using his considerable advertising skills. After the company suffered financial reverses, Anderson moved in 1907 to nearby Elyria and there established a different mail-order firm that gradually diversified and prospered.

About 1909 dormant tensions began to surface within Anderson. Increasingly unhappy with his career, his vague socialistic ideas at odds with the business ethic, he began to imagine another life for himself as a writer, and at nights he experimented with autobiographical fiction. Financial worries and growing marital problems added to his woes. The crisis finally occurred in November 1912. Suffering from what was later characterized as a mental breakdown, Anderson walked out of his office in a disoriented state and wandered about the city for several days. Early in 1913 Anderson left his family and returned to Chicago, where he resumed his advertising work and met Theodore Dreiser, Floyd Dell, and others associated with the Chicago Renaissance.

Writing Career
On 27 July 1916 Anderson divorced his wife and four days later married Tennessee Mitchell, a dance and piano teacher and a sculptor. With the help of Dreiser and Dell, Anderson published two autobiographical novels, Windy McPherson's Son (1917) and Marching Men (1918), and the tales that collectively became his best-known work, Winesburg, Ohio (1919). To many eastern critics, Anderson came to symbolize the possibility of America's literary rejuvenation, and in the 1920s he tried to live up to that promise. Between 1921 and 1925 he published the novels Poor White, Many Marriages, and Dark Laughter, stories collected as The Triumph of the Egg and Horses and Men, and an autobiography, A Story-Teller's Tale. He spent some time in Alabama and New Orleans, and in 1921 he visited London and Paris. In the latter city he met Gertrude Stein, whom he acknowledged as a major influence on his writing. Anderson also helped William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway launch their careers.

In 1924 Anderson divorced Tennessee Mitchell and married Elizabeth Prall, a graduate of the University of Michigan and a bookseller. Although in 1925 Vanity Fair described him as the country's most distinctive novelist, and in the same article H. L. Mencken was quoted as praising Dark Laughter as a profound novel, Anderson artistically had reached a dead end. His reputation as a writer declined precipitously, and he was soon eclipsed by the next generation of writers, particularly by Hemingway (who parodied Anderson's style in The Torrents of Spring) and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In Virginia
Anderson withdrew from his old life and started over. He had vacationed in southwestern Virginia, and in 1926, with the proceeds of Dark Laughter, his one best-seller, Anderson began building a house that he called Ripshin, after the creek that ran through his property near Trout Dale in Grayson County. In 1927 he dissolved his contract with his publisher and purchased the two weekly papers published in nearby Marion, the Republican Smyth County News and the Marion Democrat. Employing his writing skills as a journalist, he produced enough editorials, personal columns, and pieces by a character he named Buck Fever to fill a sizable volume, and in 1929 he published Hello Towns!

Anderson immersed himself in the life around him, writing about the natural beauty of the area and the ways of its mountain communities. Inspired by Eleanor Gladys Copenhaver, a native of Marion who worked in the industrial department of the Young Women's Christian Association, Anderson also became interested in the social and economic conditions of the region. In November 1930 he introduced Stringfellow Barr and John Crowe Ransom at a Richmond debate on "Industrialism versus Agrarianism." In lengthy opening remarks Anderson practically stole the show as he commented on the predatory nature of the machine age that was transforming the lives and landscapes of rural and small-town America.

Anderson had become the advocate of a disadvantaged people and strove to become one of them. His office became a kind of town library and art gallery. He was the local celebrity, but he was down-to-earth and often traded stories on the courthouse steps. "Here," he wrote, "I am closer to life than I have ever been." Having divorced Elizabeth Prall in 1932, Anderson married Eleanor Gladys Copenhaver on 6 July 1933 at her parents' house in Marion. He then began in earnest an examination of labor conditions in other parts of the country, touring the mills and mines of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee in an effort to understand labor problems. By 1937 he had published two collections of essays, Perhaps Women and Puzzled America, a novel dealing with labor issues, Beyond Desire, which he dedicated to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, and a play based on Winesburg, Ohio. A long illustrated essay, Home Town, came out in 1940.

Early in 1941 Sherwood Anderson set out for South America to write on labor conditions there, but on the voyage he accidentally swallowed a toothpick, contracted peritonitis, and died on 8 March 1941 at Colón, Panama. He was buried in Round Hill Cemetery in Marion.

Sources Consulted:
James Schevill, Sherwood Anderson: His Life and Work (1951); William A. Sutton, The Road to Winesburg (1972); Kim Townsend, Sherwood Anderson (1987; portrait); Sherwood Anderson Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago; Eugene P. Sheehy and Kenneth A. Lohf, Sherwood Anderson: A Bibliography (1960); Charles E. Modlin, ed., Sherwood Anderson, Selected Letters (1984); William A. Sutton, ed., Letters to Bab: Sherwood Anderson to Marietta D. Finley, 1916–33 (1985); Hilbert H. Campbell, ed., The Sherwood Anderson Diaries (1987); Charles E. Modlin, ed., Sherwood Anderson's Love Letters to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson (1989); Ray Lewis White, ed., Sherwood Anderson's Secret Love Letters (1991); Charles E. Modlin, ed., Certain Things Last: The Selected Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson (1992); Welford D. Taylor, ed., Buck Fever Papers (1971); obituaries in New York Times, 9 Mar. 1941, and Marion Smyth County News, 13, 27 Mar. 1941.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Kim Townsend.

How to cite this page:
Kim Townsend,"Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Anderson_Sherwood, accessed [today's date]).

Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.

facebook twitter youtube instagram linkedin