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Something Has to Be Understood:
An Appreciation of Sherwood Anderson
An essay by Robin Hemley
Reprinted from the Summer 2004 Ohioana Quarterly
Conventional wisdom holds that life is short, but a literary life, as it turns out, can be quite long. I don’t think I appreciated this fully
when, as a teenager, I first started seriously considering myself a writer. Back then,
I never would have seen Sherwood Anderson as a model, a writer whose fame went through
peaks and valleys throughout his lifetime, its zenith after the publication of his third book,
Winesburg, Ohio, at the age of forty-three. Certainly, Anderson was famous enough a
writer to suit my adolescent vision of myself, but was he hip enough? When I wasn’t
daydreaming about my Nobel acceptance speech, I imagined myself the kind of writer who
produces a few wild masterpieces and dies young and tragically. I wanted to be Rimbaud or Byron or Plath.
It seemed to me no one could have much important to say after age forty. Sometimes, on my darkest days,
now that I am five years past my cut-off date, it still seems so.
Mention Sherwood Anderson these days, as
I did recently at a dinner for a writer visiting my university, and it’s as
though you’ve mentioned something quaint and nostalgic, akin to the old
Burma Shave ads along the roadside. Actually, my colleague, to whom I had mentioned
Anderson, had a stronger reaction than that. Sherwood Anderson, he proclaimed, was a
hack. To this, I responded that Sherwood Anderson certainly wasn’t a hack, that,
in fact, he was a marvelous writer. To my relief, the visiting writer leaped to
my defense and more important, to Sherwood Anderson’s. My colleague can be forgiven his
disdain for Anderson because that’s the way he is - a good man, but a man of brash, unreasoned assessments. Not only does he disdain Anderson, but he disdains all things Ohioan. Fortunately, Ohioans, like most Midwesterners, are not only accustomed to such irrational views, but take an almost perverse pleasure in how outré the rest of the country views them. This is why many, if not most, great American ironists come from the Midwest: Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, James Thurber, Robert Coover, David Letterman, Ambrose Bierce, Garrison Keillor. In Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, Percy’s Mississippian protagonist jumps into a thorn bush in the snow simply to escape a group of overly friendly Ohioans with whom he’s stranded at a ski lodge.
It’s odd that Midwesterners are seen as overly friendly and vapid when, by and large, we’re actually a rather dour and brooding lot. Even Midwesterners buy into such stereotypes of themselves. At the Illinois State Fair a number of years ago, I visited the Milk Tent, the mascot of which was an automated statue of Mark Twain, dressed in white and holding aloft a glass of milk, proclaiming how wholesome and refreshing milk is. Poor Mark Twain. This is the last activity he would have agreed to do in his lifetime. Sherwood Anderson, I believe, has suffered from a similar misreading and misremembering.
Married three times, his second wife a suicide, Anderson suffered bouts
of depression and self-doubt much of his writing life. As with most writers, he was never satisfied with his sense of his own reputation. He could be unabashedly arrogant, proclaiming one story, “one of the finest stories I’ve done, and
I even dare say, one of the finest and most significant anyone has done.” After Anderson entered into a short-sighted and careerist agreement to publish a novel a year for five years, one critic lamented: “The author of Winesburg, Ohio is dying before our eyes,” and Hemingway and Fitzgerald proclaimed that Anderson’s career as a writer was over. Yet, it was far from over, and his disappointments simply seasoned him and brought an added complexity to his work. “A man has to begin over and over,” he wrote to a friend in 1939. In such a career, I find a philosophical comfort. Now in middle age myself, dreams of being Plath, Rimbaud, or Byron are distant memories. I see instead that worrying about one’s place in the pantheon of writers not only gets in the way of living, but writing as well. But it’s not only Anderson’s life as a writer that has informed my own, but his marvelous stories, and one in particular.
I don’t remember exactly how or exactly when I first ran across Anderson’s story, “Death in the Woods,” but it’s a story that has influenced me greatly in my approach to both fiction and nonfiction over the last ten years. This later work of Anderson’s is either a story disguised as a memoir or a memoir disguised as a story, or perhaps both.
In the story, a narrator attempts to reconstruct an episode from his youth in which a woman was found frozen to death between town and the farm on which she lived. From the first line, we know that this is a story that has the act of remembering at its core: “She was an old woman and lived on a farm near the town in which I lived.” As this is a short story and Anderson is a writer firmly rooted within the Realist camp, we recognize this first line as an attempt by the author to lend an air of verisimilitude by introducing the device of a narrator remembering something from his youth as though he were writing a conventional memoir. But with Anderson, it’s more than a device. Many of his stories were based on his youth, and often he did little to disguise fact as fiction. As a boy, Anderson worked as a groom or “swipe” in a livery stable, and some of his most famous stories, such as “I Am a Fool,” have the racing circuit or livery as their backdrop. In the summer of 1895, Anderson worked for a man named Tom Whitehead who is mentioned in “Death in the Woods” without disguise, and is only minimally disguised in “I am a Fool” and “An Ohio Pagan” as Harry Whitehead. One wonders why the attempt at all when it’s such a flimsy one? Except that perhaps this isn’t an attempt to cover up as much as it is to subtly cue the author’s own imagination, to give Anderson permission to invent as he remembers. As Anderson wrote, “While art is distinct from real life, the imagination must constantly feed upon reality or starve.”
The first page or so of the story classifies the old woman as a type of person familiar to rural towns, the type of woman one sees coming and going to market, but whose name one never really knows or cares to know. We see her in passing, wearily bearing her burdens on the roadside. She is the epitome of one unloved and neglected by society. But Anderson goes on to particularize this woman, telling us the circumstances of her hard life and background. First, Anderson pauses again in the narrative to reinforce the notion that this story is an act of memory: “I have just suddenly now remembered her and what happened. It is a story.” And a little further on he states, “It all comes back clearly now.”
I love that simple line, “It is a story,” so pedestrian and matter-of-fact one
could easily miss it. I take it to mean that it’s a full-formed narrative within
the narrator’s mind. Or perhaps it’s a kind of stunned realization: “I have just
suddenly now . . . remembered. It is a story.” Whether remembering or not, the narrator (and perhaps Anderson) is reminding himself and us that the story (that is, the way in which events are ordered) takes precedence over memory, not the other way around.
The narrator then proceeds to recount what he knows of the old woman’s life. An orphan, she’d been “bound” to a German farmer who tried to force himself on her. His wife, suspecting the farmer’s attraction, treated her miserably as well. She was rescued from this life by a man named Jake Grimes, himself a hard-bitten and habitually criminal sort. She and Grimes had two children, a daughter who died and a son who grew up as tough and loveless as his father. Such was her lot, but she didn’t complain, resigned as she was to her role in life as little more than a slave.
It is a story. And as such, Anderson has the liberty to delve into the psyche of the old woman,
which he does for the better part of the narrative. Her main concern in life, it seems, is how to
contrive to feed all the things in her care. There are her husband and son, the husband’s pack of dogs, the farm animals . . .
One winter’s day, she treks into town to trade some eggs, and on the return trip she rests in the snow beside a tree and freezes to death. Her husband’s dogs, which have followed her, circle her body and finally tear at her pack where her provisions are stored. In the process, her clothes are torn from her body clear to the hips.
Anderson writes: “Such things happened in towns of the Middle West, on
farms near town, when I was a boy. A hunter after rabbits found the old
woman’s body and did not touch it . . . . I was in Main Street with one of my brothers
who was town newsboy . . . .” A crowd gathers and a party is formed to retrieve the old woman’s body.
Realist stories, almost by definition, try to make the reader forget the story is artificial. The Realist
writer wants to create a kind of transparency that allows the reader to vicariously experience “real life”
through the characters of the story. Anderson could have maintained this sense of transparency if the story
were simply about the death of a pathetic old woman. Such a story would have little impact except that
it would make us shake our heads and say, “Gee, life is tough,” as though we didn’t already know that.
But this is a story about observation, a story about the observer trying to understand what it’s like
to be another person, an impossible necessity.
The “I” of the story recounts how he and his brother tagged along with the men of the town and how he’d seen the body of the frail woman lying in the snow and the impact it made upon him.
“I had seen everything,” Anderson writes, “had seen the oval in the snow,
like a miniature race track, where the dogs had run, had seen how the
men were mystified, had seen the white bare young-looking shoulders,
had heard the whispered comments of the men . . . . Later, in town, I must
have heard other fragments of the old woman’s story.”
As though fascinated and mesmerized by the memory of the woman’s body in the snow, the narrator once again
recounts the picture frozen in his mind: “I remember only the picture there in the forest, the men standing about,
the naked girlish-looking figure face down in the snow, the tracks made by the running dogs and the clear cold winter sky
above . . . .”
Memory, of course, works exactly this way. We remember only fragments, and the fragments present themselves as crystalline poems within our minds, but not stories. Fascinated by the images recalled, we replay them, we worry them, we marvel at their beauty and simplicity, and it seems as though we’ve been presented with a riddle. If we could figure out the importance of this memory, we might also figure out something crucial about our own lives and life in general.
Likewise, when we finish a Realist piece of fiction, we don’t conclude, unless we’re naïve, “What an amazing true story!” We realize the boundaries of the genre, that we’re reading something contrived, no matter how much it might be based on real life. A story is not meant to be a factual account. But Anderson blurs the line between fiction and memoir, turning the last section of the story into an account of how the story came to be.
Here, if you’ll indulge me, I need to quote a substantial bit of text from the story in order to get my point across. Anderson writes:
The scene in the forest had become for me, without my knowing it, the foundation for the real story I am now trying to tell. The fragments, you see, had to be picked up slowly, long afterwards.
Things happened. When I was a young man I worked on the farm of a German. The hired girl was afraid of her employer. The farmer’s wife hated her.
I saw things at that place. Once later, I had a half-uncanny, mystical adventure with dogs in an Illinois forest on a clear, moonlit winter night. When I was a schoolboy, and on a summer day, I went with a boy friend out along a creek some miles from town and came to the house where the old woman had lived. No one had lived in the house since her death. The doors were broken from the hinges; the window lights were all broken. As the boy and I stood in the road outside, two dogs, just roving farm dogs no doubt, came running around the corner of the house. The dogs were tall, gaunt fellows and came down to the fence and glared through at us, standing in the road.
The whole thing, the story of the old woman’s death, was to me as I
grew older like music heard from far off. The notes had to be picked up
slowly one at a time. Something had to be understood . . . .
You see it is likely that, when my brother told the story that night when we got home and my mother and sister sat listening, I did not think he got the point. He was too young and so was I. A thing so complete has its own beauty.
I shall try not to emphasize the point. I am only explaining why I was dissatisfied then and have been ever since. I speak of that only that you may understand why I have been impelled to tell the simple story over again.
And so the story ends.
Something has to be understood. Yes, this is why we work memory over, and
Anderson shows us how, giving us a little lesson in storytelling in the process.
Memoirists have the same aim as the Realist writer. They try to make the
reader forget the story is artificial and that memory is fallible. If Anderson were
alive today and presented this story as nonfiction rather than fiction,
we might accept it as such, except for those spots in the story in which he tells us things he couldn’t possibly know, such as the old woman’s point of view or the dog’s. Yet, nonfiction writers use such techniques frequently. One might recall, for instance, how Sebastian Junger goes into the minds of the doomed fishers in The
Perfect Storm. Were the fishers thinking these exact thoughts? Of course not, but Junger knows their histories intimately enough to make a fair guess at their thoughts before their boat went down, just as Anderson knows his literary territory with the same degree of intimacy.
For me, “Death in the Woods” has become a model, not for the writing of short stories,
but for the writing of memoir. When I wrote my own memoir, Nola, a Memoir of Faith,
Art, and Madness, I not only told the story of my older schizophrenic sister, but also the story of remembering the story, and the story of the telling of the story. I don’t think Anderson’s story was a conscious model for me, but it no doubt influenced me. I believe I’d read the story for the first time shortly before I began the memoir. To me, the self-consciousness of the narrator in “Death in the Woods” is what makes the story so brilliant - it is NOT a simple story, as Anderson claims, but a complex one. It has taken the narrator/Anderson the better part of his life to understand that the story is not simply about the old woman, but about the reaction to the old woman’s death, the spectacle of it, and the memory of it. Of course, no one ever gets the story right because each story is different, depending on the teller and the memory of the teller, if memory is the wellspring
of the tale.
Writers of memoir understand this, just as fiction writers do and, I’d add, poets and dramatists. Even though memoirists
accept the inherent artificiality of the form, many readers cannot accept this. And so, we have tedious
arguments about memoirists betraying readers by admitting that they made up this scene or that, or combined one event or
another or one character with another, as though memoirists are journalists and not literary artists.
Not long ago, NPR critic Maureen Corrigan had a public and rancorous exchange with Vivian Gornick when Gornick
admitted that she had made up scenes in her memoir about her mother. To me, the criticism of Gornick seemed
absurd and beside the point. I have now written three books of nonfiction, all with different aims.
One was a book on writing form, the second a memoir, and the third and most recent, the history of a
purported anthropological hoax in the Philippines. In the first, I tried to impart to the reader what I understood of
writing. In the second, I tried to give the reader a sense of what it’s like to be me. In the third, I tried to reconstruct the
history of a controversy. I never would have dreamed of fabricating events or combining characters in the history, though I was
tempted. One of the women in the group I was writing about was named Dul and another named Dula. In a story,
I never would have given two characters such similar names. But with a history, I had no choice.
The memoir was different because it was a private history, and not even a history in the true sense. I approached
the memoir with the same aims as Anderson had in his story: something has to be understood from the fragments of
memory one is left with. That’s what’s important, not the parsing of facts.
Writing honestly and writing factually are often two different things. If this were not the case, there would be no need for stories, only cable news reports of people found frozen in the snow. The longer one lives and writes, the more apparent this becomes.
Robin Hemley is the Director of the
Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.