Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941)
Contributing Editor: Martha Curry
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Teachers should avoid three erroneous approaches to Sherwood Anderson's writings: regarding him primarily as a novelist, as a regional writer, or as author of only one important book, Winesburg, Ohio.
Regarding the first error: even in his best novel, Poor White, Anderson has difficulty sustaining plot and characterization. Anderson succeeds best in the smaller narrative form of the short story. "Hands" and "Death in the Woods" exemplify many of the characteristics of the masterpieces of Anderson's story-telling art: direct authorial address to the reader; a circular, not linear, narrative structure; plot subordinated to characterization; simple style and vocabulary; and images drawn from elemental aspects of nature.
Regarding the second error: Although Anderson is one of the many regional writers who chronicle the changes that took place in the Midwest at the turn of the century as a result of industrialization, primary emphasis should be placed on his role as a story-teller.
Regarding the third error: Neither Winesburg, Ohio, from which "Hands" is taken, nor Death in the Woods with its title story, is a collection of isolated stories but, rather, short story cycles; that is, collections of stories with common themes, imagery, and tone, and often with common setting and characters. An understanding of the short story cycle, from Homer's Odyssey to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to Joyce's Dubliners will help in understanding Anderson's work.
Students are amazed how contemporary Anderson is. He speaks to their concerns regarding loneliness, fragmentation, and the search for beauty and wholeness. They also are intrigued by the artistry that a small work like a short story can achieve.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
After they study "Hands," urge students to read the whole of Winesburg. Reading the story of Wing Biddlebaum will prepare students to explore two themes discernible in "Hands" and carried forward in the rest of Winesburg. First explain the theme introduced in Winesburg's first section, "The Book of the Grotesque," the theme of the misunderstood inhabitants of Winesburg trapped in their loneliness by one "truth" that has turned into a falsehood. Second, explain the theme of the gnarled apples explicated most fully in the second story of the collection, "Paper Pills." In the orchards of Winesburg are gnarled, twisted apples, rejected by the apple pickers but savored by the narrator and his readers, that is, by the few who can recognize their sweetness. Wing Biddlebaum in "Hands" and Ma Grimes in "Death in the Woods" are two of Anderson's grotesques, people trapped in their own inability to find the "truth" of their lives and thus unable to grow to maturity but possessing their own sweetness and beauty.
Regarding historical issues: When Winesburg was published in 1919, it was considered scandalous because of its direct treatment of sex. "Hands," with its sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality, was one of the stories often cited. We know from many of Anderson's reminiscence, however, that he had a particular fondness for "Hands." In his Memoirs (ed. Ray Lewis White, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969, p. 237) he calls the story "my first authentic tale" and claims that he "completed it cleanly at one sitting. No word of it ever changed." The manuscript of Winesburg with the Sherwood Anderson Papers at the Newberry Library in Chicago, however, show extensive revisions. Nonetheless, the statements just quoted from his Memoirs, although false if taken literally, are substantially correct. By temperament Anderson was disinclined to rework, correct, fill in details. Instead, as we know by the many versions of the same story in his unpublished work at the Newberry Library, he often rewrote and rewrote whole stories.
An historical perspective to bring to "Death in the Woods" is the fact Anderson tried to write this story to his satisfaction. As we know from a note attached to a holograph housed with the Anderson Papers in the Newberry Library, Anderson's first attempt to write this story is a short sketch called "Death in the Forest." Chapter XII of Tar: A Midwestern Childhood (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1969, pp. 129-41), also tells the story of an old woman's death in the woods on a snowy night. A slightly expanded version of this episode, told by a first-person narrator, appeared in American Mercury (IX, 7-13), in September of the same year, that is, 1926. Since the 1933 title story in the collection Death in the Woods is practically identical with the version of the story that appeared in American Mercury, we can assume that Anderson worked on "Death in the Woods" from the mid-1910s, the time he was writing the Winesburg stories, until 1926.
When we consider this background concerning the composition of "Hands" and "Death in the Woods," we can see that both stories exemplify Anderson's usual method of story-telling. Anderson writes and rewrites his stories until he is satisfied with them, just as his narrators try again and again to tell the "real" story hidden beneath surface events.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Attention should always be drawn to the importance of the narrator in Anderson's stories. Although "Hands" is told in the third person, the narrator speaks directly to the reader in the tradition of oral story-tellers, thus bringing the reader into the creation of the story. Twice in the story the narrator says that both the teller of the tale and the listener, in this case, the reader, have to become poets. The reader is urged to accept the narrator's invitation to "look briefly into the story of the hands. Perhaps our talk of them will arouse the poet who will tell the hidden wonder...." Earlier in the story the narrator assures the reader that "Sympathetically set forth"--as Anderson surely does--Wing's story "would tap many strange, beautiful qualities in obscure men. It is the job for a poet."
In "Death in the Woods" the central character is not Ma Grimes but the mature narrator who looks back on earlier experiences: the sight of an old, oppressed woman trudging from her farm into town in order to obtain the necessary food for her men and animals; the time he worked for a German farmer who hired a "bound girl"; the moonlit winter night he saw half-wild dogs almost revert to wolves in the presence of the near-death of a human.
The teacher must stress the role of the mature narrator as he struggles to weld his diverse experiences and images into a whole that will bring order out of their diffuseness and beauty out of their ugliness. All of her days Ma Grimes "fed animal life." Only at the end of the story does the reader realize that the most important life Ma Grimes fed was the creative life of the narrator. Thus, the story as a whole demonstrates, as Anderson explains in its final sentence, "why I have been impelled to try to tell the simple story over again." The reader feels, as the story comes to a close, that now, after perhaps ten or twelve years, Anderson has been able to create a beautifully unified work of art.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Since much of Anderson's fiction relies heavily on his own experiences, the best background materials for teaching "Hands" and "Death in the Woods" are primary, not secondary, sources, although excellent critical articles on both stories can easily be found by means of the standard indexes. Nonetheless, the best background information still remains Anderson's own words. Anderson's three autobiographies, Tar, A Story Teller's Story, and Memoirs, all available in critical texts edited by Ray Lewis White, have excellent indexes that will lead the reader to the appropriate sections.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. In regard to "Hands," call the students' attention to:
(a) Society's attitudes towards homosexuality at the time Anderson was writing the story and now. Explore the students' own attitudes and compare them to Anderson's treatment of Wing Biddlebaum.
(b)The role played by George Willard, especially the role played by his absence in this story. Explain that George Willard's growth to maturity, through his interaction with all the characters in the story, is actually the central story of Winesburg. Let the students sense the relation between George and Wing and, again, make them enter into the story.
(c) The moment with which the story opens and closes: "the half decayed veranda of a small frame house" on the edge of town. This moment becomes the center around which the rest of the story circles. Explain Anderson's development of this non-linear plotting and his influence on later short story writers.
(d) The many images in the story. A few examples are the importance of dreaming, the allusion to Socrates, the "breaking wings of an imprisoned bird" and, of course, Wing's hands themselves.
2. In regard to "Death in the Woods," call the students' attention to:
(a) The various levels of the story: story of Ma Grimes, her relationship to the men and animals in the story, her role as "feeder" of life.
(b) The function played by the dogs, both literal and symbolic.
(c) Growth of the narrator from a young boy to a mature artist.
(d) The difficulty the narrator has in telling the story.
(e) The many images in the story, both from nature and from art.
3. I have had great success in having students write a short story or character sketch about one of the "grotesques" they meet in everyday life, someone they see on the bus or subway, in the supermarket or on the street, at home or in school. They must approach this character with great respect and love, as Anderson does, and try to imagine and then tell the character's story of isolation, fear, and, ultimately, of beauty.
Read: Winesburg, Ohio, a very short book. Several other stories in Maxwell Geismar's Sherwood Anderson: Short Stories.
If there is time, read: Chapter XII of Tar. "Death in the Forest," edited by William Miller and printed as an appendix to Ray Lewis White's critical edition of Tar, pp. 231-36. Selections from White's critical edition of Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs.
Chapter I of Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century by Forest L. Ingram (The Hague: Mouton) for Ingram's theory of the short story cycle.
The Chicago Renaissance in American Letters: A Critical History by Bernard Duffey (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1954), Chapter 10, "Three Voices of the Liberation," about Francis Hackett, Harriet Monroe, and Margaret Anderson and the little magazines they founded, and Chapter 11, "The Struggle for Affirmation--Anderson, Sandburg, Lindsay."