Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Sherwood Anderson’s lack of plot led to unsatisfying storytelling

Sherwood Anderson is said to have been a major influence on the work of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck. After taking a dive into some of his short stories, I’m still not entirely sure what they saw in him.

Anderson grew up in Ohio and moved all around the Midwest. He became an ad man in Chicago and never actually published his first book until he was older than 40. His most famous work is Winesburg, Ohio, which is a collection of related stories.

“Hands” is one of the stories from Winesburg, Ohio, from 1919. Wing Biddlebaum is a little old man who has lived in Winesburg for 20 years and works in the fields. He keeps to himself and is mostly a mystery to the townsfolk. It turns out his name was once Adolph Myers and he was a school teacher in a Pennsylvania town who was accused of sexually molesting the boys. He denies it and truly doesn’t seem to have been guilty, but nobody believes him and some of the men take him to hang one night before being let go at the last minute and allowed to run away and never come back. This is an enjoyable and short read, but I’m not sure Anderson succeeds in what appears to be some kind of profound metaphor about how the hands perhaps tell the whole story about a person. 3 out of 5 stars

"Brothers" from 1921 tells one of his typical tales of small-town isolation. One man, on his regular walks around his village outside of Chicago, often encounters an old man who people say has lost his mind, and always tells lies and that he is related to famous people. The walking man is nearly totally silent at night when he returns from his bicycle-factory foreman job. But he begins to fantasize about one woman at the factory and then for almost no reason stabs his pregnant wife to death. He is found guilty and later one day somehow encounters the old man again. The old man doesn’t know he’s talking to the murderer but tells the man his brother is the murderer. One of these days I hope to find an Anderson story that clicks, but this is aimless and doesn’t hold up over the past century. 2 out of 5 stars

“Death in the Woods” comes along later, in 1933, and while it feels like the tale of a more mature writer, it still suffers from lack of action and lack of anything exciting happening. He tells the story from the point of view of a boy who sees the body of a lady named Grimes who has frozen in the snow on her walk home from picking up meat. Her dogs eat the meat out of her bag before her body is discovered. The town tries to pin the death on her rotten drunk husband and son but they have alibis and instead are run out of town. 2.5 out of 5 stars

Anderson wrote an essay in 1924 detailing his method, and it explained quite a bit as to why I’m not crazy about his work. He was interested in form rather than plot, going so far as to call plot “contrived fiction.” In that sense, his stories are more like paintings or simply conversations. He mostly related stories from his own life, but his writing worked to get at the meaning of his life at the possible expense of the facts of his life, which, to me, means the lack of facts and plot in his writing make for some pretty unsatisfying stories.

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