The Letters of Sherwood Anderson

for the past two years, HOWARD MUMFORD JONES, Professor of English at Harvard,aided by Walter B. Rideout of Northwestern University, has been reading and weighing the vast amount of Sherwood Andersons correspondencealmost five thousand letters, beginning in 1916 when Anderson was just breaking into print at the age of forty. Of this number he has selected some four hundred which will be published in book form in early June by Little,Brown & Company. The three major letters which follow, together with illuminating portions of Mr. Jones’s Introduction,show why Anderson had to write and his dedication and purposes as a writer.


SHERWOOD ANDERSON’S letters read like a posthumous novel. But they also read like something buttressed and substantiated by whatever Anderson’s books had already told us of the writer. Surely there are not many other instances in which a man’s letters thus neatly confirm his works, and his works confirm his letters. A sample paragraph will illustrate this intimate relationship as well as a dozen could do. Anderson writes: — “I have been to Nebraska, where the big engines are tearing the hills to pieces; over the low hills runs the promise of the corn. You wait, dear Brother; I shall bring God home to the sweaty men in the corn rows. My songs shall creep into their hearts and teach them the sacredness of the long aisles of growing things that lead to the throne of the God of men.”

This might come from Dark Laughler or from Many Marriages, or from a short story, or it might even be a preliminary note for something in MidAmerican Chants. It appears as a matter of fact in an early letter to Waldo Frank. Of course there are readers who do not like epistolary writing of this sort. It makes them uncomfortable, and they murmur something about posturing before a mental mirror. But others will remark upon the identity of style in the letters with that in the books. Either way, favorably or unfavorably, what you get is Sherwood Anderson.

There was in Anderson a combination of simplicity and subtlety that lies in a recognizable Midwestern tradition. You can see it in his altitude toward New York. In another letter to Waldo Frank you find the awe of the child of Middle America before what he conceives to be the superiority of the East. lie returned from a visit to New York, he says, filled with “odd feelings of reverence and humbleness.”

Wander as he might, Anderson remains perpetually the troubled Midwesterner, alternately revolting against industrialism and finding poetry in machines, rejoicing in American productive energy and pitying the joyless workers, believing both in the mass and in the individual, yet acutely conscious of the limitations in these antithetical concepts. His radicalism was a function of this need for self-transcendence, and it expressed itself confusedly, as in the vague, inconclusive symbolism of Marching Men. His radicalism was never essentially economic or political — not once but many times he repudiated the Communists — for it was always mystical, the radicalism of the poet, the child, and 1 he pragmatist. I think it still has much to say to the thirst after democracy in our times.

[MAIUON, VIRGINIA, April, 1935]
To ROY JANSEN, author and proprietor of a bookstore in Pittsburgh.

Dear Roy Jansen: I think the most absorbingly interesting and exciting moment in any writer’s life must come at the moment when he, for the first time, knows that he is a real writer. Any professional writer, any Hemingway, Wolfe, Faulkner, Stein, Dreiser, Lewis — I could name a dozen others, prosemen, I mean — will know what I mean. You begin, of course, being not yourself. We all do. There have been so many great ones. “If I could write as that man does.” There is, more than likely, some one man you follow slavishly. How magnificently his sentences march. It is like a field being plowed. You are thinking of the man’s style, his way of handling words and sentences.

You read everything the man has written, go from him to others. You read, read, read. You live in the world of books. It is only after a long time that you know that this is a special world, fed out of the world of reality, but not of the world of reality. You have yourself not yet brought anything up out of the real world into this special world, to make it live there.

Copyright 1953, by Eleanor Anderson.

And then, if you are ever to be a real writer, your moment comes. I remember mine. I walked along a city street in the snow. I was working at work I hated. Already I had written several long novels. They were not really mine. I was ill, discouraged, broke. I was living in a cheap rooming house. I remember that I went upstairs and into the room. it was very shabby. I had no relatives in the city and few enough friends. I remember how cold the room was. On that afternoon I had heard that I was to lose my job.

I grew desperate, went and threw up a window. I sat by the open window. It began to snow, “I’ll catch cold sitting here.”

“What do I care?” There was some paper on a small kitchen table I had bought and had brought up into the room. I turned on a light and began to write. I wrote, without looking up — I never changed a word of it afterwards — a story called “Hands.” It was and is a very beautiful story.

I wrote the story and then got up from the table at which I had been sitting, I do not know how long, and went down into the city street. I thought that the snow had suddenly made the city very beautiful. There were people in the street, all sorts of people, shabby ones, brisk young ones, old discouraged ones. I went along wanting to hug people, to shout. “I’ve done it. After all these years I’ve done something.” How did I know I had? I did know. I was drunk with a new drunkenness. I cannot remember all of the absurd, foolish things I did that evening. I had a little money in my pocket and went into saloons. I called men up to the bar. “Drink. Drink to me, men.” I remember that a prostitute accosted me and that I threw some money toward her and ran away laughing. It must have been several hours before I got the courage to return to my room and read my own story.

It was all right, It was sound. It was real. I went to sit by my desk. A great many others have had such moments. I wonder what they did. I sat there and cried. For the moment I thought the world very wonderful, and I thought also that there was a great deal of wonder in me.

[P.S.] If you use this, will you see that I get copy?

[TROUTDALE, VIRGINIA, August 27, 1938 To GEORGE FREITAG of Canton, Ohio, who entered into correspondence with Anderson in the summer of 1938 on problems of the young writer. He published sketches and stories in the Atlantic from 1938 to 1947.

Dear George Freitug: It sometimes seems to me that I should prepare a book designed to be read by other and younger writers. This not because of accomplishment on my own part, but because of the experiences, the particular experiences, I have had.

It is so difficult for most of us to realize how fully and completely commercialism enters into the arts. For example, how are you to know that really the opinion of the publisher or the magazine editor in regard to your work, what is a story and what isn’t, means nothing? Some of my own stories, for example, that have now become almost American classics, that are put before students in our schools and colleges as examples of good storytelling, were, when first written, when submitted to editors, and when seen by some of the so-called outstanding American critics, declared not stories at all.

It is true they were not nice little packages, wrapped and labeled in the O. Henry manner. They were obviously written by one who did not know the answers. They were simple little takes of happenings, things observed and felt. There were no cowboys or daring wild game hunters. None of the people in the tales got lost in burning deserts or went seeking the North Pole. In my stories I simply stayed at home, among my own people, wherever I happened to be, people in mv own street. I think I must, very early, have realized that this was my milieu — that is to say, common everyday American lives. The ordinary beliefs of the people about me, that love lasted indefinitely, that success meant happiness, simply did not seem true to me.

Things were always happening. My eyes began to see, my ears to hear. Most of our American storytelling at that time had concerned only the rich and the well-to-do. I was a storyteller but not yet a writer of stories. As I came of a poor family, older men were always repeating to me the old saying: —

“Get money. Money makes the mare go.”

For a time I was a laborer. As I had a passion for fast trotting and pacing horses, I worked about race tracks. I became a soldier, I got into business.

I knew, often quite intensively, Negro swipes about race tracks, small gamblers, prize fighters, common laboring men and women. There was a violent, dangerous man, said to be a killer. One night he walked and talked to me and became suddenly tender. I was forced to realize that all sorts of emotions went on in all sorts of people. A young man who seemed outwardly a very clod suddenly began to run wildly in the moonlight. Once I was walking in a wood and heard the sound of a man weeping. I stopped, looked, and listened. There was a farmer who, because of ill luck, bad weather, and perhaps even poor management, had lost his farm. He had gone to work in a factory in town, but, having a day off, had returned secretly to the fields he loved. He was on his knees by a low fence, looking across the fields in which he had worked from boyhood. He and I were employed at the time in the same factory, and in the factory he was a quiet, smiling man, seemingly satisfied with his lot.

I began to gather these impressions. There was a thing called happiness toward which men were striving. They never got to it. All of life was amazingly accidental. Love, moments of tenderness and despair, came to the poor and the miserable as to the rich and successful.

It began to seem to me that what was most wanted by all people was love, understanding. Our writers, our storytellers, in wrapping life up into neat little packages were only betraying life. It began to seem to me that what I wanted for myself most of all, rather than so-called success, acclaim, to be praised by publishers and editors, was to try to develop, to the top of my bent, my own capacity to feel, see, taste, smell, hear. I wanted, as all men must want, to be a free man, proud of my own manhood, always more and more aware of earth, people, streets, houses, towns, cities. I wanted to take all into myself, digest what I could.

I could not give the answers, and so for a long time when my stories began to appear, at first only in little highbrow magazines, I was almost universally condemned by the critics. My stories, it seemed, had no definite ends. They were not conclusive and did not give the answers, and so I was called vague, “Groping" was a favorite term. It seems I could not get a formula and stick to it. I could not be smart about life. When I wrote my Winesburg stories — for the whole series I got eighty-five dollars — such critics as Mr. Floyd Dell and Henry Mencken, having read them, declared they were not stories. They were merely, it seemed, sketches. They were too vague, too groping. Some ten or fifteen years after Mr. Mencken told me they were not stories, he wrote, telling of how, when he first saw them, he realized their strength and beauty. An imagined conversation between us, that never took place, was spoken about.

And for this I did not blame Mr. Mencken. He thought he had said what he now thinks he said.

There was a time when Mr. Dell was, in a way, my literary father, He and Mr. Waldo Frank had been the first critics to praise some of my earlier work. He was generous and warm. He, with Mr. Theodore Dreiser, was instrumental in getting my first book published. When he saw the Winesburg stories, he, however, condemned them heartily, He was at that time, I believe, deeply under the influence of Maupassant. He advised me to throw the Winesburg stories away. They had no form. They were not stories. A story, he said, must be sharply definite. There must be a beginning and an end. I remember very clearly our conversation. “If you plan to go somewhere on a train and start for the station, but loiter along the way, so that the train comes into the station, stops to discharge and take on passengers, and then goes on its way, and you miss it, don’t blame the locomotive engineer,”I said. I daresay it was an arrogant saying, but arrogance is also needed.

And so I had written, let us say, the Winesburg stories. The publisher who had already published two of my early novels refused them, but at last I Found a publisher. The stories were called unclean, dirty, filthy, but they did grow into the American consciousness, and presently the same critic who had condemned them began asking why I did not write more Winesburg stories.

I am telling you all of this, I assure you, not out of bitterness. I have had a good life, a full, rich life. I am still having a full, rich life. I tell it only to point out to you, a young writer, filled as I am made aware by your letter to me, of tenderness for life, I tell it simply to suggest to you plainly what you are up against. For ten or fifteen years after I had written and published the Winesburg stories, I was compelled to make my living outside of the field of writing. You will find none of my stories even yet in the great popular magazines that pay high prices to writers.

The Winesburg stories, when first published, were bitterly condemned. They were thrown out of libraries. In one New England town, where three copies of the book had been bought, they were publicly burned in the public square of the town. I remember a letter I once received from a woman. She had been seated beside me at the table of a friend. “Having sat beside you and having read your stories, I feel that I shall never be clean again,“ she wrote. I got many such letters.

Then a change came. The book found its way into schools and colleges. Crities who had ignored or condemned the book now praised it.

“It’s Anderson’s best work. It is the height of his genius. He will never again do such work.”

People constantly came to me, all saying the same thing.

“But what else of mine have you read since?”

A blank look upon faces.

They had read nothing else of mine. For the most part they were simply repeating, over and over, an old phrase picked up.

Now, I do not think all of this matters. I am one of the fortunate ones. In years when I have been unable to make a living with my pen, there have always been friends ready and willing to help me. There was one man who came to me in a year when I felt, when I knew, that I had done some of my best and truest work, but when, no money coming in, I was trying to sell my house to get money to live.

He wanted, he said, one of my manuscripts. “I will lend you five thousand dollars.” He did lend it, knowing I could never return his money, but he did not deceive me. He had an affection for me as I had for him. He wanted me to continue to live in freedom. I have found this sort of thing among the rich as well as the poor. My house where I live is filled with beautiful things* all given to me. I live well enough. I have no quarrel with life. And I am only writing all of this to you to prepare you. In a world controlled by business, why should we not expect businessmen to think first of business?

And do bear in mind that publishers of books, of magazines, of newspapers are, first of all, businessmen. They are compelled to be.

And do not blame them when they do not buy your stories. Do not be romantic. There is no golden key that unlocks all doors. There is only the joy of living as richly as you can, always feeling more, absorbing more, and, if you are by nature a teller of tales, the realization that by faking, trying to give people what they think they want, you are in danger of dulling and in the end quite destroying what may be your own road into life.

There will remain for you, to be sure, the matter of making a living, and I am sorry to say to you that in the solution of that problem, for you and other young writers, I am not interested. That, alas, is your own problem. I am interested only in what you may be able to contribute to the advancement of our mutual craft.

But why not call it an art? That is what it is.

Did you ever hear of an artist who had an easy road to travel in life?

TBOCTDALE, VIRGINIA, August 27, 1938
Writing can be, like the practice of any other art, a way of life. It is what we all want, to find a way to live. There is this town, the people of ihe town or of a city street, trees along a street, familiar fields, old houses with children playing in the yard, a fat prosperous-looking man coming out of a big house set far back from the street. What is he like?
He is rich. He employs a chauffeur to drive his car. He cannot help wondering what his chauffeur thinks of him. Many of our rich people are a little frightened when they think of their wealth.
We live in a world in which most of the channels of public expression are ruled by the advertisers, and it is difficult to write of human life, giving yourself to the life immediately about you, without getting upon forbidden ground.
It can be done. Trick writing can be learned. It is a trade, not an art. It may be all right. Formerly I used to grow indignant because so many writers seemed to be selling out. Now I think it doesn’t matter. I think every man writes as well as he can. Ordinary people need to be amused, taken away from thought. Life itself is too terribly real for them. We hear of great statesmen, scientists, etc., who spend their leisure hours reading detective stories. Why not! The statesman might begin thinking of how he got to where he is. The scient ist. had made some great discovery, but he is using his knowledge for his own private ends, He is no better or worse than the rest of us. But above all things he doesn’t want to think.
We live, you see, in a thin age. We can’t take it. There may have been times, periods in the history of man, when man did face the moral obligation of living. In our age we can’t do it. Don’t blame us too much.
I have become a veteran among American writers. Where have the years gone? How little I have done.
Young writers, new men among writers, are always writing letters to me. They come to see me. “How can I write as I please and still make a living?" It is a question for which I have no answer. To tell the truth, I am not interested in how you make a living.
I am interested only in what you give me, in how much you extend my own knowledge of life. You came from a different environment. You were born in a rich or a well-to-do family, while I came from a poor one.
What was the tone of life in your house? How did you feel? What made you what you are?
There are a thousand questions I want to ask you. Tell me in your work. Tell me. Tell me. The tales you tell, the way you tell them, the tone, color, form, all of these should reveal yourself to me. Give me a little of yourself. Extend a little my own knowledge, my own capacity for feeling, for understanding. I am a lustful man. I want everything. 1 knew a painter once who said to me, “I want to make love to a thousand, a hundred thousand women.” I understand him. He didn’t really want to bed the women. He wanted to go into them, penetrate into ihe mystery of women. It was because of something he wanted in his art. It seems to me that we shall have more and more writing. People, it seems to me, are becoming more conscious of thinness. Now[u]days I myself no longer hope or want to be a popular writer, I write for myself and for other writers. It doesn’t matter to me now that I am often misunderstood. I have come to realize that I have dreadful limitations. Once I thought, I will write so well, so clearly, will tell my tales so clearly, with such verve and gusto that everyone must accept me, but now I do not care for such acceptance. If you are mine, I cannot lose you. If I am yours, I will remain yours. It is a way of making love. It is a way of losing self. It must be that the painter, as he paints, becomes always more and more conscious of nature, its moods, of the strange beauty coming unexpectedly out of what seem to others commonplace scenes. Why should I care whether you, the young writer, have had your breakfast, whether or not you have money to pay your rent or buy a car? I care only that you may broaden my own vision, increase my own capacity to feel, add a little to my understanding of others.