Friday, October 10, 2014

Mother

Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941)
From Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories

Panoramic Landscape with a View of a Small Town, c. 1850. Artist unknown. Image courtesy of the online collection of the Brooklyn Museum.
In 1916 the new monthly magazine Seven Arts accepted for publication a brief story, “Queer,” by advertising copywriter and household goods salesman Sherwood Anderson. It was slotted for the magazine’s second issue, but before it had even gone to press, Anderson sent in another tale and informed the editor, Waldo Frank, that both selections were part of “a series of intensive studies of people of my home town, Clyde, Ohio.” He continued:
In the book I called the town Winesburg, Ohio. Some of the studies you may think pretty raw, and there is a sad note running through them. One or two of them get pretty closely down to ugly things of life.
The second submission, “The Untold Lie” (a previous Story of the Week selection), was promptly accepted for the third issue of Seven Arts and, intrigued, Frank encouraged Anderson to send in other selections from the series. Yet another story, “Mother,” soon appeared in the magazine, with a note identifying Anderson as “one of the significant new men out of the West.”

“Mother” introduced readers to Elizabeth Willard, whose son who would appear in many of the Winesburg tales. She is disappointed with her life and her marriage and hopes that her son will be able to escape the isolation and misery she has endured in the town of Clyde. Anderson based the character on his own mother, who died in 1895 when he was eighteen, and he dedicated Winesburg, Ohio to his mother’s memory, “whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives.”

Today’s readers might find it hard to imagine the intensity of the reactions, both positive and negative, when the Winesburg stories first began appearing and especially after they were collected as a book in May 1919. Although the stories found favor with most critics, an early reviewer accused the author of reducing his characters “from human clay to plain dirt”; another called the book “the picture of a maggoty mind.” (The latter critic, William Allen White, would rescind his opinion when, two decades later, he recommended Anderson’s latest work to Book-of-the-Month Club members.) A somewhat ambivalent notice in the Chicago Tribune asserted, with considerable overstatement, that the tales are “practically all concerned chiefly with the sex life of the inhabitants of the Ohio village.” One of the newspaper’s readers responded with a letter:
[The book] seems to me a distillation of the sort of leering gossip one would expect to find bandied about by male scandalmongers chewing tobacco on cracker barrels in a dirty cross-roads grocery store. . . . I suppose this book will be “hailed” by a few Dreiser devotees and some impressionable reviewers will admire it as “strong.” It is so strong it ought to be buried without delay in the nearest public sanitation.*
Fortunately for the history of American literature, Anderson’s masterpiece remained well above ground. Years later William Faulkner (who dedicated Sartoris, his third novel, to Anderson) wrote, “Sherwood Anderson was the father of all my works—and those of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. We were influenced by him. He showed us the way.”

* As reprinted in Walter B. Rideout’s Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America (volume 1, 2006), p. 316.

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Free audio: This selection is accompanied by a streaming audio version, read by the award-winning memoirist Patricia Hampl.

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Elizabeth Willard, the mother of George Willard, was tall and gaunt and her face was marked with smallpox scars. Although she was but forty-five, some obscure disease had taken the fire out of her figure. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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