Monday, September 7, 2020

The New Englander

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

The Line Storm, 1934. Oil and tempera on panel by American artist John Steuart Curry (1897–1946). From a print produced in 1937 by the National Committee for Art Appreciation, a short-lived federal project established under the direction of Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Sherwood Anderson has brought to the American short story the simple faith of a worshiper of art,” N. Bryllion Fagin began his review in the pages of English Journal in 1927. “He has deliberately ignored all the traditions of mechanics.” Anderson was very much aware of how completely his first three story collections subverted the conventions for writing short fiction, Fagin asserted, quoting an interview with the author that appeared six years earlier in Brentano’s Book Chat:
The short story form has become among us very much what I call corrupt. Publishers of short stories sought what they called the story with a kick in it. Plots for short stories were found and about these plots our writers sought to hang a semblance of reality to life. The plot, however, being uppermost in the writers' minds, what we got was a snappy, entertaining, artificial thing, forgotten completely an hour after it was read.

Perhaps because of a native laziness, I found myself unable to think up plots. To try to do so bored me unspeakably. On the other hand, there were all about me human beings living their lives and in the process of doing so creating drama. . . .
The author of Short-Story Writing: An Art or a Trade?, Fagin included a revised version of his article as a chapter of The Phenomenon of Sherwood Anderson, which, to be frank, reads in places like an unabashed fan letter. In its book form, however, his essay does acknowledge that Anderson was certainly not the first or the only writer “who has revolted against the machine-made story. . . . But because of his influence, the revolt has gathered momentum.” Or, as the neurologist and occasional literary critic Joseph Collins similarly wrote in “Sex in Literature,” the lead article in the April 1924 issue of The Bookman: “The rigid old shibboleths about how a good story must be written are disintegrating before the attacks of a new generation of writers.”

As the title of Collins’s essay indicates, not just the “mechanics” of the story were changing but also the range of acceptable subject matter. “You and I know that the big story here is the story of repression, of the strange and almost universal insanity of society,” Anderson wrote to the psychoanalyst Trigant Burrow, a close friend, about his difficulties finding magazines to publish the stories that would eventually be included in his second collection, The Triumph of the Egg. “The story does not need to be an unpleasant one to right-minded men and women, but it must be boldly and subtly told and make its audience slowly.”

Because of the revolutionary boldness of his stories, Anderson was frequently—and perhaps inevitably—linked to D. H. Lawrence. In 1927 the British critic Wyndham Lewis speculated that Lawrence was probably more widely read by Americans than by his own countrymen and that “his name is invariably associated, in America, with that of Sherwood Anderson.” When The Triumph of the Egg appeared in 1921, the American critic John Peale Bishop similarly noted that “Anderson alone among the Americans seems to bear a resemblance to Lawrence. . . . Anderson, like Lawrence, understands the physical ecstasy and contentment that would come of belonging utterly to the dark rich life of the earth and moving with the ancient rhythms of light and dark, of green and sterile seasons, of dayrise and nightfall.” So linked were the two authors in the public mind that H. L. Mencken’s satirical “Americana” column in The American Mercury quoted a newspaper writer in Alabama condemning “the social smut of your Sherwood Lawrences.”

The revolution in literature during the 1920s also reflected a geographical shift in American society. “The economic, political, and cultural eminence of New England was being supplanted by the Midwest’s increasing power,” writes Judy Jo Small, a literary scholar. The decade opened with a presidential race between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox, both from Anderson’s home state of Ohio. Such artists as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood became extraordinary successes with both critics and audiences. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edna Ferber, Langston Hughes, and T. S. Eliot all hailed from the Midwest, following in the footsteps of such veteran writers as Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, and Sinclair Lewis.

To Sherwood Anderson, the changing attitudes in American literature were as much geographical as literary, a rejection of what he saw as the restrictive primness of aging New England institutions in favor of the expansive physicality of life in the wide open spaces out west. Nowhere, perhaps, is this shift made more explicit than in his story “The New Englander.” Biographer Walter B. Rideout describes it as “almost a paradigm of Anderson’s view of certain cultural-geographic differences in the United States and of the emotional damage done by what in the 1920s he was not alone in stigmatizing as ‘Puritanism,’ defined as that pervasive spirit of intolerant, joyless moralism, which was especially antagonistic to any expression of the power of sex.” As Small points out in an overview of “The New Englander,” the two women at the center of the story reflect the clash of “regional attitudes”: the older Elsie is both troubled and excited by the earthiness of her new Midwestern home and Elizabeth, a rambunctious teenager, secretly wants “to be a lady” like her aunt. Through the portraits of these two women, Anderson “enriches the historical-cultural dimension” of his tale by evoking “desiccated Easterners looking with longing at the robust vigor of the Midwest while crude Midwesterners look with longing at the refinement of the East.”

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Her name was Elsie Leander and her girlhood was spent on her father’s farm in Vermont. . . . 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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