Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Egg

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

Farm by the Shore, c. 1881, oil on canvas, by Ohio native Thomas Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910). Courtesy of The Athenaeum.
“It is the particular virtue of ‘The Egg,’” wrote Irving Howe in 1951, “that while each paragraph seems comic its total effect is one of great pathos.” Fifteen years later, Howe would affirm, “‘The Egg’ seems to me one of the greatest stories ever written, a masterpiece of grotesque pathos that will live as long as the English language survives.” Howe also emphasized Anderson’s (and the story’s) notable debt to Mark Twain. Similarly, although William Faulkner would later satirize Anderson, he called him “the father of all of my works” and acknowledged in the same breath that Twain was the writer who influenced them both.

In 1918 Anderson began an extraordinary correspondence with literary critic Van Wyck Brooks, who was considering the possibility of writing a book on Twain. Dead for nearly a decade, Twain was as widely read, perhaps more so, than he had been during his lifetime. Yet the critical and scholarly assessment could be said to have been mixed. His most popular works were often dismissed as boy’s tales; Arnold Bennett famously wrote, “Episodically, both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are magnificent, but as complete works of art they are of quite inferior quality,” and Henry James dismissed Twain’s popularity as proof of its appeal to “rudimentary minds.”

Anderson was excited by the prospect that a New York critic like Brooks would publish a book on Twain, and his letters, “showed his desire to ‘sell’ Twain to the easterner,” according to biographer Walter Bates Rideout. “A good part of what Sherwood wished to sell had been, as it were, bought by Van Wyck already.” In his letters Anderson sketched a portrait of Twain as a “river man” who went East and was tamed by “that New England crowd,” which then tempered his creative genius. Yet one thing Anderson failed to sell to Brooks—and he tried—was the raw aesthetic power (the “proud, conscious innocence,” as he put it) of one particular novel by Mark Twain. Brooks “did not change his decision, one he later publicly regretted, to minimize the importance of Huckleberry Finn.”

Brooks’s groundbreaking study, The Ordeal of Mark Twain, appeared in 1920 and set the tone for Twain studies for several decades. It argues that after a promising start Twain fell victim to the moneymaking enticements of the Gilded Age and, as a result, never realized his full potential as an artist—a thesis that echoed Anderson’s letters to Brooks. That same year “The Triumph of the Egg” (later retitled simply “The Egg”) was published, and even the first-time reader of Sherwood Anderson will discern Twain’s influence. In his memoirs Anderson wrote that, like his beloved literary predecessor, his stories frequently returned to “the first twenty years of his life, impressions of people, and events experienced during these formative years when the imagination is most alive.”

Note: On page 237, there is a reference to a legend about Christopher Columbus that dates at least to the sixteenth century. Columbus is said to have challenged fellow diners to stand an egg on its end, a feat he then accomplished by cracking the shell at the tip.

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My father was, I am sure, intended by nature to be a cheerful, kindly man. Until he was thirty-four years old he worked as a farm-hand for a man named Thomas Butterworth whose place lay near the town of Bidwell, Ohio. . . . 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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