Friday, September 9, 2016

Unlighted Lamps

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

End of the Trolley Line, Oak Park, Illinois, 1893, oil on canvas by American artist Frederick Childe Hassam (1859–1935), painted when Hassam was in Chicago for the World's Fair. Like Oak Park, Anderson’s fictional Huntersburg is due west of Chicago—albeit forty miles further out. Image courtesy of WikiArt.
As early as 1913, two years before he began drafting the stories of Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson worked simultaneously on two novels, “Talbot Whittingham” and “Mary Cochran.” The first was a semi-autographical study of a young man struggling to become an artist; according to biographer Walter B. Rideout, the surviving manuscript reveals much about Anderson’s evolution as a writer, but “the novel has serious flaws.” “Talbot Whittingham” remains “unpublished and unpublishable” and survives among his papers, examined only by scholars and biographers.

“Mary Cochran,” on the other hand, is a portrait of a New England village girl who moves west with her father and eventually ends up working an office job in a Chicago factory, insisting upon her independence while looking for a suitable husband. This novel, too, was ultimately set aside and never published. Yet, according to Rideout, “Mary Cochran” is “so well-conceived and shows so much sympathetic understanding of its woman protagonist that it is surprising Anderson remained dissatisfied with it.”

Toward the end of 1919 Anderson still hoped to finish the book, but—because of the success of Winesburg—he reconceived it as a collection of interrelated stories rather than a novel. He wrote to his publisher:
One of these days I shall be able to give you the Mary Cochran book. It has tantalized me a good deal but is coming clear now. In its final form it will be like Winesburg, a group of tales woven about the life of one person but each tale will be longer and more closely related to the development of the central character.
Only a few weeks later, however, Anderson’s tone sounded a more discouraging note:
The tales that are to make up the Mary Cochran book are waiting like tired people on the doorstep of the house of my mind. They are unclothed. I need to be a tailor and make warm clothes of words for them.
In the end, Anderson revised only two sections of the novel as stories (“Unlighted Lamps” and “The Door of the Trap”), and he included them in The Triumph of the Egg, his follow-up collection to Winesburg, Ohio. Given the tortured paths of these two stories to publication, some critics have dismissed them as “pages salvaged from discarded novels” (to quote one reference work). Such an appraisal is misleading. The stories had been extensively revised from the episodes in the novel manuscript, each was accepted for publication as a stand-alone story by editors of two different magazines (Smart Set and Dial), and neither was regarded by readers as a novel excerpt. Rideout argues that the transformation is especially noteworthy in “Unlighted Lamps,” which is drawn from the opening chapter. “Granted the necessary differences between a short story and the first chapter of the novel,” Rideout writes, “it is clear that [Anderson] knew now how to reject extraneous material and to concentrate on the essentials of the action.”

Although the Mary Cochran narrative didn’t live up to the author’s original expectations, the two published tales are hardly out of place in The Triumph of the Egg. In a retrospective essay published shortly after Anderson’s death in 1941, his longtime friend Robert Morss Lovett evaluated Anderson’s writing and found that many of his stories “are concerned with the frustration of human life that comes from isolation, the inability of one being to come near, to enter into understanding with another.” Of all the stories in the collection, “Unlighted Lamps” is probably the most successful at bringing together these twin themes of crippling loneliness and of the failure of loved ones to communicate.

Note: Much of the background in this introduction and the letter excerpts have been culled from the first volume of Rideout’s masterful biography, Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America (2006).

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Mary Cochran went out of the rooms where she lived with her father, Doctor Lester Cochran, at seven o’clock on a Sunday evening . . . 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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