“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Benjamin Franklin
March 1941 – Marion, Virginia: He was a writer best remembered for his critically acclaimed collection of short stories Winesburg, Ohio. After moving around, he finally settled in Marion, where he owned and published both weekly newspapers. About 100 people attended his funeral. He is buried on a grassy hilltop in the Round Hill Cemetery a few miles outside town. The stone marker reads “Sherwood Anderson.”
Raised in Ohio in the late 1880s, Anderson quit school in the ninth grade. He worked a handful of odd jobs before a stint in the Army during the Spanish-American War. After the war he worked for decade in sales and advertising before purchasing a small paint factory. At age 37, a nervous breakdown forced him to sell the struggling business and move to Chicago to pursue a writing career.
Anderson proved to be a gifted writer. His style of storytelling, using nouns and verbs with minimal use of adjectives and adverbs, was simple, straightforward and well-received by the literary community. In 1919, at age 42, the publication of Winesburg, Ohio led to national recognition.
Shortly after Winesburg’s success, 20-year-old Ernest Hemingway, an aspiring writer who was fresh from the first World War’s Italian front, found an apartment in the same Chicago neighborhood as Sherwood Anderson. He had heard that Anderson was willing to mentor young writers. The two became close friends. They met almost daily to eat and read newspapers, books and magazines while discussing and critiquing what they read.
Anderson frequently critiqued the young writer’s work. He saw the raw potential in his writing. Anderson advised Hemingway and his new wife, Hadley, to go to Paris where they could live cheaply and learn the writing craft. He sent Hemingway to Paris with letters of recommendation to writers such as Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. He helped publish Hemingway’s first book, The Sun Also Rises, which launched his literary career.
In 1922 Anderson moved to New Orleans to be part of the writing scene. There he was sought out by another fledging writer, William Faulkner. Anderson recognized the talent in the 25-year-old writer and took him under his wing. Just as with Hemingway, he critiqued Faulkner’s writing. He suggested that Faulkner write about Mississippi. He helped Faulkner find a publisher and in 1925 invested $300 in Faulkner’s first book, Soldier’s Pay.
Sherwood Anderson later moved to California and repeated the process for another aspiring young writer, John Steinbeck. He also influenced 20th century award-winning writers Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell and Ray Bradbury.
Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Old Man and the Sea in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. In 1949 William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he credited Sherwood Anderson in his acceptance speech. Faulkner also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1955 for A Fable and again in 1963 for The Reivers. He is considered by many to be the greatest writer of Southern literature. John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940 for Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. Grapes of Wrath also won a National Book Award for Fiction.
In March 1941, 64-year-old Anderson died unexpectedly in a Panama hospital midway through a sea voyage to South America. He died of peritonitis caused by a toothpick lodged in his intestine. His body was transported back to Virginia for burial.
Sherwood Anderson was one of the great American writers of the early 20th century. More than 100 years after publication, Winesburg, Ohio remains one of the most taught books in American literature. However, there were no movies about him, nor were there any Pulitzer or Nobel Prize awards.
His literary legacy is not found so much on the printed page but in the successes of the young writers he influenced and mentored. Despite his relative obscurity, his impact on American literature is undeniable and countless readers have benefited from his influence.