Writing Winesburg

         “To the imaginative man in the modern world something becomes, from the first, sharply defined.  Life splits itself into two sections and, no matter how long one may live or where one may live, the two ends continue to dangle, fluttering about in the empty air… in the end it must become the one thing or the other.” –– Sherwood Anderson


*       *       *


         When he entered the drugstore of J. H. Robinson on East 152 Street and Aspinwall Avenue, it was just after five o’clock. His dark grey suit was creased and dirty; dried mud was splattered up his shins. It peeled off in flakes and landed on the white linoleum when his knees bent the stiffened fabric.  His dark hair was uncombed and he was unshaven. He walked up to the pharmacist and said, “I am lost.” After a pause, he continued. “I came from up that way somewhere, up from the north – I don’t know where and I can’t tell you who I am…  Where am I?”

         It was Monday, December 2, 1912. Sherwood Anderson was in Collinwood, Cleveland.  The incident was termed a “case of lost identity.”


*       *       *


         Sherwood Anderson was born in a small town in Ohio.  Camden.  Many years later, it would become his favorite out of all the places he had lived.  He had no concrete memories of Camden, and he could fill those empty spaces with anything.

         He was still very young when this deeply imaginative life began to take form.  “Having listened to tales told by my father, I wanted to begin inventing tales of my own.” In their next home in Clyde, he began describing his father in terms of his many crafts.  He was a harness maker, a house painter, a sign writer, an actor, and a cornet player in a village band.  But “in reality he was a tale teller.”

         Sherwood worked as a water boy and a cow-driver, a groom, a newsboy, and a corn-cutter.  He worked in the cabbage fields and in a bicycle factory.  As a printer’s devil, a painter, and in a doctor’s office.  A sweeper.

         Whenever he could, he would wander away to lie on his back and think.  Tall cornstalks surrounded him, obscuring blue and white sections of sky in his peripheral vision.  He spent this time reconstructing and coloring the incidents of his life.

*      *      *

         In 1896, Sherwood’s mother died and he left for Chicago two months later.  He was nineteen.  Several years after that, he began working for the Frank B. White Company as a copywriter.  He was twenty-five. Two years later, he met Cornelia Lane, and they married before the year had ended. 

         At night, they would sit by a fire in their small apartment near Lake Michigan and read.  Cornelia would occasionally look up at Sherwood and smile, one corner of her mouth pulling up more than the other –– the partial paralysis a remnant of childhood illness.

*      *      *

         Sherwood was becoming a successful advertiser.  He knew how to be convincing.  “It is all quite simple.  You are to write advertisements for one who puts tomatoes in cans.  You imagine yourself a canner of tomatoes.  You become enthusiastic about the tomato.”

         He began dressing in the finest linen that he could afford.  He wore bright ties and loud socks.  Occasionally, he wore spats.  He bought a dinner coat and began carrying a cane.

*      *      *

         In the fall of 1906, Sherwood moved his wife and children to Elyria, Ohio where he started a mail-order roofing materials company. 

         He called himself a manufacturer.  Years later he would say, “really I wasn’t a manufacturer.  I was a salesman who had got control of a factory.”  He partnered with a paint producer.  They were “going to put Sherwin-Williams out of business.”

         Sherwood walked everywhere as though he was late.  His long stride pulled him down the sidewalk and when he clenched his teeth, the pull of his jaw muscles was visible through his skin.  When concentrating or giving instructions, he held his head back and squinted.  His words had no space between them.  He slammed doors.  He kept the factory bare except for long pine benches and tables, and he surveyed everything with a “shrewd, sharp eye.”

*      *      *

         But Sherwood Anderson wasn’t satisfied.  He could hardly tolerate his acquaintances.  Once, playing golf near the Elks Club where he played pool, Sherwood hit a ball wide into a nearby field.  Tired of the game, he climbed the barbed wire fence and walked out into the field and away from the course.

*      *      *

         Sherwood would lie awake in bed in the early mornings with his eyes closed.  Half-unconscious, he could feel the slight drifting sensation of turning his head.  He would think.  “In such a state I invariably become something other than myself,” he said.  “I float in many lives.”

         In these visions he travelled the world.  He would visit “China, the South Seas, the frozen North.” He would live other men’s lives, “pick up objects with their fingers, think their thoughts, feel what they feel.”

         When he shaved in the morning, his mood would change with each stroke of the razor.  Blade pressed close to the skin, did he consider letting it slip?  The clouds would move past the window, the sun reflecting off the mirror and onto his face once more.  “What would I not give to be a man, not the shadow of a man!”

*       *       *

         Sherwood began writing.  When he could not think clearly, could not understand where he was in life, he “would create an imaginary figure … and put him in the same position in life” in which he found himself.

         He had a lock installed on the door to a small room upstairs in the back wing of the house.  The room was bare except for a cot, a chair, a small desk and books.  When his family was out, Sherwood would take a bucket of soapy water and rags.  Naked, he would scrub the wooden floor before bathing himself and returning to the room.  He would take down a box of toy soldiers that used to be his son’s.  Once the red and blue figurines with their black and white horses were arranged in ranks on the floor, Sherwood would pace back and forth between them with his cane, shouting orders.

         Often during this time, he would stomp naked around the house for hours on end.  Up and down the length of the rooms.  Barefoot to avoid being heard.  He was nearing thirty.

*      *      *

         Sherwood Anderson began calling himself a vagrant and a “no-account,” described himself as a young boy still playing at life.  He longed for symbols to follow and in turn spent his time as a “river worshiper, a moon and sun worshiper, a mountain worshiper.”  He identified himself as an “outcast in the world of men,” only happy in discomfort.  He asked people, “What, if you were not yourself, would you like to be?”

         He took long walks in the woods.  He was drinking again.  Bourbon or Old Fashioneds. Or beer.  Anything would do, really.  He would shut himself in his tiny room and write and not emerge until morning.  He began to want to understand people rather than change them.

         One morning while it was still dark, he left his writing room and walked the sandstone sidewalks until the sky had lightened. When he returned, Cornelia was pacing in the back yard.  She looked worried.  Sherwood crept behind the hedge and waited until she went inside.  Then he walked into town for breakfast and went to the office.

*      *      *

         Two months before incident, a physician told him to stop writing.  Working all day and writing all night was straining his system.  But he didn’t stop.  On Monday, December 2, 1912, the Elyria Evening Telegram printed a story about Sherwood.  ELYRIA MAN FOUND DAZED IN CLEVELAND.

         After the incident, he would call himself a writer. He saw the world as it was, as something fascinating. When others did not see with the same eyes, when others saw only suffering and filth, he tried to explain. “I do not like ugliness,” he said, “but to me the soil, the houses in which poor people live, the overalls of workers, the brown strong gnarled hands of workers are not ugly.”

*       *       *

         Sherwood’s preoccupation with others’ lives became overwhelming. “When I went home to bed at night, the faces closing before my eyes.  ‘Tell my story.  Tell it honestly,’ the lips were shouting at me.  It was a kind of madness.  The only remedy I could find was to get drunk.” During the day, he would walk with his eyes on the sidewalk, “refusing to look at people because their faces all had stories to tell.”

*      *      *

         Cornelia did not believe in him as a writer.  When they looked at each other, they would let their eyes remain unfocused, image blurred.  At night, they would sit in separate rooms in the darkness of the house.  Sometimes one could hear the other crying.

*      *      *

         Before winter ended, Sherwood moved to Chicago.  He left his family in Elyria.  They remained in their house on Seventh Street.  Larger than its neighbors, the house was positioned at the top of a gentle grade, with a large bay window facing the street.  There were maple trees in the front yard.

         In Chicago, Sherwood rented a cheap room on the third floor of a boarding house in midtown.  The space had been a ballroom when the house was an estate, but now thin partitions covered in dirty wallpaper created small rooms.  Sherwood’s room had built-in shelves and a desk that ran the length of the wall.  He put the bed on risers so he could look at the lighted buildings of the Chicago Loop out the window.  He replaced his ties with colorful scarves pulled through a silver ring.

*      *      *

         Sherwood could only write in small, empty spaces because he needed to “catch and hold [his] own note out of the jar and jangle of noises” he heard.  Yet he struggled to hold his pen in his room in Chicago.  “I am depressed.  My nerves have gone back on me.  I sleep in the room where I work, liking to be near books, my desk, the smell of ink.”  He was letting his beard grow.

         One evening, the woman who lived three rooms down from Sherwood came to him long past dark and put her hand on his head.  The moonlight faded her white nightgown to an even lighter shade.  She told him that ghosts came up through the floor of her room at night.  “Things will go well with you.  They have told me.”

*      *      *

         One day, in 1916, Sherwood sat down at his desk in his small room in Chicago and wrote.  He wasn’t certain how much time passed, but when he was finished, he stood up and looked at the words on the page.  He walked the length of the room several times.  Then, he turned and left.  At the closest bar, he bought everyone a round of drinks.  Later, he returned to his room.  He looked at the pages on the desk from across the room.  After a moment, he went over, picked them up and reread his work.  “It is there.  It is put down.”  He knelt in the fading light and could feel tears making his cheeks damp.

         It was the first short story of Winesburg, Ohio.


*       *       *


       Sherwood Anderson put down the letter he had just opened, left his office and stood before his secretary’s desk. He looked directly into her eyes and laughed before focusing his gaze on his feet. “I have been wading in a long river and my feet are wet.”  He turned, starting for the door, but stopped just short of it. He had been counting the steps in his head –– five, six, seven.  “My feet are cold and wet and heavy from long wading in a river.  Now I shall go walk on dry land,” he said looking at his secretary once again.  The sound of his laughter was cut off as the door closed behind him.

         He was wearing a dark grey suit and had five or six dollars in one of his many pockets. It was Thursday, November 28, 1912. He walked eastward along a railroad track out of town.  Out of Elyria, out of that life.

*      *      *

         A few hours later, his wife received a note written lengthwise on a sheet of paper measuring eight and a half by four inches. “Cornelia: There is a bridge over a river with cross-ties before it. When I come to that I’ll be all right. I’ll write all day in the sun and the wind will blow through my hair. Sherwood.”





Primary Sources

Anderson, Sherwood. Sherwood Anderson's Notebook. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926. Print.

Anderson, Sherwood. Puzzled America. New York: Scribner, 1935. Print.

Anderson, Sherwood, Charles E. Modlin, and Ray L. White. Winesburg, Ohio: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Print.

 Anderson, Sherwood, and Ray L. White. A Story Teller's Story: A Critical Text. Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1968. Print.

Anderson, Sherwood, and Ray L. White. Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs: A Critical Edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. Print.

Secondary Sources

Sutton, William A. The Road to Winesburg: A Mosaic of the Imaginative Life of Sherwood Anderson. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1972. Print.

Townsend, Kim. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Print.

Other Sources

"Anderson's Elyria Home" WOSU Presents Ohioana Authors. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 June 2014. <>.

Anderson, Sherwood. "When I Left Business for Literature." WOSU Presents Ohioana Authors. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 June 2014. <>.

"Sherwood Anderson - 'Elyria Manufacturer Dies'" N.p., n.d. Web. 02 June 2014. <>.   

"Sherwood Anderson's Radio Appearance with Amelia Earhart." N.p., n.d. Web. 02 June 2014. <>.

"The Early Non-Journal Writings." Early.html. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 June 2014. <>.

Various Newspaper Articles