I have found myself reading Sherwood Anderson again – in an eminently pocketable Viking Portable edition containing all of Winesburg, Ohio, plus selections from Poor White and a number of short stories, newspaper articles and letters. I’ll assume everyone has read Winesburg – if you haven’t, stop reading this and go and get it. It is a revelation.
Reading the letters reveals to one how sophisticated his unsophisticated writing style is. His letters are those of any writer, and do not share the digressive, folksy style of the stories – rather, they agonise about the problems of writing, and of being a writer in a way that is utterly familiar. The ‘naiveté’ of his fiction is suddenly thrown into a relief – this naiveté is hard won, and when the narrators of his stories struggle with saying what they want to say, Anderson is saying exactly what he wants to say.
Initially I was surprised to see him identify Gertrude Stein as one of his inspirations, and yet there is a concordance that becomes evident in the way he writes about her – both of them are building things out of words, pressing them together in a way that makes strange the everyday – as Anderson says, she is ‘making, new, strange, and to my ears, sweet combinations of words’. How better to sum up his own work?
And why does he write? ‘It isn’t because of success or fame or anything else… it’s because being a prose writer is the challenge I have given myself’. Worth remembering, always.