Sherwood Anderson

A Story Teller’s Story

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A Story Teller’s Story Summary

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A Story Teller’s Story (1922) is a non-fiction memoir by American author Sherwood Anderson. Anderson’s best-known work is Winesburg, Ohio, a 1919 short story cycle released to critical acclaim and enduring fame. In its review of A Story Teller’s Story, The Nation writes, “In the field of literary autobiography, it stands practically alone in America.”

Born on September 13, 1876, Sherwood Anderson grew up in the small farming community of Camden, Ohio, which had a population of around 650 people. Though Sherwood’s father, Union Army veteran Irwin MacLain Anderson, was considered financially stable, the family fled Camden just before Sherwood’s first birthday to escape significant debts. Over the next five years, the family settled in another small Ohio town, Caledonia. During this time, Irwin became an alcoholic and struggled to support his family financially. This tumultuous period would serve as the inspiration for Sherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel, Tar: A Midwest Childhood.

In 1884, the Andersons finally settled in Clyde, Ohio, though the only work Irwin could hold down comprised intermittent odd jobs like painting signs. To help support the family, Sherwood took on a wide variety of odd jobs himself—so many that he adopted the nickname “Jobby.” Though a strong student, Sherwood frequently missed classes in order to perform jobs and keep his family from financial ruin. These included newsboy, cattle driver, stable groom, and printer’s apprentice. During this period, Sherwood discovered he possessed a talent for advertising and salesmanship, at one point convincing a farmer to buy two copies of the same evening newspaper.

By the time Sherwood was seventeen, his father’s disappearances grew more and more frequent until he finally absented himself from the family permanently. After his mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1895, Sherwood’s family was thrown into turmoil. Around this time, Sherwood obtained a relatively stable position assembling bicycles at the Elmore Manufacturing Company and started dating an attractive local girl Bertha Baynes, the inspiration for the character of Helen White in Winesburg, Ohio. However, with no parents keeping him in Clyde, Sherwood relocated to Chicago with his sister and younger brothers, hoping the bigger city would offer greater opportunities. Unfortunately, life in Chicago was exceedingly difficult, and Sherwood struggled to make ends meet on a two-dollar-a-day salary.

When the Spanish-American war broke out in 1898, Sherwood moved back to Ohio and enlisted in the military. By the time his company reached Cuba after months of training and encampments on American soil, the war had already been over for four months. After the war, Sherwood settled in Springfield, Ohio where he attended a preparatory school program at Wittenberg University. During this time, Sherwood made money by doing chores at The Oaks, a boardinghouse that a number of educators and artists frequented. He befriended Trillena White, a high school teacher ten years his senior who introduced him to “fine literature.” Trillena served as the inspiration for the Winesburg, Ohio character Kate Swift. Sherwood also befriended Harry Simmons, the advertising manager for the publishing company Mast, Crowell, and Kirkpatrick. Impressed by Sherwood’s commencement speech at Wittenberg, Simmons gave Sherwood a job in advertising at his firm’s Chicago office.

After about a year, Sherwood moved to the Frank B. White Advertising Company, which published a trade journal called Agricultural Advertising. While selling ad space and writing copy, Sherwood also contributed a number of essays, articles, and short stories to the magazine, refining his craft as a writer of character sketches that would populate his most famous later works.

On a business trip to Toledo in 1903, Sherwood met his future wife, Cornelia Platt. They married a year later and would give birth to three children: Robert, John, and Marion. In 1906, the Andersons moved to Cleveland where Sherwood obtained a new job as the sales manager at United Factories Company, a mail-order firm. A year later, he started his own company in Elyria, Ohio selling a preservative paint called Roof-Fix at a five hundred percent markup. The company was so successful that Anderson absorbed a number of other paint companies under the banner Anderson Paint Company.

Unfortunately, the stresses of running his own company, maintaining a happy home, and keeping up with his writing precipitated a nervous breakdown in 1812. While reports from the time suggest differently, Sherwood writes that his breakdown was voluntary: “I wanted to leave, get away from business. Again, I resorted to slickness, to craftiness. The thought occurred to me that if men thought me a little insane they would forgive me if I lit out.” After recovering, Sherwood divorced Cornelia and relocated to Chicago to become a full-time writer. Having signed a three-book deal with the publisher John Lane, Sherwood wrote 1916’s Windy McPherson’s Son, 1917’s Marching Men, and finally, his most enduring classic, 1919’s Winesburg, Ohio which made him a literary sensation. Of the first entry in Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood writes that it is his first “real” story; the ones before that were the works of an “apprentice.”

A Story Teller’s Story provides a unique look into the psyche of an American literary icon.