Anderson was born in Camden, Ohio, on September 13, 1876, to Irwin McClain Anderson and Emma Jane Smith. He spent most of his childhood in Clyde, a small Ohio town that would later inspire some of his best short stories. He attended Wittenberg Academy (Springfield, Ohio) after serving in the Spanish-American War (1898), and earning the equivalent of a high school diploma in 1900. In 1904 he married Cornelia Lane, with whom he eventually had three children.
After several mostly unsuccessful attempts at a business career, Anderson suffered what historians have since described as a nervous breakdown, likely brought on by marital and financial problems. For several days in November 1912, a disoriented Anderson wandered the streets of Cleveland, and early the next year he decided to leave his wife and children. It was clearly a painful chapter in Anderson’s life, but also one that, according to literary and social critic Irving Howe, he would transform in his memoirs “into a moment of liberation in which he abandoned the sterility of commerce and turned to the rewards of literature.”
Refitted as a man of letters, Anderson settled in Chicago, writing advertising copy and ingratiating himself to other writers and artists of the so-called Chicago Renaissance movement (1910–mid-1920s), including Theodore Dreiser and Floyd Dell. In 1916 he divorced his wife Cornelia and married Tennessee Mitchell. In 1919, Anderson completed what most scholars consider to be his masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio. During the early 1920s, he wrote three more novels, two short-story collections, and an autobiography. Apparently still restless for a lifelong companion, he divorced Mitchell and married Elizabeth Prall in 1924. Anderson lived in New York and New Orleans (his best-selling 1925 novel Dark Laughter was partially set in the Crescent City), visited London and Paris, and helped to launch the careers of both William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.
The success of Dark Laughter put some extra money in Anderson’s pocket, and he used it in 1926 to purchase Ripshin, a small farm outside Marion in southwestern Virginia. Soon after, he also bought two newspapers, the Smyth County News and the Marion Democrat. As a newspaperman, Anderson immersed himself in local politics and even sometimes adopted an alter ego and pseudonym, Buck Fever, to report on colorful characters and events in town. (He collected some of his Buck Fever columns in 1929’s Hello Towns!)
Anderson gave ownership of the newspapers to his son Robert in 1929, and began a tour of southern factory towns with Eleanor Copenhaver, a Marion native who worked in the Industrial Program of the YWCA. (He divorced Prall in 1932 and married Copenhaver on July 6, 1933, and the two remained together until his death.) Spurred on by Copenhaver’s social activism, Anderson produced several critical reports on how Americans were enduring the Great Depression: Perhaps Women (1931), Puzzled America (1935), and the last work published during his lifetime, Home Town (1940). Although he covered a great deal of geography in these works, many scenes describing factory conditions clearly appear to have been set in Virginia. During this same period he produced a number of short stories set in southwestern Virginia that were eventually published in the compilation Death in the Woods and Other Stories (1933) and in his novel Kit Brandon (1936). In 1941, while en route to South America to write about labor conditions there, Anderson accidentally swallowed a toothpick and contracted peritonitis, an acute infection of the abdominal lining. He died in Colon, Panama, on March 8, 1941, and is buried in Marion, Smyth County, Virginia.
Although he spent most of his life outside Virginia, Anderson developed a deep affection for the state that manifested itself in many of his writings. In his early fiction and nonfiction, Anderson often wrote about the country’s transformation from its small-town, agrarian roots in the late 1800s into a modern, industrialized society in the 1900s, using midwestern settings as stand-ins for the larger culture. Living in and touring the South in the late 1920s and 1930s, Anderson witnessed the economic changes of the Great Depression and the traumatic toll those changes took on the people of that region. The South in the 1930s became for Anderson what the Midwest had been only a few years earlier: a microcosm of the nation.
His three years of mostly uninterrupted time in Smyth County, meanwhile, rekindled his ongoing interest in the lives of small-town America. Whether writing as Buck Fever or as himself, Anderson filled pages of newsprint with stories and features about the people and the region. He wrote about farmers, Civil War veterans, religious revivals, local court trials, and Marion’s Main Street social life, all in a way that tended to transcend the politics of the day. (After all, the Marion Democrat was a staunchly Democratic newspaper and the Smyth County News was Republican.) He penned rather effusive pieces on the beauty of the surrounding hills, mountains, and valleys, and wrote various travelogues—about the highlands of Virginia as well as about his experiences elsewhere in the South. Two such pieces—”Marion to Roanoke” and “A Traveler’s Notes: The Shenandoah Valley,” both published in 1929 and later reprinted in Southern Odyssey (1997)—are evocative, at times excessive hymns to the lush landscape and proud residents of the region. “O, the soft beauty of our Virginia landscapes,” Anderson writes in “Marion to Roanoke.” “There are no such hills anywhere I have been—and where in America have I not been? When painters come into our land and begin to paint here I hope they will be good painters and not the sloppy sentimental kind that spoil everything they touch.”
These years were not the high-water mark of Anderson’s literary abilities. Instead, he peddled the same sort of material nationally in such magazines as Outlook, Today, and Vanity Fair, pieces that bore titles like “A Mountain Dance,” “These Mountaineers,” “Jug of Moon,” and “Virginia Justice” (all of which are reprinted in Southern Odyssey). He later reworked several of these sketches to include in Hello Towns! and Death in the Woods and Other Stories. His last novel, Kit Brandon, tells the rambling tale of its title heroine, a woman from the mountains of southwestern Virginia who is involved in bootlegging, the illegal production and sale of whiskey.
Although still primarily regarded as a Midwesterner, Anderson called Southwest Virginia his home for the last sixteen years of his life. Ripshin provided him a launch pad to reconnect with small-town values, gain a newfound appreciation of the land, and begin his final years as a chronicler of depression-era America. In his writing about both the Midwest and the South, however, the physical locale is ultimately of secondary interest to him. As Anderson writes in Puzzled America, “What charms you about all of this traveling about America is not the scenery but the people met.”
- Windy McPherson’s Son ( 1916)
- Marching Men (1917)
- Mid-American Chants (1918)
- Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
- Poor White (1920)
- Triumph of the Egg (1921)
- Many Marriages (1923)
- Horses and Men (1923)
- A Story Teller’s Story (1924)
- Dark Laughter (1925)
- The Modern Writer (1925)
- Sherwood Anderson’s Notebook (1926)
- Tar: A Midwest Childhood (1926)
- A New Testament (1927)
- Hello Towns New York (1929)
- Perhaps Women (1931)
- Beyond Desire (1932)
- Death in the Woods (1933)
- No Swank (1934)
- Puzzled America (1935)
- Kit Brandon (1936)
- Plays: Winesburg and Others (1937)
- Home Town (1940)
- Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs (1942)
- The Sherwood Anderson Reader (1948)
- The Portable Sherwood Anderson (1949)
- Letters of Sherwood Anderson (1953)