By Alan Cheuse
4:19 PM EST, December 21, 2012
About a dozen years ago, I served as a judge for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction. The award ceremony took place in Boston on a windy Sunday afternoon at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (where Ernest Hemingway's personal papers are stored), a beautiful building near the harbor that gives the appearance of a ship under full sail heading out to sea.
Before the public arrived that day, the director of the Hemingway collection held a gathering for the jurors, their guests, and the winner and her friends and family. Present was Patrick, 71 years old at the time, Hemingway's second son and the first child of the writer's marriage to his second wife, Pauline. Patrick and his wife had flown in from Montana to celebrate the annual award.
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Over a glass of wine, the files with Hemingway's manuscripts stacked in the shelves behind us, we talked about his father. I offered that his father might think it odd, the writing situation at the time, with so many fiction makers enrolled in MFA programs and taking workshops and tutorials.
"No, no," he said, "it wasn't that way at all. My father attended the University of Paris."
"Really?" I had read a couple of biographies, and nowhere did I see a mention of this.
"It's true," Mr. Hemingway said. "He took tutorials there — in Paris — from Gertrude Stein, from Ezra Pound. From Sherwood Anderson."
While reading "Collected Stories," a new — and long overdue — volume of Anderson short stories from the Library of America (edited by the brilliant American short story writer Charles Baxter), I recalled that conversation and the truth it suggested. You can't read Hemingway closely without seeing the hand of Gertrude Stein at work on the syntax, and you can't help but recognize just how closely the young Hemingway apprenticed himself to the older Anderson, whose "Winesburg, Ohio" set the model for his Hemingway's own epoch-making collection of linked stories, "In Our Time."
Clearly Hemingway went to school by reading Sherwood Anderson and emerged from this apprenticeship with as much as he could learn about sentence-making and the way in which you can construct a dramatic sequence that elucidates the heart and soul and mind of a post-WWI American man. From senior Midwesterner to junior Midwesterner, this extraordinary literary legacy passed along. Who better for this young writer from Oak Park to model his sentences and stories on than Anderson, whose life began in the old pastoral Midwest before the Civil War and edged into the bustling busy era of burgeoning modern Chicago? And how appropriate that the single most important proponent of the modern American short story acquired so much of his knowledge of technique — and the relationship of technique to subject matter — from his older Midwestern mentor and thus set American fiction moving forward into the era of literary modernism.
As a writer I see this link between master and apprentice as one of the major elements one can take away from a reading of this overdue volume of stories by one of our undersung greats.
As a reader I luxuriate in the splendors of the complete work of this champion of the lean, dramatic American sentence. His plain style harks back to Emerson's and, before him, to the sermons of some of the New England preachers of the Great Awakening of the early American 1700s. In Anderson's stories, plain style becomes fully alive for the first time as a means for making great fiction.
And a great fiction writer he was, turning the linked stories in "Winesburg" into a meta-novel of education about the young Ohioan George Willard, who appears here and there in stories, sometimes as one of the main characters (as in the story "Mother," which comes early in the sequence of tales), sometimes as an observer, and whose departure from Winesburg signals the end of the collection. But though intricately linked to the other pieces in this sequence about the maddening life in a small Midwestern town, some of the stories rise as landmarks of modern American short fiction.
Some may recall having read this story sequence and remember a series of linear tales about the odd, troubled and troubling residents of a small Midwestern town. Anderson's multiplicity of truths — of psychology, aesthetics, sociology, history — informs the lives of his varied cast of characters — these doctors and painters, schoolteachers, farmers, shopkeepers, etc., who make up the local population, each of whom founders because of a narrow view of the world. He makes clear in each of the little dramas that this narrowing of views constricts the ability of a character to find clarity and happiness; he calls this narrowing of vision "grotesque."
No dramatic connections link the stories in Anderson's second collection, "Triumph of the Egg," though several of them stand as further evidence of Anderson's mastery of the form, particularly "The Egg" and "I Want To Know Why." The former reveals a boy's greatest shame and greatest hopes and fears about his family and the store they open in rural Ohio. The latter is about a Kentucky boy and the shattering knowledge he acquires while working at a provincial racetrack, and it shines on as one of the best short stories ever written by an American. Both and all of the best of "Winesburg" demonstrate Anderson's genius for employing plain speech to illuminate the profound in the everyday.
Dozens more fine stories populate these pages; some are familiar, such as the often anthologized masterpiece "Death in the Woods," in which one solitary American farm woman's struggle to survive becomes a struggle for all of us to ponder. Others are there for you to discover, such as the brilliant study of American male marital paranoia in "There She Is — She is Taking Her Bath." All are in the American vein by a boy born in Camden, Ohio, who grew up to reinvent the American short story before dying at 65 because he swallowed a toothpick while crossing the Panama Canal. The toothpick perforated his colon. His stories pierce the American heart.
Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio's longtime "voice of books," is the author of five novels, four collections of short fiction and the memoir "Fall Out of Heaven."
By Sherwood Anderson, Library of America, 898 pages, $35