“Dear, you are making yourself a very charming woman”: Anderson’s Letters to His Daughter, 1929-1933

By Hilbert H. Campbell

In a previous article (SAR, XXIV, 1, 4-8), I discussed Sherwood Anderson’s trip to Paris in 1926-27 with his wife, Elizabeth, son John, and 15-year-old daughter Mimi. As one result of this experience, Mimi developed a much closer relationship with the father she had barely known and whom she could not remember ever living at home. His own fondness for the daughter he had become really acquainted with for the first time is expressed in a spate of letters written to her between March and June 1927, after he had returned to America while she remained in Paris at school. Although there follows an apparent two-year hiatus in this correspondence, Mimi’s extended visit to her father in Virginia during the summer of 1929 reestablished the closeness of the relationship. As Mimi began her freshman year at the University of Chicago in September 1929, Anderson began a series of some sixty letters to her that he would write during the next four years.

In September he wrote, for example, that “The house seems empty and strange with you not here. I hope you went away loving us a little,” and added, “Dear, you are making yourself a very charming woman. I am proud of you. I love you.” Over the next two years, he took a close interest in her academic work, gave fatherly advice in substantial, chatty letters by which he also kept her informed of the progress (or lack thereof) of his own career. Beginning in February 1930, for example, he wrote Mimi several letters about a “new theme” he was “terribly absorbed” in, that theme being conditions in the mill towns of the South:

I had been thinking, rather vaguely, for two or three years that I was on the wrong track. I suppose I had just got through writing about men and women in love, etc. … what happened to them in love, etc. For a long time I have been feeling that the most interesting thing in life is the modern factory, the machinery in factories, men, women, boys and girls working in factories.

I have been saying to myself, “As soon as I get a little money ahead, so I can afford to do it, I would like to devote the rest of my life to the factories and working people.” I suppose I mean, living pretty much near them, spending a good deal of time in factories, talking to working people, etc. I want to make, as well as I can, little intimate pictures of working people’s lives, in their work places and in their houses, etc. I have already written a good deal on this new theme. I’ve a notion I’ll stay down here, largely in factory towns, until Spring.

Late in the summer of 1930, he shared with Mimi the news that he had fallen in love with Eleanor Copenhaver, a Marion native who worked for the national board of the YWCA in New York and who would become his wife three years later. Later that year, he also wrote to his daughter that “after twenty years of writing, thinking of nothing else, I have just passed through two years of absolute failure.”

During the summer of 1930, following her first year at the University, Mimi found employment near Chicago, with Eleanor’s help, as a camp counselor. In a July letter from Ripshin, her father revealed something of his vision for her future:

I’m glad you have the camp job. As a matter of fact, dear, I have rather a dream that you may, in the end, come to want to do permanently some such work as Eleanor does. Of course I don’t want to try to direct your life against your own desires but it seems to me that a connection with working people has more sense to it than getting a position with the middle class or so-called society people.

But Mimi’s life was about to take an unexpected turn that would forestall any career ambitions that her father might have for her. Sometime during the last months of 1931, she announced her plans to leave school and marry Russell Spear, a native of North Amherst, Massachusetts. Although Anderson did write to her in December that “I am happy that you are happy,” he was in fact more than a little upset and would manage to be about as far away as he could get (Los Angeles) when she was married on April 4, 1932, in North Amherst.

A few weeks later, on April 30, Anderson wrote to Mimi from San Francisco with some advice, advice that reflects undoubtedly his still-lingering resentments over the strains that had brought an end to his own first marriage. . .get one thing clear … keep it clear. In so far as your man is poet make any necessary sacrifice to let him be a poet. Even though it should some day mean lack of safety for yourself, or any children you may have. It is all that life has taught me that the woman may do for the man in our confused civilization. Try to keep the poet alive always, first of all in your Russell. There will be enough other forces always at work trying to kill it.

Mimi and her new husband felt the impact of the depression immediately and directly when Russell lost his job shortly after they were married. Anderson’s letters to his daughter later in 1932 and throughout 1933 deal mainly with the depression and its effects on himself, on her, and on the American people. In April 1932 he wrote Mimi that, belief in democracy being gone, “perhaps I should devote myself, as single-mindedly as possible–to revolution.” In November, he wrote that he was sorry that Mimi and Russell were having to go through “hell,” but added,

I know it’s tough for you just now but when I was in Chicago I was mighty glad that you and Russell were not out there. I saw one parade of 35,000 hungry discouraged-looking men through the streets and I must say it made me a little ill. . . .I am happy that you have been standing up to your own ordeal so splendidly.

Throughout 1933 he continued to write sympathetic letters, to send small amounts of money when he could, and to discuss ways that Russell might find employment. In November 1933, he even indicated that “It is likely that I now have enough pull in Washington to rather force Russell in to some job down there. I have been able to do some nice favors for several important people in Washington and probably have something coming to me. I cannot be sure, but I think so.” Nothing further came of the idea. The birth of Anderson’s first grandchild, Mimi’s daughter Karlyn, in March 1933, stirred him to some further (and self-justifying?) reflections about his past behavior relative to his family:

I know I’ve always broken most of the 10 commandments but the truth is that, when I think of you 3 kids — you and Bob and John — either you had a marvel of a mother or my general scheme of going right on and living my own life & doing my own work — was right. Anyway you are all something — and I’ll bet little sister will be also. . . . As you know, my dear, I never did domesticate well. Indeed I remember well when you three were little. . . .perhaps I had become hardened to the smell of baby manure — diapers about, etc. There was a room at the upper part of the house to which I fled. I shut the door softly and often prayed. I have always been pig-headed like that — self-centered and determined. I hope I may have done some good and lasting work in prose. It is the only justification I shall ever be able to find for the inconvenience and suffering I have brought on others — as well as on myself.

Anderson wrote Mimi from New York on April 27, 1933, after receiving a photograph of Karlyn, that “I. . .hoped I might be able to run up to see you, Russell, and Little Sister” and “Little Sister looks swell and I wish I could see her.” He didn’t actually see Karlyn, however, until more than a year later, when Mimi, Russell, and the child visited him at Ripshin in July 1934. An entry in his wife’s diary provides perhaps a clue as to why he had not made more of an effort to see his granddaughter. Eleanor writes, “Mimi and child are coming today [Fri., July 13]. S dreads seeing them. Has put off the moment he gets visible evidence that he is a grandfather.”

Mimi and her family had left Amherst early in 1934 to settle in Madison, North Carolina, where they had found employment as publishers of the Madison Messenger, a weekly newspaper. At this point, Anderson’s letters to his daughter cease just about entirely (at least insofar as the record is extant). For one thing, Madison was not all that far from Anderson’s farm in Virginia, and there was regular visiting back and forth that made correspondence less necessary. Unfortunately, however, there was also the fact that, after Mimi’s marriage, she and her father were never again quite as close as they had been for the five years or so after the Paris trip in 1927.

During a somewhat strained visit of Mimi and her family to Ripshin in the summer of 1937, for example, Anderson admitted in his diary on August 24th that “my nerves are upset by the constant noisy crying and general bad behavior of the . . .children” (123); and his wife Eleanor wrote in her diary on the same day that Sherwood had been somewhat disappointed with Mimi “after she married Russell and did nothing but have children.” Once again, Anderson was letting his bad memories of his first marriage affect his attitude toward his daughter. That he himself realized this is shown by another comment in Eleanor’s diary: “Sherwood says he thinks it [his annoyance] is because it brings back Cornelia and the way she irritated him for years, never considering him — only herself and children.”
More importantly, however, Anderson remained loyal to his daughter and tried to support her whenever and however he could. That the comments cited above are somewhat anomalous can be seen in the greater number of statements from his diary later in his life showing cordiality and good will toward Mimi and her family, such as a comment in April 1940 after visiting Mimi in Madison that “She doing a good job with the paper. She has nice children” (292), or in July of the same year when Mimi was visiting Ripshin, “I offered to keep one of Mimi’s children for the summer. It was an impulse and may have been a mistake as I am not good with children” (305).
All in all, Anderson and his daughter experienced a fruitful and enjoyable relationship after they “discovered” one another during the Paris trip in 1926-27 and continuing up to the time of Anderson’s premature death in early 1941. Late in her own life, Mimi herself would write of her relationship with her father, “I can only believe that had he lived longer we might have come to be much closer friends” (“Afterword,” 52).

Works Cited

Anderson, Eleanor Copenhaver. Unpublished Diary. In the possession of Hilbert H. Campbell.

Anderson, Sherwood. The Sherwood Anderson Diaries, 1936-1941, ed. Hilbert H. Campbell. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

_____. Unpublished letters to Marion “Mimi” Anderson Spear, 1929-1933. Quoted by permission of the Sherwood Anderson Literary Estate Trust and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Library.

Spear, Marion Anderson “Mimi.” “Afterword,” The Sherwood Anderson Review, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer 1998).