Anderson’s Early Non-Journal Writings


These previously unknown essays, stories, and impressions, although few and brief, fill out somewhat the picture that we have of the young Sherwood Anderson from the writings being published in Agricultural Advertising at the same time, although beginning about the time of his marriage, the published pieces do both tend more toward tales and sketches (“fictions”) and express a more questioning attitude toward the business ethic that Anderson had earlier boosted somewhat uncritically. For we can sense in these newly discovered pieces a more philosophical and speculative young man, sensitive to the beauties of nature and the mysteries of life, more aware of language (“words” and “sentences”), more critical of the inhumanity of the machine age, and preoccupied in this spring of his forthcoming marriage with the idea of “woman.” In some hard-to-define way, Anderson’s relationship with Cornelia in the spring of 1904 unquestionably hastened the awakening of the imaginative and creative side of his nature.
Almost all these pieces mention spring, and it is probable that all were written during the spring of 1904, when Anderson was looking forward to (or savoring, in the later pieces) his marriage to Cornelia Lane. In the main, furthermore, they are about women, at a time when his other known writings have about them the strongly masculine flavor of the world of agricultural advertising. It becomes clear that his love and respect for Cornelia were intensified by an idealized and romanticized idea of “woman” as something more unfathomable, “greater,” and more “earnest” than man.

Anderson also expresses here several times the notion that in spring God both raises the sap in the trees and “commands” or “demands” of woman that she marry and reproduce, an idea that becomes applicable — even if only by coincidence — to his own May marriage. He expresses this idea not only in two or three of the pre-marriage pieces but also in the poem that he addresses to the “strangely unprepared” Cornelia after the marriage is consummated, comparing her suffering to that which he imagines is experienced by the budding trees in spring. Both nature and the bride are, furthermore, transformed by the experience into something more beautiful; and Anderson speculates, in both his journal and his poem, that the shop girls on the streets of Cincinnati see the “new” Cornelia and as a result are filled with “great womanly longing” and go “home all blessed for having seen your face.”

If such a view seems in a sense quaint and even chauvinistic, Anderson nevertheless presents it admiringly, wonderingly — even reverently — as a tribute to “woman” and her mysterious role in creation and the creative impulse. And her creative role is not limited to the biological. In “The Red Haired Woman,” for example, women are presented as having a gift for words, sentences, and “richness of phrasing,” a gift that the males do not understand and among themselves dismiss scornfully as “stuff” but which the male author, when alone, ponders wonderingly and approvingly as he walks home in the “warm April rain.” “The Red Haired Woman” is interesting also as an embryonic expression of Anderson’s own sensitivity to the nuances of “words” and “sentences” and to the power and rich possibilities that language can unlock.

Anderson’s expression of these ideas both foreshadows and contrasts with the recurring “womanhood theme” running through his more mature work. His own later relationships with women — even Cornelia — would become ever more complex. Never again would he be able to see “woman” as admiringly, optimistically, or simplistically as in these pieces from the spring of 1904, when he was both beginning to identify himself as a writer and about to be married to one whom he perceived to be the finest of these “great earnest” women, Cornelia Lane.

“The Can Factory” is a surprisingly forthright — almost impassioned — condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of the machine as utilized in a modern factory. This early statement of the destruction of both body and soul of the brutalized young women who “were never made for work in such a place” contrasts sharply with the assumption that Anderson, at this stage of his career, remained complacent about the values and glories of “business” success. “The Can Factory” also foreshadows the “machine age” concerns that became major themes in his work much later, in the early 1930s. As with the “woman” theme, this early statement of the social implications of factory work is much less complex and ambiguous in its (almost entirely negative) attitude toward the machine than that found in his later work.

Finally, “[Poem to the bride]” represents Anderson’s first known attempt to write poetry, an impulse that he first exercised publicly in Mid-American Chants , (1918). It is especially interesting to note the enterprising young businessman referring to himself as a “poet” as early as 1904.


Sherwood Anderson’s first publication was an essay, “The Farmer Wears Clothes,” printed in Agricultural Advertising in February, 1902; and this was followed by some twenty-nine other essays, sketches, or stories on the advertising profession in the same journal by mid-1905, in addition to two brief 1903 essays in The Reader, a small journal of the Bobbs-Merrill Company in Indianapolis. As long ago as 1951, James Schevill noted in Sherwood Anderson: His Life and Work that these essays “indicate that his interest in writing dates back to a much earlier period than has usually been thought to be the case, owing to his own statements in the so-called ‘autobiographical’ books” ; and according to Ray Lewis White, in his recent Sherwood Anderson: Early Writings, it was in this unpromising format that Anderson first gained experience in handling “the dramatic situations and interesting character presentation necessary to successful fiction.”
In this context, the significance of Anderson’s newly discovered manuscript journal and non-journal writings from the year 1904 is thus five-fold: (1) They reinforce the assumptions of scholars who have concluded that by the time of his marriage in 1904 Sherwood Anderson was already in the grips of an ambition to write, more loosely and uncertainly than at a later time to be sure, but gripped nevertheless. (2) Although largely conventional in language and sentiment, these writings do provide — more definitely than anything heretofore known — foreshadowings of several important concerns of the mature artist, such as sensitivity to nature, the “womanhood theme,” the social implications of the machine age, and an awareness of the power of words and sentences. (3) They fill a gap in our previous knowledge of Anderson’s biography. (4) Aside from a brief extant letter or two, they represent by far the earliest surviving group of holograph manuscripts of Anderson’s writings. (5) As Walter Rideout has demonstrated, the quality of Anderson’s prose changes “decisively” in the second half of the journal in a way that foreshadows his later accomplishments.

Whether these writings — which even Anderson himself may have forgotten about after many years of separation from Cornelia — were preserved by chance or design we shall never know. More certain is the happy result that these ninety-four-year-old documents allow us a vivid if unexpected glimpse of Sherwood Anderson the artist as a young man, walking “in silent happiness” beside his bride amid the natural beauties of the Tennessee hills and inspired to write about his adventures, his emotions, and his aspirations.

Pieces Pre-dating Mid-May, 1904

[Tramp killed by train found by girl]

A [tramp was run over] by a freight train [and his body] must have lain through two days among bushes alongside the tracks. His clothes were near torn from his body and his flesh was blue as you have seen dead frogs when you were a boy and went barefooted by the edge of a swamp.

A little girl going to school found him. She went quite close until she could see his dead eyes and then gathered up her dainty skirts and went on to school, stopping by the way to tell a trackman. “She wasn’t afraid and she wasn’t much concerned,” said the trackman to me. I stayed around and saw the little girl when she went home from school. She had brown eyes and she was talking of the day at school with a companion. I believe you were like that when you were a little girl. To be a little girl who can find a blue tramp dead by the tracks and still keep your mind on the business of the day is to be great I think. I remembered how I have torn myself [away from distractions] …how…kept to…school.

It is well [that after winter] comes spring with sap running through the veins of the trees, else how could that little brown eyed girl ever grow up to marry a man. He will tear his hair I dare say poor fellow and go half mad and she will look at him with those fine sure brown eyes. Strange thing is she’ll end by marrying him and then she’ll be the mother of a race of men. The spring shall not call to that woman in vain nor the demand of God that she pay back the life he has given her go unheeded. I wonder if the man will know?

The Red Haired Woman

I was at John McDermott’s last night. You’ll remember him, a tall yellow man that used to go whistling up the road toward town on summer evenings, and stop to wave his hand to us sitting on the hill. He left Meadowville a year before you did and now he’s married and settled down here. His wife is a pretty clear minded little thing with a way of using words in unexpected ways. You can’t imagine what a charming conversationalist. You are a tiptoe [not to] lose any of her sentences and you are all at sea when you try to catch the exact surprise of them.
When I got up to the house a neighbor woman was just leaving. A woman with red hair and blue eyes. When I was presented she looked straight into my eyes in a way that sent the color to my cheeks. She was the wife of a wealthy merchant who had a house across the street. When John came in a moment later she looked at him as she had at me and went across the street home.

Late at night when Mrs. John had retired we sat by the fire smoking and talking of fun we’d had and I asked John of this red haired woman.

“Tom, there’s a funny business about that woman,” he said. “Kate understands it I guess, and they’re friends but when I ask about it she only laughs and tells me I’d better stick to the law. Say, look this thing over and tell me what you think.” John went across the room and out of a drawer took a roll of manuscript. He threw it upon the table and I began to read. It was something about spring but there was no connection at all between some of the sentences. They just seem to have been set down with no thought of meaning, but such sentences. They sent the blood to your cheeks with their richness of phrasing, they were like and yet strangely unlike the talk I had heard in the mouth of my friend’s wife. “Who wrote this stuff,” I demanded, rolling up the manuscript and throwing it back upon the table. “It’s the red haired woman,” said John. “Kate got her to doing the stuff. Says it’s an outlet for her. But say, I feel mean about showing it to you. I guess I’d better leave this sort of thing to Kate, she seems to understand.”

As I came home again through the warm April rain I felt again the touch of that woman’s eyes and thought of how the world would be better if there were more Kates who understood.

[The Can Factory]

I went to a factory today where cans are made. A friend spent two hours with me going about in the plant. It is very wonderful. There are long rooms filled with the most marvelous machines that work with wonderful precision and speed. You could not imagine how rapidly the completed cans fell upon the long belt that counted them and then carried them off to be stored in boxes for shipment. A can was born every fraction of a second. It was perfect in shape, firmly soldered and thoroughly tested for leaks. Oh the world has made progress in the making of cans, but they pay for it. A heavy eyed man was my escort. He took me between long rows of machines where young girls punched covers from the sheeted tin. “Oh yes, they very often punch off a finger,” he said with stupid indifference. I wish every man and every woman in the world could have walked down between those long rows of crooked backed, tired faced girls. The millionaire and his wife, the farmer and his wife, the hunter from the northern woods, the Irishman working on the railroad, the clerk from Wall Street. I think if we could all file along past, say at five o’clock of a warm afternoon, and see the tired old faces, the ugly scowls, the pretense of laughter, and then stopping think what it would mean to us if one of those girls were our own children. And let’s even venture a more trying thought, think of one of those women bearing children. Of course I know that a man will get but small sympathy who protests. Fair minded enough men will go and report all within the law. The girls will be interviewed and perhaps express satisfaction with their occupation. The man who showed me through the place is a fair minded man and he met with grave indifference my suggestion that these girls were never made for such work in such a place. A fair minded man but asleep, a poor dead soul. I should as soon be the son of the woman there with an ugly little hunch on her back as the son of a man who through long association can see no harm in the sight of [a] woman bending all day over a machine for the making of cans.
But we have cheaper cans thereby — yes, thank God it is good to have cheap cans. I am very glad for cheap cans. I do not wonder that, old early in life, they sometimes walk out of factories and sell their poor bodies for a bit of finery and an early grave I think I should do that.

I got to thinking of it all this evening and I wondered if it would not be brave and wise to go out there again tomorrow and pick out one of those women and release her. Of course it couldn’t be done, she probably wouldn’t want to be released, for her poor soul also is buried in the hum of the shop. And five miles away the sun was throwing evening shadows through the branches of the trees, and the green of the grass was turning blue with the coming of night. And [it] is spring and the sap runs through the trees and the earth shakes with joyous birth pains. I wonder if there is an answering call in any of those thin little breasts. If God cries his message of spring and his command to woman kind so that it reaches even there?

[Afternoon on a slow train]

It is Sunday evening and I have prospects [of] a weary afternoon’s journey on a slow train. Now I am a lover of books, an apt or likely expression as a mouth filling name will hang in my memory for weeks and on this afternoon I had with me Stevenson’s Travels With A Donkey. I tell you this that you may know what matter of fellow was calling to me in his printed pages. I think it proof final of the impotency of books in the spring when I tell you that I was won entirely out of its pages by a crowd of lusty young ballplayers who crowded into the car with great mirth and the clatter of ball bats. I do not pretend to take upon my young shoulders the responsibility of a discussion as to the right and wrong of this matter of Sunday ball playing. I merely wish to tell you of the enjoyment I had in the jam of lusty youth that crowded the car and lifted up its voice in rollicking song. If they play ball with the vigor and sang-froid with which they sing I dare say they are successful. They called me from my book and I could not go back and during the afternoon I was compelled to tell one of them coldly to refrain from spitting under my seat.
So you see I became one of the party. I attracted attention and was pointed out. One young fellow with thick lips even went so far as to make a vulgar song about me but it was all at least human and gave a touch to my loneliness.

I have no desire to romance about a man who spits under his neighbor’s feet. I have indeed great contempt for him, but his society even when engaged in manufacturing a song about me is better than a certain kind of solitude.

[Spring fever]

There is a sort of aching that comes into the limbs of the young at this season of the year and for several days I have been a victim to this. I think it is by some called spring fever, but I think it is something more organic than a dullness in the flow of blood as this name in some way suggests. It is not attended by any laziness in my case but only by very acute pain. It has been my pleasure to account for it by a method of reasoning entirely my own.
Pieces Written Simultaneously With the Journal

[A woman is like a river]

The river here is wide and deep and very much in earnest about its journeying. It does not laugh as on the plains but talks seriously as it hurries over the stones. I think it is the hills that are the prime cause of this serious attitude of the river. I visited the place once with a woman. A woman is like a river, she laughs and hurries along in the plains between the grassy banks, but put her among the hills in big serious places of life and see how different her tone. She goes forward so much more bravely than would a man but she is the very river and the hills in her earnestness. Beware young man how you go light hearted to her there. And yet I think I should take my own new wife to the hills. It would not be a pleasant and light hearted wedding journey and in the early morning when she awoke by your side and the fog lay on the land you would need to be very sure of all the thoughts you had ever held of your woman for her eyes would be seeking and finding any deceit.
[The wedding]

The young man did not see the others as they came down the stairs, there was only the woman in the white gown. In the second as she stood poised on the last step he thought of the journey they two were to take together. Strangely enough the journey wonder grew and grew in his mind until the beating notes of the orchestra became as the waves upon the shore and here was this woman with the beautiful shoulders and fine eyes coming to him. He wondered if she knew after all what a bare beating along profitless shores all his journeying had come to in the past. He felt as though he ought to tell her how unkind he has been to the people who had come down to his boat and how his heart had gone black at the barrenness of his cargoes. Then his eyes close and the faces following the bride made a great wreath about her head and his courage came back as his love surged back into his heart. Great earnest woman, he cried in his heart, after all it is for you to mark the voyage of the ship and I shall be your crew to work for you.
[Poem to the bride]

There is a poem lurking in my heart
of you and how the night went on.
Of all the wonder of your courage.
Of the men that passed us on the streets.
You see I do not sing, I only know.
I know the struggle in your heart,
The sweet submission in your voice.
The tender wishing that your man do right
Dear journeying woman of my heart.
So tender and so strangely unprepared.

It is the spring dear heart you feel.
The trees feel so
and we stand by and call it beautiful.
I think they suffer just as you do now.
And dear the world sees that in you.
The shop girls that you pitied on the street
went home all blessed for having seen your face.

And that man who sleeps beside you in the night,
He knows so much of it that he can only wish to tell.
He sees the rivers and the towering hills
and then he looks at you and dear he understands.

God made him so, a speechless poet
who must write in this blank way
the words that might bring comfort to your heart.
He has so many little weaknesses
and now they all appear, and he is tossed about
and weak and still he understands.
And wants to sing to you and make you happy.

Let him try great woman.
He don’t care if all his words
are like these ragged lines.
Just grimly trying he may still succeed.