Sherwood Anderson and William Carlos Williams: Two Versions of the “American Stuff”

By Christopher MacGowan

The lives and writing careers of Sherwood Anderson and William Carlos Williams would seem to suggest a rich source of parallel interests. The two winners of the Dial award (1921 and 1927) both had professional identities outside of their writing, although Anderson gave up his business and advertising duties, while Williams kept his medical practice until age and ill-health forced him into retirement. Both were strong advocates of a “local” rather than an international brand of modernism, and both lived in small towns while making sure to take frequent trips to New York. Both respected, and wrote on, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Rosenfeld, Ford Madox Ford, and Gertrude Stein. Both were close to the American Caravan editors (Rosenfeld, Alfred Kreymborg and Lewis Mumford) and appeared in its volumes, while Rosenfeld included essays on both writers in his Port of New York (1924). Anderson participated in the 1939 group “Friends of William Carlos Williams,” organized by Ford, and Williams published in Decision when Anderson served on its board of editorial advisors.

Critics and commentators have often paired their names, in passing or in detailed examination, including Yvor Winters, Horace Gregory, Edward Dahlberg, James Schevill, Benjamin Spenser, and Claire Bruyère. In addition to both appearing in the Caravan series, the two published in many of the same journals. And Ezra Pound, thinking in 1920 of the two as writers for the reinvigorated Dial, asked Williams to help “keep up some push of American stuff” for the magazine–“you, Bodenheim, Sandburg, Hecht, Sher. Anderson, etc.” (Letters 159). Almost forty years later another poet close to Williams, Denise Levertov, wrote to him: “Reading a Sherwood Anderson I’d never read before–‘Dark Laughter’–I feel he was very close in some ways to some of your work” (DL/WCW 75). And yet for all this the two writers had little sympathy for each other either as writers or personally. The story of the intersection of these two figures is a series of dismissals, mistakes, might-have-beens, and even personal antipathy. The kind of “American stuff” that each produced finally reflects a fundamentally different sense each writer had of his position as commentator within the America upon which he wrote, and of the present and future possibilities of that America. Dr. Williams, positioning himself as the outside observer, objectively diagnosing and prescribing, is the optimist advocating crucial change; Anderson, on the move, but caught up in the lives of his characters and claiming the privileged view of an insider, seeks to ameliorate–to try to understand, as much as possible, and accept, the inevitabilities of historical change, and to bring together individuals, and groups, to realize their commonalities within what is for him the universal cultural condition of America’s people.

The two articulate broadly similar views of their subjects in writing of Rosenfeld, Stein, Ford and Stieglitz, although in the case of Stieglitz in particular Anderson’s and Williams’ approaches reveal their differences as writers. Regarding Rosenfeld, each admires him as a man and as a critic, praising an integrity that refused to be commercial even at the cost of personal and critical isolation. Rosenfeld himself, in his Port of New York essays on the two writers, saw Anderson and Williams as finally reaching for the same ends, an integration of the individual into a larger community, although going about it in different ways. For Rosenfeld, Williams’ method is to concretely foreground the immediate world of America and its relationship to himself. Anderson, he argues, touches and illuminates the lives of others by fusing his self with his characters in order to bring life to them. In the process, Anderson breaks down personal and social walls through his articulation of the relationship of individual lives to the other lives surrounding them. Because of Anderson’s “stories and novels….the people in the street, the ever strange, the ever remote, the ever unyielding people in the street, they are come a little out of their drab mist, are become a little less repellent, less hostile, less remote” (197).

While Rosenfeld notices an important difference, Yvor Winters, also writing in 1924, conflated the two writers. For Winters, Williams (in his prose Improvisations) and Anderson, along with Carl Sandburg, were all three guilty of assuming that “since America is a large, loose, uncorrelated country, our verse must be large and loose and uncorrelated in order to express that land” (87). But Rosenfeld notices that while both Anderson and Williams were centrally concerned with the condition and possibilities of American culture, for Anderson this came down to the building blocks of individual relationships, relationships articulated through a storyteller who is self-deprecating and approachable. Williams, however, from early to late in his career, served, whether as Dr. Paterson, or as a present or implied ‘I’ in his poems and stories, as a representative but distant and authoritative commentator on a culture that could be changed if only it reevaluated the way that it judged its history and present direction.

As D.H. Lawrence noticed, Anderson’s vision was finally much bleaker, his fictional characters usually more confused, his vision more determininistic. Lawrence characterized Anderson in a review of Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs as a tragedian, “in love with himself in his defeated role” (Bottom Dogs xv), while in Studies in Classic American Literature Lawrence insists, “And by American I do not mean Sherwood Anderson, who is so Russian” (viii). However, in a 1926 review in The Nation of Williams’ In the American Grain, Lawrence notes that for Williams “the unravished local America still waits vast and virgin as ever, though in process of being murdered,” and that Williams envisions a “new race” with “a future” that stems from a “diamond-like resistance” (Heritage 89-90).

This difference also comes out in the two writers’ treatment of Stieglitz in the 1934 America & Alfred Stieglitz collection, as well as the placement of their essays in the volume. Williams, writing the introductory essay, sets Stieglitz against a hostile cultural environment that the photographer countered by “correct understanding” and a measured use of European examples, thus bringing the previously slighted “immediate and…actual” into American art (32). Like the essay itself, an introduction, Stieglitz’ actions for Williams mark a beginning. However, Anderson, writing the concluding essay, makes a far more limited claim: if only there were more like Stieglitz the city would change. “Take him away, and the city will again change.” And the final sentence of Anderson’s contribution, “City Plowman,” reveals the death of “Uncle Jim” the farmer figure with whom he parallels Stieglitz throughout the essay (308).

Anderson turns up under the title of his most famous book in Williams’ 1923 prose improvisational “novel” The Great American Novel. The reference makes clear that Williams saw his search for the “American stuff” as quite different from that of Anderson. Williams as commentator/narrator rejects a whole series of aesthetic schools, including expressionism, dada, and transcendentalism, as well as the work of the specifically named Joyce, H.G. Wells, Scott Fitzgerald, and Edgar Lee Masters. Anderson makes his appearance alongside Masters when one of the multiple voices of the piece, here a Russian from “the country of your friends” (Williams making and rejecting the same association of Russian and “American” that Lawrence does) and claiming to represent “the continental viewpoint,” tells the author that his attempt to eject all European influence from American writing is doomed to failure, for the American background is Europe. The project is too impractical, the critic argues, “it is painting the wind. . . . Why do you not do as so many of your good writers do? Your Edgar Lee Masters, your Winesburg, Ohio.” In response Williams reasserts the value of his fragmented, improvisatory technique as more accurately representing “the background of American life” (Imaginations 196-97).

Coupling Anderson with Masters is one kind of response to Pound, for Pound had pointedly dismissed Masters when asking Williams to join Anderson and others in providing “American stuff” for The Dial. By referring to Anderson by his book instead of his name, Williams appears to suggest a number of things: that Anderson’s work has a uniformity (as against Williams’ call for constant change) that can be summed up by his best-known book; that the fragmentation in Winesburg, Ohio, like the isolated stories recounted in Spoon River Anthology, are finally a fragmentation too crafted and composed–in the terms of The Great American Novel too “European”; and finally, to echo Rosenfeld’s perception, the personal voice that for Williams is expressive of the local language, and that must stand firm against the cultural and linguistic pressures of what is, again, a European conformity, is for Williams compromised in Anderson’s work because of the conventions that Anderson accepts, with the resulting loss of authority. The suggestion may be an injustice to the complexity with which the first person oral narrator frames and tells the Winesburg tales, or the way that this voice in Winesburg, Ohio, as in The Great American Novel, controls the organic form of the narratives themselves, but in Winesburg that voice IS a good deal more subsumed within the larger narrative arc of the book and its themes than the constantly questioning and provoking narrator of Williams’ text who is always self-consciously breaking out of attempts at formal containment. What is for many one of the triumphs of Winesburg, Ohio is for Williams an example of too great a formal compromise. These formal qualities of the two works themselves reflect the two writers’ positions as insider claiming a privileged position, and one who continually reasserts his status outside of any formal qualities of the work.

Similarly, in a December 15, 1927, journal entry Williams told himself that if he was to write fiction that extended what he had learned from his just published first novel, A Voyage to Pagany, he must reject the plain novel style of Ben Hecht, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Sherwood Anderson (three of the four writers Pound had listed in his 1920 letter about material for The Dial). For Williams, this style was as false as the newspapers, “which lose everything among the news” (Mariani 266), a comment coincidentally written in the year that the author behind the Winesburg Eagle’s roving reporter purchased two weekly newspapers in Marion. Williams’ comment becomes clearer in light of his collage-like use in the book-length poem Paterson (1946-58) of a number of prose newspaper reports within a framework that probes and criticizes what he sees as their evasive language and superficial analysis. He asked his publisher to ensure that the extracts appeared in a newsprint typeface spaced “as the news is spaced in, say, the N. Y. Times (WCW/JL 109).

Williams again thought of Anderson in telling novelist John Herrmann, in an unpublished 25 October 1931 letter asking for contributions to a new journal, that Herrmann’s novel What Happens (1926) was more successful than Anderson’s fiction because, for Williams, Anderson “didn’t actually ‘contact’ with the life he made use of: that at least is the cue to the writing I want. I don’t want just raw stuff or pornographic stuff or stream of consciousness stuff but I do want a contact without literary side” (and see Mariani 320-321). While Rosenfeld saw Anderson’s contact with the individuals around him as a key contribution to overcoming the culture’s isolating pressures, for Williams “contact” was achieved by setting aside–getting outside of–far more of what he saw as the conventional ways of seeing and presenting the American scene. Language, evocative and insistently inadequate for Anderson, had to be concretely tied albeit for the moment to the object world for Williams. And alongside this concreteness, form, particularly for the Williams of the Twenties and Thirties, needed to be radically fluid, at every level, from the sentence to the complete work. Anderson’s experiments in looseness of formal arrangement, or with narratives that fold back upon themselves temporally in unexpected ways, remained too much in thrall to convention for Williams.

When the two writers consider the past, Anderson’s time frame is much more specific, and recent, in its location of the moment of lost American promise, while Williams, as all his writings including his Stieglitz essay reveal, wants to go back to beginnings. And while Anderson sees a tragic loss of human community coming with the inevitable channelling of imagination into industry and machines, Williams sees the characteristics of the industrial age as needing to be incorporated into contemporary literary form as part of literature’s claim to be crucially relevant to the present. For Williams, in short, a full examination of the present American need involved a more radical examination of the past than he saw Anderson undertaking. Appropriately, for this locating of a key moment in the past, where Anderson’s stories often concern the transitions and confusion of adolescence, adolescent figures are rare in Williams’ work, where a poem or story on a young figure is much more likely to focus upon children and childhood.

The mutual acquaintance that Williams and Anderson had with Ford Madox Ford, and Ford’s respect for the judgement of both writers, led him to invite a contribution from both to a small celebratory pamphlet that appeared in 1933, The Cantos of Ezra Pound. But while Williams joined Hemingway, Allen Tate, Joyce, Eliot and others in contributing, Anderson did not. For all of Williams’ serious disagreements with some of Pound’s aesthetic and political assumptions, and despite a stormy personal relationship at times, Williams more than Anderson was ready to embrace within his own brand of literary nativism many of the formal features of the European avant-garde that Pound’s work represented. For Williams, despite his claims in The Great American Novel, “local conditions” included many of the same cultural and historical pressures which produced the formal responses of European experimental writing, while Anderson’s interests clearly remained much more focused, in subject and formal experimentation, upon “American stuff.” Again, the positions reflect the stance of insider and outsider that separate the two writers, Williams finally much more sympathetic to Pound’s view from Europe. (However, Pound, but not Williams, appears in the outline that Anderson prepared for his unfinished Memoirs in 1939 [White xxvi]. Anderson in turn is not one of the many writers mentioned in Williams’ 1951 Autobiography.)

The two instances of what appear on the surface to be Anderson’s greatest enthusiasm for Williams’ work both turn out instead to be further evidence of the distance between the two writers. On January 16, 1932, Anderson wrote to future wife Eleanor of visiting Paul Rosenfeld, and that Rosenfeld “got out a new book of verse by William Carlos (Bill) Williams and read aloud. The book opened with a beautiful poem about the American soil–the virgin soil…ravished by the adventurers from Europe…[and showed] how no real love of the soil of America had ever got into Americans” (39-40). Although this poem is certainly on a central Williams theme, it is not by Williams but by Phelps Putnam, as Ray Lewis White points out in annotating the letter. Putnam’s second book, The Five Seasons (1931), recorded the wanderings in ten poems of a fictitious character he called “Bill Williams,” who had also figured in Putnam’s first book Trinc (1927). The specific poem Anderson praises is “Words of an Old Woman,” almost a generic Williams title (e.g his “To a Poor Old Woman,” and “Last Words of my Grandmother”). As F.O. Matthiessen notes in an essay in Putnam’s Collected Poems, Putnam “conceives of the American continent itself as a woman’s body” (194), and Anderson was perhaps thinking of Williams’ In the American Grain (1925) where the concept is similar, and where he also argues for an America ignoring its own promise and oppressed by its own imported European cultural baggage. But the theme of Putnam’s poem is much closer to, for example, Anderson’s view of Stieglitz in his essay “City Plowman” than to the views of Williams, and Williams was more likely in a poem to focus upon a concrete aspect of a scene, than to evoke, as both Anderson and Putnam do, the more generalized mythical qualities of “soil.” The curious error in authorship of the poems that Anderson heard could not have been Rosenfeld’s, for at least two of the poems had appeared in separate volumes of American Caravan (one of them, American Caravan IV [1931], also carried two poems by Williams himself). And Rosenfeld reviewed Phelps’ “Bill Williams” poems in The New Republic in June 1930, The Five Seasons itself for The Bookman in March 1932, and even conducted an extensive correspondence with Putnam (the letters are at the Beinecke Library, Yale University).

In 1939, in what might appear to be an act of professional and even personal support of Williams, Anderson became a member of “The Friends of William Carlos Williams,” a short-lived group organized by Ford Madox Ford in the last months of his life to publicize what Ford saw as the undue neglect of Williams in particular, and of innovative writing generally. Other members included W. H. Auden, Archibald MacLeish, Marianne Moore, Henry Miller, Pound, Rosenfeld, Stieglitz, and Charles Olson. Anderson attended the May dinner in New York that particularly honored E.E. Cummings, and had an exchange with Williams himself. Williams later confessed that the idea of the group “horribly embarrassed me” (Autobiography 300). But Edward Dahlberg, who claimed to have helped Ford come up with the idea, wrote of the evenings, “I must say a wonderful galaxy of genuine people in the arts attended these affairs” (Epitaphs 269). Ford told Allen Tate in a letter written the day after the Cummings dinner that these were “pleasant and friendly occasions,” that “forty-seven people” had attended, and that Cummings’ poems had been read “brilliantly by Williams himself” (Letters 319).

However, Anderson apparently did not enjoy the evening. In a grumpy entry in his diary for that day Anderson wrote, “Whole idea no good. Cummings sensible enough to stay away” (Diaries 232). In a letter to Cummings the following day Anderson makes clear that he only turned up because he hoped Cummings would be there. “It was a ghastly party really” he told Cummings–“Jesus Christ, we writers are a mess,” and went on to record his conversation with Williams. “Williams said that your driving impulse was economic. I asked him what the hell he meant and he began to try to bite his own nose….The implication seemed to be that you loved beautiful women. ‘What a strange man,’ I thought.” Anderson goes on to speculate that “the idea seemed to be that you only got beautiful women by buying them in the market and that therefore everything was economic. Hell, I hope I got it all wrong. I was annoyed and sore and a little drunk” (Selected Letters 231-32). At the end of the evening Anderson left to try to find Cummings. Again, this is a curious impression of Williams’ view of the poet. Williams was a consistent admirer of Cummings’ work, telling James Laughlin in 1940, for example, that “Pound and Cummings are beyond doubt the two most distinguished American poets of today” (Selected Letters 191), and in reviewing Cummings’ Poems 1923-1954 termed the writer “a major artist” (ARI 234).

Mike Wallace questioned Williams about Cummings’ work in an exchange that Williams inserted into Book V of Paterson (221-22). Anderson almost made an appearance in Book I of the poem through an exchange recorded in an Edward Dahlberg letter to Williams that Williams did include, in part, alongside the poem’s many other letters and prose extracts. In the letter Dahlberg was critical of what he saw as Williams putting “the past into a frozen theorem, separate and apart from the present” and he claimed too that “with you the book is one thing, and the man who wrote it another.” Against such divisions, themselves a major theme of Paterson, Dahlberg cites his own sense of the presentness of past literary figures and historical events, and recounts an exchange with Anderson “walking through one of those blighted and noisesome downtown sections [New York City at Sixth Avenue and Forty-Fourth Street as a later recounting in Alms (18) makes clear], and answering me, as I said to him, ‘Consider with what malice this city must have been conceived.’ ‘Oh, it just happened,’ as of one kind of human continuum.” (Anderson offers the same view in his essay on Stieglitz: “dirty city streets, American streams, dirty farms, dirty towns…It happened. No one is to blame” [304].) For Dahlberg in this letter, and elsewhere, Anderson serves as an example of an artist whose work is not separate from the man himself. And he also sets his sense of the presentness of his now dead friend, the unity of Anderson’s literary and personal concerns, and the continuing closeness of the two writers against what he saw as the isolation of Williams’ vision and its conformity to a “theorem” of the past. Williams retained a later part of Dahlberg’s letter in the published version of the poem, but in 1945 cut the section that includes the exchange with Anderson as part of a number of last minute revisions at the galley stage (Paterson 28, 262-63).

Although Williams includes in the poem a number of critical comments from outside correspondents upon the themes of the poem and upon Williams/Dr. Paterson himself, the poem loses the alternative perspective upon the history of the American city offered by Anderson’s comment when it is cut. For Williams, Paterson’s (representative) condition was the result of planning, scheming, false values, and economic exploitation of land and people going back to Alexander Hamilton and the destruction of the indigenous population. The poem’s argument seeks to expose this history and thus to defuse its determinist power, to seek, again, a new beginning. In Paterson causes are identified, villains named–Alexander Hamilton, the Society of Useful Manufactures, Billy Sunday, the banking system, nineteenth century newspapers, to name a few–and the redemptive possibilities of such naming to transform the historical accretions that have made the city, and America, what it is, are far more than Anderson would have claimed as possible in his particular sense of possible new beginnings. For Williams, a return to first causes can bring about the jettisoning of the false cultural and linguistic crust imposed upon the landscape. But for Anderson new beginnings invariably stem from an important loss, of innocence, or craft skills; with George Willard, for example, of his mother and of any romantic ideals concerning Helen White. New beginnings require for Anderson strict limits upon what is possible, governed by the pre-determined closures of nature and naturalism: the circles and cycles of “The Triumph of the Egg” and “Death in the Woods,” and the unrecoverable changes brought by the sweep of time through individual lives and relationships. What can be minimized to some extent, for Anderson, is allowing the limitations of nature to be compounded by falling prey to the traps of social convention, and it is in this hostility to social convention that Anderson’s vision and that of Williams come closest, with Anderson retaining more of a sense of that convention’s deeply embedded place in individual lives.

Anderson’s claims to be a commentator from inside, and Williams’ strategy of distanced observation, are clearly illustrated in the different versions each writer produced of the story of Italian poet Emanuel Carnevali (1897-1940?). Anderson’s posthumously published story, “Italian Poet in America,” (1941) focuses on Carnevali’s life in Chicago, where he had been taken up by Poetry’s Harriet Monroe. In Anderson’s account, Carnevali often visits his apartment, and the story allows Carnevali himself, speaking to Anderson, to reveal much about his condition–leaving his wife in New York, the venereal disease he had caught from a prostitute, his ideals and frustrations as a poet. These things “he came to try to explain to me,” the story characteristically records (13). These privileged moments come to a climax when the poet runs from Anderson’s apartment: “I heard his footsteps on the stairs and ran to call him back, wanting at least to give him a warm coat to wear but…he had disappeared into the storm….And so he ran from me into the storm… “(14). On that night, in this version, Carnevali loses his mind. “They…took him away. I lost all track of him. What was his final end I never knew” (15). Anderson’s story embraces the limitations of the insider role in exchange for the knowledge that it brings of the crucial, defining actions.

Williams’ account in his Autobiography is more distant, and from this distance he recounts the narrative of Carnevali’s life in New York, Chicago, and upon his return to Italy (a later stage that Anderson’s story claims no knowledge of). Williams also recounts personal meetings with the poet, but they involve others too, the two writers’ wives on one occasion, and a run-in with a policeman on another. Of Carnevali’s fate in Chicago, Williams writes clinically: “I have heard various stories though I never saw a proper report on the subject….to me his affliction seems more as though it had been encephalitis than syphilis, with considerable damage to the brain tissues resulting, always hard to measure.” Williams knows of Carnevali’s later life upon returning to Italy, he reports, having received “several letters from him or from friends close to him over the course of the next few years,” and while Anderson’s account ends with Carnevali’s loss of sanity, Williams’ account, again the more optimistic one, finishes with the legacy of Carnevali’s one book, A Hurried Man, which he had earlier praised for its vitality and achievement (266-269).

A review of Anderson’s Memoirs by Christopher Isherwood in Partisan Review in the year following Anderson’s death brought a postscript to the record of Anderson and Williams’ relationship. Isherwood, recently arrived to U.S. shores, offered a generally sympathetic, although faintly patronizing, notice, confessing “almost complete ignorance of the author’s fiction, poetry and plays.” Isherwood notices that Anderson “took Ohio with him wherever he went–even to Paris,” but claims, as “a limey,” to be able to see through Anderson’s claims to multiple representative roles: “the Typical American Country Boy, the Typical American Business Man, the Typical American Free Artist.” “There speaks,” Isherwood claims, “the unregenerate individualist, delighting in his ability to fill one more part, to get himself accepted as a regular guy” (341-342).

Isherwood’s perception gets to the heart of the insider perspective that separates Anderson’s view of America from that of Williams, but Williams’ comment on the piece in a letter to publisher James Laughlin is not on Anderson’s strategy, but on Isherwood’s ignorance of the integrity of what Anderson was attempting. For Williams, the review was another example of Dwight MacDonald’s mishandling of the journal. His scorn is particularly reserved for Randall Jarrell’s negative piece on New Directions 1941, and he concedes that Auden (on Louise Bogan) “confesses his inadequacy at the finish,” and “Isherwood at least acknowledges that he has not familiarized himself with his subject” (WCW/JL 76). The suggestion, despite all of his differences with Anderson, is that Williams had “familiarized himself,” and that, for Williams, a “limey” is certainly not the person to understand or offer commentary upon particular versions of the “American stuff.”


1. Dahlberg, writing on Anderson in Can These Bones Live and generally more approving of Anderson’s work than of Williams’s, saw Williams’s emphasis in his In the American Grain upon the “gap between touch and thing”–as equally “the fable and portent of Winesburg, Ohio” (84). In his later autobiography, The Confessions of Edward Dahlberg, Dahlberg dismisses all of “the writers of the thirties” as “militant illiterates” exempting only eight in a list that includes both Anderson and Williams (264). James Schevill sees Williams’ short stories as “the true development” of Anderson’s use of the grotesque. The relationship between the work of the two writers for Schevill is “extraordinary” yet “barely noticed” in critical discussion (235). And Benjamin Spencer in his Patterns of Nationality: Twentieth Century Literary Versions of America, setting his chapters on Anderson and Williams alongside each other, argues that Anderson writes, following Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman and “in anticipation of William Carlos Williams,” in “committing himself to the principle that only the local thing is universal” (129). And see Horace Gregory’s 1956 introduction to Williams’ In the American Grain (xiv); Yvor Winters,”Notes,” in Modern Review (July 1924): 86-88; Claire Bruyère, Sherwood Anderson: L’Impuissance Creatrice, pp. 320-321.

2. In a kind of scholarly mirror to this mistaken support of William Carlos, Paul Mariani in A New World Naked mistakenly includes Sherwood Anderson as one of Williams’ supporters upon the poet’s induction in 1959 into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (845). The supporter was Maxwell Anderson.

Works Cited

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