By Sherwood Anderson
Editors’ note: This is the second of two speeches Anderson delivered at a writers’ conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder, in 1937. This one, apparently entitled “The Obligations of the Writer,” was presented in the evening of August 10.
I think I shall have to make my second talk here at this conference more or less personal. I must have been in a rather reckless mood when I gave Mr. Davison the titles for the two formal talks he asked me to make out here. I would, if possible, rather like to make my two talks a little hang together. I am not talking off-hand. As you will see, I have a manuscript with me. I presume that all writers, and particularly the story teller type of writer, is inevitably also something of an actor. I know that I am. I think I have always tried to set for myself certain parts I am to play in life. I have tried to conceal this fact as much as possible, but almost all of my intimate friends are on to me. Some of the roles I have set for myself in life I have played miserably, and others I think I have played pretty well. I am so much the actor that often I ask myself the question-“Is there really any such person as Sherwood Anderson?” Not only am I an actor, but experience has taught me that I must also look rather like an actor. As it happens, I have a good many actor friends and often, when I am in New York, I go with one of these friends into the actors’ clubs, the Lambs or the Players, and inevitably the same thing happens to me. Men rush up to me. They greet me warmly. They grasp my hand.
“Why hello, Harry, old chap. I thought you were in Los Angeles.”
I might also say that formerly I was often taken for William Jennings Bryan and for Elbert Hubbard. There must have been a good deal of the actor in these men also.
And so being this thing, half the actor, half the writer, the actor in me must have a part to play. As a writer I am compelled to write the lines for the actor. Two or three times I have tried speaking on some set subject, offhand, and the experiment hasn’t come off. I have found myself too much going off into side alleys and losing my way. So I have prepared my lines to be spoken here. As I prepare them, I am at home, in a little cabin by a creek, where I do my work as a writer. The cabin is in the Virginia hill country. I have a secretary working with me. She sits at her desk taking down my golden words.
“Really, how wonderful this is going to sound,” I say to myself. “At last I am going to be an influence upon the young.”
Into my cabin in the Virginia hills come certain sounds. A chipmunk plays on a log, the birds sing. I can hear the chattering of a small stream over stones. A little wind blows in pine trees. I find that chipmunks, pine trees, and birds make a very good audience. They do not talk back, do not ask embarrassing questions, do not challenge my statements.
Perhaps I can best get at what I would like to say here by telling a little of my own personal experiences as a writer.
As I have already pointed out in another talk, there are, as I see it, two approaches to writing. A man may take this business of writing frankly as a way of making a living. He may look upon it in that way.
Or he may get at it in another way, taking it rather as a way of life, as a rather functional matter.
I think my own experiences, as a boy and young man, are not uncommon experiences with young American men. There have always been two impulses pulling at me. I might as well say frankly that I take myself as an artist type of man. I know no reason why I should be ashamed to take this position.
It may be that nowadays things are somewhat different from what they were in my own youth. I was a boy and young man before the period of the World War. I believe that the world War was rather disillusioning. A definite change may have come over the attitude taken by our present-day young men.
But when I was a boy and young man there were certain ideas always being pounded into me, often by people who wished me nothing less than the good life, and these ideas were all alike. They concerned what we call success. The idea was that a man should strive to be big, to be an important figure in life, if possible he was to develop his acquisitive talent, get rich.
I myself was born into a financially ruined family. We lived in a small house, in a rather shabby street, in a quite charming little Ohio town. There were a good many of us. A year or two ago I drove through this street on which stood the house where I spent my boyhood and young manhood. I was filled with curiosity and wonder. There were so many of us. “Where in the devil did we all sleep?” I asked myself. My own father was somewhat of a waster. He was a man who refused to take life too seriously. He was not what we called in Ohio a good provider.
However, I must say that the man had his good points. If he was a waster, he was a rather lovable waster. In my own books from time to time I have used the figure of this man a good deal and I think that on the whole I have hardly been fair to him. The man had a kind of inner gaiety. He could not take the fact that we had no butter to spread on our bread very seriously.
“Well, heaven and earth, you’ve got the bread, haven’t you?” he would say.
It is a little strange, I think, how the charm of such a man, leading such a life, sticks. As a boy I think I rather distrusted my father. He loved to get in the back of a small-town saloon with other so-called “no accounts” of the town and spend whole afternoons, when he should have been at work, providing for his children, seeing to their education, laying up money to send them through college, preparing them to associate with cultured people, such as I dare say are gathered together in this audience, in song singing and tale telling.
In my own boyhood and young manhood I became the thing we know so well here in America as a young hustler, a young go-getter. I made up my mind that whatever else I turned out to be, I wasn’t going to be like my own father. There were certain figures of men I had heard and read about, Garfield of my own state of Ohio, risen from canal boy to presidentother figures looming.
The city of Cleveland was nearby. We in our town read the Cleveland newspapers. I myself hurried through the streets selling them. Mr. John D. Rockefeller, who had already come up from poverty, having, as it happened, a father very like my own, was already a big figure in the state.
There were enough of such men, in my state and neighboring states. The newspapers praised them, magazines ran articles holding them up as rather ideal types of manhood. I made up my own mind I was going to be as much like them as I could.
How shall I describe it? I remember well another young man I met at about that time. We were both in business. We worked for the same firm. One day he said something to me.
“Anderson, you are a damned plausible cuss,” he said. “You are too damned slick,” he added. At the moment I rather succeeded in dismissing from my mind what the young man had said to me. I had put something over on him or I had put something over on someone else and he has seen through my operations.
“He is jealous of me,” I told myself. I tried to lay this salve over the wound he had given me.
However, what he had said did, in spite of all my efforts, rather rankle. The wound he has given me didn’t exactly heal. His words kept coming back into my mind, coming most often at night. I think it is very interesting, to any of us, to think back over our lives and realize how much we have sometimes been influenced by what at the moment seemed like chance remarks. You will see that I am making this talk something like a confession. The truth is that throughout my own boyhood and young manhood I had always been a little too plausible, a little too slick. I was proud of my ability to put something over on others. I did it to my own brothers, to my one sister, and to my boyhood friends. I rather enjoyed doing the thing to people and even yet I recall, often at night and always with a kind of shrinking, as though from an impending blow, certain things I did to my own sister, now dead. This whole matter came into my mind when I was trying to prepare this talk to be delivered out here because when I was in the act of preparing the talk, an old photograph, a family group, was sent to me by my brother’s daughter. I was trying, you see, to figure out how it had happened that I became a writer, what impulses had led me to become a writer. When I first began to write, I was no longer a young man. I was well into my thirties before I ever attempted to write a story.
I have spoken of an old photograph I received on a certain day this summer when I was trying to prepare this talk. In the photograph there my sister was. She was a rather beautiful and intelligent looking girl, surrounded in the photograph by her five brothers. I was already a little better dressed than the others. I had just a little forced myself in front of the others of the group.
And now as to my relations to my sister. I was always trying to put something over on her and usually I succeeded. The child would make a certain assertion. She had a certain belief. She was very positive about her belief. I listened to her.
“Ah! Now watch me. In two days I will make her say, and be just as positive about, the opposite of what she has just said.”
I went to work on her. I did not go at her directly, did not argue with her. I got up conversation, said all sorts of suggestive little things. Often I worked away at the job as though my life depended upon it. I concentrated on her. Usually I got her. I would make her change her mind and when I had done so I had a queer and, I must say, nasty feeling of triumph. I think now that I was practicing on my sister. It was a way of preparing myself for success in life. I practiced also on others. I think you will all see how such a talent, to make black seem like white, this practiced until one becomes efficient at it, plausible-even let us say slick-how all of this would be a tremendous help to a man in business.
I think it did help me in a way. I continued using the talent when I had got into business. I used it on others in the office where I worked and later I used it on bankers. Often by using it I managed to borrow quite large sums of money without much security. Presently I launched out into various enterprises. I promoted companies. I managed often to make another man take a risk, while, if there were any profits, I grabbed the major share of them.
And what has all this to do with the art of writing? Wait. Be patient. I hope I shall presently be able to come to that.
As you will see, I am taking the art of writing also as a way of life. The writer-and again let me say I am speaking of the writer in a sense of the tale teller-does not write just with his head. In reality he writes with his whole body.
I am trying to get at an approach to something by putting it on a rather personal plane. I am using certain facts and experiences out of my own life to try to illustrate my point.
I had got into business. I was an advertising man, a writer of advertisements. We all know that there are all kinds of commercial products being advertised. Some of these advertising products are worthwhile and others are worthless. The men who were selling these products depended upon us writers to bring them to the public. There was always-at least this is true of the time I was working at this job–an element of fraud. My own plausibility, and a kind of cleverness I had developed, helped me a good deal. I could sell my plausibility to others. I became rather a star man. Had I decided to stay in advertising, I think it possible that I might have made a good deal of money. Recently I saw, in a magazine devoted to advertising, an article on my own experience in this kind of life. The article cracked me up a good deal as a kind of wizard at the game.
But it was a game and I grew sick of it. I had a quite uncomfortable time for several years. I dare say I had become a rather well dressed, alert, bright young business man.
But there was something in me that realized that I was selling people out. I drank a good deal. I had affairs with women. I tried to lead the life of a young blade. I remember now that at that period in my life I thought a good deal about the life of my father whom I had formerly almost despised. Suddenly his life began to seem to have more point and purpose than my own. At any rate he had a great fondness for other men. He did not want to cheat them. I remember going home one day to my native village. I was passing through and spent the day there. This was at the height of my experience in being a successful young man. I was very well dressed. I walked with a certain alert determination through the streets. There was an older man who stopped me in the street. He had formerly owned a little hardware store in the town but had failed. He was a man who had had a good deal of trouble in life. His wife had died of a terrible disease and his only son, a young boy, had been killed by an accident. The son, a bright, playful fellow, had tried to hop on a freight train but had missed his footing. He was with several other boys and they were daring each other to jump aboard the train for a ride. The train was going rapidly and his body was thrown under the wheels and ground to pieces. The father had neglected his business. He had taken to drink. He was a former crony of my father. He stopped me on the street and spoke to me of my own father.
“You have misunderstood him,” he said. “He was a great fellow. What stories he used to tell.” I got from him the impression of my father as one who had understood the little hardware merchant when he was going to pieces. My father had been his friend, had tried to stand by him, had tried to make him forget the tragedy of his life.
Well, presently I decided to get out of advertising writing. I think my motives were not very clear. By a certain slickness and cleverness in writing for others, I was making money for them. Why not make the money for myself?
I am sure there was this idea and there was also another. Perhaps I thought there would be something cleaner, purer, better, in making goods for people rather than in helping others to buy and sell goods. I went home to my native state. I was full of ideas. I went from man to man raising money. I visited bankers. I did raise money and started a factory. It was a quite commonplace occupation I got into. I manufactured house paint.
But here again I found the same thing I had found as an advertising writer. I had to compete with other manufacturers of house paint. Some of our laws were not as rigid as they are now. We have all read stories of the beginnings of the lives of most of our successful men. I cheated a little on the materials I put into my product. I found that no one noticed and I cheated more.
It is a little difficult to tell exactly what happened to me at this time. I had my factory. I employed salesmen, I borrowed money at banks. I hurried through the streets. I was, I think, pretty much the type of the average successful young American man.
And then suddenly there came a change. I do not know exactly what happened to me. I had joined a golf club in the town and often spent an afternoon with other business men playing golf. Earlier in my life I had been a great reader but I had stopped reading. I was one day with a group of men in the clubhouse of a country club. We sat together for several hours drinking and talking. Suddenly a strange, blank feeling came over me. I was with men all much more successful than myself. It seemed to me suddenly that their lives were all empty and that my own life was the emptiest of all.
I got up and left them. Evening had come on and I went walking in country roads. From that moment I began to neglect my business. Day after day I walked about the country. I began to stop and talk to little farmers along the road. I got on a train and went away to the city and spent days wandering about the streets. It seems to me now that I had passed through a half insane period that must have lasted for two or three years. I did not want to be what I was becoming. Again I drank a good deal. There was, I think, a period when I might well have become a confirmed drunkard.
And then one day another change came. I was in my own house. I had become more or less estranged from the members of my own family and from my former friends. I was very lonely and I still think that one of the most significant things about our American life is our American loneliness. I remember that I went up into a small room at the top of my house and locked the door. I sat down at a desk in the room and began to write. An idea had come to me. I would like to make this idea clear if I can. I could not understand my own life and what was the matter with it. It seemed to me that, pretty much, I had only been doing all my life what older men had advised me to do when I was a boy. I had been struggling for material success in a world that puts great value upon material success.
The idea that had come to me was something like this. “I cannot understand my own life but perhaps it is because no man can think clearly about himself.” I had got the idea that it might be possible by attempting to create figures in an imaginative world to get through these figures a little better understanding of self.
And so I began to create imaginative figures. I took the figures of other imagined young men and put them through experiences I had been through. In order to avoid too much confusion in this process, I developed the trick of making them physically unlike myself. Now I have touched upon this point in another talk I have made here at this conference, have tried to point out how in changing the physical fact of a figure in the imaginative world, you change the figure quite completely. You make a separation that is very important. At least it was important to me.
I began writing and at first all my writing took the form of novels. I wanted if possible to create a quite complete picture of the individual in the kind of American life I myself had known. I wrote furiously. I thought little about style. I do not believe that at first I thought much about publication. I began a novel, sometimes writing forty, fifty, seventy-five thousand words, and then threw it aside. I began another. Now I no longer cared about drinking. I had become drunk with writing. More and more I neglected my business and one day, realizing that by my neglect of business I was being unfair to those who had invested money in it, I left the business and the town. And now here is something rather interesting. When I first went to my Ohio town to go into business, I was quite successful. For the first year or two there I made a good deal of money. I think that had I stayed faithful to the business, expanded it as it might well have been expanded, I might very well have become a rich man. Nowadays we in America think little of a man’s leaving a wife and children, but to walk off leaving perhaps some thousands of dollars seems to us a kind of insanity. Anyway I walked off. Afterwards, in fact up until the present moment, I have always made my living in a rather precarious way. I have been paid to come here and speak to you people, Quite often, when I am broke, I do what I am doing here. I go before people and talk to them. They pay me for it. As a writer I have never been a very successful man. Most of my books have never had much sale. However, I did have one novel that sold largely and with the money I bought a little farm and built a house to live in in Virginia. I think I can say that since the day when I walked down a railroad track, out of a certain Ohio town, leaving the business there for others to run, succeeding or failing with it, with but a few dollars in my pocket, making no claim to any future profits there might be in that business, I have led a rather full and happy life. I think that if I should die tomorrow, I could die feeling that life owed me little. I have collected rather richly as I went along.
And now as to the point of all this. There is a point. It is I think that the arts, any of the arts, rightly understood, rightly approached, are and should be, curative to the artist. Someone has said that the artist, in releasing himself, releases others. We all want this release. I think there is a good deal of absurd talk about a thing called genius. I do not believe in it much. I believe there is a certain value to be got out of my own experience. It is perhaps true that I, as an individual, could not have come to certain conclusions about living and the attitude toward life of the artist man if I had not had the experience of trying to succeed in another field. I think that right now in America it is more important to be little, with perhaps just a trifle flair to your littleness, than it is to be big and important. Personally I would rather be loved a bit in my home town than known to all the outside world. Perhaps I have merely come back to the point of view of my own father, a man I formerly thought a no-account. I would rather live in a hall bedroom to which there might come occasionally a friend or, if I am extremely fortunate, a woman who loves me, than to have a dozen big houses that would over-awe my friends.
I do not think you can shoot directly at happiness. I do think that sometimes, if the gods are good to you, you may incidentally get a touch of it. Everything in this world worthwhile shooting at is a little too subtle to be defined.
This, however, I believe is true. There are in this country and perhaps in this conference an infinite number of bright, talented young men and women. There is a job to be done. The opportunities before the American writer are certainly rich enough. The job that terribly wants doing is the creation of more and more understanding of man for man. I think that is the most important of the story tellers’ jobs. I certainly do not intend to pretend for a moment that I myself have always been faithful to this job. I have told something of my own personal history here merely to try to dispel a little the illusion that there is any particular happiness to be got out of success. I think what satisfaction there is that can be got out of life must be got in another way. I think you all know as well as I do what, from the artist’s point of view, is the real way.