Review of Southern Odyssey: Selected Writings by Sherwood Anderson

By Judy Jo Small

Midwestern in origin, his name indelibly linked with the mythic Ohio town of Winesburg, Sherwood Anderson nevertheless spent a large part of his life in the South. “I can truly say that since I have been a grown man there has always been in me something that has called me south,” he told a Richmond audience in 1930. Anderson’s affection for Southern people and his deep interest in diverse facets of Southern culture are vividly illustrated in the new Southern Odyssey: Selected Writings by Sherwood Anderson.

This impressive collection of Anderson’s writings about the American South, edited by veteran scholars Welford Dunaway Taylor and Charles E. Modlin, includes both fiction and nonfiction texts. A few of the pieces are well known, but most of them have been previously either unpublished or widely scattered. Gathered together, these writings appear as a surprisingly significant body of work.

The book gives us Anderson’s vision of the South during decades when the Civil War was still a living memory and rural agrarianism was rapidly giving way to industrialization and the New Deal. Anderson never presumes that his is anything other than an outsider’s vision. Still, his sympathetic sensitivity to the lives of ordinary workers is keen. “I myself came from the working class. . . ,” he writes; “I am accepted by working people everywhere as one of themselves and am proud of that fact” (149). The book is filled with a remarkable array of portraits of southerners–coal miners, moonshiners, politicians and whores mingle here with lumberjacks and peanut kings, singers and fishermen, lawyers, idlers, old Confederate soldiers and hardboiled kids. Local color abounds, not only in descriptions of the South’s varied landscapes but also in courtroom scenes, the Kentucky Derby, tobacco auctions, Baptist foot-washing ceremonies, shoddy statues, labor strikes, and raw hard poverty. Anderson’s description of the South is impressionistic rather than incisive, yet the sum of his impressions is acute.

The worth of this important volume derives in large part from admirable editing. Judicious selection of Anderson’s writings is its hallmark. Its five-part organization highlights discrete phases of Anderson’s attention–the Deep South he discovered in New Orleans, the mountaineers he met in the Virginia highlands, his work as a small-town editor of two weekly newspapers, his activist concern for the plight of industrial laborers before the advent of unions, and his recognition of the New South emerging reluctantly along with TVA, big business, and an approaching World War. For each of the five sections and for every individual text, there is an informative headnote that provides vital context and continuity. Endnotes supply additional facts, and an index references names and titles.

The volume is highly readable, full of amusing anecdotes as well as earnest contemplative philosophy. It should be of interest to the general reader as well as to students of literature and southern culture.

Anderson’s view of southern race relations is honest and unblinking. Nevertheless, his understanding of African-American culture is on the whole shallow and romanticized. The yearning of a jaded city-dweller is apparent in his response to Negroes in New Orleans, whom he describes as “the only laborers I have ever seen in America who know how to laugh, sing and play in the act of doing hard physical labor”(3). His growing skepticism about this kind of sentimentality becomes evident in later essays in Southern Odyssey. Plainly, though, the South he came to know best was the culture of the Appalachian highlands. More than anywhere else, this was his Ithaca. He arrived there weary, wayworn, dazed from his wanderings; at last he came to recognize it as his true home.

To Andersonians, the varied voices of Anderson’s prose in these pieces make an interesting study. From folksy to sophisticated, his experimentation with style in his last two decades finds in this book a dramatic showcase.

Most of all, though, Southern Odyssey demonstrates Anderson’s deeply democratic sense of a place and a time set in the broad framework of human history. He sees a South ravaged by exploitation by the proud and powerful. He sees a South in need of fuller expression, in need of the artist. He admires the grace and dignity of ordinary southern people. He honors the beauty of the artistic creation he recognizes in the work of a dedicated southern stone cutter, storytellers, makers of machines. Ultimately, though, Anderson’s story of the South’s coming into modernity is but an instance of a much larger story. Everywhere in this volume, as in everything he wrote, is his abiding respect for humble folk engaged in the age-old struggle for life.

Judy Jo Small is professor of English at North Carolina State University and the author of A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson ( New York: G.K. Hall, 1994).