Remembered “Characters” in Winesburg, Ohio

By Welford Dunaway Taylor

Critics and biographers have paid scant attention to the sketches that Sherwood Anderson wrote for the trade magazine Agricultural Advertising between 1902 and 1905. A possible reason is that this juvenilia, produced well before Anderson had developed into a writer of serious fiction, has been overshadowed (justifiably) by the mature work he was to produce some ten years later. Thus, James Schevill may be correct in discounting its significance by asserting that “the only importance of these first attempts at writing is that they uncover Anderson’s youthful character” (38). However, a more probable and practical cause for neglect is the obscurity of the periodical itself, which has heretofore made the material inaccessible to all but the most intrepid researchers.

Ray White’s inclusion of the Agricultural Advertising pieces in his edition Sherwood Anderson: Early Writings (1989) [hereinafter EW], seems likely to alter the existing perception. Although the volume’s stated purpose is to provide access, rather than to make critical claims, the fact that it makes the texts readily available invites broader study and even the possibility of inclusion under that increasingly troublesome rubric, the “canon.” Although in this initial body of published work Anderson wrote in the accepted and facile idiom of the advertising copywriter (a style he would later denounce as “slick”), I maintain that these efforts are deserving of more than summary dismissal, if for no other reason than that they form part of the textual record of a seminal American author. However, two groups of the Agricultural Advertising pieces–the “Rot and Reason” and the “Business Types” series–reveal much more. For one, they feature a consistent, and as yet unacknowledged use of a standard literary device which, although self-consciously applied, prefigures a dominant trait found in Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Anderson’s masterpiece. Moreover, given this link to the later work, the sketches serve as at least a partial corrective to the popular myth that Anderson’s literary career began with the pivotal moment in 1912 when, in a sudden, Caedmon-like epiphany, he rejected commercialism for literature by walking out of his business office never to return. To a degree the myth persists, despite the mitigating efforts of several well-informed investigators to show that the author of Winesburg, Ohio had undergone a long, if rather sparsely documented, apprenticeship. Therefore, determining the literary dimensions of his initial step into publication may serve to enhance the efforts to reconstruct this erratic pattern.

In 1900, just after graduating from Wittenburg Academy, Sherwood Anderson joined the Frank B. White Company in Chicago as an advertising solicitor. The position had been made possible through his friend Marco Morrow, an executive with the company. Some two years later, Anderson began writing occasional articles on farming topics for the company magazine, Agricultural Advertising, which Morrow edited. Early in 1903 Morrow placed Anderson in charge of “Rot and Reason,” a monthly feature in the magazine. Anderson wrote “Rot and Reason” articles from February to October, 1903. From January to October,1904 he supplied the columns for “Business Types” in the same magazine. Then, after contributing two additional, but unrelated, feature articles in the spring of 1905, Anderson terminated his formal connection with the company (which was by now absorbed into the Long-Critchfield Agency) to pursue a more active and independent course in business.

There is much thematic similarity between the two series, “Rot and Reason” and “Business Types.” This is partially summarized by Kim Townsend as “Sherwood Anderson discovering and exploring what it was that mattered to him–which is to say, himself, an American man, discovering himself in writing” (47). But these articles also show Anderson making important discoveries about creative expression in prose, even within the narrow guidelines of Agricultural Advertising. It is one such early discovery, of which he made repeated use, that I hope to demonstrate as a link between the articles in these early series and Anderson’s most mature artistry.

Beginning with “The Traveling Man,” one of three subheadings of his first “Rot and Reason” column, Anderson indulges in a brief passage that sketches, in broad outline, some commonly recognized features of the traveling salesman. His description runs as follows:

Common to the verge of imbecility, dressed as only a fool would dress nowadays, and having as his chief stock of trade a fund of vile and indecent stories, he went forth with his soap, his cigars and his ladies’ underwear to smear the path of all decent men who must follow him for years to come. I have been told that occasionally specimens of this tribe may yet be found in all their unwashed unloveliness in out-of-the-way places about the country, but they are going, and thank Providence they will soon be gone. (EW 23-4)

The passage is unremarkable, except that it initiates a genre that recurs with some frequency in the remaining “Rot and Reason” columns and becomes, in turn, the predominant configuration of the subsequent “Business Types” series. By standard literary definition this is “character writing,” a tradition deriving from a Greek prototype created by Theophrastus in the third century B.C.; revived and adapted early in the seventeenth century by such English practitioners as Sir Thomas Overbury, John Earle, and Joseph Hall; and re-adapted later in the seventeenth century in France by Jean de La Bruyère. As demonstrated by Anderson’s depiction of the traveling salesman, the “character” typified a combination of definite, if obvious, qualities. The portrayal is not of an individualized personality; rather, it is a type, one usually emblematic of a particular cultural or social classification. In Overbury’s metaphorical definition, it is “a quick and soft touch of many strings, all shutting up in one musical close; it is wit’s descant on any plain song” (Witherspoon and Warnke 203).

Thus, beginning with the traveling salesman, a central if obvious figure in the mythos of American commercialism, Anderson proceeded in the “Rot and Reason” columns to present miniatures of other “types” easily recognizable to the readers of Agricultural Advertising. Prominent among the many are the American businessman (“Boost No.1,” EW 37); the successful modern farmer (“The Golden Harvest Farmer,” EW 43-45); the spoiler in business (“The Golden Fake,” EW 46); and the burned-out businessman (“The Born Quitter,” EW 27). In all these examples, the defining lineaments of the “character” tradition remain more or less consistent, especially the attempt to present the generalized category, one embodying an identity derived from a context that the reader will recognize immediately.

The “Rot and Reason” columns reveal, however, that Anderson was beginning even at this early juncture to experiment with techniques that advanced the delineation of his business “characters” well beyond a generalized typicality. For example, in several instances, rather than present a collection of defining characteristics, he illustrates character by means of an anecdote, either hypothetical or personal. The earliest example is “The Born Quitter,” one of the subheadings for his second (March, 1903) “Rot and Reason” column (EW 27). Here he pairs off an aggressive young businessman type with his burned-out counterpart.

This presentation of character through anecdote is superseded the following month by a more rounded, parable-like sketch titled “Packingham” (EW 30-31), in which a self-made manufacturer is used to illustrate the importance of the love of work to the success ethic. “Packingham” is perhaps the most finished installment in the “Rot and Reason” series, in that the characterization is presented with a minimum of authorial comment. Other “characters” in the series were usually embellished with Anderson’s own slick commentaries on business-related topics and were often followed by a series of aphoristic squibs.

In “Business Types,” the next series Anderson wrote for Agricultural Advertising,the “character” became the primary focus, and a different type was presented for each of the ten months that he produced the column. In many of these depictions Anderson expands the former descriptive mode, often subsuming it within a miniature narrative in which the subject “character” is featured. Of particular note are the installments that draw upon personal experiences, or else upon private concerns that would later be given more intense, and more finished, treatment in the fiction. One article in particular recalls an incident from Anderson’s early working experience with the White firm. It is “The Solicitor” (EW 90-93), which relates how a young account executive is sent out to a particularly intractable client and returns with an order exceeding the original expectation by ten-fold. “The Liar–A Vacation Story” (EW 82-87) combines actual experience and a personal perception that remained a life-long fascination for Anderson. It involves a man with an annoying habit of re-inventing his past to suit present circumstances. This “liar” surprises a skeptical group of listeners with an accurately detailed account of his work in a bicycle factory (one of Anderson’s early jobs). Another narrative, “The Man of Affairs” (EW 70-75), offers readers of the later fiction adumbrations of the novel Poor White (1920) and its protagonist, Hugh McVey. The sketch depicts a young provincial named Peter Macveagh, whose self-made prosperity fails to produce either fulfillment or inner wholeness. “The Boyish Man” (EW 100-102) treats still another enduring Andersonian motif: the retention of a youthful perspective despite advancing age.

In the combined “Rot and Reason” and “Business Types” series, I note twenty-one distinct examples of the “character” genre. The last, “The Fussy Man and the Trimmer” ( EW 102-105)–its title echoing that of Halifax’s “Character of a Trimmer” (1682)–appeared in December 1904, a few months before Anderson left the Long-Critchfield agency to pursue his own entrepreneurial quest.

While some examples contain foreshadowings of the fictional talent that would fully reveal itself almost a decade later, most of this juvenilia reveals certain limitations. Chief among these is the choice of subject. Although his selection of commercial avatars represents a fairly broad spectrum within the type, Anderson has not gone outside American trade and agriculture to look for material. However, this is not so much a reflection of his own parochial interests at the time, as an indication that he was obliged to write within guidelines prescribed by his employer. His audience, moreover, was specialized and limited. He gave readers of Agricultural Advertising the kind of profile with which they were familiar in a style accentuated by clichés and glib banalities.

Unfortunately, minimal documentation exists for Anderson’s life during the decade following the appearance of his final business “character.” What is definitely known is that he was torn between the demands of business and the enticements of literature; of family obligations and the desire to be independent; of writing according to formula and the compelling need to create his own form and voice.

Something of the transforming power of these struggles can be gauged by his article on the “New Note” in literature, published in 1914 in the first two issues of Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, Chicago’s contribution to the burgeoning tide of avant-garde literary magazines. Proclaiming the basis of the new literary order as “craft love,” he insists that the artist with a commitment to craft must “record his own mood . . . simply, and without pretense or windiness” (EW 123). “I myself believe,” he continues, “that when a man can thus stand aside from himself, recording simply and truthfully the inner workings of his own mind, he will be prepared to record truthfully the workings of other minds” (Ibid.). Within a year and a half, in a singular voice that spoke in “a kind of poetry” with “word . . . laid against word in just a certain way” so as to give “a kind of word color, a march of simple words and sentences” (Memoirs 243). Anderson began recording the often troubled “inner workings” of the fictional citizenry of Winesburg, Ohio.

As they began appearing in 1915-16, the impressionistic story-sketches in which these characters are featured would strike sympathetic readers as novel and revolutionary and skeptical traditionalists as eccentric and bizarre. I submit, however, that this gallery of repressed individuals, however much they evoke the precepts of an emerging American modernist, were not the wholly fresh creations that they are presumed to be. Rather, the basic pattern of their delineation recalls the one-dimensional “characters” of more than a decade before.

While acknowledging that there is credible internal evidence, both thematic and formalistic, for establishing this connection, I believe that it is reflected most decisively and consistently in the actual titles of the Winesburg stories. For, recalling that Anderson’s object in his initial use of hypothetical “characters” was to illustrate a general principle, we see the pattern repeated in Winesburg, Ohio with comparable frequency.

As they appear on the first edition contents page–which is titled, appropriately, “The Tales and the Persons”– all save two of the twenty-four titles express an abstract, or at least a generalized, category (see Appendix). Ten of them are clearly abstractions. These, in their order of appearance, are: “Godliness,” “Adventure,” “Respectability,” “Tandy,” “Loneliness,” “‘Queer’,” “Drink,” “Death,” “Sophistication,” and “Departure.” More to the point, five of the other titles reveal a particular classification, or “type,” of person. These are: “Mother,” “The Philosopher,” “A Man of Ideas,” “The Thinker,” and “The Teacher.”

It should also be noted that during the winter of 1915-16, while Anderson wrote the majority of the Winesburg stories, he published in Little Review and The Smart Set three others (which do not appear in the book) with titles denoting similar categories of person: “Sister,” “The Story Writers,” and “The Novelist.” From the eight person/type examples stated above–the five in Winesburg and the three not included–it seems obvious that in selecting titles for his emerging corpus of mature short fiction, Anderson was repeating a design from his former commercial “character” writing. In its Winesburg incarnation, however, the “character” is neither a mere generality nor a hypothetical emblem of a broad principle. Rather, each is a distinct fictional entity serving as a concrete illustration of a broad category. Thus, for example, the character Elizabeth Willard is but a half-component of the complete entry, which reads: “Mother–concerning Elizabeth Willard.” Indeed, following twenty-three of the story titles in the table of contents (i. e., excepting “The Book of the Grotesque”) is the name of a fictional character who serves as exemplification for the title category (see Appendix).

That this was a conscious design on Anderson’s part seems to be affirmed in part by the revisions of various of the individual titles (White, “Story Titles” 6-7). The original manuscript form of nine titles (their earliest manifestation) appeared as individualized designations (see below). However, all of these were changed in the manuscript to the form in which they appear on the first edition contents page. In each case, the original designation has been expanded from a particularized into a more generalized, or in some cases an abstract, form. Though this transformation varies in degree from title to title–ranging from the substitution of one article for another (“An Untold Lie” (ms.) “The Untold Lie” (1st ed.), to amplifying a personalized or particular instance into an abstract category (“George Leaves Winesburg” (ms.) “Departure” (1st ed.)–the revisions to all nine titles indicate the common pattern. The full list of these changes is as follows:

  • Manuscript………………….. First Edition
  • Grotesques ………………….The Book of the Grotesque
  • George Willard’s Mother ……Mother
  • Her Adventure ………………Adventure
  • Wash Williams……………….Respectability
  • The School Teacher………….The Teacher
  • Alone…………………………Loneliness
  • George Willard’s Awakening..An Awakening
  • An Untold Lie………………..The Untold Lie
  • George Leaves Winesburg……Departure

As a corollary to the above model, five manuscript titles that began as abstract or generalized designations–“Hands,” “The Strength of God,” “‘Queer’,” “Death,” and “Sophistication”–remain unchanged in the first edition. Thus, in revising those manuscript titles that denoted a particular, as opposed to a general or abstract quality, Anderson was apparently bringing them into conformity with the overall principle of suggesting universality through abstract categories, all of which are illustrated by concrete exemplar/characters.

It is worth noting that in one of the earliest and most detailed commentaries on Winesburg, Ohio, Harry Hansen made repeated reference to the stories as depictions of “types.” Asserting that they qualified Anderson’s name to be linked with that of Chekhov, Hansen argued:

[The characters’] universality . . . is distinct; they are types to be found in any community. But the narcissus character of most individuals, who look into a mirror and thereupon pronounce all the world beautiful, will not let them acknowledge the typical character of Anderson’s people. These critics apply the terms abnormal, subnormal, delinquent, vicious, and other epithets that are in current use to designate a variation from the normal and average . . . [But] after all, he was entitled to the right of selection. (148)

The universality cited by Hansen suggests the broadest possible connotation, compared to which the sphere of American commerce of which Anderson had written more than a decade before is a tiny component. What had begun as commonplace prototypes (“The Born Quitter,” “The Lightweight”) had been transformed into fully realized fictional creations, such as Wing Biddlebaum, Doctor Reefy, and The Reverend Curtis Hartman. All of the Winesburg characters play emblematic roles, as had their predecessors. However, the nature of this function points up another distinctive feature of Anderson’s mature artistry. The commercial “characters” had represented conventional, everyday concerns of farming and commerce. The Winesburg characters exemplify matters that were anything but conventional. The village minister’s libido is obviously stronger than “The Strength of God” that he represents and professes. “Respectability” is exemplified by a cynical and scarred old man who hates all women.

Collectively, the Winesburg stories take received, clichè-like notions of popular concepts and people and re-define them with an apparent guileless frankness and vividness. The contrast between these sophisticated portrayals and those published in a “two-bit trade journal” (Townsend 49-50) a decade before is indeed vast. Yet, for all their amateurishness, these early efforts, through the device of the classical “character,” foreshadow Anderson’s finest work. Given their present accessibility, perhaps these early texts will be mined for additional clues to the origins of Sherwood Anderson’s unique literary talents.


The complete text of the contents page (less page numbers) appears as follows in the first edition of Winesburg, Ohio: The Tales and the Persons

  • The Book of the Grotesque.
  • Hands–concerning Wing Biddlebaum.
  • Paper Pills–concerning Doctor Reefy.
  • Mother–concerning Elizabeth Willard.
  • The Philosopher–concerning Doctor Parcival.
  • Nobody Knows–concerning Louise Trunnion.
  • Godliness (Parts I and II)–concerning Jesse Bentley.
  • Surrender (Part III)–concerning Louise Bentley.
  • Terror (Part IV)–concerning David Hardy.
  • A Man of Ideas–concerning Joe Welling.
  • Adventure–concerning Alice Hindman.
  • Respectability–concerning Wash Williams.
  • The Thinker–concerning Seth Richmond.
  • Tandy–concerning Tandy Hard.
  • The Strength of God–concerning The Reverend Curtis Hartman.
  • The Teacher–concerning Kate Swift.
  • Loneliness–concerning Enoch Robinson.
  • An Awakening–concerning Belle Carpenter.
  • “Queer”–concerning Elmer Cowley.
  • The Untold Lie–concerning Ray Pearson.

    Anderson, Sherwood. Early Writings. Ed. Ray Lewis White. Kent and London: Kent State UP, 1989. ______. Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs. Ed. Paul Rosenfeld. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942.

    Hansen, Harry. Midwest Portraits. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1923.

    Mouscher, Karen-Elisabeth. “Sherwood Anderson: The Early Advertising Years.” Unpublished Dissertation: Northwestern University (1986)

    Schevill, James. Sherwood Anderson: His Life and Work. Denver: U of Denver P, 1953.

    Townsend, Kim. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

    White, Ray Lewis. “Winesburg, Ohio Story Titles.” The Winesburg Eagle 10 (November 1984): 6-7.

    Witherspoon, Alexander M. and Frank J. Warnke, eds. Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry. 2nd Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1963.