In 1919, after his first marriage had ended, his family had dissolved, and his career as a mail-order businessman had been tossed aside for artistic dreams, 42-year-old Sherwood Anderson published Winesburg, Ohio, his fourth book of an eventual 27. A quiet, stark volume of nearly plotless biographical sketches, Winesburg was a two-fold Big Bang in American literary history: Its prose style, a deviously intimate third-person omniscience that left no character’s innermost shame unexamined, invented an entire branch of our country’s fiction focused on anonymous, troubled lives, while its overlapping, episodic structure inaugurated the “novel in stories.” These are powerful legacies, perhaps too powerful to overcome: A century on, Anderson is rarely thought of for anything but Winesburg, Ohio, when he is thought of at all.
That famous book’s syntax is so spare and haunting and its simple concept so well-executed that curious readers of Poor White, the 1920 novel that immediately followed it, might feel confused or exhausted over the course of its winding plot and frequent pugilistic asides. Here, Anderson is narratively diffuse rather than precise, socially as well as emotionally minded. Winesburg is a catalog of human loneliness and regret, whereas Poor White is, at least by appearances, a decades-spanning rags-to-riches epic. Going from one to the other, as contemporary readers are likely to do, feels like leaving a one-room log cabin for a taxidermy-festooned hunting lodge: there’s a shared sensibility, a familiar woodsy style, but the scope and intention aren’t even comparable.
I suspect these curious readers will persevere despite the confusion. For all its imperfection, Poor White spills forth with the same stylistic beauty that Winesburg demonstrates, especially Anderson’s knack for heartbreakingly dense narration. And while the plot does wobble—beginning as an allegory, switching to a new character’s perspective and concerns almost halfway through, and culminating in previously unimaginable violence, without anything resembling emotional closure—it does so from grand intentions, and never without a unifying force of vision. If Winesburg, Ohio created a new literary language to map the human capacity for self-recrimination, then Poor White is an attempt to scale up those techniques and indict the entire industrialized world. Anderson sought to dramatize the creation of a Winesburg and its spiritually flustered denizens, and he sought to show that this one town’s ills are those of its age and its nation. It is an odd book but a great one, thematically and stylistically contiguous with its more well-known predecessor. Ultimately, Poor White may even be more immediately relevant to readers a century on, as we contend with a berserk and unsettling new industrialism of our own.
Poor White opens about a decade after the Civil War, when Hugh McVey is born to a Missouri layabout who lives in a shack on the banks of the Mississippi River. When Hugh reaches the cusp of manhood, “a railroad pushed its way down along the river” and he takes a job as a station attendant. Soon he is adopted by his new employers, displaced Northeasterners named Henry and Sarah Shepard, and the latter enlists him in the Protestant work ethic: “It is a sin to be so dreamy and worthless,” Hugh hears from his new mother, and he takes this warning as his creed.
These early pages have a whiff of pastiche: Anderson essentially piles on national archetypal images (the mighty river, the life-changing encroachment of trains, industrious New Englanders named Shepard), while Hugh’s quiet intellect and dirt-poor upbringing recall Huck Finn or even Abraham Lincoln. “If I do not move and keep moving, I’ll become like father,” Hugh worries during one of his “dreamy” spells alone in the train station. His anxiety, his fear-driven need to make something of himself, by himself, is emblematic as well, in keeping with what Anderson, in his famous story “The Egg,” called “the American passion for getting up in the world.”
The Shepards move on, and Hugh, compelled to some undefined notion of material success, keeps moving as well. He experiences “three years of wandering” throughout the Midwest, passing for the first time through farmland and hill country. On this pilgrimage he takes a variety of manual labor jobs and realizes, looking at the communities around him, that:
a quaint and interesting civilization was being developed. Men worked hard but were much in the open air and had time to think. Their minds reached out toward the solution of the mystery of existence.
This is the late 1880s, and one of the greatest pleasures of Poor White Anderson’s crystallization of his native Midwest at the very moment of its romantic enshrining. He gives us loping fields of wheat and cabbage, hilltop barns aglow with kerosene lamps, and dirt-road towns where farmers arrive in horse-drawn wagons to purchase supplies or visit the haberdasher—a semi-cartoon naturalism like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood would manage in the visual arts soon after. Anderson’s depiction is romantic and pastoral, but he also writes as a cultural historian, telling us what these people read and what they think. He writes often in a collective third-person, sweeping the whole region along with summaries of industrial development and even occasional flash-forwards to describe what a certain building is “now,” that is, in 1920. Change becomes the guiding principle of this sainted land, not beauty or quiet or, god knows, the individual propensity for philosophical thinking. By the end of the novel’s second book, we have moved from pastiche to historical documentary, just as Hugh has finally arrived in Bidwell, Ohio, the scene of his most prosperous years.
Well, not quite Bidwell. He is initially stuck at the train depot in nearby Pickleville—named, we learn, for a pickle factory that has since gone out of business. Sitting in the shadow of this empty factory, attending to the very occasional trains that pull in, Hugh once again begins to dream, this time in “the spirit of the age.” While not concerned with profit, he nevertheless occupies himself with thoughts of labor and invention. One night he surreptitiously observes cabbage pickers in a field and thinks up a machine that could do the backbreaking work on their behalf.
This would be the moment of grand triumph in a typical saga of American fortune, but here is where Anderson really begins to interrogate the idea of the self-made man. It isn’t Hugh’s own ambitions or talent that brings his invention to profitable life, it’s blind chance and the desperation of others. Steve Hunter, a would-be magnate who embodies the 1890s’ obsession with riches, needs something to impress investors and assumes that the perpetually doodling, socially awkward man down at the Pickleville junction has some idea they can throw money at. Indeed he does: a mechanical planter, and soon the pickle factory is back up and running to manufacture them. Hugh, who was born in destitution and has yet to acquire so much as a friend, suddenly becomes, in his neighbors’ eyes, “the man who belonged to the new age of iron and steel.”
Anderson is not coy about his feelings toward this age. As a young man, Hugh has a vision where he experiences himself as “part of something significant and terrible that was happening to the earth and to the peoples of the earth,” and this turns out to be prophecy. The success of the planter and his subsequent agricultural inventions quickly buries Bidwell’s placid farmland under pavement and factories, and longstanding social conventions are crushed as well. The metonym for this ravaging loss is Joseph Wainsworth, a talented harness-maker whose expert craftsmanship is made obsolete overnight by mass-production. “I know my trade and do not have to bow down to any man,” Wainsworth says when the machine-made harnesses arrive, but he is unconvinced even then, and his growing anger is the most important plot development that Anderson slowly builds under his main story.
In Anderson’s vision of socioeconomic progress, both the visionary inventor and the overwhelmed craftsman are like weathervanes spinning in the wind. Things are always happening to his characters, like the railway line that “pushed its way” into Hugh’s early life. Anderson’s artistic breakthrough was his exquisite depiction of this powerlessness and the pain it brings. “All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they themselves have built,” as he writes in Poor White, “and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind those walls.” They are all like the local boy Ed Hall, one of many who gathers to see and celebrate newly rich Hugh McVey once the planter becomes nationally known. Standing in an awestruck crowd, Ed wonders aloud, “They say he’s smart. I suppose he wouldn’t tell me nothing. I wish I was smart enough to invent something and maybe get rich.”
The book’s only major character who comes close to a life on their own terms is a woman, Clara Butterworth, daughter of Bidwell’s biggest landowner. Clara “did not want stupidly to accept life” and goes to college to find wisdom, experience, and friendship. The closest she comes is a formative relationship with a radical student named Kate Chancellor, with whom, Anderson implies, she had an unacted-upon romantic affinity as well. But life draws her back to Bidwell nonetheless, where, angrily aware of the social requirements for any successful woman, she accepts that she needs to marry. She chooses Hugh McVey, or as Anderson unromantically puts it, “a chain of circumstances…hurled them into marriage.” Despite their wealth, they remain hesitant, incompatible partners, perpetually unhappy and barely even capable of physical intimacy.
Anderson himself knew this condition all too well and returned to it throughout his work, including in “The Egg,” which is part of a small group of his stories set in Bidwell. His central theme was man’s tendency to feel “swept aside from his purpose by the complexity of life,” as he writes in Poor White. But this novel is even more frankly autobiographical than his other tales. He may not have been a river rat like Hugh McVey, but Anderson grew up in poverty at the exact same time in history, with a father who underperformed at a series of careers, including, briefly, harness-making. “A man, if he is any good, never gets over being a boy,” he would later write in the novel Tar: A Mid-West Childhood, and he was forever committed to avoiding his father’s waywardness. Anderson took to heart the various midwestern economic koans he heard as a boy, including “Money makes the mare go.” He went into business early and did his first writing as an ad man before eventually taking over his own catalog company and starting a family in Elyria, Ohio.
That first marriage, to a worldly, wealthy businessman’s daughter named Cornelia Lane, was joyless and increasingly suffocating. Anderson’s interest in literature and writing took root in an attic workspace where he sequestered himself to escape from the daily trials of young children and money-chasing. In his memoirs he recounts and episode where, bereft and lonely, he returned from a nighttime walk and spotted Cornelia pacing in their yard. Rather than approach or comfort her, he kept his distance and peered through the shrubbery, watching her suffer in solitude. Much as Hugh McVey witnesses cabbage pickers through the bushes and vows to end their pain, Anderson took this furtive glimpse of quiet dread and built his entire aesthetic and worldview around it.
His achievement in Poor White is a kind of double-vision, an ability to dramatize personal angst and national tragedy as one story. Anderson saw the machine age as a betrayal, and felt profit-maximization was a goal unworthy of decent people. He had his own psychic break with that life, a fugue state in 1912 that precipitated his heedless turn to fiction writing and gradual separation from business. Anderson knew the misery that metastasized in the commerce-centered life and wrote this grand, occasionally high-blown novel to warn people that industry will only create more awful nights in the yard for everyone it touches. He had poetry in his soul, and his earnest, mournful writing is saved from bathos by his insistence that everyone else does, as well.
In the 21st century, a Midwest-set novel titled Poor White surely spurs thoughts of opioid casualties and postindustrial decay. Anderson’s story is like a prologue to that current one, a warning that the industrialization of the country’s most fertile agricultural region was a rotten idea from the get-go. But its other warnings—about the instant and unregulated accrual of wealth, and the haphazard sorting of fortune and luck in boom times—ring louder to my contemporary ears.
Poor White, above all, is about change. It concerns the great lost opportunities of industrialization, which might have improved people’s lives materially but moved them farther away from that concern for “the mysteries of existence” that Hugh McVey notices in his countrymen before the machinery arrives. The parallels with the information age are almost too obvious to mention. Armed with the widest access to knowledge in human history, American society has grown more economically unequal. Middle-class wages have stagnated while the effective and actual costs of education, housing, even food, have skyrocketed. Unions are under perennial attack, just as they are in Poor White’s final pages. Blessed with unbelievable convenience in all aspects of life, we produce a literally life-threatening amount of garbage and struggle to find political consensus that the planet is even worth taking steps to save.
In response to this hopeless reality, there is currently a widespread belief among readers and writers that fiction teaches empathy. I find this argument wrong and even wrong-minded, but certainly all good writing shows us potential ways of seeing the world, and few writers have widened the scope of what American literature could show as much as Sherwood Anderson. He took our most cherished national myths of self-reliance and continuous societal improvement and slowed them to a crawl, revealing the confusion and dissociation that result from this gospel of eternal striving. He doesn’t ask us to empathize with other people so much as he forces us to confront our own unquestioned presumptions about ourselves.
“Everything worth while is very far away,” thinks Clara on an automobile ride at the end of Poor White. Almost no one in Bidwell has a car at this point, but her father, “who now talked only of the making of machines and money,” unsurprisingly does. She could be speaking for the residents of left-behind towns in contemporary Ohio and elsewhere, or for the millions of us who feel the levers of power are accessible only to the hyper-wealthy. She could be speaking for anyone who reflexively refreshes a social media feed to stave off anxiety. It is the right time for us to rediscover Sherwood Anderson, who interrogated subconscious American assumptions as well as any other writer in our history. What a thrill to have this complex book back in print, to see the ways in which a genius can recognize the culture’s ills in its residents’ sadness—and his own. Poor White is a social history that reaches uncomfortably deep into its subjects’ psyches, a still-relevant tract that aches with raw feeling. We might still yet heed its example, and appreciate its vision.
Excerpted from John Lingan’s Introduction to the new edition of Poor White by Sherwood Anderson, part of Belt Publishing’s Belt Revivals series. Reprinted with permission from Belt Publishing, copyright 2018.