restricted access The Reader as Voyeur: Complicitous Transformations in "Death in the Woods"
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The Reader as Voyeur:
Complicitous Transformations in "Death in the Woods"

Like most writers, Sherwood Anderson was vitally concerned with the workings of the imagination and the creation of art. For Anderson, these concerns were also inextricably linked to questions of personal salvation. In letters to his son John, himself a painter, Anderson asserted that "The object of art . . . is to save yourself": "Self is the grand disease. It is what we are all trying to lose" (Letters 166, 167). Given Anderson's faith in the redemptive possibilities of art, it is not surprising that the writer frequently compared "literary [and nonliterary] composition to the experience of pregnancy and deliverance, and also to the poles of maleness and femaleness in life" (Letters xv). One letter composed three years before the author's death well illustrates Anderson's understanding of the problematic nature of such "deliverance":

The trouble with the creative impulse . . . is that it tends to lift you up too high into a sort of drunkenness and then drop you down too low. There is an artist lurking in every man. The high spots for the creative man come too seldom. He is like a woman who has been put on her back and made pregnant, but even after he gets the seed in him, he has to carry it a long time before anything comes out.

If, as Anderson claims, "There is an artist lurking in every man," so, [End Page 175] also, did the writer believe that there is a woman "lurking" in every artist. Indeed, the image of the male artist whose "lurking" burden is the female within is depicted repeatedly in the correspondence, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in a letter Anderson sent late in life to his mother-in-law, Laura Lou Copenhaver: "There is a woman hidden away in every artist. Like the woman he becomes pregnant. He gives birth. When the children of his world are spoken of rudely or, through stupidity, not understood, there is a hurt that anyone who has not been pregnant, who has not given birth, will never understand" (Letters 428).1

The assumptions "hidden away" within such assertions are easily gleaned from letters in which Anderson frankly acknowledges his "old-fashioned"2 views about men and women. In another letter to his son John, Anderson admitted, "I do not believe that, at bottom, they [women] have the least interest in art. What their lover gives to work they cannot get" (Letters 187). As a result, the writer held that the sole "high spot" available for women to experience in life is childbirth. To be sure, Anderson understood that the biological impulse also moves man,3 but, as he makes clear in letters to his male friends, the love of woman "isn't enough for an eager man": "No woman could ever be in herself what we want or think we want" (Letters 168, 324). Thus, whereas woman's destiny is circumscribed by biology, man's destiny transcends the purely physical and finds consummate expression only in the creation of art. As Anderson explained to Dwight MacDonald in 1929: [End Page 176]

There is no purpose other than the artist's purpose and the purpose of the woman. The artist purposes to bring to life, out of the . . . hidden form in lives, nature, things, the living form as women purpose doing that out of their lovely bodies.

The artist there[fore] is your only true male. . . .

The "tru[ly] male" quality of Anderson's artistic imagination and of his polarized worldview is forcefully represented in his short stories and novels, as well as in his letters and memoirs. Indeed, to speak of woman's destiny in the context of Anderson's fiction is to call to mind what is undoubtedly one of the master storyteller's most disturbing tales, "Death in the Woods." Written at the "peak of his [creative] powers" (Howe 160), "Death in the Woods" has provoked a varied critical response, ranging from interpretations that see the tale much as Anderson claims he did, as a biological allegory depicting woman as feeder, to more recent interpretations that focus less upon...


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