- Reviewed by
With Kim Townsend's Sherwood Anderson we have at last a detailed, full-length biography of one of the major shapers of modern American literature. Anderson is important: in the emergence of an American prose idiom he is a pivotal figure linking Twain and Stein to Hemingway; in fictional experiments with form his loosely built, self-referring prose narratives anticipate the postmodern fictions of [End Page 619] today. Anderson's influence spans much of this century, and the biographer's task here is not simply to recreate a life but also to assemble a literary history.
Townsend succeeds admirably in both areas. The literary worlds in which Anderson moved, particularly those of the Chicago renaissance and Paris and New York of the Twenties, are documented in detail. Townsend describes the little magazines and reviews in which Anderson was first published and the personalities of the editors who brought his writings to public attention. He has a more difficult task, however, putting together an accurate account of his subject's life. Anderson left behind a large accumulation of biographical materials—letters, diaries, memoirs, notebooks, and two semiautobiographical narratives (Tar and A Story Teller's Story )—but in each version events are altered. Anderson frequently insisted that reality was a fiction, but that does not solve the matter for a biographer, and Townsend is forced at times to confess he is not sure which version should stand. He does this, however, unobtrusively, never spoiling the flow of his story.
Townsend's interpretation of Anderson's life brings the different versions together into a whole. Anderson's difficult relationship with women, for example, he views as cumbered by the guilt and responsibility instilled in him by his mother, a relationship he wanted to flee but could not. Townsend gives a good analysis of Anderson's bewildering entry into manhood, with its oedipal dilemma of defiling woman, and a particularly good account of the mounting pressures Anderson experienced before his "breakdown" in 1912, especially his self-disgust as he became increasingly a corrupt businessman. Anderson saved himself through his writing; it was both self-discovery and fun—in every sense, as Stein said, re-creation.
Townsend describes effectively Anderson's coming to be a writer, giving a detailed account of the composition of "Hands," but does not provide very comprehensive critical readings of Anderson texts. One feels that Townsend's readings are not broadly informed by the critical opinion and theory of the last twenty years. One misses here on the one hand some account of the importance of Anderson's language and style as analyzed by semioticians and on the other the broad, sound thematic judgments of a seasoned scholar like David D. Anderson. Townsend's own style is undistinguished; one feels his editors at Houghton Mifflin should have occasionally helped him to more graceful expression and should indeed have caught the typing errors in the final proofs.
Nonetheless Townsend has put together a solid account of Anderson's life that is well documented and nicely illustrated. With this intricate view of the author's chaotic personal life, his chequered career, and the rapidly changing culture in which he lived, there will be no need for another Anderson biography for a long time. [End Page 620]