The Small Town in the Machine Age: Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White”

Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson

For those generally familiar with American literature, particularly that of the early twentieth century, the name Sherwood Anderson likely brings to mind his famous collection of interconnected short stories called Winesburg, Ohio (1919). This book is one of a number appearing around the time that helped, as is often said in some literary histories, to “blow the lid” off of that venerated American institution–the small town. This “revolt from the village,” as it has often been called, was a central element of American letters from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1930s. Even after World War II novels continued to appear which probed the darker realities of American life behind the surface of small American communities. One such notable book is Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, which created excitement and debate in its time and is still well worth reading today. Some of this writing was in reaction to the notion that American small towns and cities were bastions of goodness and wholesomeness in contrast to corrupt and filthy cities.

Spoon River in Illinois.

Spoon River in Illinois.

It was 100 years ago, in 1915, that Edgar Lee Masters’ seminal poetry collection Spoon River Anthology appeared (which will be the subject of a special post here on buckeyemuse before the year’s end), a book in which the dead in the local cemetery speak of their thwarted dreams and desires, their sins and crimes, their adulteries and scandals. Sinclair Lewis published his notorious novel Main Street in 1920, and followed it a few years later with his satirical treatment of the small-time businessman Babbitt (1922) and his portrait of the corrupt minister Elmer Gantry (1927).

Sherwood Anderson with his wife, children, and father-in-law in 1909.

Sherwood Anderson with his wife, children, and father-in-law in 1909.

Zona Gale, Ruth Suckow, Willa Cather and others created fictional works capturing the loneliness, alienation, narrowness and corruption in smaller communities. Thomas Wolfe wrote his four autobiographical novels about small town North Carolina that infuriated his former neighbors. Journalist H.L. Mencken famously excoriated the culture of rural America, particularly in the South. This notion, by the way, that small town life in these times was full of corruption, bigotry, complacency, mean-spirited religiosity and sterility is also sometimes referred to as “the village virus.” Mencken wanted to see American life inoculated against the virulent strains he believed residing in its provincial culture, and railed against them accordingly.

Sherwood Anderson as a boy.

Sherwood Anderson as a boy.

But this literary history is more complicated than this short description may suggest. The more unflinching kind of literary treatment of small town life and everyday folk was part of a much larger movement towards realism in literature not only in the United States but Europe as well. Writers wanted to capture the realties of a changing modern world, a world that would be upended by the First World War and once again with a second conflict. The desire to throw off the inhibitions of the Victorian period was relentless, and novelists, poets, and short story writers began to more openly address issues surrounding sexuality. The influence of Sigmund Freud, to name but one important figure, was profound.

The critical examination of rural and small town life had roots extending back to the previous century. One of the first books to examine a sterile rural community is Edgar Watson’s The Story of a Country Town, published all the way back in 1883. Hamlin Garland wrote of bleak lives on the prairie in his realist classic Main-Travelled Roads. And Mark Twain was no stranger to the darkness of the human heart, particularly in the rural hamlets alongside the Mississippi River, and there are strange things that go on in the nighttime even in the sunny world of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Last but certainly not least, I would be remiss not to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne, who gave us one of the great treatments of hypocrisy and cold-hearted morality in the much smaller Boston of the 1600s in The Scarlet Letter.

Camden, Ohio--birthplace of Sherwood Anderson

Camden, Ohio–birthplace of Sherwood Anderson

There is yet another layer to this that demands our attention. This “revolt from the village” is further complicated when we look more closely at these books, such as Winesburg, Ohio. While there was at times a negative impulse animating this kind of writing that peered so deeply into the depths of small town and rural America, much of it was also driven by a desire not only to examine and expose, in the name of realism and honesty, but also to awaken others to what was missing in the lives of people and to raise questions about what had been lost in pursuit of opportunity in this fledgling nation.

Big Etna coke furnace in Ironton, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Appalachianhistory.net.

Big Etna coke furnace in Ironton, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Appalachianhistory.net.

Some of these writers were outraged idealists who felt deeply the rift between the positive forces and ideals that were supposedly present in American life and the realities they saw around them. In many of these novels and short stories there are moments of transcendence and vision, love and honesty, insight and inspiration. Positive people and influences in these small communities appear alongside of barrenness, rigidity, and pharisaical religion. Often we sense a love for these characters suffocated and oppressed by the forces and people governing their lives. Even the satirist Sinclair Lewis often reveals affection for the places and people he writes about, and Carol Kennicott, the outsider protagonist of Main Street who seeks to uplift the provincial types around her, can be seen as foolish and judgmental in contrast to the simple and straightforward people of the town of Gopher Prairie. The fact remains that, like much else in our world, these towns were a mixture of darkness and light. Human nature played its role in  shaping individual lives for good or ill. Any fair reading of history has to note that many people loved the places where they lived and chose to remain in the small communities they called home.

Morning Sun Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun, Ohio. This church was built in the late 1800s. Anderson's parents lived in Morning Sun for a while.

Morning Sun Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun, Ohio. This church was built in the late 1800s. Anderson’s parents lived in Morning Sun for a while.

There is another predominant theme that emerged in American literature at this time, and that was the impact on American communities and people by industrialism and the rise of major commercial interests. These interests shaped not only the physical landscape of the nation, but the spiritual, moral, and economic dimensions of American society. The theme appears in works by writers such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and others, and operates as a low but audible hum in the background of many other narratives even when other themes are predominant.

It was once a sleepy village: Chicago, Illinois.

It was once a sleepy village: Chicago, Illinois.

Even in a book like Winesburg, Ohio, which focuses so much on the interior lives of its characters, there is the knowledge that the world around them is being transformed, a point that is highlighted at the conclusion when the central character, George Willard, departs from Winesburg to make his way in the big city. There is little opportunity for a young man like him in the town of his birth. Larger forces have sent their tremors into the countryside, bringing inevitable change with them.

Historical marker for Sherwood Anderson in Camden, Ohio. Anderson was born there, but his family moved to Clyde just a year after his birth.

Historical marker for Sherwood Anderson in Camden, Ohio. Anderson was born there, but his family moved to Clyde just a year after his birth.

Poor White is a novel by Sherwood Anderson that examines this transformation of agrarian America, but also explores the forces that shape life in a small community, the lives of some of its people, and asks what is it missing in the lives of Americans. Poor White is often considered Anderson’s best novel. Although best known for Winesburg, Ohio and a number of other short stories, Anderson wrote novels, memoir, autobiography and journalism as well.

A fictional memoir of Anderson's:

A fictional memoir of Anderson’s: “Tar: A Midwest Childhood.” Sherwood is the boy seated at far left.

Poor White appeared in 1920. It tells the story of Hugh McVey, a young boy who grows up in conditions not unlike Huck Finn’s in a squalid Missouri riverfront town called Mudcat Landing. His father, like Huck’s Pap, is a drunken loafer. Hugh grows up in a state of torpor, spending his days idling by the river. It is only when he takes a job at the Mudcat Landing railway station that his life changes. The telegraph operator’s wife, a New England woman who senses Hugh’s potential, encourages Hugh to put his mind to work. Hugh soon leaves Mudcat Landing and heads east to Ohio, drifting from job to job and eventually landing in a town called Bidwell. He carries in his mind the images of thriving factories after hearing the telegraph operator’s wife speak of vibrant industrial New England towns.

Sherwood Anderson's

Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White.”

In Bidwell, Hugh explores and develops his capacity for creating labor-saving machinery. His first machine is a cabbage-planting device. This invention ultimately proves unsuccessful, but Hugh’s talent for invention becomes clear, and in turn attracts the attention of a budding capitalist named Steve Hunter. McVey’s friend and associate Hunter is a man interested only in profits. McVey develops a successful farm machinery business—but at a cost he doesn’t expect. Farm hands find themselves out of work because of McVey’s machines. Some find themselves factory hands, removed from the lands on which they labored in close connection with the farmers who employed them. The factories also attract outsiders, many of them job-seeking immigrants who do not understand the local culture of Bidwell. Slums begin to appear in the town. Men also leave Bidwell to work in other places. Older businesses, mainly small operations run by artisans and craftsmen, such as a harness making shop, are casualties of the machine age.

Richland, Missouri: a Midwestern town that's seen better days.

Richland, Missouri: a Midwestern town that’s seen better days.

McVey, a kind of natural man and innocent, is disturbed by the changes he unknowingly helps bring to Bidwell. Much of the second half of the book concerns his relationship with a woman named Clara Butterworth and McVey’s efforts to untangle himself from what he has wrought and live a life in alignment with his true values. Critics are correct in finding the structure of the book unwieldy. But it has many rewards for the reader willing to follow this ambling tale.

I first read Poor White in 2001, and I had never before encountered a book that captured for me so completely much of what I felt to be the Midwest of the late 1800s and early twentieth century. McVey is a witness to history and change, and agent of the same, and we follow him along the country roads and over the bridges of the great rivers as he makes his way across the land, a figure working on the railroads and in the fields, searching for some purpose in life as he makes his way to Bidwell. He is like the Midwest itself awakening to its destiny in the life of the nation.

Dirt road outside my mother's hometown of Richland, Missouri.

Dirt road outside my mother’s hometown of Richland, Missouri.

The book is powerfully evocative. The drowsiness of Bidwell after all the hands have left for the fields, the joking and raillery around the dinner table among farmers and hands, the great Ohio oil field boom, the passage from bucolic town to thriving industrial city—all of this is wonderfully captured in Poor White. I have thought often of this book through the years when driving the back roads and highways of the Midwest, seeing the farmland rolling away on either side and wondering about all the untold and forever unknown histories of the people who lived upon that earth.

Farmland outside of Richland, Missouri.

Farmland outside of Richland, Missouri.

Horace Gregory, a distinguished poet and translator, wonderfully captures the qualities of Poor White in an introduction he wrote to The Portable Sherwood Anderson:

“Poor White belongs among the few books that have restored with remarkable vitality the life of an era, its hopes and desires, its conflicts between material prosperity and ethics, and its disillusionments, in a manner that stimulates the historical imagination.” Later Gregory writes that “No novel of the American small town in the Middle West evokes in the mind of its readers so much of the cultural heritage of its milieu as does Poor White; nor does Anderson in his later novels ever recapture the same richness of association, the ability to make memorable each scene in the transition from an agrarian way of living to a twentieth-century spectacle of industrial conflict with its outward display of physical comfort and wealth.”

There is one other dimension of Poor White worth noting, and it harkens back to the material at the beginning of this post about the community life of small town America. McVey, by the end of the book, has not only taken stock of what has happened to Bidwell. His marriage to Clara Butterworth and the future of their unborn child directs him back to deeper needs within himself—his need to love another person, to be more truly connected to others, to find meaning in life beyond worldly success. The things that separate one person from another, especially men from women, were an important concern for Anderson. His work is filled with people who yearn for connection, who are bursting with unlived life, who ache for relations with others that are anchored in real values.

Sherwood Anderson in later years.

Sherwood Anderson in later years.

The Midwest is home to culture aplenty now, but our American economy still leaves too many victims in its wake, and our small communities especially have been profoundly damaged by the terms upon which we live. We face a new threat to community life by the isolation and anomie bred by technology. We are in some ways as mute and disconnected as any character in these books of long ago, while we face threats unimaginable in the heyday of Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson. This deeper search for reconciliation and connections remains with us. Our country’s recent confrontations with the long and bitter heritage of racism underscore the need for all of us to live in right relation as one people. As another Midwestern writer of a different kind—John Mellencamp—once put it, “the air could be cleaner/and the water could too/ but what we do to each other/ are the worst things that we do.”

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Poor White by Sherwood Anderson, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1993. First published in 1920.

Sherwood Anderson by Rex Burbank. Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1964.

The Portable Sherwood Anderson, edited and with an introduction by Horace Gregory. The Viking Press, New York, 1949.

“Another Sunny Day, 12/25” by John Mellencamp and George Green from the album “Dance Naked.” Mercury, 1994.

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