Most people who read anything by Sherwood Anderson probably only read Winesburg, Ohio. Now that book is definitely a good one to start with but there is no need to stop there. Anderson was a master of the short-story and I feel that he struggled somewhat with novels; I wonder if he felt that short stories were somehow inferior to novels and that real writers should write novels. His best short stories are easily comparable to Chekhov’s, especially if we accept that Winesburg, Ohio is really a collection of short stories rather than a novel.
Now, I would call Sherwood Anderson one of my favourite authors, but when I look at those I have read it’s actually quite a small fraction of his total output. The problem is that every few years I feel like reading something by him and end up re-reading ones I’ve read before just because I know I like them – I’ve realised that I’m a little bit afraid that he might disappoint me if I read some of his other novels and memoirs, but I shall have to get over this fear.
Anyway, a few months ago I read the collection of stories, Death in the Woods which was originally published in 1933. This wasn’t strictly a re-read, but I had read eight of the sixteen stories years earlier in the excellent collection called Certain Things Last. I can’t remember now what I originally thought of the story Brother Death when I read it but reading it in the Death in the Woods collection I was struck by its simple brilliance.
Sherwood Anderson writes in a very simple and direct way. The story starts thus:
There were two oak stumps, knee high to a not-too-tall man and cut quite squarely across. They became to the two children objects of wonder. They had seen the two trees cut but had run away just as the trees fell.
The two children are Ted, aged eleven and sickly with a heart condition and Mary his sister, aged fourteen. Their father is John Grey who is a successful Virginian farmer who is used to getting his own way. The children discuss whether the trees bled when they were cut. Ted’s condition means that at any moment his heart may stop beating ‘leaving him dead, cut down like a young tree’ and so a strong bond develops between him and Mary. Because of his condition Ted’s mother and most of the adults try to stop Ted from doing anything that might trigger an illness and ultimately his death. This, however, infuriates Mary as it stops Ted from living a normal life.
“If he is to have but a few years of life, they shall not spoil what he is to have. Why should they make him die, over and over, day after day?” The thoughts in her did not become so definite. She had resentment against the others. She was like a soldier, standing guard over Ted.
There is another family struggle going on between the father and the eldest son, Don, aged eighteen.
It concerned ways of doing things, descisions to be made. As yet the son always surrendered.
One day Mary confronts her mother over her molly-coddling of Ted. Ted’s mother reprimands Ted for running about in the rain but Mary, furious with her mother, tells her to ‘have more sense’ and that her over-protectiveness is ‘always making him think of it’. Mary’s mother finally understands and the adults leave the children alone, giving them more room to live.
Anderson now turns back to the two oak tree stumps and an explanation of why the trees were cut down. One day, the father gets it in to his head that the trees, that were just outside of the family house, are stunting the growth of the surrounding grass and that they’re just ornamental and therefore not productive. The house originally came from the mother’s side of the family and the trees were planted by one of her relations. The mother objects to them being cut down as they’re beautiful and the act just seems pointless to her. Ted and Mary object because they like climbing them, but they don’t say anything. Don joins in on his mother’s side and argues against his father vociferously. Both father and son are obstinate, but the father currently holds the authority within the family and he orders some employees to cut down the trees. Don, threatens to leave and never return to the farm. When the tree-cutting continues he leaves the farm.
However, a few days later Don capitulates and returns to the farm. When they meet, the father says to Don “It will be yours soon now…You can be boss then.” Mary witnesses this meeting and we get later recollections of this meeting from her:
“What had the father meant?
“When it is yours you can be boss.” It was too much for the child. Knowledge comes slowly. It meant:
“You will be in command, and for you, in your turn, it will be necessary to assert.
“Such men as we are cannot fool with delicate stuff. Some men are meant to command and others must obey. You can make them obey in your turn.
“There is a kind of death.
“Something in you must die before you can possess and command.”
There was, so obviously, more than one kind of death. For Don Grey one kind and for the younger brother Ted, soon now perhaps, another.
Ted eventually dies in his bed peacefully and Mary later ponders over the death of Ted, the knowledge of which gave him a ‘curious sense of freedom’ whilst he was still alive, whereas Don suffers a ‘more subtle and terrible death’ whilst he’s still alive.
This is a brilliant story brilliantly told. I love the way that the story is told in the third-person but flits backwards and forwards in time with the elder Mary filling in details of what the younger Mary saw and experienced. The volume Death in the Woods is available quite cheaply these days if you’ve got an e-reader. As are Winesburg, Ohio and the excellent Triumph of the Egg.