Poor old Sherwood Anderson, no-one reads his books anymore—apart from Winesburg, Ohio that is. As he’s one of my favourite authors I was glad to see that he published a book in 1924 so that I could read it as part of The 1924 Club. A Story Teller’s Story is a memoir as such, but anyone who has read anything by Anderson will realise that we aren’t necessarily going to get a straightforward autobiography. In my experience Anderson was an author that excelled in character studies and short stories; his style is almost impressionistic, where objective details can get a bit blurred or fuzzy; but he really excels in getting inside the characters’ heads. Even when he tried to write longer works Anderson seemed unable to stop it from fragmenting into tales and anecdotes, and I’m guessing that for many people this is one aspect of his style that they find annoying. Winesburg, Ohio is the best example of this as sometimes it’s described as a novel and other times as a collection of short stories. Likewise A Story Teller’s Story soon fragments into episodic tales and recollections from his childhood to the period when he was writing the book. He starts to tell tales from different periods as well and it becomes a glorious, jumbled-up mess of memoir, essay and character studies.
A Story Teller’s Story begins with Anderson’s childhood, where the dominant figure, for Anderson was his father who is described as ‘a ruined dandy from the South’ who worked as a sign-writer. He also states: ‘Father was made for romance. For him there was no such thing as a fact.’ Anderson takes after his father so any description of his father can often be seen to apply to Anderson himself and the main theme of the book is how dreamers can survive in the materialistic America of the early 20th century.
One of his father’s passions is storytelling. During the winter, when his sign-writing work was nonexistent, his father would travel about with a friend visiting local farms where they would put on a variety act for entertainment such as singing, dancing and magic lantern shows—and of course storytelling. His father would spin a story out making it up as he went along, playing to the audience and alternately trying to scare them, amuse them, make them cry. This is what his father lived for.
Father was in his element now. This was pie for him. No hungry sons about, no sick wife, no grocery bills or rent to be paid. This the golden age—timeless; there was no past, no future—the quiet, unsophisticated people in the room were putty to his hands.
Surely there was something magnificent in my father’s utter disregard for the facts of life.
His father’s tales though are not necessarily truthful and it’s difficult for Anderson to know what is true about his father. But as Anderson gives a descriptive account of one of these entertainment evenings, which he admits he never attended, we must assume that what Anderson tells us of events has been filtered through his storytelling consciousness. Anderson warns us explicitly about this:
But these notes make no pretense of being a record of fact. That isn’t their object. They are merely notes of impressions, a record of vagrant thoughts, hopes, ideas that have floated through the mind of one present-day American. It is likely that I have not, and will not, put into them one truth, measuring by the ordinary standards of truth. It is my aim to be true to the essence of things. That’s what I’m after.
Anderson’s mother is pictured as a level-headed, strong-willed but rather sickly woman who holds the family together whilst his feckless father is off gallivanting about. One scene has the young Anderson in bed with his brothers as his mother rubs fat into their hands.
The fat in the little cracked china dish is warm and soothing to burning itching hands. For an hour she has had the dish sitting at the back of the kitchen stove in the little frame house far out at the edge of the town.
The strange, silent mother! She is making love to her sons, but there are no words for her love. There are no kisses, no caresses.
The rubbing of the warm fat into the cracked hands of her sons is a caress. The light that now shines in her eyes is a caress.
Anderson’s childhood is covered in Book One. Book Two covers his early adult life where he lived in roominghouses whilst working at manual jobs. He has a relationship with a young girl, Nora and he works periodically with horses. During this time he spends a lot of time reading as well. There are stories-within-stories as well; we hear a judge’s story of his youth as a rather effeminate, bookish man and his desire to poison some of his fellow students in revenge—this story was left hanging somewhat as it was unclear whether the judge acted on his impulses. But the judge’s decision to make money, together with the materialistic ethos that Anderson describes permeatting America at the time, influences Anderson’s decision to get into advertising.
Following some problems that Anderson had had with his business, his family and the tension between his professional life and his budding writing career, he had a nervous breakdown in 1912. He walked out of work only to turn up days later in a dazed state of mind. It is unclear what exactly happened but Anderson himself feels that it was pivotal in his life as he subsequently divorced his wife and devoted his time to writing. Anderson describes the event in this book; whilst dictating to his secretary he was struck with an overwhelming desire to escape. On leaving he says to her: “My feet are cold wet and heavy from long wading in a river. Now I shall go walk on dry land.” He then describes the events that followed in an almost dreamlike state.
This post is already too long so I will just say that the rest of the book covers the period when he was a writer and his attempt to ingratiate himself with the literary elite in New York. The Epilogue, which is about thirty pages long, is a work of art in itself and could easily be read as a stand-alone story. In fact if you’re not sure if you want to invest the time in the book as a whole then I would suggest reading just the epilogue. It’s a simple story and is quintessential Anderson that involves storytellers telling their stories and the problems and pleasures that this occupation throws up.
I included the cover of the ‘University of Michigan’ version in this post as I really like the photograph of Anderson sitting at his desk in profile. But I actually read a free copy from The Internet Archive. I found the kindle version had too many typos to read but the pdf version was fine.