The myth about Sherwood Anderson—that in the middle of a successful advertising career he repudiated the moneymaking ethics and the regimentation of business in order to realize himself as a writer—has become part of our literary tradition, an ironic reversal of the Horatio Alger myth. After working in advertising for 12 years, he realized that he was being dishonest with words and dishonest with himself. He wanted to uproot himself, to walk out the door and out of that baleful phase of his life. Thus he walked away from his desk and out of town. The central concern of the stories for which Anderson is celebrated today is that of young boys growing into manhood. This theme links his classic cycle of related stories about Winesburg, Ohio, and the subject of Horses and Men (1923) and its three famous monologues that recapture his summers at the race tracks: “I Want to Know Why,” “The Man Who Became a Woman,” and “I’m a Fool.”
In these oral narratives, the racetrack setting and the sounds and earthy smells of the stables, the closeness of horses and men, represent the easy, intimate, and idyllic relationship that Anderson was convinced existed between human beings and the natural world before the onslaught of the machine. Like the raft and the river in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the stables and the racetrack are places of contentment and escape, Edenic oases for the Adamic adolescent. Horses in this context embody the noble fulfillment of purposeful nature; they are dependable, honest, and fine, while adults are ambiguous, devious, and phony. Each of these three monologues is a tale of resistance to the loss of boyhood innocence and of reluctant initiation into the complexities of manhood, especially the shadowy complexities of adult sexuality.
The emotional tone of these tales, on which so much of their lasting appeal is based, mixes boyish bewilderment, frustration, and vulnerability. The boy-man in each suffers from feelings of inferiority (social and sexual), and he speaks from the depths of his being, confessing his burden of guilt and confusion in order to come to terms with it and to subdue it forever. His pitiful search for the meaning of the experience, for understanding, is his reason for telling the story, for taking us into his confidence.
Although the main incident in “I’m a Fool” has occurred some time before the telling of the tale, the big lumbering fellow who confesses it still fails to understand why it happened. He had told a lie to impress the young woman with whom he is in love, but he blames his foolishness on “the dude in the Windsor tie” and on being slightly drunk, not on the unresolved conflict of values that is tearing him up inside, the conflict between life in the stables and life in the grandstand. He is in mild revolt against the dude’s false air and against the false respectability of his middle-class mother and his schoolteacher sister—respectability imposed by a binding morality and a restrictive society where money and position are at stake. Yet even he capitulates to the social importance of appearances when he meets the girl in the soft blue dress. And when he must, he, too, can put up a good front; deceiving comes easily when he is at the mercy of economic and social forces beyond his control. It is only afterward, on the beach, against the background of a clump of roots sticking up like arms, that he realizes that his denial of his origins, of his identity, will hold him back from the fulfillment of the tenderness and love that he feels. But he never understands why.
Anderson’s main techniques in dramatizing the story are to convert the oral monologue into a dialogue and a series of incremental dramatic scenes, and to rearrange time in an orderly manner. The unskilled speaker in the story, unable to control his responses, rambles and runs on, in and out of time, relating events that occurred in the past, events that occurred on the day of the races (which was some time ago, before prohibition), and disclosing his present, compulsive desire to make himself look cheap. That the story should adapt to a dramatic form as faithfully as it does attests to Anderson’s painstaking, original craftsmanship and to his finesse in making colloquial conversation—essentially, an ancient way of storytelling—serve the needs of modern fiction and drama. In Anderson’s dramatic monologue, the artless rambling of the boy-man, not only continuously reveals his character in ways he does not even suspect but also artfully pushes the action forward.
Anderson sold “I’m a Fool” to the literary magazine the DIAL for less than $100 because he could not successfully sell it to the mass market, where editors found it unfinished and vague. But so was life, Anderson argued, and he continued to write stories that an admiring Virginia Woolf was later to call “shellless”—stories that exposed the vulnerable areas and the secrets of thwarted lives and that illuminated the obscure realm of personal relationships.
By the example of the crisis in his own life, Sherwood Anderson is said to have liberated man from timetable servitude to business; by the example of his art, he is said to have liberated the short story from its previous dependence on slick plots and trick endings. Generations of writers have followed and will continue to follow his example in both areas. Almost all good modern fiction writers, including Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, whom Anderson so generously helped at the beginning of their literary careers, are beholden to him. Although Sherwood Anderson was a provincial in his choice of subject matter, in his concentration on the limited lives of limited human beings, he was a pioneer in his narrative techniques.
Anderson, Sherwood. The Portable Sherwood Anderson. Edited by Horace Gregory. New York: Viking, 1949.
———. Sherwood Anderson: Short Stories. Edited by Maxwell Geismar. New York: Hill & Wang, 1962.
———. Winesburg, Ohio. Edited by Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1960.
Papinchak, Robert Allen. Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Small, Judy Jo. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.