Capturing America at the rural-industrial divide

June 13, 1993|By Joseph Coates | Joseph Coates,Chicago Tribune

POOR WHITE.

Sherwood Anderson.

New Directions Paperbook.

363 pages. $12.95. Sherwood Anderson may ultimately be remembered as a kind of sentimental mascot, a reminder to writers of the toughness of the territory they've staked out. He deserves better.

Born in 1876, he was out of step with his times, which gave him a theme, but even his successful exploitation of it, when he got published in his 40s, expressed "sentiments that were going out of fashion with the very writers he would influence the most, such as Hemingway," notes novelist Wright Morris.

The title character of "Windy McPherson's Son," Anderson's first novel, "is closer to Horatio Alger than he is to Henry in [Stephen Crane's] 'The Red Badge of Courage,' or all those boys who would soon go off to fight a war that would bury, with other dreams, the dreams of Horatio Alger," Mr. Morris says.

"Poor White" (1920), possibly the best novel Anderson wrote, catches a vanished America at the moral and spiritual hinge on which the country swung toward industrialism and the machine, whose clamor would "drown the voices and confuse the thinking men" and obliterate the "quaint interesting civilization [that] was being developed. . . . in even the smallest of the towns" of the Midwest.

Curiously, his attitude toward the small town changes 180 degrees depending on the form he's using. In the novel, this one especially, he apostrophizes the one-horse towns of his childhood as a lost Eden. In short stories, particularly the song cycle "Winesburg, Ohio," he's leading the "revolt against the village," where the flood tide of the westward push has receded into stagnant backwaters that poison their population of alienated "grotesques."

The Missourian Hugh McVey in "Poor White" is a wandering giant with midget self-esteem, representing a whole class of migrant small farmers pushed off the good Southern land by the planter oligarchy. Rescued from a drunken father by a brisk New England woman but still alienated from others, he turns inward to concentrate his restless mind on "sums" and mechanical problems to embody, finally, the industrial force that is sweeping west like a new frontier and replacing community with money fever.

McVey, a symbol of America's robotic industrial success and a haunting prototype of the barely conscious American messiah with a message he can't articulate, would be copied by William Faulkner and Nathanael West, and represents perhaps Anderson's ultimate creation: Huck Finn's idiot brother.

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