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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, April 17, 2015

A story that was (too) far ahead of its time: Anderon's The Man Who Became a Woman

Sherwood Anderson's The Man Who Became a Woman is a story so odd and so far ahead of its time you have to wonder whether any of the readers in the 1930s really got it. He gave them, and us, plenty of warning, w/ his Lawrentian and provocative title, but still - the story begins like many SA stories with a naive, unliterary, mid-America narrator struggle to put his thoughts and memories into prose - and in this case he comments on his own difficulties: he's trying to tell a story that he's held in private for many years and thinks that maybe doing so will help him - the story is like a confession in church or, more accurately, like a therapy session. But it comes at us unawares - we think we're in the typical Anderson world, dour portraits of small-town Midwesterners yearning for broader horizons but never quite getting there, and also picks up on a very familiar SA milieu of the small town horse-racing circuit. The narrator tells how he loved working at the track as a "swipe," or groom; his best friend was a black man also a swipe - but he feels he can't be especially close to the black workers as they had their own style and kept largely to themselves and were of course (he doesn't mention this explicitly) excluded from many of the places that the white workers frequented. He goes on to describe how he yearned for a woman but he was too shy to approach any woman so spends much of his time alone. One night, when all the others left the track to go into town to various bars and whorehouses, to put it bluntly, he stays back, for a while - he'd promised to keep an eye on things - but then goes into a bar and gets pretty drunk. Drunk at the bar, looks at his image in a mirror and is startled to see himself as a girl. Goes home in the rain, strips off wet clothes, gets into a horse blanket in a hay loft and tries to sleep, but is wakened by two black swipes returning who see him and seem to think he's a woman and try to attack or rape him - he runs away naked. It's never completely clear whether they actually do attack him; the next morning, he wakens naked and humiliated and leaves the track. So many sexual elements here it's almost impossible to analyze - but it's pretty clear that he's very disturbed about his sexual orientation, that he has strong homosexual yearnings that he's repressed - and still does repress (he talks very dismissively, as he's recalling this story about his youth, about his wife and his marriage), no doubt very drawn to the men, particularly the black men, and to the physicality of his work. The description of rubbing down the horse after the race must be one of the most homoerotic (the horse is a "he") passages in early 20th-century literature, I think. So in a way it's not that he "became" a woman but that he realized for a moment the complex dimensions of his sexual drive - but then, like the entire world of his time, repressed and dismissed those feelings and pursued a conventional, if love-starved, life - but always bearing the burden of that moment of truth - that epiphany, if you will. Anderson (a close friend of Faulkner's in their youth, I just learned) once again steps up as an insightful, progressive, and unconventional writer, overshadowed by his more finely polished and ambitious contemporaries - too bad he's read so little today.

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