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

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

The end of the American myth of self-reliance - Sherwood Anderson's stories

No doubt that Sherwood Anderson's stories, which from the outset painted a dark portrait of the insular lives in a small midwestern town - and the yearning, often stifled, to escape the confines of small-town life - a surprising even shocking view that ran counter to the American myth of self-reliance and community resilience, became even darker late in his writing career. His final collection was A Death in the Snow, and I read the title story yesterday - an account of the horrifying death of a woman who lived with an abusive husband and his ally, their 20-something son, in poverty and near starvation in a small house at the edge of town. Nobody helped her, nobody cared for her, nobody even really noticed her - the town turned away from her, out of indifference and, to a degree, out of fear of her husband and his violent rages. We get a detailed narration of her last day alive - struggling into town to trade some eggs for a few provisions, and her struggle to get back home in the snow, sitting to rest, freezing to death, her sack of groceries devoured by a pack of dogs (including her own dogs) - and that's the conclusion of the story, that her life was about feeding animals, and men - with not the slightest bit of love or caring in return - but the deeper meaning is the shattering of the myth of the small town as a place, unlike the "big city," where people cared for one another and where the poor were nurtured by neighbors, by church, etc - that is, in the days before social services and "big government" - so we can see how the poor and abused were truly served in the age of self-reliance. Anderson, in his shrewd narration of the story, acknowledges that it contains details that nobody save the dead woman could possibly know - and he also notes that there are people like this woman in every small town. Also read, at suggestion of old friend and editor of Library of America edition, C. Baxter, one of the uncollected stories in the edition: The Corn Planting - quite a powerful story and in a way the opposite of Death in the Snow, this one about an elderly and self-reliant couple, also on the outskirts of town, whose son, to whom they are devoted, dies in a car accident in Chicago - and the narrator and a friend, the h.s. principal, are delegated to bring this tragic news to the parents. Their silent resilience is a strong a sad testament - and Anderson's unusual narrative decision to tell the story w/out actually showing the most powerful scene makes the story all the more haunting and mysterious. I can see why it remained unpublished or at least uncollected for so long - it's a sad and unconventional story, and, like other Anderson stories (e.g., The Man Who Became a Woman), probably somewhat ahead of its time in narrative technique and point of view.

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