Sherwood Anderson: Hemingway’s mentor and object of his ridicule

April 21, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

Even if you are the most avid Ernest Hemingway fan on your city block or country road, chances are you have not read his novel The torrents of spring. The novel itself is probably not worth reading, but the story behind it is worth knowing because of what it tells us about Hemingway the human being.

And the story is not a particularly uplifting one.

We should first start, however, with Sherwood Anderson, one of the Great American Writers of the early 20th century. Anderson is mostly remembered for his book of short stories, Winesburg Ohio, in which he examines the isolation and loneliness found it American Life during the first decade of the 1900s. The stories were most likely written in 1915 and 1916, and the book was published in 1919. It was one of the earliest works of what came to be known as the modernist movement in American literature

The book was well-received critically and established Anderson as one of the major authors of the Chicago Renaissance that included Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. The book was written in a style that deemphasized to plot and instead put its major reliance on the development of the characters within the story. The people and places in the story were realistically rendered. The book deliberately steps away from the romanticism that imbued many 19th-century novels.

As such, it was seen as something new and fresh, and Anderson was, in the eyes of many, a breakthrough author. Anderson wrote in a straightforward, simple manner with nouns and verbs and only minimal use of adjectives and adverbs.

Anderson was part of a cadre of writers and artists in and around Chicago that later became known as the Chicago Renaissance. It was into that milieu that a young Ernest Hemingway, fresh from his experiences in Italy during World War I, entered hoping to become a well-known writer. Anderson read what Hemingway had written and realized something of the potential of the Young author. He advised Hemingway and his new wife, Hadley, to go to Paris, a place that Anderson knew well and where he had many artistic friends. Hemingway, he said, could live there cheaply and learn his craft. Anderson also armed Hemingway with letters of introduction to people such as Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.

Hemingway followed Anderson’s advice and went to Paris. Anderson continued to champion Hemingway, and in 1925 when he was ready find a publisher for a set of short stories, In Our Time, Anderson was more than happy to help. Anderson himself was looking for a new publisher for his latest novel, Dark Laughter. He landed a contract with Boni and Liveright, and he encouraged that publisher to take on Hemingway as well. When that happened, Hemingway gave Henderson full credit for “getting my stuff published.”

Hemingway quickly grew disillusioned with the publishers and their anemic — at least in his mind – efforts to promote his book. He had been working on a novel based on his experiences during the war, and he and others who have read it considered it to be very good. He wanted to place it with a publisher that he felt would give it the attention that it deserved.

The problem was that in a standard author’s contract such as the one he had signed with Boni and Liveright, there was a “right of first refusal” clause. That means that the publisher can publish the next work of the author if it chooses to do so. If the publisher chooses not to accept the work, the author is free to take the work to another publisher. F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose publisher was Simon & Schuster and whose editor was the famous Max Perkins, told Hemingway but this should be the place for his next novel.

But how to get out of Hemingway’s contract?

Fitzgerald and Hemingway cooked up a scheme whereby Hemingway would write a short novel that savagely satirized Sherwood Anderson and his novel Dark Laughter. The Publishers, they felt, would not be able to accept such a book. Hemingway followed through with the idea, and in ten days he wrote the 28,000-word novel, The Torrents of Spring. When he sent the manuscript off to Boni and Liveright, the publisher did as he expected and rejected it. 

Hemingway was thus free to find a new publisher for this and subsequent books, and that publisher was Simon & Schuster, which proceeded to publish The Torrents of Spring but was really after Hemingway’s first great novel, A Farewell to Arms.

Ironically, dark laughter became a best-seller, the only work of Sherwood Anderson to achieve the status.

Anderson continued to encourage young writers such as William Faulkner until his death in 1941. Today we remember him as much for that encouragement as for the works he himself produced.




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