October 26, 1987 12:00 PM

by Kim Townsend

Of Anderson’s 24 books, Winesburg, Ohio is perhaps the only one most people know. While he was certainly a worthy competitor to his storied contemporaries Faulkner and Hemingway, this is the first biography about him in more than 25 years. So there is a sense of discovery to this study, written with historical perspective and compassion by an English professor at Amherst College. Townsend sometimes seems to have spent most of his time in the stacks working on literary analysis instead of soaking up the ambience of such places as Elyria, Ohio, where Anderson once was in the roofing-and-painting-supplies business. The narrative occasionally plods, but this is a rewarding volume. Anderson burst upon American literature in the 1920s like an explosive force, rejecting the development of plot through action and delving instead into the psychology of sexuality and the unconscious. Winesburg, Ohio, with its devastating tales of a small Midwestern town, created a sensation when it was published in 1919. No one was more surprised at his remarkable success than the middle-aged Anderson himself. In 1912, nearing a nervous breakdown, he had walked out of his office and begun a new life as a writer. Shortly thereafter Anderson fled his first wife and three children. It’s a flaw of this biography that Townsend accords only thumbnail treatment to Anderson’s four wives. Since he was a writer fascinated with emotional turmoil, much of which he experienced, his wives’ personalities deserve more attention. In the evolution of American literature, Anderson is pivotal. Such later figures as Wolfe owed him a considerable debt. Anderson even served as mentor to Hemingway and Faulkner, only to have them later parody him in print—Hemingway scathingly in Torrents of Spring, Faulkner playfully in Sherwood Anderson and Other Creoles. Readers can enjoy this biography not only as the story of a country boy who reinvented himself but as a rediscovery of a writer H.L. Mencken once called “America’s most distinctive novelist.” (Houghton Mifflin, $22.95)

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