Charles Baxter, author of five collections of short stories and five novels (including The Feast of Love, a National Book Award finalist) spoke with us about the recent publication of Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, which he edited for The Library of America.
LOA: As a fellow writer, what do you admire most about Sherwood Anderson’s stories?
Baxter: Anderson had a remarkably acute understanding of lives in which a fundamental wish or need had been frustrated, even when there had been some other apparent successes. His characters are nearly all self-divided. They’re the sort of people—the streets are full of them—who end up talking to themselves in public. He had a good visual sense and was able to present his episodes with great visionary clarity. There are moments in any Sherwood Anderson story that you just can’t forget, like the mother in “Mother” who, ambitious for her son to be a writer, prays that he “be allowed to express something for us both” and then, in an afterthought, prays “And do not let him become smart and successful either.” That’s funny, and terrible, and true. She wants him to become somebody but not to become a success, a big shot. Anderson could be very shrewd about such moments.
LOA: You’ve called Anderson a Midwestern writer and reflected on a particular Midwestern contribution to American writing, a tradition into which you place your own work. What do you mean by this?
Baxter: In the Midwest of Anderson’s time, public and private lives were constantly out of alignment, “out of whack,” as my relatives would have said. What you showed in public was not what you often felt in private, and what you felt, or knew, in private, you could not say. You can find this division anywhere, but it typically arises in places where reticence is given great value, where open spaces separate people. It creates a poetry of gestures and inflections and shadows. I recognized Anderson’s people from my own life, the way they carried around something unspoken that was precious to them. You can see remnants of Anderson’s dramatis personae in the work of other contemporary Midwesterners like Garrison Keillor, too. Interestingly, my sense of these matters is that Anderson’s work is more highly valued now in Europe than it is here.
LOA: Why do you think the short story was such a congenial form for Anderson?
Baxter: He wasn’t a systematic thinker. Life wasn’t made up of long chains of cause-and-effect for him. Instead, in Anderson’s world, life consisted of a series of moments strung together. Also, his characters tended to be impulsive; they’re very poor at making plans. If you have impulsive characters on the one hand, and if you believe in luminous moments on the other, you’re going to find yourself writing short stories. As a form, it’s a natural fit.
LOA: What do Anderson’s stories have to say to contemporary readers? Why read Anderson now? What keeps him fresh?
Baxter: It’s become a truism to say that in an era of social media, when everything is revealed by Twitter, etc., there is no privacy anymore, that anybody can say anything about his or her life. If that’s the case, then Anderson’s world is finished. But it’s not finished at all, in fact. Maybe the central story in Winesburg, Ohio, which is about walking away from commerce for the sake of something more meaningful, is still with us. The world of commerce can still seem like a crippling beast to young people. The HBO series Girls, written by Lena Dunham, is Winesburg, Ohio, updated for the twenty-first century, and is about a young woman who has escaped from Michigan, moved to Brooklyn, and wants a life different from the one destined for her in the provinces. She wants to be a writer! Anderson would have recognized the central plot of that series in an instant. He was the one who took out a patent on that plot. He knew it inside out.
LOA: Was it difficult to make a selection from the uncollected stories? How did you decide?
Baxter: Very difficult. I gave the stories the test of time. I read through all the uncollected stories repeatedly and then just waited to see which ones lodged themselves most firmly in my memory. In any Anderson story, there can be moments of great awkwardness, but you make your way through those moments to the great visionary set-pieces. Those you don’t forget.
LOA: Do you have a favorite story in the volume?
Baxter: “The Corn Planting,” because so few people know it or have ever read it. Everyone knows “Death in the Woods” (or they should; Jim Harrison says it’s the greatest American short story) or “Hands” or “The Egg” but no one knows “The Corn Planting,” which is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read about the nature of grief.