September - November 2007 • Marion, Virginia

             

             STORYTELLER                      

Famed author Sherwood Anderson discovered a warmth and vitality in the human condition during his stint as editor of the two weekly newspapers published in Smyth County, Virginia. 

n November 3, 1927, a curious, three-paragraph story appeared in the Smyth County News, a weekly newspaper published in Marion, Virginia. Sandwiched between an account of the Marion High School football team's 57-6 victory over Shawsville, and a clothing store advertisement, the story was headlined, "Fooled Again." It read: "Your new editor came into town Monday. Children prancing in the streets at night, dancing, song, laughter, cheers. Girls and boys in fancy costumes.

"Fool that I am. I thought it was because all Marion was so glad the new editor had arrived.

"It was only Hollowe'en."

The new editor was Sherwood Anderson. Anderson, one of the most important American writers of the 20th century, was already world-famous when he bought the Smyth County News and the Marion Democrat, its sister paper, in 1927. In 1919, he had published Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories that has become one of the most influential works of American literature. By 1927, Winesburg and his other works had already sold tens of thousands of copies and been translated into a number of foreign languages.

What caused one of the best-known writers of his day to take up the life of a country newspaper editor? In a column that he wrote to introduce himself to his new readers, Anderson gave a simple explanation. He said that he had moved to Southwest Virginia in 1925 because he "had grown tired of city life and wanted the quiet intimacy of life in a smaller place..." He added that he bought the two Marion papers because he found that country life did not keep him "busy enough to be happy."

In letters to his friends, Anderson elaborated on that explanation. Simply put, he was tired of the life of a professional writer, which had left him with too much time for a wearying kind of introspection, and burdened him with the constant pressure to produce more fiction.

In one letter he wrote: "I am taking this step (to buy the two newspapers) for two reasons: first, to free myself from the immediate necessity of living by my pen, and then to get back into closer association with all kinds of people in their everyday lives."

His decision to become the editor of two small country weekly newspapers began a paradoxical period in Anderson's life. Although he was from a small town himself, and his best writing was about small-town people, Anderson had become a very worldly and sophisticated man, who counted among his friends the leading artists and writers of the day.

But for the next two years, Anderson played the role of country newspaper editor to the fullest, writing about Kiwanis Club meetings, county fairs, moonshiners, barroom brawls and school plays.

When Anderson took over the two papers, he told his readers that the last thing that he wanted to do was impose his views on them. "I shall try to be as modest and retiring as my own nature will let me be...However in taking over the general editorship of the columns of a paper like this I cannot quite keep myself altogether out of it."

Anderson did not keep himself out of the news columns at all. He wrote about the county's doings with wit and warmth, and championed the causes in which he believed. He created a fictional reporter - a young mountain man named Buck Fever - and when there was a slow news day, he used Buck as an outlet for his observations about the everyday goings-on in Marion and Smyth County.

Buck Fever's character was really a new direction for Anderson, and his creation revealed just how much Anderson had been influenced by the people of Southwest Virginia. The characters in Anderson's early writings were often frustrated, embittered people. But in Buck Fever, he created a humorous, warmhearted, generous character. Buck was a testament to the warmth and vitality that Anderson found and admired in the people of Southwest Virginia.

Anderson edited the two Smyth County papers until January 1, 1932, when he officially transferred ownership of them to his son Robert, who had quit work at the Philadelphia Bulletin to help his father. In the last years of his ownership, Anderson had turned over more and more of his duties to Robert, as he tired of the role of county editor and began to devote more time to travel and writing fiction.

Even after he turned over ownership of the papers to Robert and began to travel more extensively, Anderson considered Southwest Virginia his home. In 1933, he married Eleanor Copenhaver, the daughter of a local educator. He and Eleanor kept coming back to Rosemont, her home in Marion, and Ripshin, Anderson's home in neighboring Grayson County, until he died of peritonitis in a hospital in the Panama Canal Zone on March 8, 1941. At the time of his death, he was on a mission of friendship to South America to meet with fellow writers.

His wife brought his body back to Marion, where he was buried in Round Hill Cemetery. Eulogies and tributes appeared in newspapers and literary journals all over the world, but the most eloquent and understanding appeared in the Smyth County News, his old newspaper. It was written by his son.

"Sherwood Anderson had come to love this mountain country and its people," Robert Anderson wrote. "He wrote about the turn of a road, a field beyond. An old farmer came into the shop. 'Say, that's my field you wrote about,' he said. 'I never realized it was beautiful until I read your piece.''

"...Always he came back to Southwest Virginia, to saunter on Marion's old rialto, gas in Doc Thompson's drug store, argue with cronies on the courthouse steps, discourse in Rosemont's friendly 1iving room, drop by the print shop with a 'have you got a story on such-and-such?'

"Always he came back."


In 1976, the centennial of Sherwood Anderson's birth, a short story contest was organized to honor the memory of Anderson and to encourage writers who are interested in the same themes of small town life that absorbed Anderson. The Sherwood Anderson Short Story Contest Committee awards cash prizes to the winning stories. The committee also schedules an annual tour of Ripshin, Anderson's home, in conjunction with its awards banquet. The deadline for this year's contest is May 31.

For more information about the Sherwood Anderson Short Story Contest, please contact:

Brenda Umbarger at 276-783-2323 Ext. 28.