Literary Daybook, March 8

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published March 8, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 8, Charlie Gordon has an operation that makes him smart.
-- "Flowers for Algernon" (1975)
by Daniel Keyes

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1941 Sherwood Anderson died in Panama at the age of 64, of peritonitis brought on by swallowing a toothpick in an hors d'oeuvre. The most highly regarded of Anderson's two dozen novels and story collections is "Winesburg, Ohio" (1919).

Almost as well known as any of his books is the story of how, on a winter's night in 1912, the 36-year-old Anderson threw over his life as a successful businessman in Elyria, Ohio, for a writing career. In the middle of giving dictation to his secretary at the paint and roofing products factory he owned -- home of the "Roof-Fix Cure for Roof Troubles" -- Anderson stood up and walked out, surfacing in a disoriented state four days later in Cleveland. Though this was not quite the life-reversing moment it was later played up to be -- Anderson had been struggling with his writing for some time, and afterward he did not totally give up business -- he would thereafter dedicate himself to literature, and to escaping the hypocritical, "Babbitt" life to which he felt condemned. Ahead lay nervous breakdowns, bankruptcy and numerous wives -- it was while on a South American tour with his fourth that he died -- but so did becoming, as Faulkner put it, "the father of my generation of American writers."

Many of the "Winesburg" stories concern small-town characters afflicted by the same claustrophobia as their creator. This is from "An Awakening":

"The excited young man, unable to bear the weight of his own thoughts, began to move cautiously along the alleyway. A dog attacked him and had to be driven away with stones, and a man appeared at the door of one of the houses and swore at the dog. George went into a vacant lot and throwing back his head looked up at the sky. He felt unutterably big and remade by the simple experience through which he had been passing and in a kind of fervor of emotion put up his hands, thrusting them into the darkness above his head and muttering words. The desire to say words overcame him and he said words without meaning, rolling them over on his tongue and saying them because they were brave words, full of meaning. 'Death,' he muttered, 'night, the sea, fear, loveliness.'"

Whatever escapes the author and his characters plotted, the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram's obituary headline shows the hometown adamant to the end: "Sherwood Anderson, Former Elyria Manufacturer, Dies."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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