Many Marriages. By Sherwood Anderson. B. W. Huebach, Inc.
In the last century literary reputations took some time to solidify. Not Tennyson’s or Dickens’s1—despite their superficial radicalism such men flowed with the current of popular thought. Not Wilde’s or De Musset’s,2 whose personal scandals made them almost legendary figures in their own lifetimes. But the reputations of Hardy, Butler, Flaubert and Conrad were slow growths. These men swam up stream and were destined to have an almost intolerable influence upon succeeding generations.
First they were esoteric with a group of personal claqueurs. Later they came into a dim rippling vogue. Their contemporaries “tried to read one of their books” and were puzzled and suspicious. Finally some academic critic would learn from his betters that they were “the thing” and shout the news aloud with a profound air of discovery, arguing from interior evidence that the author in question was really in full accord with Florence Nightingale3 and Gen. Booth.4 And the author, old and battered and with a dozen imitators among the younger men, was finally granted a period of wide recognition.
The cultural world is closer knit now. In the last five years we have seen solidify the reputations of two first class men—James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson.
Many Marriages seems to me the fullblown flower of Anderson’s personality. It is good enough for Lee Wilson Dodd5 to write a kittenish parody for “The Conning Tower.”6 On the strength of Many Marriages you can decide whether Anderson is a neurotic or whether you are one and Anderson a man singularly free of all inhibitions. The noble fool who has dominated tragedy from Don Quixote to Lord Jim7 is not a character in Many Marriages. If there is nobility in the book it is a nobility Anderson has created as surely as Rousseau created his own natural man. The genius conceives a cosmos with such transcendental force that it supersedes, in certain sensitive minds, the cosmos of which they have been previously aware. The new cosmos instantly approximates ultimate reality as closely as did the last. It is a bromide to say that the critic can only describe the force of his reaction to any specific work of art.
I read in the paper every day that, without the slightest warning, some apparently solid and settled business man has eloped with his stenographer.
This is the central event of Many Marriages. But in the glow of an unexhaustible ecstasy and wonder, what is known as a “vulgar intrigue” becomes a transaction of profound and mystical importance.
The book is the story of two moments—two marriages. Between midnight and dawn a naked man walks up and down before a statue of the Virgin and speaks of his first marriage to his daughter. It was a marriage made in a moment of half mystical, half physical union and later destroyed in the moment of its consummation.
When the man has finished talking he goes away to his second marriage and the woman of his first marriage kills herself out of a little brown bottle.
The method is Anderson’s accustomed transcendental naturalism. The writing is often tortuous. But then just as you begin to rail at the short steps of the truncated sentences (his prose walks with a rope around the ankle and a mischievous boy at the end of the rope) you reach an amazingly beautiful vista seen through a crack in the wall that long steps would have carried you hurriedly by. Again—Anderson feels too profoundly to have read widely or even well. What he takes to be only an empty tomato can whose beauty he has himself discovered may turn out to be a Greek vase wrought on the Aegean twenty centuries before. Again the significance of the little stone eludes me. I believe it to have no significance at all. In the book he has perhaps endowed lesser things with significance. In the case of the stone his power is not in evidence and the episode is marred.
There is a recent piece of trash entitled Simon Called Peter,8 which seems to me utterly immoral, because the characters move in a continual labyrinth of mild sexual stimulation. Over this stimulation play the colored lights of romantic Christianity.
Now anything is immoral that consoles, stimulates or confirms a distortion. Anything that acts in place of the natural will to live is immoral. All cheap amusement becomes, at maturity, immoral—the heroin of the soul.
Many Marriages is not immoral—it is violently anti-social. But if its protagonist rested at a defiance of the fallible human institution of monogamy the book would be no more than propaganda. On the contrary, Many Marriages begins where The New Machiavelli9 left off. It does not so much justify the position of its protagonist as it casts a curious and startling light on the entire relation between man and woman. It is the reaction of a sensitive, highly civilized man to the phenomenon of lust—but it is distinguished from the work of Dreiser, Joyce and Wells (for example) by utter lack both of a concept of society as a whole and of the necessity of defying or denying such a concept. For the purpose of the book no such background as Dublin Catholicism, middlewestern morality, or London Fabianism10 could ever have existed. For all his washing-machine factory, the hero of Many Marriages comes closer than any character, not excepting Odysseus, Lucifer, Attila, Tarzan and, least of all, Conrad’s Michaelis,11 to existing in an absolute vacuum. It seems to me a rather stupendous achievement.
I do not like the man in the book. The world in which I trust, on which I seem to set my feet, appears to me to exist through a series of illusions. These illusions need and occasionally get a thorough going over ten times or so during a century.
The man whose power of compression is great enough to review this book in a thousand words does not exist. If he does he is probably writing subtitles for the movies or working for a car card12 company.
1. Poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) and novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) were enormously popular English Victorian writers.
2. French poet, dramatist, and novelist Alfred de Musset (1810-1857) was sensationally involved with French novelist Aurore-Lucile Dupin (1804-1876), who wrote as George Sand.
3. British nurse Nightingale (1820-1910) organized army hospitals during the Crimean War.
4. William Booth (1829-1912), founder of the Salvation Army.
5. American playwright (1879-1933).
6. Franklin P. Adams’s column in the New York World printed contributions from readers.
7. Idealistic title characters in the two-part novel (1605, 1615) by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) and in the 1900 novel by Joseph Conrad.
8. Fitzgerald greatly disliked this 1921 novel by English writer Robert Keable (1887—1927) and mentioned it in The Great Gatsby (1925).
9. H. G. Wells’s 1910 novel in which a public figure becomes involved in a sexual scandal.
10. English socialist movement.
11. Character in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907).
12. Car cards were advertisements displayed in public transportation.
Published in New York Herald newspaper (4 March 1923, Sect. IX).
See the ad for Sherwood Anderson's book, from Scribner's Magazine.