... The country was then experiencing what he would later call "a
sudden and almost universal turning of men from the old handicrafts towards
our modern life of machines." There were still people in Clyde who
remembered the frontier, and like America itself, the town lived by a
mixture of diluted Calvinism and a strong belief in "progress," Young
Sherwood, known as "Jobby"—the boy always ready to work—showed the kind of
entrepreneurial spirit that Clyde respected: folks expected him to become a
"go-getter," And for a time he did. Moving to Chicago in his early twenties,
he worked in an advertising agency where he proved adept at turning out
copy. "I create nothing, I boost, I boost," he said about himself, even as,
on the side, he was trying to write short stories.
In 1904 Anderson married and three years later moved to Elyria, a town
forty miles west of Cleveland, where he established a firm that sold paint.
"I was going to be a rich man.... Next year a bigger house; and after that,
presumably, a country estate." Later he would say about his years in Elyria,
"I was a good deal of a Babbitt, but never completely one." Something drove
him to write, perhaps one of those shapeless hungers—a need for
self-expression? a wish to find a more authentic kind of experience?— that
would become a recurrent motif in his fiction.
And then, in 1912, occurred the great turning point in Anderson's life.
Plainly put, he suffered a nervous breakdown, though in his memoirs he would
elevate this into a moment of liberation in which he abandoned the sterility
of commerce and turned to the rewards of literature. Nor was this, I
believe, merely a deception on Anderson's part, since the breakdown painful
as it surely was, did help precipitate a basic change in his life. At the
age of 36, he left behind his business and moved to Chicago, becoming one of
the rebellious writers and cultural bohemians in the group that has since
come to be called the "Chicago Renaissance...