‘In A Strange Town’ by Sherwood Anderson

There’s something about Sherwood Anderson’s writing that makes me reach for the term ‘neurasthenia’, used by Robert Graves to describe his own deadened nervous state in the years after the first world war. Anderson in fact underwent a mental breakdown of some kind in 1912 – what effect this might have had on his prose I can’t say (and would sooner not guess). There’s no sense in Anderson’s work of the deliberate and disciplined austerity of later writers like Hemingway; tonally, he has more in common with poets like Vachel Lindsay and Edwin Arlington Robinson. His voice has an unaffected melancholy, a natural minor key. ‘In A Strange Town’ is reflective and sombre (more sombre, actually, than much of his other work). A philosopher takes a trip to a strange town: “Often I do things like this, come off alone to a strange place like this. ‘Where are you going?’ my wife says to me… ‘I am going to bathe myself in the lives of people about whom I know nothing.’” In the course of a broken narrative – the pauses in the prose do a lot of work – we learn why the man retreats like this. It’s do with numbness and feeling, awareness and the business of being alive. I’d understand if someone told me they wanted to slap the narrator of this story, and Anderson, too, while they were at it, but I’m very fond of it anyway.

First published in 1929. Collected in The Egg And Other Stories, Penguin, 1998