Death In The Woods by Sherwood Anderson, 1926
The magic trick:
Having the narrator explain what the story means to him
Sherwood Anderson famously was an early supporter of both Hemingway and Faulkner. They each looked up to him and drew influence from his work. “Death In The Woods” makes a pretty good case as such source material. It has both the melodramatic melancholy of Faulkner and the sparseness of language of Hemingway.
The most interesting aspect is the way the narrator not only tells the events of the story, he also explains how he came to know about them and what they mean to him. It reminds me a little of historiography – the study not only of history but how that history has changed and been reshaped and written over time.
It gives the reader two different levels to analyze. We can consider the internal story the narrator is telling about the woman who freezes in the woods, and we also can think about his interpretation of the events. And that’s quite a trick on Anderson’s part. No wonder he influenced two of the greatest writers of the century.
The scene in the forest had become for me, without my knowing it, the foundation for the real story I am now trying to tell. The fragments, you see, had to be picked up slowly, long afterwards.
Things happened. When I was a young man I worked on the farm of a German. The hired-girl was afraid of her employer. The farmer’s wife hated her.
I saw things at that place. Once later, I had a half-uncanny, mystical adventure with dogs in an Illinois forest on a clear, moon-lit Winter night. When I was a schoolboy, and on a Summer day, I went with a boy friend out along a creek some miles from town and came to the house where the old woman had lived. No one had lived in the house since her death. The doors were broken from the hinges; the window lights were all broken. As the boy and I stood in the road outside, two dogs, just roving farm dogs no doubt, came running around the corner of the house. The dogs were tall, gaunt fellows and came down to the fence and glared through at us, standing in the road.
The whole thing, the story of the old woman’s death, was to me as I grew older like music heard from far off. The notes had to be picked up slowly one at a time. Something had to be understood.