‘Death In The Woods’ by Sherwood Anderson

Anderson, Sherwood 1926

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 selection:

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.

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‘The Night The Bed Fell’ by James Thurber

Thurber, James 1933

The Night The Bed Fell by James Thurber, 1933

The magic trick:

Misleading the reader with the title and first sentence

This story reminds me of setting up a giant chain of dominoes. It takes some time to get them in place, but once you tip the first domino, the rest of the bunch tumble very quickly. It is a joyous experience – short-lived, perhaps, but always well worth the setup.

Thurber makes this story’s domino chain especially joyous with two little magic tricks. One, he makes the setup process (usually arduous) a delight by throwing in jokes and humorous asides along the way. And secondly, the real key: he fools the reader all along with the title and first sentence. The story opens with: “I suppose the high-water mark of my youth in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father.” Clearly then we think we see how these dominoes are being set up. Watching them tumble about in the hilarious comedy of the denouement would have been wonderful enough, but it’s made even better when the plot takes a surprising detour and the chain of dominoes fall in an entirely different direction. The title itself is a joke at the reader’s expense.

I’ve read this story, probably, 20 times, and I still laugh out loud every time. And that’s quite a trick on Thurber’s part.

The selection:

Father, farthest away and soundest sleeper of all, had by this time been awakened by the battering on the attic door. He decided that the house was on fire. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” he wailed in a slow, sleepy voice – it took him many minutes to regain full consciousness. My mother, still believing he was caught under the bed, detected in his “I’m coming!” the mournful, resigned note of one who is preparing to meet his Maker. “He’s dying!” she shouted.

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‘I’m A Fool’ by Sherwood Anderson

Anderson, Sherwood

I’m A Fool by Sherwood Anderson, 1922

The magic trick:

Using a first-person voice to catch the narrator in contradictions that expose just how big a fool he really is 

This is a brilliant little story. Anderson’s narrator thinks he’s telling a story about how he once lost the chance at the girl of his dreams. He blames himself for getting drunk and lying to the girl about his background. As the title indicates, he considers himself a fool. Amazing thing is Anderson exposes him as a fool but for an entirely different set of reasons.

By telling the story in first person, Anderson allows his narrator’s insecurities and selfishness to shine. Consider that the narrator vehemently criticizes both the educated for looking down on those who work in the horse business, and anyone who “puts on airs” and pretends to be someone of a higher social status, only to wind up looking down (literally from the grandstand) on those in the horse business as he passes out fancy cigars and pretends to be a rich horse-owner from another city. He says he blames himself, but in the telling of the story, it’s clear that he still blames others for his misfortune.

In essence, the narrator is telling a story of humility and contriteness, but winds up only coming off as clueless, immature, and exceedingly egotistical. And that’s quite the trick on Anderson’s part.

The selection:

I’ve always thought to myself, Put up a good front, and so I did it. I had forty dollars in my pocket and so I went into the West House, a big hotel, and walked up to the cigar stand. “Give me three twenty-five cent cigars,” I said. There was a lot of horse men and strangers and dressed-up people from other towns standing around in the lobby and in the bar, and I mingled amongst them. In the bar there was a fellow with a cane and a Windsor tie on, that it make me sick to look at him. I like a man to be a man and dress up, but not to go put on that kind of airs. So I pushed him aside, kind of rough, and had me drink of whiskey.