Puzzled America

Puzzled America

I read about half of Puzzled America (1935) by Sherwood Anderson today. It is an amazing bridge between 1919’s Winesburg Ohio and 1940’s Home Town. Several commentators I’ve read see Home Town as a sellout of sorts— a caving in to collectivism when Anderson had previously celebrated individualism and eccentricity in Winesburg Ohio. The book is an early example of “creative nonfiction,” and it bridges the conceptual gap. In the short personal oral histories in the book, Anderson clearly relates the changing face of America in the 1930s. In the story called “TVA” Anderson celebrates power:

There is wealth in the land which these people have tried to live. It is a new kind of wealth, the wealth of modern man, of the modern world. It is wealth in the form of energy.

Power— the coinage of the modern world!

There is plenty of power— the private companies have only got a little of it so far— flowing silently away, along the Tennessee, along the rivers that come down out of the hills to make the Tennessee.

Long ago, I’m told, army engineers went through these hills. They drew up a kind of plan, having in mind the use of all this wasted power in case of war, power to be harnessed, to make munitions, to kill men.

There came a World War and the building of the Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals. That is where the Tennessee, in its wanderings, dips down into northern Alabama, thrusts down into the land of cotton. It is something to be seen. All good Americans should go and see it. If the Russians had it there would be parades, special editions of illustrated magazines got out and distributed by the government.

There it is, however, completely magnificent. You go down, by elevator, some ten stories, under the earth, under the roaring river, and walk out into great light clean rooms. There is a song, the song of great motors. You are stirred. Something in you— the mechanically minded American in you begins to sing. Everything is so huge, so suggestive of power and at the same time so delicate. You walk about muttering.

“No wonder the Russians wanted our engineers, “ you say to yourself.

The great motors sing on, each motor as large as a city room. There is a proud kind of rebirth of Americanism in you.

“Some of our boys did this,” you say to yourself, throwing out your chest. (58-9)

I find the narrative strategy here— placing the reader in the scene— to be quite interesting. But there is the note of caution, as the world gears up for another World War that this power is meant to produce bullets to kill people. That’s a nice touch— it plays on the patriotic sentiment while sliding in through the back door a note that this power was not initially designed to be beneficent. It says something about America, while it clubs you with patriotism.

The real shift in Anderson’s attitude about American individualism shines through in a subsequent story, “Tough Babes in the Woods.” In a conversation with one of the hill people, Anderson relates the contradiction between industry and individualism:

“This is off the record. Some may think I am a Socialist or a Bolshevik.”

Men’s minds pushing, somewhat timidly, into a new social view of physical America. How are they to tell the story to that lean mountain man? Let us say that he owns his few poor hillside acres. Who is to tell him, “Thou shalt not?”? The right to go on plowing, where plowing is sheer land destruction— the traditional right of the American individualist, big or little.

“It’s mine.”

“It’s mine.” (73)