Sherwood Anderson's Fear of Sexuality: Horses, Men, and Homosexuality
Ellis, James, Studies in Short Fiction
In discussing Sherwood Anderson's treatment of sexuality, Ray White argues that it is Anderson's short stories, not his novels, that deserve high praise for helping to bring the "honest use of sex into American literature" (40). But to say "honest" is not necessarily to say "forthright," for Anderson sensed a mystery in human sexuality that defies an easy reduction.
Two of Anderson's most complex stories - "The Man Who Became a Woman" and "I Want to Know Why" - treat this mystery with great subtlety. Of the two, "The Man Who Became a Woman" is usually considered the superior and more challenging story, but it seems to me that, properly understood, "I Want to Know Why" is an equally challenging and complex presentation of human sexuality.
Kim Townsend's recent biography of Anderson illuminates Anderson's own confusions regarding this matter. Townsend notes the influence of Emma Anderson, Sherwood's mother, on the development of Anderson's sexuality. Anderson "would always think of her as Woman, a figure who inspired him to do good, to write. If he could not approach her when she was alive, he would approach her through his works" (Townsend 13). Anderson said of his mother, "[I] was in love with her all [my] life" (13). Yet while Anderson felt this feminine, softer, asexual impulse toward his mother as Woman, he also felt what for him was masculine and brutish desire to exploit women sexually.
Townsend cites two occasions, one when Anderson was brought by a more experienced boy to watch through a window a girl "undress and warm herself in front of the stove before going to bed" (21). Anderson watched, and then, confused by the conflict between the beauty of the girl's body and his own sexual desires, he struck the boy and knocked him to the ground. The second occasion occurred years later when Anderson was visiting an operating room to observe an appendectomy on a young girl. Confronted with her nude body lying before him, he said he "wanted to grab the surgeon's arm ... [and tell him], |Don't. It's too beautiful. Don't cut it.' But he fled from the room instead" (Townsend 22). He later said that it seemed as if voice, much like his mother's, said to him in regard to women, "Men are such brutish beings. Don't you be one of them" (23).
This conflict - the feeling that to admire a woman as beautiful seemed inevitably to invite the debasement of that beauty by man's sexual desires - turned Anderson to male friendships as an outlet for his need for spiritual communication. Anderson would have liked to think that this outlet precluded the possibility of sexuality. He tells the story of his first boyhood friend, Jim Moore, with whom he would go into the woods, "undress, play in the creek, and run naked among the trees" (19). On one occasion, however, when they were discovered by a man, they hid in the bushes, forced to lie with their bodies close together to avoid detection. Anderson said later that after the man passed they felt strange and put their clothes on and immediately turned their conversation to a boy they knew who had taken a girl into a barn and had sex with her. Both Anderson and Jim Moore instinctively felt that their awakened physical sensations had to be shifted from themselves - where it was unthinkable - to the "more natural" outlet of a boy with a girl, a man with a woman. They continued to discuss heterosexual love - more, Anderson said, than they really wanted to - all the time feeling increasingly uncomfortable in doing so, but both driven to do so because of the feeling that they must deny any possibility of homosexual attraction. They thus had to make women bear the burden of physical sexuality and thereby maintain in the purely masculine relationship a communication that would not be sullied by sexuality. It was as though with men, Anderson hoped, man could maintain a spiritual relationship that he desired with his mother and with Woman in the abstract.
Years later, when Anderson was almost 60, he returned to this need for male friendship, writing Theodore Dreiser that American artists and writers need to build up "a relationship between man and man" (Townsend 304). …