Sherwood Anderson's and Ernest Hemingway's stories of initiation

Term Paper, 2006

27 Pages, Grade: B+



1. Introduction

2. Initiation

3. Story of Initiation

4. Sherwood Anderson and his stories of initiation
4.1. Anderson and Freud
4.2. Industrialisation and its impact on innocence
4.3. Theorie of the Grotesque
4.3. Initiation of George Willard in Winesburg, Ohio
4.4. „I want to know why“

5. Hemingway's Nick Adams
5.1. „Indian Camp“
5.2. „Fathers and sons“

6. Comparison Anderson and Hemingway

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway are two very influential American writers. Both have contributed a lot to the development of the short story, especially to its sub-genre, story of initiation, with various of their works. In this essay, I want to analyse some of their most famous stories in order to highlight some important initiatory aspects. Firstly, it is interesting to take a further look at the origins of the initiation term, in order to understand why it is applied to literary theorie. Then I will elaborate some important elements and common features to define the initiation story as a literary genre. In the following, to illustrate the theory, I will look at the way Sherwood Anderson built up his stories of initiation. To get a further idea of Anderson's texts and ideologies, I will shortly explain the Freudian influence on his texts and his opinion about American industrialisation. With those information in mind, one can easier understand, how he elaborates his theory of the grotesques, the characters of his work Winesburg, Ohio. In order to understand how this collection of short stories is contently held together, it is essential to have a look at George Willard, the protagonist, and his development and initiation. In the following chapter I will make plain, that the initiation theme is also a very important aspect in a lot of other short stories of Anderson, as for example in „I want to know why“, where a boy painfully has to encounter a form of sexual initiation. To be able to identify also other styles of creating initiation stories, I will focus on Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, on the first one, „Indian camp“, where young Nick is forcefully initiated to birth and death, and on the last one, „Fathers and sons“, where Nick as a father himself reflects on his past and his father. Finally, I will make a short comparison between both authors in order to be able to draw a conclusion in the end.

2. Initiation

The word 'initiation', coming from Latin, generally implies a beginning. In the Oxford English Dictionary we find two definitions:


1) The action of beginning, entering upon or starting something [...]
2) Formal introduction by preliminary instruction or initial ceremony into some position, office, or society, or to the knowledge, or instruction in the elements, of any subject or practice

In initiation rites, which nowadays are seldom found in Western societies, normally those, who are at a higher level (initiator) guide the initiate through a long process of greater exposure of knowledge, in order to achieve a higher level of understanding. Generally it causes a fundamental change in the person, who will afterwards possess a certain power or state of being. It is very important in order to be regarded as full member of the tribe. The initiation process is often linked to a simultaneous death and rebirth, because as well as being a beginning it also implies an ending as existence on one level drops away in an ascension to the next (compare Wikipedia). As an anthropologic term initiation means „the passage from childhood or adolescence to maturity and full membership in adult society“ (Marcus (1976), 189).

3. Story of Initiation

Reading the definitions of the word initiation, it becomes obvious, why this term is also applied to literary theory. Although some aspects may play minor roles, like those of the initiator, who simply normally does not exist, initiation in literature can also be considered as the moment of the beginning of a new, more mature phase of life of a character, the introduction to the world of adults. The Norton Introduction to literature defines an initiation story shortly as „a kind of short story in which a character – often but not always a child or young person – first learns a significant, usually life-changing truth about the universe, society, people, himself or herself“.

However, there cannot be found one single, uniform and universal definition of the term story of initiation, as there are always a couple of different features included in different short stories. Origins of these fascination with 'personality change' we can see in the European cultural movement known as 'Romanticism', although there are much earlier attempts as Confessions by St. Augustine. The term initiation story shows a lot of similarities to the German word Bildungsroman, which is generally rather applied to novels:

Bildungsroman: (German: „novel of formative education“)

The folklore tale of the dunce who goes out into the world seeking adventures and learns wisdom the hard way, was raised to literary heights in Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval epic Parcival and in Hans Grimmelshausen's picaresque tale Simplicissimus. [...]

The Bildungsroman ends on a positive note, though it may be tempered by resignation and nostalgia. If the grandiose dreams of the hero's youth are over, so are many foolish mistakes and painful disappointments, and a life of usefulness lies ahead. (other, similar variations: Erziehungsroman, Entwicklungsroman, Künstlerroman)

(The New Encyclopaedia Britannica 2003)

Concerning short stories, we might talk rather about initiation stories.

Often they include the motif of a journey undergone by the protagonist, as for example in Hawthorne's short stories „Young Goodman Brown“ and „My Kinsman Major Molineux“. Müller talks about a three-part structure of initiation, consisting of three stages: „innocence“, „experience“ and „maturity“ (Müller (1999), 41). The process of initiation can be seen as a transition from childhood and ignorance to adulthood and maturity and climax at a moment of recognition, so it heads towards a broader understanding of the world and self-understanding. The protagonist is usually an innocent, inexperienced, dynamic character, often a child or adolescent. But as Baker states, there are also the „possibility and conditions of fundamental change [...] in connection with people in middle and old age as well“ (Baker (2001)), as we will see in Hemingway's „Fathers and sons“ or as can be seen in Katherine Anne Porter's story „The Death of Granny Weatherall“. The change may be gradual or subtle or the plot will turn on an epiphany. The new experience is often shocking and surprising as it involves a sudden insight into a fact, for which his / her previous experience had not prepared him / her. The initiation could concern different areas and generally only one stage or one certain aspect of initiation, for example sexual initiation (Sherwood Anderson – „I want to know why“) or an initiation to pain and death (Hemingway – „Indian Camp“). Often it appears as a disillutioning process of the discovery of the existence of evil, which makes the character unalbe to live his / her life in the same way as before. Anyway, in order to become a full, mature member of an existing society, it always has to include the loss of the original innocence. Therefore Freese speaks of the „duality“ in the initiation process, as it involves the loss of innocence as well as the profit in gaining identity (Freese (1998), 98). Baker describes the change as follows:

The idea is that the character with whom our identification is solicited is forced, by the what he / she encounters in the course of the action, to 'reformulate' himself or herself, to become 'a different person', usually (but not necessarily) someone more complicated, more comprehensive, with wider views. The opposite process, a retreat into someone more defensive, more narrow minded, is also conceivable.

(Baker (2001))

Freese states that there is no limit to the duration of an individual's initiation and that one cannot find a certain moment of conclusion of this process (compare Freese (1998), 135). Concerning the permanency of the effect, it is also hard to say, if the initiation affects the character always forever or completely. Therefore Marcus differentiates between tentative, uncompleted, and decisive initiation, depending on the gravitiy of the change of the character (Marcus (1976), 192).

4. Sherwood Anderson and his stories of initiation

He was a leader in the movement to revitalize the stream of literary naturalism by demonstrating a concern with inward, psychological reality rather than the journalistic, documentary recording of outward experience.

(White (1966), 3)

To the complex inward procession of growing up especially Anderson directed his attention.Concerning that aspect, Burbank sums up:

Anderson brought his vision of the puzzled boy or boy-man to near perfection in a handful tales that combine a carefully controlled point of view with a painstaking attention to the subtleties of the colloquial diction of the narrator, who betrays both a touching naiveté and a profound sensitivity to the confusing paradoxes of the adult world.

(Burbank (1964), 97)

The initiation theme can be found in a lot of his works, e.g. „The egg“ is told from the first-person perspective of an adult recollecting memories of his childhood in disturbed tranquility, in „Death in the woods“ the young narrator understands only years later the full meaning of a death scene experience, which functions as his sexual initiation, and even his novel „Poor white“ can be seen as a novel of initiation.

He deals with characters that might have grown old before they have matured, or with possible problems because the transition from childhood to adulthood might be sudden, abrupt and painful. It is also interesting to see Anderson's way of describing the mental state of young person:

Anderson believes that in youth there are always two forces in conflict: the warm unthinking little animal, and the thing that reflects and remembers, that is, the sophisticated mind. The reflective force reduces one to stasis in which the will is inert until the moment of liberation when sensations regenerate the spirit.

(Epifanio San Juan – Vision and reality: A Reconsideration of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; In: Ferres (1966), 480)

This „moment of liberation“ often can be called an epiphany:

James Joyce used the word „epiphany“, which he took from Catholic ritual, to name that moment of revelation when words and acts come together to manifest something new, familiar, timeless, the deep summation of meaning. The experience of epiphany is characteristic of great literature, and the lyric tales of Anderson give this wonderful rapt coming forth time and time again. (Herbert Gold: Winesburg, Ohio: The purity and cunning of Sherwood Anderson; In: Ferres (1966), 397)

4.1. Anderson and Freud

In Anderson's texts, emotions and psychoanalytical aspects often play a great role. He developed his ideas quite independently, but still partly they show similarities to the theories of Freud. Freud had contributed to American criticism the term repression, which is also an important feature in Anderson's writings: „Winesburg, Ohio is full of insights into the buried life, into the thoughts of the repressed, the inarticulate, the misunderstood.“ (Charles Child Walcutt: Naturalism in Winesburg, Ohio; In: Ferres (1966), 437)

Besides all dream symbolism and visions, the sexual repression and frustration is often an issue, as Anderson affirmed the Freudian concept of the centrality of sex as a life-generating force. Therefore a lot of his short stories are stories of sexual initiation.

4.2. Industrialisation and its impact on innocence

Anderson personally was also very nostalgic about innocent, preindustrial America.

His family was quite poor after the small business of his father failed. During his lifetime he observed the first World War and the expansion of industrialisation, which creates in him a disillusionment toward a modern society which was materialistic and business/ industry oriented. He condemned the industrial progress, although it enabled him to rise from youthful poverty to a modest prosperity as a businessman.

„[...] he was basically a moralist; and to the end of his life he regarded the invasion of the great American continent by the factory and machine, and the growing absorption of the child-like American with gadgets and profits, as results of negligence of the sacred human responsibility toward nature and one's fellow man.“ (Burbank (1966), 46)


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Sherwood Anderson's and Ernest Hemingway's stories of initiation
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Stefanie Brunn (Author), 2006, Sherwood Anderson's and Ernest Hemingway's stories of initiation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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