The Lost Novel by Sherwood Anderson
He said it was all like a dream. A man like that, a writer.
Well, he works for months and, perhaps, years, on a book, and
there is not a word put down. What I mean is that his mind is
working. What is to be the book builds itself up and is
In his fancy, figures are moving back and forth.
But there is something I neglected to say. I am talking of a
certain English novelist who has got some fame, of a thing that
once happened to him.
He told me about it one day in London when we were walking
together. We had been together for hours. I remember that we were
on the Thames Embankment when he told me about his lost
He had come to see me early in the evening at my hotel. He
spoke of certain stories of my own. "You almost get at something,
sometimes," he said.
We agreed that no man ever quite got at--the thing.
If some one once got at it, if he really put the ball over the
plate, you know, if he hit the bull's-eye.
What would be the sense of anyone trying to do anything after
I'll tell you what, some of the old fellows have come pretty
Keats, eh? And Shakespeare. And George Borrow and DeFoe.
We spent a half hour going over names.
We went off to dine together and later walked. He was a
little, black, nervous man with ragged locks of hair sticking out
from under his hat.
I began talking of his first book.
But here is a brief outline of his history. He came from a
poor farming family in some English village. He was like all
writers. From the very beginning he wanted to write.
He had no education. At twenty he got married.
She must have been a very respectable, nice girl. If I
remember rightly she was the daughter of a priest of the
Established English Church.
Just the kind he should not have married. But who shall say
whom anyone shall love--or marry? She was above him in station.
She had been to a woman's college; she was well educated.
I have no doubt she thought him an ignorant man.
"She thought me a sweet man, too. The hell with that," he
said, speaking of it. "I am not sweet. I hate sweetness."
We had got to that sort of intimacy, walking in the London
night, going now and then into a pub to get a drink.
I remember that we each got a bottle, fearing the pubs would
close before we got through talking.
What I told him about myself and my own adventures I can't
The point is he wanted to make some kind of a pagan out of his
woman, and the possibilities weren't in her.
They had two kids.
Then suddenly he did begin to burst out writing--that is to
say, really writing.
You know a man like that. When he writes he writes. He had
some kind of a job in his English town. I believe he was a
Because he was writing, he, of course, neglected his job, his
wife, his kids.
He used to walk about the fields at night. His wife scolded.
Of course, she was all broken up--would be. No woman can quite
bear the absolute way in which a man who has been her lover can
sometimes drop her when he is at work.
I mean an artist, of course. They can be first-class lovers.
It may be they are the only lovers.
And they are absolutely ruthless about throwing direct
personal love aside.
You can imagine that household. The man told me there was a
little bedroom upstairs in the house where they were living at
that time. This was while he was still in the English town.
The man used to come home from his job and go upstairs.
Upstairs he went and locked his door. Often he did not stop to
eat, and sometimes he did not even speak to his wife.
He wrote and wrote and wrote and threw away.
Then he lost his job. "The hell," he said, when he spoke of
He didn't care, of course. What is a job?
What is a wife or child? There must be a few ruthless people
in this world.
Pretty soon there was practically no food in the house.
He was upstairs in that room behind the door, writing. The
house was small and the children cried. "The little brats," he
said, speaking of them. He did not mean that, of course. I
understand what he meant. His wife used to come and sit on the
stairs outside the door, back of which he was at work. She cried
audibly and the child she had in her arms cried.
"A patient soul, eh?" the English novelist said to me when he
told me of it. "And a good soul, too," he said. "To hell with
her," he also said.
You see, he had begun writing about her. She was what his
novel was about, his first one. In time it may prove to be his
Such tenderness of understanding--of her difficulties and her
limitations, and such a casual, brutal way of treating her,
Well, if we have a soul, that is worth something, eh?
It got so they were never together a moment without
And then one night he struck her. He had forgotten to fasten
the door of the room in which he worked. She came bursting
And just as he was getting at something about her, some
understanding of the reality of her. Any writer will understand
the difficulty of his position. In a fury he rushed at her,
struck her and knocked her down.
And then, well, she quit him then. Why not? However, he
finished the book. It was a real book.
But about his lost novel. He said he came up to London after
his wife left him and began living alone. He thought he would
write another novel.
You understand that he had got recognition, had been
And the second novel was just as difficult to write as the
first. It may be that he was a good deal exhausted.
And, of course, he was ashamed. He was ashamed of the way in
which he had treated his wife. He tried to write another novel so
that he wouldn't always be thinking. He told me that, for the
next year or two, the words he wrote on the paper were all
wooden. Nothing was alive.
Months and months of that sort of thing. He withdrew from
people. Well, what about his children? He sent money to his wife
and went to see her once.
He said she was living with her father's people, and he went
to her father's house and got her. They went to walk in the
fields. "We couldn't talk," he said. "She began to cry and called
me a crazy man. Then I glared at her, as I had once done that
time I struck her, and she turned and ran away from me back to
her father's house, and I came away."
Having written one splendid novel, he wanted, of course, to
write some more. He said there were all sorts of characters and
situations in his head. He used to sit at his desk for hours
writing and then go out in the streets and walk as he and I
walked together that night.
Nothing would come right for him.
He had got some sort of theory about himself. He said that the
second novel was inside him like an unborn child. His conscience
was hurting him about his wife and children. He said he loved
them all right but did not want to see them again.
Sometimes he thought he hated them. One evening, he said,
after he had been struggling like that, and long after he had
quit seeing people, he wrote his second novel. It happened like
All morning he had been sitting in his room. It was a small
room he had rented in a poor part of London. He had got out of
bed early, and without eating any breakfast had begun to write.
And everything he wrote that morning was also no good.
About three o'clock in the afternoon, as he had been in the
habit of doing, he went out to walk. He took a lot of
writing-paper with him.
"I had an idea I might begin to write at any time," he
He went walking in Hyde Park. He said it was a clear, bright
day, and people were walking about together. He sat on a
He hadn't eaten anything since the night before. As he sat
there he tried a trick. Later I heard that a group of young poets
in Paris took up that sort of thing and were profoundly serious
The Englishman tried what is called "automatic writing."
He just put his pencil on the paper and let the pencil make
what words it would.
Of course the pencil made a queer jumble of absurd words. He
quit doing that.
There he sat on the bench staring at the people walking
He was tired, like a man who has been in love for a long time
with some woman he cannot get.
Let us say there are difficulties. He is married or she is.
They look at each other with promises in their eyes and nothing
Wait and wait. Most people's lives are spent waiting.
And then suddenly, he said, he began writing his novel. The
theme, of course, was men and women--lovers. What other theme is
there for such a man? He told me that he must have been thinking
a great deal of his wife and of his cruelty to her. He wrote and
wrote. The evening passed and night came. Fortunately, there was
a moon. He kept on writing. He said it was the most intense
writing he ever did or ever hoped to do. Hours and hours passed.
He sat there on that bench writing like a crazy man.
He wrote a novel at one sitting. Then he went home to his
He said he never was so happy and satisfied with himself in
"I thought that I had done justice to my wife and to my
children, to everyone and everything," he said. If they did not
know it, never would know--what difference would that make?
He said that all the love he had in his being went into the
He took it home and laid it on his desk.
What a sweet feeling of satisfaction to have done--the
Then he went out of his room and found an all-night place
where he could get something to eat.
After he got food he walked around the town. How long he
walked he didn't know.
Then he went home and slept. It was daylight by this time. He
slept all through the next day.
He said that when he woke up he thought he would look at his
novel. "I really knew all the time it wasn't there," he said. "On
the desk, of course, there was nothing but blank empty sheets of
"Anyway," he said, "this I know. I never will write such a
beautiful novel as that one was."
When he said it he laughed.
I do not believe there are too many people in the world who
will know exactly what he was laughing about.
But why be so arbitrary? There may be even a dozen.