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Sherwood Anderson: Dark Laughter

This novel was the first with his new publisher and the one that had the most commercial success during his lifetime. It has not survived that early success. Hemingway parodied it (and Anderson) in Torrents of Spring. It has been out of print for a long time, partially because of its racism and sexism and partially because of its writing style. Indeed, there is one other key factor in this work and that is that Anderson had read James Joyce before writing it.

The plot is quite simple. Like Anderson, John Stockton (a reporter in Chicago) walks out of his job and marriage. Like Anderson, he heads off for New Orleans and then returns to Old Harbor, Indiana, where he grew up. Back home he works in a factory. The factory owner’s wife, Aline, hires him as a gardener and they have an affair. When she becomes pregnant, they go off together, leaving the factory owner to face the dark laughter, that of his black servants. However, it is the style of writing that makes this novel controversial. Borrowing from Joyce, though not always well, he jumps from character to character, using a stream of consciousness technique, and also intervenes himself, with his own commentary on what is going on. Sometimes it work and sometimes it doesn’t. I do think that it is worth reading, if only to see how he attempts stream of consciousness, which was still relatively new in American literature, and how he sometimes succeeds, but this will not go down as one of the great works of American literature.

Publishing history

First published 1925 by Boni Liveright