Death by Toothpick
March 8, 1941 - Novelist and short story writer, Sherwood Anderson died on this day from peritonitis. He had swallowed a broken toothpick inside a martini olive. At the time of his death, Anderson was in the Panama Canal zone, a very long way from his birthplace of Camden, Ohio.
Born in 1876, he grew up in a large, working class family that struggled to make ends meet. He left school at 14 and worked a string of manual labor jobs before joining the army.
By 1900 he had gone back to school and was working as a copywriter in Chicago. He met a wealthy woman, got married and started a family. Anderson rose through the ranks of a mail order company and eventually became the owner of a small factory. But in November of 1912 he suffered a legendary breakdown that changed his life dramatically. Sherwood Anderson vanished for four days and was eventually found wandering in a cornfield. When he got his wits back, he decided to leave his family to pursue a writer's life.
He published his first novel, Windy McPherson's Son, in 1916. More novels followed, but he is most remembered for his collection of short stories known as Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson loved to write about "grotesques." That was his way of describing people who are undermined by their own illusions or false dreams. One of his most popular stories is called Hands and it follows the tragic downfall of a small-town teacher who becomes the victim of a witch hunt.
His work gained the respect and the scorn of some of the biggest writers and critics of the time. H.L. Mencken said he was "America's most distinguished novelist." Ernest Hemingway lampooned him.
Anderson kept writing. In the early 1920s he cranked out 5 novels in 5 years. In 1927 he moved to Marion, Virginia where he bought and edited both of the local newspapers - one for Republicans and one for Democrats.
The lives of people are like young trees in a forest. They are being choked by climbing vines. The vines are old thoughts and beliefs planted by dead men. - From The Triumph of the Egg (1921)
In his later years he published more collections of short stories, including his personal favorite, 1933's Death In The Woods And Other Stories.
Anderson traveled extensively, and on the eve of a trip to South America he was quaffing martinis when he accidentally swallowed a toothpick. By the time he reached the Panama Canal, he was on his deathbed.
His tombstone reads, "Life not death is the great adventure."