The Curse of the Prophet

Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
by Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941)

Sherwood Anderson did not make much money as a writer of prose but made his living for the most part in advertising as a copywriter. Winesburg, Ohio is a series of connected short stories. Anderson died in 1941 at the age of 51 after a career as a poet, novelist, newspaper editor and short story writer. He did not live a happy life as the following short paragraph indicates.

“His personal life was anything but tidy. He was married four times. ‘What he feared,’ Rideout [his biographer] says ‘was not women as such, but rather their capacity, as he perceived it, for possessiveness, for making sex the center of a relation.’ Eventually, crumbling under self-imposed pressure to ‘make good,’ he had one breakdown, then another. He chucked his business, his marriage and his family and went on to make literature his life.”

Anderson’s friend Thomas Wolfe wrote: “I think of you [Anderson] with Whitman and Twain—that is, with men who have seen America with a poet’s vision and with a poetic vision of life, which to my mind is the only way ultimately it can be seen.”

Anderson was the victim of “the curse of the prophet.” Part of his challenge was universal in that he had the same experience that his fellow Americans had, namely that of  the false self being contained in the unhealthy narrative that was America at the turn of the last century. This dilemma is described by his biographer Walter Rideout:  “During the early years he articulated what would be a central theme in his whole body of work: ‘the coupling of outward, materialistic success and inner, spiritual failure.’” In short, Anderson had the same conflict that we all have even though few of us are ever aware of it consciously. He experienced the battle between his true inner and false outer selves. He was struggling to wake up.

As a prophet, Anderson was warning Americans that they were trapped in a narrative that was ultimately self-destructive and that they would become progressively alienated from their true nature, floating in a fragmented illusion. He was not without company among some of America’s great writers: “It is true that Anderson and Theodore Dreiser were the first important American psychological writers of the twentieth century, showing frustrations, hope and desires of troubled and bewildered people.”

But the “curse” of which we speak is more than that. What we are referring to is when an artist who has a special vision is overtaken by an autonomous archetype which can be the source of much suffering when it prevents him from conforming to the dictates of the society in which he is contained. In other words, he must do his art the way that something inside of him demands regardless of the personal cost to him. Failure to do so is psychic death.

So much for the “curse” part of our title. We can see how it worked in Anderson’s life even with the little information we have gleaned from his life. The prophet aspect of the life of an artist is something that they are seldom aware of. The artist is in touch with beauty and beauty is a vivid aspect of the Absolute or the Divine if you will. The artist “sees” that which the rest of us seldom do and in a sense is prophetic in warning humanity that it is engaging in self-destructive behavior.

Artists are revealing in their work the unsustainable direction that humanity at large has chosen. And, furthermore, the artist is warning that we must re-direct the focus of our energies and find the beauty within that will act as our compass to help us find a healthier story or context for ourselves. The artist-prophet, however, is often tragically “torn” between what society expects of them and what the archetypal inner voice is directing them to do. In this case they often suffer the “curse of the prophet.”

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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