Sherwood Anderson on Art and Life: A Letter of Advice to His Teenage Son
“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”
By Maria Popova
The quest to find one’s purpose and live the creative life boldly is neither simple nor easy, especially for a young person trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.
In the spring of 1926, Sherwood Anderson (September 13, 1876–March 8, 1941) sent his seventeen-year-old son John a beautiful addition to history’s greatest letters of fatherly advice. Found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library), the missive offers insight on everything from knowing whose advice not to take to the false allure of money to the joy of making things with your hands:
The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting a good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.
The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.
If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing gives quite the satisfaction that doing things brings.
Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.
Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.
I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.
There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.
Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men at first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found. Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.
The following year, after Anderson and his wife took eighteen-year-old John and his sister Marion to Europe, the boy remained in Paris to study painting. Drawing on his own artistic experience and the parallels between writing and painting, Sherwood sent John another poignant letter of advice in April of 1927, adding to history’s finest definitions of art and stressing the importance of discipline in cultivating “talent”:
In relation to painting.
Don’t be carried off your feet by anything because it is modern — the latest thing.
Go to the Louvre often and spend a good deal of time before the Rembrandts, the Delacroixs.
Learn to draw. Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think of your hands.
Then you can think of the thing before you.
Draw things that have some meaning to you. An apple, what does it mean? The object drawn doesn’t matter so much.
It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.
A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.
Draw, draw, hundreds of drawings.
Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.
The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.
Any cleanness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.
The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.
There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.
The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.
The point of being an artist is that you may live.
You won’t arrive. It is an endless search.
I write as though you were a man. Well, you must know my heart is set on you. It isn’t your success I want.
There is a possibility of your having a decent attitude toward people and work. That alone may make a man of you.
Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children is a delicious read in its entirety. Couple this particular excerpt with Georgia O’Keeffe’s spectacular letter to Sherwood Anderson, three years earlier, on success and what it really means to be an artist.
Published January 9, 2013