Death by Toothpick: The Strange End of Sherwood Anderson

Profile of Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson‘s 1919 classic story collection Winesburg, Ohio has been on my shelf for many years. I’ve read it several times now and still find it thoroughly enjoyable. However, when I went to compile a short biography of him for this site yesterday, I realized I knew very little about his life and knew nothing about his strange death. Details on that in a moment, first a short recap for those who, like me as of a day ago, didn’t know a ton about him.

While he was born in 1876, too early to truly be considered a member of the Lost Generation, I included him on this site because his work was so influential on the writers of that time period, most notably Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, with whom he once shared an apartment in New Orleans. (While a protégé of Anderson, Hemingway’s first novel, The Torrents of Spring, was a parody of his work.) During the 1920s, Anderson traveled to Europe and became part of the ex-pat community, joining the likes of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce in Paris.

Anderson married four times in his life, the last of which was to Eleanor Copenhaver in 1933. While summers were spent at his home, Ripshin, in Virginia, the rest of the year saw the two of them travel extensively. In the spring of 1941, they took a cruise to South America. For several days he complained of abdominal discomfort, which was diagnosed as peritonitis. They disembarked the ship to go to the hospital in Colón, Panama, and he died there on March 8, 1941. An autopsy showed that a toothpick Anderson had accidentally swallowed, probably while eating hors d’oeuvres, punctured his internal organs, causing the infection that killed him.

Who knew? What an end.

Anderson is buried at Round Hill Cemetery in Marion, Virginia, where his epitaph states, “Life, Not Death, Is the Great Adventure.” Cheers to that.

For more on Anderson, see our page on him here. And be careful with those toothpicks.

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