Sukhvinder Kaur/Quest for Self: Sherwood Anderson’s Windy McPherson’s Son

Sukhvinder Kaur,

Research Scholar,

Lovely Professional University,

Phagwara, Punjab.



Sherwood Anderson evoked different forms of human experience in all his literary works. Windy McPherson’s Son, published in the year 1916 is about Sam McPherson, the hero. His quest for meaning in life is the major theme in the story. Anderson portrays industrial and business ethics as dehumanizing. He shows that man has lost all human values and concepts of meaning in a society, dominated by superficiality. One has lost awareness of one’s own identity as a natural human being. These are the problems which Anderson seems to recognize in the novel. He implies that human being should reject the world of materialism and try to understand life and love for others. Through love it is almost sufficient to break down the barriers of human loneliness. The present paper will explore such themes of human loneliness, human love and personal identity in this novel.

Key words: Estrangement, distortion, frustration, dehumanizing, identity, loneliness, domination.


The Changing hurrying life of (Chicago) profoundly interested the tall, Strong boy from the Iowa village, who had the cold, quick business stroke of the money-marker, Combined with an unusually active interest in the problems of life and living. Instinctively he looked upon business as a great game in which many men sat……

(Kenny Williams 46).

Sherwood Anderson emerged as a promising writer. His literacy works are widely read by many writers. He has got good reputation in his literary works. He is the first writer who has come close to the essence of human experience. His own experiences are brought in his two novels, Windy McPherson’s Son (1916) and Marching Men 1917). He evoked different forms of human experience in all his literary works. In all his works the main themes are human loneliness, estrangement, distortion, frustration and muted love which lie beneath the American mechanized culture.

Windy McPherson’s Son was published in the year 1916. The novel has both strength and weakness; it is about Sam McPherson, the hero. Quest for meaning in life is the major theme in the story. The hero and other characters in the novel are alienated due to the effects of materialism. Sam goes and searches for this materialistic wealth and alienates from his own self. Man feels alienated when he fails or is reluctant to identify fully with the social substance, which is the objectification of the human spirit. Sam identifies this human spirit later in the novel, when he feels lonely in the lost world. This is Anderson’s own story in life, up to his rejection of materialistic standards in Elyria. It is the personal experience of his own life that Anderson is trying to understand.

Anderson portrays the theme of human loneliness, human love and personal identity in this novel. He portrays industrial and business ethics as dehumanizing. He shows that man has lost all human values and concepts of meaning in a society, dominated by superficiality. He has lost awareness of one’s own identity as a natural human being. These are the problems which Anderson seems to recognize in the novel. He implies that human being should reject the world of materialism and try to understand life and love for others. Through love it is almost sufficient to break down the barriers of human loneliness.

Windy McPherson’s Son is a semi-autobiographical novel, which deals with the man’s quest, a quest that can never be successfully completed. It also deals with the problem of alienation and exposes the predicament of man who is lost in the world alone and unable to communicate with anyone around him. It is the story of Sam McPherson, the hero. He is homeless, rootless, and lonely. Loneliness is not the peculiar problem of Sam alone, but it plays a significant role in the lives of everyone around him.

Sam McPherson, the protagonist, moves through three successive stages towards maturity and moral consciousness. First stage is about his youth which is spent in a small town. The second stage is about his escape to the city and pursuit of success and the third stage is about his sudden abandonment of the success ethic.

The novel deals with the hero Sam McPherson’s life through the years, from his early boyhood days till he reaches adolescence. The story is about American mechanized culture and the social life. American men and women are drabbed in the nut shell without realizing the way of life. Sam can be compared to Huck Finn in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The wandering of Sam McPherson has more than a superficial kinship with Huck Finn’s passage down the Mississippi.

Windy McPherson’s Son is typical American story – the story of the turbulent, frusted man, his beginning; rise and disintegration. It portrays a typical American character who quarrels with puzzled society and is alienated from his own fellow being. Sam McPherson is a poor boy who is disorganized in life. He has a small family in the Iowa village, Caxton. Sam McPherson, the hero is just thirteen years old. He leads a very miserable life in his town. He is not given any proper education, because he is from a poor family. Sam works as a newspaper boy in his home town, earning very little.


The First part of the novel begins with Sam’s village life before his quest for money and power. At the age of fifteen, the call of the city comes to his mind. Sam’s talent is seen when he draws people into talk of themselves and their affairs. He hears tales of fortune which is made in the cities provides strong motive in his life. Sam McPherson begins to dream, hoping that one day he will become a great man in the town. He realizes that Chicago city is really the place for him to fulfil his desires and goal. Sam sees life as a game and declares thus:

He conceived of life in the city as a great game in which he believed he could play a sterling part. Had he not in Caxton brought something out of nothing, had he not systematized and monopolized the selling of papers, had he not introduced the rending of popcorn and peanuts from baskets to the Saturday night crowds? Already boys were in his employ, already the totals in the bank book had crept to more than seven hundred dollars. He felt within him a glow of pride at the thought of what he had done and would do (67).

From his childhood Sam is tortured by the social humiliation of his family’s poverty, and so he uses everyone to make all money he can. The thought of money makes Sam to get the hero feeling to be “Strangely alive and awake like a young man in love” (Scafidel 97).

Sam McPherson is completely alienated from his father. His father Windy McPherson is a drunkard, boastful and inefficient story teller. He has no love and care for his children. The father portrait of Anderson’s novel is unsympathetic. In his fictional world the fathers are always spendthrifts, sadistic and torturing their wives.

Sam’s family suffers a lot, earns very little money. Sam’s mother also overworks to keep her family intact. He learns the love for money from his friend John Telfer, who is the symbol of materialistic future. Because of his education John Telfer is feared and respected in the town, but he is not loved. As the local apostle of the new materialism, John Telfer is admired by Sam, who does not see that Telfer has neither humanity nor human feelings. On the occasion, John Telfer puts forth his philosophical notion about money:

No matter what come in the future, in our day money-making precedes many virtues that are forever on men’s lips”, It is one of the virtues that proves man not a savage. It has lifted him up not money-making, but the power to make money. Money makes    life lovable. It gives freedom and destroys fear. Having it means sanitary houses and well made clothes. It brings into men’s lives beauty and the love of beauty (69).

The novel is presented with the problem of three other main characters, who are alienated from one another. Sam’s father Windy McPherson, his mother Jane McPherson and John Telfer, a wealthy educated man in the town who is a friend of Sam McPherson.

The portrait of father- son relationship in Windy McPherson’s Son is central to novel. Sam’s father is a failure, a windbag and a symbol of personal inadequacy, but this characterization is a ludicrous, rather than vicious one. Sam’s father Windy McPherson is unable to separate reality from imagination. He cannot forget that he has once been a sergeant in a regiment of infantry and has commanded a battle. He gets drunk several times to forget his humiliation. He lives in his own world. He does not care for his wife or his children. He gets completely alienated from his family in the town. Sam hates his father, because he is irresponsible and has no love for his family.

The mother-son relationship is the heart of the novel and has an autobiographical touch. It is the deep love towards his mother Emma Anderson which is portrayed as the most selfish and self-sacrificing form of affection. Sam’s mother Jane McPherson in this novel is the symbol of muted love. Her love for her children is unconditional. Sam’s mother is overworked, sickly and inarticulate. Jane McPherson loves her children and her love is shown through a service of incidents marked by her self – sacrifice. Sam has failed to notice her patient – suffering and endurance.

It is this love that Sam later in the novel tries to recapture and understands, but he fails in his efforts to put this into practice. Jane McPherson’s deep affection towards Sam is pictured in an effective way:

In church on Sunday morning, Sam went regularly to sleep, putting his head on his mother’s arm and sleeping throughout the service. Jane McPherson loved to have the boy there beside her. It was the one thing in life they did together and she did not mind his sleeping the time away. Knowing how late he had been upon the streets at the paper selling on Saturday evenings. She looked at him with eyes filled with tenderness and sympathy. (27)

The conflict between dream and reality is well portrayed through the characters, who do not want to come to real life. As a boy Sam indulges in day dreams to become a big businessman. Sam prefers to be in the dark rather than in light.

John Telfer’s friendship is a formative influence upon Sam. His father’s worthlessness and the growing realization of the hardship of his mother’s position have given life a bitter taste in his mouth. John Telfer becomes Sam’s spiritual father and does a great deal towards his early education. Sam accepts John Telfer’s words completely ignoring the man’s true position in the town. He guides Sam and tells him about money making in the world. Sam learns John Telfer’s attitude towards money making:”Make money! Cheat! Lie is one of the men of the big world! Get your name up for a modern high class American”! (66)

Sam learns principles and ideals from John Telfer.He is an articulate and vivid man, whose failure as a painter has led him to a richer role, artist of living. Thus he declares:

“I do not paint pictures; I do not write books, yet am I an artist, declared Telfer, proudly.”I am an artist practicing the most difficult of all arts – the art of living. Here in this western village I stand and fling my challenge to the world.”On the lip of not the greatest of you”, I cry ‘has life been more sweet’’’ (8)

Freedom smith also plays a vital role in the novel. He helps Sam in his quest for money. Sam gets a great deal from freedom smith and works hard. During three years in Freedom Smith’s service, Sam McPherson learns much about trading. Sam dreams of his own conquest in the world. For next two years Sam lives life of a travelling buyer, visiting towns in Illinois and Iowa making great deal with men like Freedom Smith. The town that has seemed so paternal to him one now seems horrible. He is completely alienated from his own town.

John Telfer’s talk of Whitman, love and ideals almost sways Sam from devotion to money. It is John Telfer who emphasizes the difference between corn as a symbol of materialism and corn as a symbol of élan vital. He proclaims:

I see the long corn rows with men and the horses half hidden, lot and breathless and I think of a vast river of life. I catch a breath of the flame that was in the mind of the man, who said,’the land is flowing with milk and honey. (Leonard 103)

The second part of the novel brings Sam’s life in Chicago city. He flees to Chicago through hard work, sharp dealing that he has learned in his small town. His passion is only money and power that draws him to his materialistic world. He breaks his relationship with his family and goes to the city to earn money.

The city which is portrayed in this novel is neither particularly beautiful nor ugly, but it is large. The Chicago city is not only a well designed city but also a powerful place designed for the strong people. The people go to the city to find their own destiny:”Life is a battle in which few men win and many are defeated and in which hate and fear play their with love and generosity” (227)

Sam begins his first business career in the city’s South water street district, working for a commission firm. Later Sam gets opportunity from the Rainey Arms company, one of the leading companies in the world. He becomes recognized as practical lead of the business among its stock holders and employees. Sam becomes a business tycoon, plays important role of the inspired millionaire.

Sam McPherson fights his way to power and success in a society that has lost touch with benevolent and harmonious nature of man. Sam moves from the small town in search of material power, to the larger world of Chicago and comes to conflict. He struggles hard to live in the city. He falls a prey to the corrupting effects of a materialistic and moralistic society. Sam denies the ambition to acquire money and power forcing him back into the little life of family and town.

In the City, Sam meets Janet Eberly and develops friendship with her. She is an intellect and disregards all the usual womanly points of view. She has her own attitude towards life and people. Janet’s talk of books and life is not understood by Sam, Janet chides Sam and asserts:

Books are not full of pretense and lies; you businessman are-you and jack prince. What do you know of books? They are the most wonderful things in the world. Men sit writing them and forget to lie, but you businessmen never forget. You and books! You haven’t read books, not real once. (148)

Sam admires Janet has deep love for her. He spends evening with Janet, listening to her exposition of life. Suddenly Janet Eberly dies. Sam thinks of her as his wife. Sam is desolate and over drinking night after night and wandering aimlessly through the deserted streets. After her death, he feels lonely in the society.

Sam McPherson is a chief lieutenant, treasurer and chairman of the broad of directors of the Rainey Arms company. Sue Rainey, the heroine is portrayed initially as a strong-willed woman. She is the Colonel’s daughter of Rainey Arms Company. Sam meets Sue Rainey after Janet Eberly’s death and develops friendship with her.

Sam is diverted from his unsatisfying material quest after meeting Sue Rainey, who convinces him that he will achieve fulfilment by creating perfect children. So Sam decides to marry Sue Rainey as she considers bearing children to be service to mankind.”She wanted a man who would be the father of children who do things […]” (David 172).

The idea seems wonderfully simple and beautiful to Sam and he appreciates her idea and asserts:

Marriage is a port, a beginning, a point of departure, from which men and women go forth upon the real voyage of life [….] All that goes before is but a preparation, a building. The pains and the triumphs of all unmarried people are but the good oak planks being driven into place to make the vessels fit for the real voyage. (183)

The relationship between men and women in the novel is not underlined by intense love. There is no love and understanding between men and women. Women force men to face the limitations of their lives. So women’s love is changed to frustration, and they feel lonely in the world. Anderson believes that to love a woman and possess her is a good deal but he uses physical love as the outward manifestation of a deep spiritual love. In this novel, love raises above the biological level. Sam’s love for Janet Eberly is not intense love. But Janet alters Sam McPherson sexually and intellectually:

She was the first woman who ever got hold of and stirred his manhood, and she awoke something in him that made it possible for him later to see life with a broadness and scope of vision that was no part of the pushing energetic young man of dollars and of industry who sat beside her wheeled chair during the evenings on Wabash Avenue. (150)

There is physical love without passion in the relationship between Sam McPherson and Sue Rainey replacing sex with dollars, Sam McPherson marries Sue Rainey, but soon their marriage fails. It is often through sex that they are supposed to find their salvation but Sam flees away from terror and lust:

He remembered how he, as a boy in the city had run through the crowded streets fleeing from the terror of lust. He began to understand how distorted, how strangely perverted, his whole attitude towards women and sex had been. (180)

There is no proper love and understanding between Sam McPherson and Sue Rainey. They are engaged to each other only as a matter of convenience. Love which is a union of two souls, an understanding between two minds is not seen. Sam McPherson in his early boyhood has been taught by John Telfer that sex and women are antithetical to man’s full achievement.

In one of his formative discussions with Telfer, he cries,”To hell with women and girls”, as though throwing something distasteful out of his throat,” (63)

Marriage to Sue Rainey ensures his place in affirm and he involves in obsessive money – making. After their marriage, they spend a lot of time in admiring nature. Sue Rainey proves incapable of giving birth and Sam returns to business again hoping in search for better life. Their relationship is not very strong, so he breaks off his relationship with Sue. He frankly says to her that he cannot lead a good life with her. He wants to lead his own life in his own way.

Motherly love and affection extends even beyond the familial ties and this is shown in this novel. The relationship between Sam McPherson and Mary Underwood stands as an obvious evidence. After Sam’s mother and Jane McPherson’s death, Sam shares all his joys and sorrows with his school teacher Mary Underwood. Sam used to address her as little mother. It is Mary Underwood who reveals to him the true love and evil consequence of materialism but Sam in his hunger for money fails to realize the true value of human being. Later in the novel he perceives the value of love.

The characters are alienated from one another, because they have lost their identity in life. They are lonely and never understand or communicate with each other. Sam is drawn close to his mother, but he is unable to understand her. He cuts off himself from human love. His vaulting ambition for money and power becomes a barrier between him and his family. He is completely alienated from his family and the world.

The growing sense of alienation between Sam McPherson and Sue Rainey increases when they come to know that they cannot have children. Sue blames him for dehumanizing her husband and their relationship deteriorates through a lack of communication. Sue Rainey becomes completely alone in the society, because her husband cannot give her love and care. Windy McPherson is also a lonely creature in the world and he is alienated from his family and his fellow human beings. Sam has no love for his father and never understands him.

The loneliness of human life is a baffled search of one’s identity for meaning in life. Sam finds himself lonely in the world, because Sue leaves him and goes away to her father’s house. He leads a meaningless life in the city and has no love for human beings. Later he realizes that material values are meaningless and it cannot give happiness in life, rather it gives only estrangement from the world. So he begins a search that is vaguely successful for a meaningful way of life to replace materialism.

Sam McPherson, the money maker has more love for his own self than he has for others. Throughout his life he uses them but he does not care for any of them. Sam’s frustration begins to grow and he feels lonely in the country. He begins his search for what he has missed in life. So he sets out his strange quest, “to seek truth and to seek god” (244). Among the common people. Sam loses the sense of fulfilment and quest for ultimate meaning.”The best men spend their lives seeking truth”. (240)

The character of Sam McPherson is very significant, as he faces so many hardships in the novel. He struggles hard to live a peaceful life. The hero is dissatisfied with the material pleasure and goes in search of truth. It dawns on him that if man is a measure of truth, he has to paralyze competition and enslave wealth. So Sam puts aside his gains and pilgrimages forth searching for truth.

The third part of the novel deals with Sam’s quest for self –discovery. Sam’s revolt against money – making has an end in life. Sam’s departure from the city to search for the meaning of human existence marks not only the beginning of his great escape but it also signals another major deviation from his life. The labourers and ordinary people with whom Sam is trying to identify himself are no better than his urban brothers and sisters. He discovers that in the small towns and villages of America, people are searching for truth. Sam’s search is his interest in communicating with others. He tries to identify himself with the common people. Throughout his wanderings Sam attempts to share his knowledge with others. He realizes that he lacks the leadership qualities to change his existing conditions.

In his wanderings, he knows working girls and prostitutes tries to help them and seeks truth. In Pennsylvania, the manufacturing town, Sam sees that people are suffering for their own rights. When Sam sees depression on their faces, he says;”Fools and slaves”, he said earnestly, pointing to the men and women passing on the side walk.”See them going like beasts to their bondage? What do they get for it? What kind of lives do they lead? The lives of dogs” (276).

Sam learns that labour – unions are more concerned over the use of scab – machinery, than by the prospect of losing a righteous strike. He helps them and joins in the strike. He becomes very miserable over the lot of street – walkers.

In his quest for truth, he finds that love is missing in the society. Dissipation and vice have destroyed the moral character of the people. He finally discovers that “Christ simple message of love and community” has been rejected by the Iowa villagers. In the words:”The land that McPherson enters is still a land marred by men and women who have not learned to be clean and noble like their forests and their plains” (311).

Sam is sick with fatigue. After many years of wandering in search of the elusive truth, Sam understands “that he was not by nature a vagabond, and the call of the wind and sun and brown road was not insistent in his blood”(306). He wants to return to Sue, as he wants peace and happiness. Sam realizes that money does not make man’s life happy, and he is not satisfied with it. Sam needs only love that can bring human beings together. He struggles hard to find truth within himself. After rejecting his material wants in his life, he convinces himself that, “still looking towards the city”, that love is a matter of truth, not lies and pretences” (245-46)

The desire for success leads Sam to need to understand himself, and to recognize his own identity. He finds his own identity when Sam returns to his wife, hoping to lead a happy life. Sam brings with him three neglected children from a drunkard woman. He declares that man can attain love through children. Hence he comes to the conclusion that, “We will live our lives for service to mankind, through the children that will presently come into our house” (215).

Sam McPherson returns to his wife, who is lonely. He begins his new life through love and understanding. He decides to lead a meaningful and peaceful life based on love. He himself says: “I cannot run away from life. I must face it. I must begin to try to understand these other lives to love” (330)

In the end Sam becomes a reformer, yet his wish is not fulfilled in his life. It is made clear from his life that one can lead a successful life through love and understanding. He has learned that understanding and compassion has to precede love. Through this man can attain a similar kind of union with the whole world. That moral binding is very important is well established by the writer in the following words, while summing up the reasons for his hero’s failure:

Sam McPherson is a living American. He is a rich, but his money, that he spent so many years and so much of his energy acquiring, does not mean much to him. What is true of more wealthy Americans than is commonly believed? Something has happened to him that has happened to others also, to how many of the others? Men of courage, with strong bodies and quick brains, men who have come of a strong race, have taken up what they had thought to be the banner of life and carried it forward (324).

As many other American writers, Anderson has created fiction from the stuff of his own life. The novel is a very realistic portrait of Anderson’s society. In his work, he creates characters that are lost in the world alone. The moral binding and love is not seen in the twentieth century American society. According to Sherwood Anderson if human race fail to realize the correct meaning of life they can only see disintegration everywhere.


Anderson, David. ed. Sherwood Anderson : Dimensions of his literary. Company, Inc., 1916.

Anderson,Sherwood, Windy McPherson’s Son. London: John Lane art. New York: Michigan State University press, 1976.

Sutton, William A. The Road to Winesburg: A Mosaic of the Imaginative Life of Sherwood Anderson. New Jersey: The Scarecrow press, Inc., 1972.

Unger, Leonard. Ed. American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. University of Minnesota, 1972.

Williams, Kenny J. A story Teller and a city. Northern Illinois University press, 1988.



Scafidel J.R. “Sexuality in Windy McPherson’s Son Twentieth century literature 23.1 Feb (1997): 102 – 114.


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