Sherwood Anderson’s short story titled “Hands” (included in his collection of stories titled Winesburg,Ohio) can be read as a warning against the dangers of judging others unfairly. The story concerns an eccentric old man named Wing Biddlebaum, who is befriended by the story’s young narrator, George Willard. Biddlebaum is perceived as a strange person by most other citizens of Winesburg, and indeed
Wing Biddlebaum, forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, did not think of himself as in any way part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years.
Wing moves his hands constantly and seems perpetually nervous, although eventually he feels comfortable enough to talk to George and even looks forward to George’s visits. George, meanwhile, feels a “growing respect” for Wing. Wing encourages George to follow his own dream and to resist mere social conformity. Eventually George discovers that Wing – whose real, original name was Adolph Myers – was once a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania. However, when he seemed to be too friendly to the boys he taught and actually touched them, he was eventually accused of being a “beast” and “was driven from the Pennsylvania town in the night” by a dozen angry men:
They had intended to hang the schoolmaster, but something in his figure, so small, white and pitiful, touched their hearts and they let him escape.
Anderson’s story shows how these kinds of unfair, unproven accusations can
- warp a person’s life for decades.
- cause that person to abandon his earlier identity.
- cause that person to abandon his true calling (in Wing’s case, being a teacher).
- cause that person to withdraw even from his new social surroundings.
- cause that person to suffer from psychosomatic symptoms.
- deprive society of the benefits that person might contribute to his community.
Something extra: Anderson’s story invites attention from present-day “Queer Studies” approaches to literary criticism. Such studies focus on the ways human identities, especially those of homosexuals and other sexual minorities, are socially constructed. Nothing in Anderson’s story explicitly suggests that Wing is a practicing homosexual or that he ever was, even when living in Pennsylvania. By the standards of Anderson’s own day, however, the story is suggestive. Historical critics would try to read the story in the contexts of Anderson’s own time, and new historical critics in particular would be interested not only in how the story was affected by those contexts but also in how it may have affected them in turn. Thus, the story may be seen as depicting prejudices of the time but also as helping to combat them.