Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855

Though it has been widely anthologized since its publication, there is little substantive criticism of ‘‘Hands’’ as a separate work. The story first appeared in a small Chicago literary magazine called the Masses , where it attracted some attention from the literary elite in that city, but the magazine did...

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Though it has been widely anthologized since its publication, there is little substantive criticism of ‘‘Hands’’ as a separate work. The story first appeared in a small Chicago literary magazine called the Masses, where it attracted some attention from the literary elite in that city, but the magazine did not enjoy a large body of readers. Typically, the story is studied as one integral part of the whole book that is Winesburg, Ohio. Perhaps because ‘‘Hands’’ is essentially the first story of the larger work, it is frequently discussed as it introduces themes, techniques, and characters found throughout the larger work.

Anderson often complained toward the end of his life that the early reviews of Winesburg, Ohio were too harsh, but in fact they were largely favorable. The book’s success brought ‘‘Hands’’ to readers all across the country, and reviews were published in New York, San Francisco, and every important newspaper and magazine in between. One of Anderson’s goals was to create a new form for the short story, to free it from the confines of being as plot-driven as most nineteenth-century short stories had been. One critic who appreciated the new form was the influential editor and critic H. L. Mencken. In a 1919 review, he describes the stories in Winesburg, Ohio as ‘‘half tale and half psychological anatomizing, and vastly better than all the kinds that have gone before.’’ Other critics agreed that Anderson had attempted something new and worthy in the book, and that his new emphasis on honestly revealing the psychology of characters instead of on tracing their actions called for new forms.

Some critics felt that Anderson was perhaps too honest in the book, revealing things that were better left hidden. Rather than seeing in Anderson any tenderness and compassion for his characters, these critics saw the author as cold and unfeeling. Many thought that there was too much emphasis on sex. Though it may be difficult for readers at the turn of the twenty-first century to understand, Anderson’s stories were considered quite daring, even obscene, when they were published in the first part of the twentieth century. The anonymous reviewer for the New York Sun was not alone in feeling disgusted by the perverted characters in Winesburg, Ohio and their ‘‘nauseous acts.’’ In fact, the hints at sex and sexuality in the book are never more direct than those in ‘‘Hands.’’

For decades, critics hinted at but did not frankly discuss a central question raised by the story: Is Wing Biddlebaum homosexual, or just misunderstood? Since the 1960s, critics have weighed in on this issue, but have not reached a consensus. Some critics argue, as Rex Burbank does in his Sherwood Anderson volume for Twayne, that Biddlebaum was not homosexual, and that ‘‘his caresses were interpreted as homosexuality by stupid, insensitive townspeople.’’ Welford Taylor, in another book titled Sherwood Anderson, concludes that the townspeople ‘‘have made an innocent man an unfortunate victim.’’

As the general public has become more comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, and as more has been learned about Anderson’s own curiosity about homosexuality, critics have become more willing to consider that Biddlebaum is gay. According to these readings, Biddlebaum’s contacts with his students might have had a taint of inappropriate sexuality, and his fear of touching George Willard is a fear of his sexual urges. Judy Jo Small’s Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson summarizes this line of reasoning, but adds the caveat that even eighty years after Anderson wrote, ‘‘sexuality in general and sexual orientation in particular is still far from being well understood.’’

The collection as a whole is frequently read as a Bildungsroman—a German literary form that focuses on a character during his developmental years. In their view, the stories in Winesburg, Ohio trace the development of the repeated character George Willard. Therefore much criticism of ‘‘Hands’’ gives more emphasis to George’s development than would be given him if the story were studied alone. Small, for example, identifies George as ‘‘the central figure of the book,’’ though it is a stretch to see him as the central figure of ‘‘Hands.’’ Walter Rideout analyzes Winesburg, Ohio in an essay in Shenandoah. He finds that ‘‘Hands’’ provides a statement of the central theme of the book: the conflict between ‘‘the world of practical affairs’’ and ‘‘the world of dreams.’’ Through the rest of the stories George explores the two choices, and finally resolves the conflict for himself. In this analysis, and others like it, ‘‘Hands’’ functions more as a chapter in a novel than as a story.

After the reviews that appeared shortly after the book’s publication, criticism of Winesburg, Ohio appeared infrequently for about thirty years, although the book never went out of print. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of renewed interest in Anderson, and especially in Winesburg, Ohio, and many books and articles about Anderson were published before interest began to fade again. His reputation has waxed and waned, but for fifty years he has been generally considered the author of several bad books and one great one.

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