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By Sherwood Anderson

UPON THE HALF decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down. Across a long field that had been seeded for clover but that had produced only a dense crop of yellow mustard weeds, he could see the public highway along which went a wagon filled with berry pickers returning from the fields. The berry pickers, youths and maidens, laughed and shouted boisterously. A boy clad in a blue shirt leaped from the wagon and attempted to drag after him one of the maidens, who screamed and protested shrilly. The feet of the boy in the road kicked up a cloud of dust that floated across the face of the departing sun. Over the long field came a thin girlish voice. “Oh, you Wing Biddlebaum, comb your hair, it's falling into your eyes,” commanded the voice to the man, who was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks.

Wing Biddlebaum, forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years. Among all the people of Winesburg but one had come close to him. With George Willard, son of Tom Willard, the proprietor of the New Willard House, he had formed something like a friendship. George Willard was the reporter on the Winesburg Eagle and sometimes in the evenings he walked out along the highway to Wing Biddlebaum's house. Now as the old man walked up and down on the veranda, his hands moving nervously about, he was hoping that George Willard would come and spend the evening with him. After the wagon containing the berry pickers had passed, he went across the field through the tall mustard weeds and climbing a rail fence peered anxiously along the road to the town. For a moment he stood thus, rubbing his hands together and looking up and down the road, and then, fear overcoming him, ran back to walk again upon the porch on his own house.

In the presence of George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum, who for twenty years had been the town mystery, lost something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world. With the young reporter at his side, he ventured in the light of day into Main Street or strode up and down on the rickety front porch of his own house, talking excitedly. The voice that had been low and trembling became shrill and loud. The bent figure straightened. With a kind of wriggle, like a fish returned to the brook by the fisherman, Biddlebaum the silent began to talk, striving to put into words the ideas that had been accumulated by his mind during long years of silence.

Wing Biddlebaum talked much with his hands. The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression.

The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name. Some obscure poet of the town had thought of it. The hands alarmed their owner. He wanted to keep them hidden away and looked with amazement at the quiet...

(This entire section contains 2357 words.)

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inexpressive hands of other men who worked beside him in the fields, or passed, driving sleepy teams on country roads.

When he talked to George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum closed his fists and beat with them upon a table or on the walls of his house. The action made him more comfortable. If the desire to talk came to him when the two were walking in the fields, he sought out a stump or the top board of a fence and with his hands pounding busily talked with renewed ease.

The story of Wing Biddlebaum's hands is worth a book in itself. Sympathetically set forth it would tap many strange, beautiful qualities in obscure men. It is a job for a poet. In Winesburg the hands had attracted attention merely because of their activity. With them Wing Biddlebaum had picked as high as a hundred and forty quarts of strawberries in a day. They became his distinguishing feature, the source of his fame. Also they made more grotesque an already grotesque and elusive individuality. Winesburg was proud of the hands of Wing Biddlebaum in the same spirit in which it was proud of Banker White's new stone house and Wesley Moyer's bay stallion, Tony Tip, that had won the two-fifteen trot at the fall races in Cleveland.

As for George Willard, he had many times wanted to ask about the hands. At times an almost overwhelming curiosity had taken hold of him. He felt that there must be a reason for their strange activity and their inclination to keep hidden away and only a growing respect for Wing Biddlebaum kept him from blurting out the questions that were often in his mind.

Once he had been on the point of asking. The two were walking in the fields on a summer afternoon and had stopped to sit upon a grassy bank. All afternoon Wing Biddlebaum had talked as one inspired. By a fence he had stopped and beating like a giant woodpecker upon the top board had shouted at George Willard, condemning his tendency to be too much influenced by the people about him, “You are destroying yourself,” he cried. “You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams. You want to be like others in town here. You hear them talk and you try to imitate them.”

On the grassy bank Wing Biddlebaum had tried again to drive his point home. His voice became soft and reminiscent, and with a sigh of contentment he launched into a long rambling talk, speaking as one lost in a dream.

Out of the dream Wing Biddlebaum made a picture for George Willard. In the picture men lived again in a kind of pastoral golden age. Across a green open country came clean-limbed young men, some afoot, some mounted upon horses. In crowds the young men came to gather about the feet of an old man who sat beneath a tree in a tiny garden and who talked to them.

Wing Biddlebaum became wholly inspired. For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard's shoulders. Something new and bold came into the voice that talked. “You must try to forget all you have learned,” said the old man. “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”

Pausing in his speech, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.

With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets. Tears came to his eyes. “I must be getting along home. I can talk no more with you,” he said nervously.

Without looking back, the old man had hurried down the hillside and across a meadow, leaving George Willard perplexed and frightened upon the grassy slope. With a shiver of dread the boy arose and went along the road toward town. “I'll not ask him about his hands,” he thought, touched by the memory of the terror he had seen in the man's eyes. “There's something wrong, but I don't want to know what it is. His hands have something to do with his fear of me and of everyone.”

And George Willard was right. Let us look briefly into the story of the hands. Perhaps our talking of them will arouse the poet who will tell the hidden wonder story of the influence for which the hands were but fluttering pennants of promise.

In his youth Wing Biddlebaum had been a school teacher in a town in Pennsylvania. He was not then known as Wing Biddlebaum, but went by the less euphonic name of Adolph Myers. As Adolph Myers he was much loved by the boys of his school.

Adolph Myers was meant by nature to be a teacher of youth. He was one of those rare, little understood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness. In their feeling for the boys under their charge such men are not unlike the finer sort of women in their love of men.

And yet that is but crudely stated. It needs the poet there. With the boys of his school, Adolph Myers had walked in the evening or had sat talking until dusk upon the schoolhouse steps lost in a kind of dream. Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads. As he talked his voice became soft and musical. There was a caress in that also. In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers, he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands, doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.

And then the tragedy. A half-witted boy of the school became enamored of the young master. In his bed at night he imagined unspeakable things and in the morning went forth to tell his dreams as facts. Strange, hideous accusations fell from his loose-hung lips. Through the Pennsylvania town went a shiver. Hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men's minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs.

The tragedy did not linger. Trembling lads were jerked out of bed and questioned. “He put his arms about me,” said one. “His fingers were always playing in my hair,” said another.

One afternoon a man of the town, Henry Bradford, who kept a saloon, came to the schoolhouse door. Calling Adolph Myers into the school yard, he began to beat him with his fists. As his hard knuckles beat down into the frightened face of the schoolmaster, his wrath became more and more terrible. Screaming with dismay, the children ran here and there like disturbed insects. “I'll teach you to put your hands on my boy, you beast,” roared the saloon keeper, who, tired of beating the master, had begun to kick him about the yard.

Adolph Myers was driven from the Pennsylvania town in the night. With lanterns in their hands a dozen men came to the door of the house where he lived alone and commanded that he dress and come forth. It was raining and one of the men had a rope in his hands. 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. As he ran away into the darkness, they repented of their weakness and ran after him, swearing and throwing sticks and great balls of soft mud at the figure that screamed and ran faster and faster into the darkness.

For twenty years Adolph Myers had lived alone in Winesburg. He was but forty but looked sixty-five. The name of Biddlebaum he got from a box of goods seen at a freight station as he hurried through an eastern Ohio town. He had an aunt in Winesburg, a black-toothed old woman who raised chickens, and with her he lived until she died. He had been ill for a year after the experience in Pennsylvania, and after his recovery worked as a day laborer in the fields, going timidly about and striving to conceal his hands. Although he did not understand what had happened, he felt that the hands must be to blame. Again and again the fathers of the boys had talked of the hands. “Keep your hands to yourself,” the saloon keeper had roared, dancing with fury in the schoolhouse yard.

Upon the veranda of his house by the ravine, Wing Biddlebaum continued to walk up and down until the sun had disappeared and the road beyond the field was lost in the grey shadows. Going into his house he cut slices of bread and spread honey upon them. When the rumble of the evening train that took away the express cars loaded with the day's harvest of berries had passed and restored the silence of the summer night, he went again to walk upon the veranda. In the darkness he could not see the hands and they became quiet. Although he still hungered for the presence of the boy, who was the medium through which he expressed his love of man, the hunger became again a part of his loneliness and his waiting. Lighting a lamp, Wing Biddlebaum washed the few dishes soiled by his simple meal and, setting up a folding cot by the screen door that led to the porch, prepared to undress for the night. A few stray white bread crumbs lay on the cleanly washed floor by the table; putting the lamp upon a low stool he began to pick up the crumbs, carrying them to his mouth one by one with unbelievable rapidity. In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of his church. The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.

Use of Repeated Imagery

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When Sherwood Anderson wrote fiction in the early 1900s, he was consciously experimenting with new short-story forms and with a new kind of written language to fit the new forms. In Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction, Robert Allen Papinchak describes Anderson’s style as ‘‘less cluttered with lengthy sentences and multisyllabic words than that of Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, and other American writers to that time. Instead, Anderson used short, direct sentences, frequent modifications of nouns, series of prepositional phrases, and the repetition of phrases and ideas, which often depend on a structural circularity.’’ Papinchak asserts that in ‘‘Hands,’’ all of Anderson’s stylistic qualities may be observed. In this essay I examine one of these qualities—the use of repeated phrases and ideas.

Walter B. Rideout, in an article in Shenandoah, traces several elements that run through the entire Winesburg, Ohio. These repetitions contribute to a sense that ‘‘the seemingly artless, even careless, digressions are rarely artless, careless, or digressive. . . . If this is simplicity, it is simplicity— paradox or not—of a complicated kind.’’

The most obvious example is the word ‘‘hand,’’ which by Papinchak’s count occurs in the singular or the plural thirty times in the story, which runs just over 2,350 words. The image of Wing Biddlebaum’s fluttering, fiddling, nervous hands is repeated so many times that it becomes a symbol of his alienation and loneliness, as thoroughly documented by Papinchak and others. More interesting is the repetition of the idea of beating hands—not yet another look at the movement of nervous hands, ‘‘like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird,’’ but the picture of Wing as he ‘‘closed his fists and beat them upon a table or on the walls of his house.’’

This beating, which seems so out of character for a man ‘‘forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts,’’ actually makes Wing feel more comfortable. He seems unable to talk without something to beat on. If he and George Willard are out walking, and he feels the urge to speak, he finds ‘‘a stump or the top board of a fence and with his hands pounding’’ he talks easily. The images of the hands like a bird and the beating hands come together the day Wing and George are in the field: ‘‘By a fence he had stopped and beating like a giant woodpecker upon the top board [he] had shouted at George.’’

It must be difficult for the first-time reader to imagine where this beating comes from. The narrator repeatedly points out that Wing’s hands are expressive, that he talks with his hands. He looks ‘‘with amazement at the quiet inexpressive hands of the other men,’’ but he cannot control his own. This begs the question, What are the hands expressing? What can Wing be saying to George when he beats the walls or pounds a stump? We know part of the answer. He is urging George to dream.

But why should this advice require such strong gesturing? The ideas of dreams and dreaming form another cluster of repeated phrases in the story. After his outburst to George, Wing settles down and for a short time he is able to talk softly, forgetting his hands, ‘‘speaking as one lost in a dream.’’ ‘‘You must try to forget all you have learned,’’ he tells George. ‘‘You must begin to dream.’’ As the reader soon learns (but George does not), Wing has spoken of dreams before. When he was Adolph Myers, a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania, he went for walks with his students and talked while he was ‘‘lost in a kind of dream.’’ In those days, his voice was always soft, and his hands did not beat the fence tops but only gently touched the boys’ shoulders or hair. The gentle voice and the gentle touch were ‘‘part of the schoolmaster’s effort to carry a dream into the young minds.’’ Under his touch, the boys lost their ‘‘doubt and disbelief’’ and ‘‘they began also to dream.’’

Ironically, it is a dream that is Wing’s undoing. One of his students imagines ‘‘unspeakable things and in the morning [goes] forth to tell his dreams as facts.’’ And once the image of the dream is corrupted, the image of the beating hands snaps into focus. When Henry Bradford comes to the school yard, the imagery of the beating is insistent: ‘‘he began to beat him with his fists’’; ‘‘his hard knuck les beat down into the frightened face’’; ‘‘tired of beating the master, [he] had begun to kick him.’’

The beating gestures are tied up in Wing’s mind with the dreams and the horrible mistake and the father’s wrath. When he calls up one, he calls up them all. Because he never understood at the time what all the fuss was about, he does not know how to separate them twenty years later. The imagery of beating hands links Wing Biddlebaum and Henry Bradford together.

Another set of repeated phrases reinforces this connection. Wing is ‘‘beset by a ghostly band of doubts.’’ When he is not with George, he has a ‘‘shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts.’’ Before the tragedy, it was Wing who cast ‘‘doubt and disbelief’’ from the minds of his students, but now he himself is filled with doubts.

What does he doubt? Again, the imagery links him to the students’ fathers. When the half-witted boy tells his story, ‘‘Hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men’s minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs.’’ The men have doubted Myers’s sexual orientation. Does Wing share the same doubts about himself? Again, Anderson does not answer, but the imagery clearly links Wing with the other men.

A third set of repeated phrases arises out of the few paragraphs describing the accusation against Myers. The community’s reaction to the boy’s accusation is immediate: ‘‘Through the Pennsylvania town went a shiver.’’ It is the shiver of fear that the men experience upon identifying a homosexual man in their midst. Just five paragraphs earlier, Wing has run away from George after touching his shoulder. George gets up and goes home ‘‘with a shiver of dread.’’ Does George also have doubts about Wing’s sexual orientation? ‘‘‘There is something wrong,’’’ he says, ‘‘‘but I don’t want to know what it is.’’’

One effect of the repeated images and phrases is to add a subtle bit of shading to what is generally considered to be a major theme of Winesburg, Ohio, alienation and loneliness. There is no doubt that Wing Biddlebaum is lonely, friendless, isolated. But his feelings and emotions are essentially human. In his gestures, in his doubts, and in his love of the boys who are sons and students, he is very like the fathers, the very men who might seem to be as unlike him as is possible. The Wing Biddlebaums of the world might not be so isolated if we were all more attuned to the things we share as humans.

Early readers of ‘‘Hands’’ struggled with the structure and organization. There seemed to be no reason for the order of the different scenes, and no sense that one scene was the cause of the next. A clue to Anderson’s method of organization might be found in another series of repeated phrases. The narrator, in the manner of an epic poet, twice calls upon a poetic muse to help him tell the story. ‘‘The story of Wing Biddlebaum’s hands is worth a book in itself,’’ says the narrator, but ‘‘It is a job for a poet.’’ The narrator cannot adequately explain Myers’s power over his students, because ‘‘it needs the poet there.’’

If the story of ‘‘Hands’’ is read as a poem instead of as a conventional, plot-driven short story, the organization makes more sense. In this way of reading, the impressions created by the imagery are more important than the sequence of action. The images appear and reappear and all come together in one climactic scene. They create echoes between characters and between situations, and they provide structure for the story. David D. Anderson, analyzing Winesburg, Ohio in an article in Critical Studies in American Literature, describes Anderson’s ‘‘intuitive approach’’ to his characters’ deepest secrets. Anderson’s ‘‘intuitive perception,’’ he writes, is ‘‘accomplished not through analysis but through empathy, and his purpose is not to diagnose and to cure but simply to understand and to love.’’

Source: Cynthia Bily, in an essay for Short Stories for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Bily teaches writing and literature at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan, and writes for various educational publishers.

Winesburg, Ohio As a Dance of Death

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In Winesburg, Ohio the idea of death does not signify only the grave, but more tragically it denotes the loneliness and frustration of the unlived life. As in Poor White we are aware in Winesburg, Ohio of movement as characteristic of American life, but here it is the restlessness of the individual who grows increasingly oppressed by his loneliness and his inability to express himself to others. In each story when the character reaches an ultimate point of insupportable frustration or recognizes that he can never escape his isolation, he reacts by waving his hands and arms about, talking excitedly, and finally running away. In a very stylized pattern almost every story brings its character to such a moment of frenzy where he breaks into something like a dance.

The introductory sketch, ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque,’’ is either ignored by critics or dismissed as a murky and confusing allegory. That Anderson intended it to carry significant weight in relation to the rest of the book is clear when we remember that ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque’’ was the publication title Anderson first gave to the whole collection of stories. In its oblique and terse fashion the sketch defines the relationship of the artist to his characters. The subject is an old man who is writing a book about all the people he has known. The first thing we notice is that the writer is preoccupied with fantasies about his failing health. When he goes to bed each night he thinks about his possible death, yet paradoxically that makes him feel more alive than at other times; thoughts of death heighten his awareness to things. In this state the old writer has a waking dream in which all the people he has known are being driven in a long procession before his eyes. They appear to the writer as ‘‘grotesques,’’ for each of these characters has lived according to a personal truth which has cut him off from the others. These are the characters of Anderson’s book. The procession they form is like a dance of the dead, for as mentioned above most of these people from Anderson’s childhood are now dead. The youth in the coat of mail leading the people is the writer’s imagination and also his death consciousness— his memory of the past and his awareness that loneliness and death are the essential ‘‘truths’’ of the human condition. We are told in this sketch that the old carpenter, who comes to adjust the height of the writer’s bed and who instead weeps over a brother who dies of starvation in the Civil War, is one of the most lovable of all the grotesques in the writer’s book. Just such a character apparently befriended Anderson’s lonely mother in Clyde, Ohio; this detail indicates both the personal and the elegiac nature of the book.

The first story, ‘‘Hands,’’ tells about Wing Biddlebaum whose unfulfilled life typifies the other life stories recounted in the book. From his little house on the edge of town Wing can watch life pass by: ‘‘. . . he could see the public highway along which went a wagon filled with berry pickers returning from the fields. The berry pickers, youths and maidens, laughed and shouted boisterously. A boy clad in a blue shirt leaped from the wagon and attempted to drag after him one of the maidens, who screamed and protested shrilly. The feet of the boy in the road kicked up a cloud of dust that floated across the face of the departing sun.’’ With its archetypal images of the public highway, youths and maidens, the berry harvest, and the cosmic image of the sun, the scene Anderson has created is a tableau depicting the dance of life. By contrast Wing Biddlebaum ventures only as far as the edge of the road, then hurries back again to his little house. He lives in the shadows of the town. Yet, like the berry pickers, his figure is always in motion, walking nervously up and down his half decayed verandah. His hands especially are always moving and are compared to the beating wings of an imprisoned bird.

Source: David Stouck, ‘‘‘Winesburg, Ohio’ As a Dance of Death,’’ in American Literature, Vol. XLVIII, No. 4, January, 1977, pp. 532–33.

Winesburg, Ohio: The Escape from Isolation

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A recurrent theme of the literature of recent times has been the difficulty and even impossibility of communication . . .

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is vitally concerned with the difficulty of understanding. The characters in that work are all desperately trying, in a strange variety of ways, to make meaningful contact with someone or something outside themselves. The opening chapter, ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque,’’ explains how each tried to live by one or perhaps several truths and closed his eyes to the immense world of reality beyond the margins of that province.

These distortions of reality labelled truths immure each character within the isolation of his selfhood but they do not preclude an attempt to escape from this inner loneliness. Any passion, any ideal, however genuine or commendable, is liable to the distortion that can destroy its living malleability. Even the man who understands this may fall victim to the rigidity of his conception.

Winesburg, Ohio opens with ‘‘Hands,’’ the story of ultimate frustration. Wing Biddlebaum sees himself reaching out to others, his marvelous hands complementing the truth of his words. As a school teacher he had ‘‘walked in the evening or had sat talking until dusk upon the schoolhouse steps lost in a kind of dream. Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads.’’ . . . But a half-witted boy imagines ‘‘unspeakable things’’ and Biddlebaum narrowly escapes lynching by fleeing to his aunt’s farm near Winesburg. George Willard, the town reporter and the unifying figure in most of the sketches, watches his hands perform the lovely ritual of their movement.

‘‘A few stray white bread crumbs lay on the cleanly washed floor by the table; putting the lamp on a low stool he began to pick up the crumbs, carrying them to his mouth one by one with unbelievable rapidity. In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of his church.’’ . . . The ritual has but one celebrant and the church no communicants.

Source: Barry D. Bort, ‘‘‘Winesburg, Ohio’: The Escape from Isolation,’’ in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XI, No. 4, Summer, 1970, pp. 443–56.

Gestures as Meaning in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio

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Dialogue, a common vehicle for characterization and theme in fiction, is conspicuously limited in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. The characters rarely indulge in conversation with one another and rarely debate a problem within themselves. Thus, the novel, which attempts to study the isolation of mankind, achieves a success of the highest order by isolating the reader from the characters at least on the verbal level. Anderson’s message, however, is not that man can never learn to know his fellow man, but rather that conversation is, at best, an elementary and often a false indication of a man’s personality. Kate Swift, the school teacher in Winesburg, tells reporter George Willard that he must learn ‘‘to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.’’ To learn what a man is ‘‘thinking about,’’ then, the more perceptive person will study a man’s exterior being, his actions and his appearance.

Anderson uses both eyes and hands to reveal meaning in Winesburg, but in particular he makes the reader aware of the hands of his characters. Where ‘‘they fought’’ would convey meaning adequately, he deliberately writes they ‘‘fought with their fists on Main Street. . . .’’ (underscoring added).

The first function of the hand images appears to be a substitution for lengthy character description. ‘‘Hands,’’ the first story in the collection, explicitly reveals Anderson’s conscious intention: ‘‘Wing Biddlebaum talked much with his hands. The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression.’’

In and of themselves, the hands of Anderson’s characters may indicate the character’s state in life. The knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hand remind the storyteller not only of the twisted, yet delicious apples in the Winesburg orchard, but also of the doctor’s own life, his courtship, and his short marriage. Tom Foster’s industrious and aged grandmother has hands which are ‘‘all twisted out of shape’’ and Elizabeth Willard’s white hands, ‘‘dropping over the ends of the arms of the chair,’’ betray the secret of her unsuccessful life.

Hands assume wider significance as symbols, however, when they are used to express a character’s emotions or passions. When a character in Winesburg expresses anger, he does so with his hands and, in particular, with his fists. George Willard’s mother, for example, ‘‘clenched her fists’’ when she thought of her own failure in life and vowed to return from death, if necessary, to keep defeat from her son, though God might ‘‘beat her with his fists.’’ When Belle Carpenter, a young milliner in Winesburg, felt anger and frustration, she wished she could ‘‘fight someone with her fists’’ and Ray Pearson longed to ‘‘shout or scream or hit his wife with his fists’’ when he realized that he was caught in life’s web of responsibility. The large fists of Belle Carpenter’s boy friend, Ed Handby, were the bartender’s most characteristic feature (his surname enforces this association) and once ‘‘with his fist he broke a large mirror in the wash room of a hotel.’’ And when the Reverend Curtis Hartman succeeded in overcoming his temptation to sin, he joyfully shouted to George Willard, ‘‘The strength of God was in me and I broke the window with my fist.’’

Flying arms indicate high excitement in Anderson’s characters. The town baker, chasing a meddlesome grey cat, ‘‘swore and waved his arms about.’’ Similarly, Elmer Cowley, who thought himself ‘‘queer,’’ was eager to explain himself to a farm hand, whom he greeted by ‘‘making motions with his long arms,’’ and to George Willard. As Elmer talked, ‘‘his arms began to pump up and down’’ and later started to ‘‘flay the air.’’

Experiencing the sense of confusion which occurs before maturity, three young boys in Winesburg thrust their hands into their pockets. With this gesture, which is more subtle than clenched fists or flying arms, Elmer Cowley walks away from town feeling friendless, Seth Richmond releases Helen White’s hand and, to indicate his maturity, declares he is going to leave home to find work, George Willard helplessly listens to Elmer’s problems, and in ‘‘An Awakening’’ he, too, uses the gesture while asserting his maturity.

But it is at the point where the characters express love that gestures, in addition to revealing character, begin to illuminate the theme of the novel. In the expression of this theme, two impulses stimulating the gesture of touch are important: the offering of love, by which a character reaches out to comfort another, and the need for love, by which a character reaches out to grasp.

Jesse Bentley needed love and, being a religious person, he sought this love from God. He prayed for a sign from God and felt that God ‘‘might at any moment reach out his hand, touch him on the shoulder, and appoint for him some heroic task to be done.’’ Jesse’s daughter, Louise, was lonely but not religious, and she turned to man to satisfy her cry for love. ‘‘Sometimes it seemed to her that to be held tightly and kissed was the whole secret of life.’’ When John Hardy did not hold her, Louise put her head on the shoulder of her father’s farm hand and hoped that he would caress her.

Alice Hindman was extremely sensitive to the sense of touch and refused to have anyone move the furniture in her room. After Ned Currie deserted her she sometimes dated the drug clerk and occasionally ‘‘she put her hand out and touched softly the folds of his coat.’’ In her darkest moment of isolation she wanted ‘‘to find some other lonely human and embrace him.’’

The sense of touch, of course, often involves sexual love in the novel. Yet we are less aware of the love gesture as an expression of desire than as an expression of the lover’s own isolation. George Willard ‘‘wanted to touch Louise Trunnion with his hand. . . . Just to touch the folds of the soiled gingham dress would, he decided, be an exquisite pleasure.’’ Seth Richmond imagined his arm around Helen White, Ed Handby pressed Belle Carpenter to him tightly, Kate Swift held George Willard by the shoulders, and Enoch Robinson married because, in his loneliness, he wanted ‘‘to touch actual flesh and bone people with his hands.’’

The most meaningful gesture in Winesburg, however, is stimulated by the attempt to comfort and to offer love, and seems to originate in a Christian concept of love. Only after the Reverend Curtis Hartman chipped the bell tower window, which pictured the figure of Christ laying his hand on the head of a child, did he begin his life of sin. He later told his congregation, ‘‘I have been tempted. . . . It is only the hand of God, placed beneath my head, that has raised me up.’’ Clearly, the communication of love gives man the strength and courage he needs in life.

Many examples of love gestures between characters in the novel involve a parent-child relationship, recalling and perhaps receiving inspiration from the Christ-child image. David Hardy thought his mother must be a new person when, relieved to find the boy she believed was lost, she ‘‘clutched him eagerly in her arms. Having experienced love, David was able to impart it and at his grandfather’s farm he ‘‘wanted to embrace everyone in the house’’ and made his great-aunt ‘‘ecstatically happy’’ by caressing her face. In a later incident David’s terror left him only when his grandfather held his head ‘‘tenderly against his shoulder.’’ Tom Hard tried to comfort his crying daughter by ‘‘taking her into his arms’’ and Ray Pearson, having thought of his children and having ‘‘in fancy felt their hands clutching at him,’’ could not advise Hal Winters to escape marriage.

When the love gesture is used outside the family circle, as in the stories of Elizabeth and George Willard, it includes all of mankind and illuminates Anderson’s central theme which is too often misinterpreted as one of isolation. Isolation is present and is part of the human condition, but man can release himself from that isolation by reaching out his sympathies, his understanding, his very selfness, until he forgets self and becomes one with the person he is reaching toward. In this way, gestures not only convey meaning but also cause meaning, for they take man out of himself and into the heart of another.

As a young woman, Elizabeth Willard had wanted to escape her isolation. She often dated the men who stayed in her father’s hotel and when ‘‘they took hold of her hand, she thought that something unexpressed in herself came forth and became a part of an unexpressed something in them.’’ Had the traveling men experienced a reciprocal release of love, Elizabeth would have known happiness. Years later, shortly before her death, Elizabeth remembered these men and how she was ‘‘forever putting out her hand into the darkness and trying to get hold of some other hand.’’ Her description of human isolation is pathetically accurate.

Elizabeth’s son, George, achieved the happiness which his mother was denied. Like his mother, George wished to express his love through touch, but he also wished to be touched. Man must give and accept love, he must join in a mutual exchange of understanding and affection. George was fortunate in loving Helen White for she, too, comprehended the nature of love. Significantly, ‘‘Sophistication,’’ the last story in Winesburg (for ‘‘Departure’’ is a statement of conclusion), relates that Helen ran from home to find George at the same moment that George was walking to the White home, causing them to meet each other halfway. Together they walked to the fair grounds. They ‘‘held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. ‘I have come to this lonely place and here is this other.’. . . ’’

Embrace has been responded to by embrace, understanding by understanding. Man has escaped, at least for a short time, the isolation of his own being.

Source: Carol J. Maresca, ‘‘Gestures as Meaning in Sherwood Anderson’s ‘Winesburg, Ohio,’’’ in CLA Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3, March, 1966, pp. 279–83.

Significance of Unconventional Narrative Sequence

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In 1914, the famous exhibition of post-Impressionist paintings was held in the Chicago Armory, where Anderson went . . . on afternoons to see the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and others among the ‘‘French moderns.’’ Like such ‘‘Impressionists’’ as Monet, Renoir, and Degas before them, these painters portrayed the impressions of experience upon the consciousness of the artist, or of an observer with whom the artist identified himself, rather than the external appearances of events and objects. But they went even beyond the Impressionists in attempting to convey not only the subjective experience of the artist or observer but the abstract structure beneath natural forms. . . .

Van Gogh deliberately distorted his figures, used violent splashes of color, and swirled his brush across his canvasses to signify his own tumultuous feelings. Gauguin, the one-time stockbroker who, like Anderson abandoned business for art, drew his Tahitian natives with bold colors restrained by simple but clear lines, thereby synthesizing complex and powerful inner feelings with external forms.

Anderson’s interest in painting at this time was more than casual: he himself painted. . . . [The] techniques of composition in Impressionist and post-Impressionist art . . . offered possibilities in form and texture for fiction that were agreeable to his own views of life and art. More specifically, the new art suggested the shaping of a narrative sequence in accordance with the flow of feelings and thoughts, or impressions, of the narrator rather than according to time: according to psychological instead of chronological time. This meant that form would develop in two ways: first, from within the narrative (as Van Gogh saw nature’s form as essentially an inner thing), which required that the traditional ‘‘plot’’ sequence of action (Anderson particularly despised the highly plotted stories of O. Henry) would be abandoned for a form that moves with the mind and feelings; and, second, because both mind and feelings operate in a continuum of time, following moods, attitudes, or ideas rather than a chronological order, form would grow by means of a series of disconnected images which are thematically and symbolically related and coalescent like the paintings of the French impressionists. . . .

Though he deeply admired Dreiser (who himself had broken away from the neatly plotted story) for the uncompromising honesty with which he drew his characters, Anderson moved away from Dreiser’s graceless journalistic style and from his brand of stark Naturalism and surface realism in favor of techniques that permitted him to penetrate the external forces of Naturalistic fiction, to bypass the ponderous collection of external social facts, and to get to the feelings and the irrational impulses of his characters, their innermost struggles.

The style and structural techniques of Impressionism and Symbolism lent themselves admirably to these aims, and so did the stylistic practices of Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons and Three Lives Anderson read . . . in 1914. . . . In his Memoirs he declared that, through Stein, he adopted the conscious stylistic intention of capturing the color and cadence of his own Midwestern speech, to lay word against word ‘‘in just a certain way’’ in order to convey the feelings (as distinguished from the facts) of life by means of ‘‘a kind of word color, a march of simple words, simple sentence structure.’’

The influence of the post-Impressionists and of Gertrude Stein may best be demonstrated by perusal of ‘‘Hands,’’ one of the best tales in Winesburg, in which Anderson’s technique of constructing the tales around epiphanies can be seen in the portrayal of Wing Biddlebaum, whose deeply creative nature has been thwarted and perverted, through a central image of hands whose restless, bird-like activities expend themselves in random and trivial actions. The incidents of the story are clustered about this image, intensifying it and in turn being unified by it. As the incidents charge the image with meaning, the narrative proceeds to a climactic epiphany which reveals Biddlebaum’s defeat to be that of the innermost self.

The narrative opens with an objective, scenically rendered paragraph showing Biddlebaum’s alienation from the town and suggesting a relationship between his alienation and his ‘‘nervous little hands.’’ It then moves in succeeding paragraphs to a generalized exposition of his more intimate acquaintance with George Willard and Willard’s curiosity about the hands. Another short-view scene follows, revealing the connection between Biddlebaum’s thwarted, imaginative nature and his fear of his hands. Establishment of Biddlebaum’s fear shifts the narrative to a review of the events that caused him to flee from Pennsylvania to become a recluse in Winesburg. In that review we see that his hands were his means of expressing love and that the nature of this love was creative, for it found its outlet in communicating to schoolboys, through his gentle caresses, his own tendency to dream. But his caresses were interpreted as homosexuality by stupid, insensitive townspeople, and he was driven from the town. In Winesburg, he has withdrawn from the lives of others; and, unable to find creative outlet for his imaginative life, he has become a human fragment, a grotesque. The hands change from image to symbol as the narrative progresses and the themes of alienation, fear, love, and shame become in turn associated with them; and as the symbol gathers its meanings the narrative builds toward the final symbolic act, the epiphany. The epiphany occurs after Willard leaves, and the full ironic meaning of Biddlebaum’s life is felt in the discrepancy between his religious posture, as he kneels, and the meaningless drumming of his fingers as they pluck bread crumbs from the floor: Biddlebaum is a kind of defeated, strangely perverted priest of love.

The narrative structure thus follows the course of the omniscient author’s mind as he explores various times in the past, probes into his characters’ minds, relates bits of descriptive detail, and cites scraps of dialogue—all of which add up to the final symbolic scene in which Biddlebaum’s defeat is seen in the fullness of its nature. As in the best stories of Chekhov and of Crane—Anderson’s Impressionistic forebear—the final scene of ‘‘Hands’’ is anticlimactic, for nothing happens to Biddlebaum.’’ If the story has a ‘‘climax,’’ it comes at the point— about half way through—in which Biddlebaum urges Willard to leave Winesburg. By deliberately violating a straight time sequence, Anderson avoids the traditional, and often artificial, plot of clear-cut cause and effect actions culminating in a decisive action, and at the same time he gains an almost tragic irony. Nothing in Biddlebaum’s life can be climactic any more. His life is characterized by disillusionment, futility, and defeat; and both the anticlimactic structure and the muted tone of reminiscence support the vision of an inner life quietly but desperately submerged, and of a static, imprisoned external life. The stasis of his life, the impasse between social repression and need for expression, can be seen in the following paragraph, in which the feeling of Biddlebaum’s seething but frustrated passions is rendered by what Gertrude Stein approvingly termed ‘‘clear and passionate’’ sentences: sentences with simple diction and structure whose passion is conveyed by the contradictory effects of emotional balance and antithesis. We should notice how the terms beat, action, desire, sought, and pounding are subdued and counterpointed by comfortable and ease: ‘‘When he talked to George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum closed his fists and beat with them upon a table or on the walls of his house. The action made him more comfortable. If the desire to talk came to him when the two were walking in the fields, he sought out a stump or the top board of a fence and with his hands pounding busily talked with renewed ease.’’

Not all the tales in Winesburg are so felicitously constructed and executed as ‘‘Hands,’’ but the best of them, like the book as a whole, convey the feeling of isolation, loneliness, and defeat through grotesque characters. Though the tales are self-contained and complete in themselves and may be read individually with enjoyment, they gain an added and very important dimension when read consecutively as episodes in a single narrative; for Winesburg as a whole presents a unified portrayal of the growth to maturity and consciousness of young George Willard, who develops as the symbol of the ‘‘whole’’ man against whom the grotesques stand as fragments.

Like Dickens’ David Copperfield, Meredith’s The Egoist, and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Winesburg is—in addition to being a collection of tales—a bildungsroman, a story of a boy growing to manhood and becoming involved in the perplexing world of adults. Though he does not appear in all the tales, Willard shares importance in the narrative with the grotesques, to whom he is the symbolic counterpoint. . . .

In George Willard, Anderson presents the making of an artist of life. Willard wants to become a writer, but before he can do so he must serve his apprenticeship to life itself. In his development we see Anderson’s implied belief that the solution to the ‘‘terrifying disorder’’ of life, the alternative to grotesqueness, is the kind of absorption of other lives that is seen in George and in the old man in the prologue. While the artist is the archetype of the psychologically and socially liberated person, liberation is not confined to the artist; for Willard achieves freedom before he becomes a writer, and the old writer never writes his book about the grotesques.

By contrast, the grotesques are so because for one reason or another they have (willfully or because of circumstances they cannot control) become isolated from others and thus closed off from the full range of human experience. Where the old writer has accepted isolation and opened his mind and imagination to the truth of all human experience, they have attempted to embrace a single truth to live by (often, because their alternatives are limited, they have had to), thereby closing off other possibilities of experience and compounding their loneliness and becoming enslaved by it. The writer himself is saved by the ‘‘young thing’’ inside him; his imaginative receptiveness to all human feelings. . . .

The structural form of the narrative from prologue to epilogue is psychological and episodic rather than linear; the tales are built about these moments of consciousness or revelation instead of following a simple sequence of time or causality. For Willard, those moments follow a pattern of progression toward increasing consciousness as he absorbs the experiences of the grotesques. On the other hand, these symbolic moments reveal the psychic limitations, confinement, or defeat of the grotesques whose lives are in a state of arrest. The narrator emphasizes in ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque’’ that the grotesques are not all horrible. Joe Welling in ‘‘A Man of Ideas,’’ is comical; Dr. Reefy, in ‘‘Paper Pills’’ and in ‘‘Death,’’ is a man of insight and understanding; Louise Trunnion, in ‘‘Nobody Knows,’’ is simply pathetic.

All, however, are characterized by various types of psychic unfulfillment or limitation owing in part to the failure of their environment to provide them with opportunities for a rich variety of experience and in part to their own inability or reluctance to accept or understand the facts of isolation and loneliness. The nature of their psychic unfulfillment is revealed in the tales by epiphanies. Their development may roughly be compared to the action of a fountain which, fixed at its base and therefore moving toward nothing, suddenly overflows—as the pressure within builds up—and shows what has remained hidden from view. Just as a fountain retains the contents that have overflowed and re turns them to their source, so the briefly revealed inner lives of the grotesques return unchanged to their imprisonment or defeat.

Like Joyce’s Stephen Daedelus, Willard is the nascent artist serving his apprenticeship to life; but the important fact about him is that, while he is subject to the same environmental restrictions as the grotesques, he grows toward maturity and ultimately frees himself from Winesburg, while the grotesques do not. Like McPherson and McGregor of Windy and of Marching Men. Willard is a prototype of the man who is liberated from the confinement of a narrow and oppressive environment. But he differs from those earlier heroes in that he leaves at a point in his life when he has gained an intense love for the people of the town of his birth and youth, and his departure is prompted not by rejection of the town and hope for success but by a determination to broaden the range of his imaginative experience. . . .

Willard grows from passive observer of life to active participant, from aimlessly curious boy to intensely conscious adult. . . .

At the death of Elizabeth Willard in ‘‘Death,’’ his adolescent resentment at the inconvenience caused by his mother’s death in keeping him from seeing Helen White gives way to realization of the finality of death and to consciousness of the tragic beauty his mother represented. His full awareness of life’s paradoxes comes in ‘‘Sophistication,’’ when he becomes conscious of the ‘‘limitations of life’’ and of ‘‘his own insignificance in the scheme of existence’’ while at the same time he ‘‘loves life so intensely that tears come into his eyes.’’

With this ephiphany, which is also the climax of the book, Willard ‘‘crosses the line into manhood’’ as ‘‘voices outside of himself whisper a message concerning the limitations of life,’’ and as consciousness of the condition of man’s isolation and loneliness is followed by his beginning ‘‘to think of the people in the town where he had always lived with something (illegible line-note in report) and confused, overlapping feelings; to distinguish passion from compassion, for instance. . . .

George Willard achieves maturity when he realizes and accepts loneliness as the essential human condition and understands the value of all human suffering. Understanding comes, paradoxically, only when he has emancipated himself from this Winesburg influence. . . . [He] can understand that all men are alone with their feelings and that only through sympathy and compassion toward others do those feelings have any meaning or, to put it another way, those feelings are the only really meaningful things in life. The grotesques are people whose instinctive desires, aspirations, and deepest emotions have no meaning because they have no ‘‘other’’ who will impose a meaning upon them; thus they are drawn to the receptive aspiring writer Willard, who accepts and will ultimately give meaningful expression to their feelings, or in the case of Dr. Reefy and George’s mother, to each other.

Those grotesques who are the most sensitive and articulate find their desires and aspirations thwarted by a repressive conventionalism that offers little opportunity for fruitful human relationships. . . .

In the portrayal of all these defeated people a vision of American small-town life emerges in which we see a society that has no cultural framework from which to draw common experiences; no code of manners by which to initiate, guide, and sustain meaningful relationships among individuals; no art to provide a communion of shared feeling and thought; and no established traditions by which to direct and balance their lives. They live in the midst of cultural failure.

The theme of cultural failure rises by suggestion from background images of decay and decomposition. The town is a wasteland ruled by dull, conventional people. Its religion has deteriorated into an empty moralism; its people have lost their contact with the soil. While Anderson uses his images sparingly, interweaving them subtly with narrative and dialogue, they evoke an atmosphere of desolation which impinges with crushing effect upon the lives of the grotesques; and, as the images recur, they become symbolic of a culture which, as Waldo Frank has said, has reached the final stages of deterioration. Rubbish and broken glass clutter the alleys and streets and of the village. . . . Dr. Reefy’s office is located off a ‘‘dark hallway filled with rubbish’’; Belle Carpenter lives in a ‘‘gloomy old house’’ in which the ‘‘rusty tin eaves-trough had slipped from its fastenings . . . and when the wind blew it beat against the roof of a small shed, making a dismal drumming noise that sometimes persisted all through the night’’; and Wing Biddlebaum’s small frame house offers a view of a ‘‘half decayed veranda.’’ . . .

[Though] the characters who embody convention are shadowy or fragmentary, their power over the lives of the grotesques is felt as an intangible but decisive, sinister influence. They present a background of moral decay, calculation and artifice, of a rampant egoistic individualism. George Willard’s father (‘‘Mother’’) and John Hardy (‘‘Surrender’’) embrace the religion of success; Wash Williams’ mother-in-law and Helen White’s mother (‘‘Sophistication’’) exploit sex with varying degrees of crudity and subtlety to draw men to their daughters. Collectively, the citizens of Winesburg torture Wing Biddlebaum with shouts of deprecation. The Hardy sisters crush the sensitive Louise Bentley with hypocritical and degrading conventional courtship rites characterized by crafty use of sex.

In such an atmosphere the grotesques typically isolate themselves in rooms as barren of joy as the town itself, emerging—often at night—to walk alone or with George Willard, in whom they confide. In the darkness or within their rooms, their secret inner lives ‘‘show forth’’ in an epiphany, an outburst of emotion, or in a casual, unguarded remark and reveal the full extent of their psychic defeat. . . .

The point of view of the omniscient author—of the mature George Willard, recalling tenderly but with detachment of time and place his small-town youth—softens the tone; it permits the town and the grotesques to emerge as objects of compassion rather than of attack, as they are in Masters’ Spoon River and in Lewis’ Main Street. Tone and point of view thus effectively and almost imperceptibly become thematic in themselves—in the manner of lyric poetry.

While Anderson later wrote individual tales that are superior to the stories in Winesburg, he never again wrote a long work that combines with such felicity the penetrating insights into the impoverished inner lives of broken, sensitive people; the sustained, pervasive mood of social degeneration; and the quiet, unforced portrayal of a hero liberating himself from the confines of his limited environment as Winesburg does. It is his most complete and authentic plea for freedom of expression of the inner life and for sympathetic receptivity to the needs of the human heart. Written at the dawn of an era of revolt against American provincialism and against the romanticized stories of idyllic and virtuous village life, it has outlasted both the nostalgic, sentimental romances and most of the iconoclastic satires about village life written before and since, precisely because it goes well beyond both of those oversimplified extremes to acknowledge both the worth and the tragic limitations of life in the small Midwestern towns and—by easy geographical extension— of all human life. . . .

Source: Rex Burbank, Sherwood Anderson, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1964, pp. 61–77. An American critic and scholar, Burbank has written studies of Thornton Wilder, Jane Austen, and early American literature.


Critical Overview