Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories about a small Ohio town. Each story is about a different character, but the nature of the town means that characters re-appear, and one connecting thread is the young reporter for the local paper, George Willard. In ‘Hands’, the second story in the book, he’s there on the periphery, making friends with the loner Wing Biddlebaum, who has lived in the town for twenty years, but has kept himself to himself.
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.
Wing used to be a school teacher in Pennsylvania called Adolph Myers. He was loving and beloved by the boys in his charge; a natural schoolmaster who could bring out the best in them. Then a boy in his charge began to have feelings for him, and dreamt about his schoolmaster, and then told his “dreams as facts.” Other boys were asked if their teacher had ever touched them. The innocent gestures, the consoling arms, became the evidence against him, and he was chased out of town, lucky to escape with his life. He’d moved in with an aunt, changed his name, and lived with her until she died.
Anderson finds sympathy for this misunderstood man, who constantly flutters his hands like a bird. The whole book is something of a masterpiece, but ‘Hands’ is the story I’ve returned to over the years. In this short story you get the whole life of a man, compressed into a few images and character traits.
First published in Winesburg, Ohio, B.W Heubsch, 1919, and now available as a Penguin Classics. Available to read online here