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
I have an abiding fondness for the tragic, under-sung artist and Anderson is one of them. He has an astonishing ability with character and this piece is one of the best examples of him showing off his craft and huge empathy. An old woman is responsible for feeding things: cows, men, dogs. The fact is that her entire world has fed on her, and Anderson chronicles her life and solemn death with such wisdom and tragic understatement. The ‘dog scene’ is unforgettable. It’s that bold eye, that truth-seeking, that intense regard for small things, that precision of language, that kindness, that gets me every time. Read everything he has ever written, I say. And slowly.
First published in Death in The Woods and Other Stories, 1933, Liveright. Read the story online here
There’s something about Sherwood Anderson’s writing that makes me reach for the term ‘neurasthenia’, used by Robert Graves to describe his own deadened nervous state in the years after the first world war. Anderson in fact underwent a mental breakdown of some kind in 1912 – what effect this might have had on his prose I can’t say (and would sooner not guess). There’s no sense in Anderson’s work of the deliberate and disciplined austerity of later writers like Hemingway; tonally, he has more in common with poets like Vachel Lindsay and Edwin Arlington Robinson. His voice has an unaffected melancholy, a natural minor key. ‘In A Strange Town’ is reflective and sombre (more sombre, actually, than much of his other work). A philosopher takes a trip to a strange town: “Often I do things like this, come off alone to a strange place like this. ‘Where are you going?’ my wife says to me… ‘I am going to bathe myself in the lives of people about whom I know nothing.’” In the course of a broken narrative – the pauses in the prose do a lot of work – we learn why the man retreats like this. It’s do with numbness and feeling, awareness and the business of being alive. I’d understand if someone told me they wanted to slap the narrator of this story, and Anderson, too, while they were at it, but I’m very fond of it anyway.
First published in 1929. Collected in The Egg And Other Stories, Penguin, 1998