Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919) appeared almost exactly one hundred years after the publication of Washington Irving's The Sketchbook. In that hundred-year period the short story form changed from primarily a folktale and fable genre to a form that focuses more on lyric moments of realization than linear events.
The notion of sympathy and identification, a complete loss of authorial self, is an important key to the success of Winesburg. Hart Crane once said of Anderson: "He has a humanity and simplicity that is quite baffling in depth and suggestiveness." The most frequent remark made about the characters in Winesburg is that they are psychic deformities, cut off from society, adrift in their own consciousness, unfulfilled, metaphors for American estrangement. In his book The Lonely Voice, Frank O'Connor uses Winesburg as a central example of his notion of short story characters representing not individuals, but a submerged population group. The image of isolation is important in Anderson's stories for isolation is a central concept of the short story.
Anderson's suggestion in the story that the secret of Biddlebaum's hands is a job for a poet is part of the basic change in the short story signaled by Chekhov. Anderson struggles with the problem of the prose writer trying to communicate something subtle and delicate, feeling the words are clumsy, for all he has are the events and the explanation. What he needs is a way to use language, the way the poet does, to transcend language. This is why the central metaphor of this story is "talking with hands"? However, what one aspires to is not hands but wings, that enable one, like the poet, to fly. The use of hands as a central image also suggests many other implications, such as the magic of "laying on of hands," "keep your hands off," maintaining "clean hands," etc. Biddlebaum wants to transcend the physical, but the only way he can touch someone is with hands, which by their very nature are physical.
The problem is trying to express the kind of love Wing has for the boys without it sounding crude or being misunderstood. The issue, of course, is that it is not flesh but spirit that is at stake, and spirit is difficult to communicate. Motifs throughout the story suggest this counterpoint between the spiritual and the physical: dreams becoming facts for the half-witted boy; doubts becoming beliefs for the men of the town. The metaphor of hard knuckles versus fluttery hands suggests the force of life being diffused rather than centralized.
In his study of Anderson, Rex Burbank notes the influence of impressionism and post-impressionism on the stories in Winesburg, Ohio. (Burbank, Rex. Sherwood Anderson Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1964.). He points out that the narratives stem from the flow of feeling and impressions rather than according to time; their structure is psychological rather than chronological. What holds them together is a series of disconnected images that unite because they are thematically and symbolically related. In his Memoirs Anderson said "There are no plot stories in life." Burbank calls "Hands" is one of the best tales in the collection and one of the most influenced by the post-impressionists; He notes the central image of the hands and how incidents charge the image with meaning.
Sister M. Joselyn discusses "Hands" as a central example of Anderson's development of what she terms the lyrical story. "Normal time sequence is almost obliterated as Anderson penetrates with the reader further and further into the mysterious recesses of Wing Biddlebaum's mind." She points out that the events of Biddlebaum's life are presented neither straightforwardly nor in a conventional flashback but rather by means of a box-within-a-box structure; Biddlebaum is revealed first through the eyes of the townspeople, then through the eyes of George Willard, and finally through his own sense of himself." All these perspectives, she argues, are so thoroughly suffused with Biddlebaum's consciousness we are not aware of any awkward juncture between sections. (Sister M. Joselyn, O.S.B. "Sherwood Anderson and the Lyric Story," The Twenties/Poetry and Prose, Eds. Richard E. Langford and William E. Taylor. Deland, Florida: Everette Edwards, 1966. 70-7)
David Anderson says that what Anderson achieves in "Hands" is the transformation of a "poor little man, beaten, pounded, frightened by the world in which he lived into something oddly beautiful." (Anderson, David D. Sherwood Anderson: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967).
At the end of "Hands," when Wing Biddlebaum is performing the mundane task of picking up crumbs, the gesture is transformed into a spiritual act. This technique is similar to the stories of Chekhov, Mansfield and Joyce, in which intangible spiritual desires and feelings are either contaminated by the material, or the material is used to communicate them.
Tomorrow: Ambrose Bierce's "Chickamauga"
Tomorrow: Ambrose Bierce's "Chickamauga"