Commentary by Karen Bernardo
The thematic inspiration for Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio may have been the novels of D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence, taking his own inspiration from Sigmund Freud, thought that all psychological problems could be cured through the power of physical touch. Anderson turned this theory on its ear in the story “Hands.”
The central figure of this story is a middle-aged, homely, balding man known to all the residents of Winesburg as “Wing Biddlebaum.” The most distinctive characteristic about Wing is his hands; they seem to have a mind of their own. In season, Wing picks strawberries for a living, as many as a hundred and forty quarts a day, and his fingers fly over the berries faster than the flutter of wings. When he’s not working with his hands, he tries to keep them quiet and out of sight by stuffing them into his pockets, but every time he starts to talk, they dart upwards and into motion. Consequently, he talks as little as possible, which is easy because most of the townspeople think he’s a little weird.
But he is befriended by George Willard, the young boy-reporter for the local paper, and in George’s company Wing lets his hands free to express themselves. One day George and Wing go out into the fields to talk, and Wing begins to tell George earnestly that he needs to worry less about what people think of him and concentrate more on fulfilling his own dreams. Without really meaning to, Wing’s hands move to George’s shoulders and begin caressing him. George doesn’t seem to be really aware that Wing is doing anything strange at all, but suddenly “a look of horror swept over [Wing’s] face. With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trouser pockets.”
At this point Anderson-as-narrator steps into the story and tells us the reason for Wing’s reaction. Wing was once a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania; his name then was Adolph Myers. He loved his students and he expressed this love by touching them—not, as far as Anderson tells us, in any inappropriate places, but simply caressing their hair and their shoulders in an affirmative way. However, a “half-witted boy” started an allegation of molestation. Parents began asking their children whether Mr. Myers had ever touched them, and when told that he had, the parents drove the teacher from town; they very nearly lynched him, but seeing “his figure, so small, white, and pitiful,” they let him escape—tossing balls of soft mud at him as he ran weeping through the darkness.
He wound up in Winesburg, Ohio, still unable to control the fluttering movements of his hands, and amazed and somewhat hurt that other people could. He is so frightened of ever having this happen to him again that he avoids human contact for twenty years—until George Willard. After realizing on that sunny afternoon with George that he isn’t cured, that it can happen again, he returns home, seemingly resolved to stay removed from any form of emotional intimacy from then on. Of course, this also condemns him to an unremittingly lonely life—a tragedy, since he really hasn’t done anything wrong except talk with his hands.
These stories can be found in Anderson’s collection Winesburg, Ohio.
Paperback and Kindle editions of Winesburg, Ohio are available here:
You can also read “Hands” online at:
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