‘Hands’ by Sherwood Anderson

Hands by Sherwood Anderson, 1916

The magic trick:

Telling a man’s complicated story without even trying to unravel the complications

Here we go. Off to Winesburg, Ohio – the fictional turn-of-the-century small town of Sherwood Anderson’s creation. Clyde, Ohio – up north near Toledo – is the likely source location. The exact coordinates don’t much matter. Anderson brings it to life immediately and thoroughly – the people, their lives, their problems, their passions, everything.

So there are 22 stories here, and 7 days in the week. What to do?

Three weeks of Winesburg is what we do. Also, we skip the first story. It’s really just a prologue. OK, hopefully it’s fun. Let’s go.

We start with “Hands,” probably the most singled-out and anthologized of the Winesburg stories. It details the story of a man whose kindness for the young boys in his school veers too close to creepy for the community’s liking. Is he creep? Likely not. Is he gay? Almost undoubtedly so.

That’s a complicated issue in 2020. So you can only imagine how it landed in 1900 small-town Ohio. The story looks at the man’s life with beautiful restraint. This is really nuanced stuff, and the story dictates anything close to judgment. It’s all in the reader’s, well, hands.

And that’s quite a trick on Anderson’s part.

The selection:

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


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