Friday, January 1, 2010

Quare Me Repulisti, et Quare Tristis Incedo

If you’re looking for the first American masterpiece of the Modernist era, look no further than Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short-story collection (really a loose novel more than anything), Winesburg, Ohio. A mentor to both Hemingway and Faulkner, Anderson manages to maintain a connection to the realist traditions of the preceding decades and bring them into the Modernist world, breaking his characters down into the “grotesques” he uses to make a philosophical point but never allowing them to lose their efficacy as human beings. Winesburg manages to do something that most of the fiction of the era can’t—which is to say that it’s both interesting and moving.

And the most moving story in the collection is the first (or second, depending on whether you count the anecdote about the writer and the carpenter before the title page. The story is titled “Hands” and deals with a strawberry picker with the improbable name of Wing Biddlebaum. Wing serves as Anderson’s depiction of the otherwise unremarkable man with an incredible and uncontrollable power, one that separates him from those around him and leads him to a life of utter loneliness.

Wing Biddlebaum, at the beginning of his story, is one of the clearest images of alienation in American literature. We see this from the opening paragraph, in which he stands “Upon the half decayed veranda” and looks “Across a long field that had been seeded for clover but that had produced only a dense crop of yellow mustard weeds” at a group of children whom he longs to embrace but cannot. This field is an image of broken dreams, the broken dreams that separate him from the rest of the town.

Indeed, Anderson tells us outright that “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, [he] did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years.” The townsfolk don’t hate or mock him—rather, they are amazed at his ability to harvest strawberries and are “proud of the hands of Wing Biddlebaum in the same spirit in which [they are] proud of Banker White’s new stone house and Wesley Moyer’s bay stallion, Tony Tip, that had won the two-fifteen trot at the fall races in Cleveland.” He is an object among objects—or at the very best an animal, but never a human being.

He is an outsider, nearly purely alienated—except for his relationship with a teenager named George Willard, which allows him to “lo[se] something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world.” In other words, he becomes human through this act of communion. When he touches George Willard and sends him away in horror, the town has lost its last opportunity to learn Wing’s story.

We get it, though. Wing was once named Adolph Myers, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher who had a peculiar sort of religious power which manifested itself chiefly through his hands: “By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.” He is a priest, mostly unconsciously, who can heal people by merely touching them.

The predictable happens, however, and Wing is accused of child molestation, at which point “Hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men’s minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs.” He has been made into a grotesque by the truths of others—not even by adopting his own truth. (I should note here that Sherwood’s big philosophical theme in the novel is that the process of accepting a truth as one’s own converts one into something less than human and makes that truth into a “falsehood.”) Once he flees Pennsylvania for Winesburg, he can no longer trust his religious power: “Although he did not understand what had happened he felt that the hands must be to blame.”

And yet, and yet. Wing cannot control the power that lives in his hands. It is for this reason that he isolates himself from the other Winesburgians, for this reason that he warns George Willard that “You are destroying yourself . . . You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams. You want to be like others in this town here. You hear them talk and you try to imitate them.” Unlike George, Wing cannot imitate them—his hands are uncontrollable, and the end of the story finds him enacting religious rituals alone and unconsciously:
A few stray white bread crumbs lay on the cleanly washed floor by the table; putting the lamp upon a low stool he began to pick up the crumbs, carrying them to his mouth one by one with unbelievable rapidity. In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of his church. The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.
The message is clear: The sort of religious power Wing Biddlebaum/Adolph Myers possesses can only be misunderstood by the society in which priests must live, but they cannot get rid of it, it being a curse as much as a blessing. The only solution is to retreat behind a dusty field of broken dreams and sever the human connections one so sorely needs. The dispensation of grace comes only rarely and at great personal cost. Such is the role of the undogmatic priest in a world hungry for doctrine—he can communicate only subconsciously, an action which will always be viewed suspiciously by outsiders.

Someone must have written about Anderson’s influence on John Updike—the description I’ve given of Wing Biddlebaum in this post echoes Updike’s portrayal of Harry Angstrom, particularly in Rabbit, Run. (Updike’s essay for the New Yorker, “Twisted Apples” serves as the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Winesburg, Ohio.) The difference, of course, is that Rabbit is instinctively loved by most of the people in his society, even as his religious impulses destroy lives. This must say something about the difference between 1919 and 1959—but I’m not ready to tease that out yet.

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