Hands by Sherwood Anderson, 1919

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by Sherwood Anderson, 1919

Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio is an important literary document in the history of the American short story, for the collection marks a definite shift from the ironically patterned and linearly plotted stories of Edgar Allan Poe and O. Henry to a form that focuses on lyrical moments of realization structured around feelings and impressions. Although Henry James and Stephen Crane made use of these impressionistic techniques long before Anderson, it is in Winesburg, Ohio that they become the primary characteristics of the modern short story. A series of thematically and symbolically related images rather than temporal plot holds Anderson's stories together and gives them their sense of reality. In his Memoirs Anderson said, "There are no plot stories in life."

"Hands" is one of the most clearly impressionistic stories in the collection and thus a central example of Anderson's development of what critics have called the modern lyrical story. Instead of being dependent on a straightforward plotline, the story revolves around the central image of hands in such a way that the main character is revealed by various reactions to them. The story focuses on Wing Biddlebaum, a "fat little old man" who lives alone in Winesburg and is befriended only by George Willard, a young reporter for the local newspaper who serves as the major linking device in the stories. Biddlebaum is a former schoolteacher who was driven out of another town 20 years previously because he quite innocently "touched" the young boys in his class. As Anderson says, however, the real story of Wing Biddlebaum is "a story of hands."

Anderson laments throughout the story that revealing the secret of Biddlebaum's hands is a job for a poet. Thus, as a prose writer he struggles with the problem of trying to communicate something subtle and delicate with words that are coarse and clumsy, for all he has to work with are the tools of story—event and explanation. What he needs is a way to use language as the poet does, to transcend language. The inadequacy of language explains why the central metaphor of this story is Biddlebaum's "talking with hands." What Biddlebaum aspires to, however, is not hands but, as the name given to him by some obscure poet of the town suggests, "wings," which enable one, like the poet, to fly. The use of hands as a central image also suggests many other implications in the story, such as the magic of the laying on of hands, the injunction to keep one's hands off, and the need to maintain clean hands.

Biddlebaum wants to transcend the merely physical and genuinely communicate with the other, but the only way he can "touch" someone is with his hands, which, by their very nature, are physical. The problem Anderson faces in the story is trying to express the kind of love Biddlebaum has for the boys without allowing it to sound crude or be misunderstood. It is not flesh that is at stake here but spirit, 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 who accuses Biddlebaum of "unspeakable" things that happen only in his dreams, doubts becoming beliefs for the men who beat Biddlebaum up and chase him out of town, and the hard knuckles of the men versus Biddlebaum's fluttery, winglike hands. The most emphatic example is the image at the end of "Hands," in which Biddlebaum's mundane task of picking up crumbs from the table is transformed into a gesture that could be "mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary."

Biddlebaum's dilemma in the story lies in his trying to convince George Willard of the need to dream and in his struggle to paint a picture of young men in a type of pastoral golden age who come to gather about the feet of an old man. It is the same dilemma Anderson as a writer complains of in the story—the difficulty of communicating the Platonic ideal when one has only physical reality and ordinary language with which to do so.

Central to the success of "Hands," and typical of the technique Anderson inherited from Anton Chekhov, is the sense he creates of maintaining at the same time both an objective distance and a sympathetic identification by projecting himself within the central character. Such a technique makes it possible for his stories, like Chekhov's, to focus on objective reality and simultaneously to maintain a subjective power. The poet Hart Crane once said of Anderson, "He has a humanity and simplicity that is quite baffling in depth and suggestiveness."

—Charles E. May