Summary and Analysis
In his Memoirs, Anderson tells about the first reactions to Winesburg, Ohio when it was published in 1919. He recalls that it was "widely condemned," described as "a sewer," and its author was called "sex-obsessed." He reports that a woman told him, "I read one of the stories and, after that, I would not touch it with my hands. With the tongs I carried it down into the cellar and put it in the furnace."
"Hands" was very likely the story referred to by this shocked lady, for the subject of homosexuality was one that most readers in the twenties thought unmentionable. Anderson, however, like other American naturalists in the early twentieth century, thought that sex should be given its proper place in the picture of life. Stephen Crane had described a prostitute in Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Theodore Dreiser had let his immoral heroine in Sister Carrie (1900) become a successful actress, but none of the fiction writers had dared describe a sexual pervert. Anderson, therefore, was thought of in his day as daringly frank, and Winesburg, Ohio was labeled Freudian.
Today, however, Anderson's treatment of Wing Biddlebaum's problem seems very delicate. The old man, who is described as fat, frightened, and nervous, seems too ineffectual to be dangerous. His bald forehead — noticed because his nervous hands fiddle about arranging non-existent hair — suggests his loss of strength and virility. Even the description of the former teacher's caressing of his students sounds quite possibly innocent. The picture of Adolph Myers with the boys of his school is similar to the dream which Wing tries to describe to George, a "pastoral golden age" in which clean-limbed young men gathered about the feet of an old man who talked to them.
Unfortunately, Wing has not been allowed to realize this dream, so his creative impulse, his longing to mold his students, has become thwarted. Because a half-witted boy imagined unmentionable things, Adolph Myers was driven from a Pennsylvania town in the night. "Keep your hands to yourself," the saloon keeper had roared. Anderson is obviously criticizing the cruelty of a society which persecutes anything it doesn't understand. Ironically, the townspeople of Winesburg are rather proud of Wing's nervous hands — which have picked a hundred and forty quarts of strawberries in a day. Production such as this the town can understand and acclaim. Similarly, Anderson felt that the mercenary world had not sympathized with his longing to write fiction, but had rewarded his glibness in advertising.
Wing Biddlebaum is not only frustrated but lonely, as are most of the citizens of Winesburg. As the story begins, the old man is seen on his half-decayed veranda late in the afternoon, wishing that George Willard would visit him. Passing along the road nearby are a group of young berry pickers, laughing, shouting, and flirting with one another. Their joy and friendship serve as a counterpoint to Wing Biddlebaum's loneliness. The author then tells us about Wing's past in order to explain why the former teacher is alienated and frightened. These intrusions of the author into the story give the effect of an oral story teller — an effect which Anderson probably learned from his storytelling father. Anderson's manipulation of time — reviewing Wing's former life, then returning to the present suggests a dream, thus making us aware that, to Wing, his life must seem like a nightmare. The fact that George Willard never comes, that in fact nothing really happens in the story, reinforces our awareness of the old man's defeat and disillusion. His life no longer has any climaxes; he is a static, not a developing, character.
The central symbol of this powerful story is, of course, hands, an image that will be important in other stories in Winesburg. Consistently Anderson seems to suggest that hands are made for creative impulses, for communication. Whitman, one of Anderson's favorite authors, said, "What is more or less than a touch?" By the end of the nineteenth century, however, industrialization was crowding out the creative handcraftsmen, and Anderson looked with nostalgia at the good old days. Thus, he makes of Wing Biddlebaum "an imprisoned bird," an image reinforced not only by his nickname but by the reader's last glance of him, picking up bread crumbs from the floor. As in so many of the Winesburg stories, its setting is night, suggesting the dark misery of the lives of Anderson's characters. As Wing kneels on the floor, he is described as being "like a priest engaged in some service of his church." This image, plus the old man's persecution by society and his desire to show his love for others by the laying on of his hands, may make Wing seem to be a Christ-like figure; but, if so, Anderson is suggesting that Christ is misunderstood and defeated in the modern world.
Although "Hands" is the story of Wing Biddlebaum, we are also introduced to George Willard, the young reporter who appears in many of the Winesburg tales. Like Wing, George has creative impulses, but at this point, as Wing tells George, "You are afraid of dreams. You want to be like others in town here . . . You must begin to dream . . . You must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices." For the time being, however, George is afraid to forget the voices, to be different. He has wondered, for example, about Wing's secret, has realized that there is something wrong in Wing's life, but has decided, "I don't want to know what it is." As the book develops, George will get more involved with other people, will begin to get below the surface of life, and will decide to be different and flee Winesburg so that he can become a writer.
In his Memoirs, Sherwood Anderson says that he wrote "Hands" at one sitting on a dark, snowy night in Chicago. It was, he says, his "first authentic tale," so good that he laughed, cried, and shouted out of his boarding house window. "No word of it was ever changed," says Anderson. Examination of the original manuscript shows that Anderson was not quite accurate in that statement, but he actually revised very little in this story. However, he did insert last names for his characters several times so that neither Wing Biddlebaum nor George Willard is ever called by a single name. This repetition, a trick he might have learned from Gertrude Stein's story "Melanctha," encourages the reader's objectivity toward the characters. Another change that also seems effective occurs in the sentence, "He raised the hands [changed from "his hands"] to caress the boy." This change makes Wing's hands a personification with a will of their own and thus conveys the helplessness of a man controlled by his compulsions. In this helplessness lies the power of the story; "Hands" haunts us because we recognize in Wing Biddlebaum our own helplessness and we see how thoughtlessly society can persecute what it does not understand. Perhaps we see ourselves in both Wing and in the society that has ruined his life.