This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “Hands” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
When I think of Winesburg, Ohio, I think of “Hands” and its subject, Wing Biddlebaum. Biddlebaum lives on the outskirts of town, has done for the last twenty years. No one knows much about him, and, since he’s been there so long, no one thinks there’s much to know. After all, he was only twenty when he arrived in town, and he’s always been extremely quiet and more than a bit strange. For Biddlebaum’s part, he, “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town.”
When this story begins, we see Biddlebaum subjected to the cruelty of children who think Biddlebaum is Winesburg’s — so their own — recluse, someone to whom they can do whatever they like, forgetting about him when he’s out of sight:
“Oh, you Wing Biddlebaum, comb your hair, it’s falling into your eyes,” commanded the voice to the man, who was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks.
And so, to me, Wing Biddlebaum represents all of those people in any town who seem never to have been anyone other than the quiet person occasionally seen walking about. We may acknowledge such a person is lonely and unfortunate, but it seems as if they themselves are too simple — look at him try to brush his bald head! — to even comprehend their state, let alone a spate of other emotions, like love, loss, shame, fear. You can display your baser instincts with no repercussions and no guilt; a Biddlebaum doesn’t even know you’re laughing at him. To make matters worse for Biddlebaum, he has a nervous tic with his hands: they are always moving, to the point where “they made more grotesque an already grotesque and elusive individuality.”
The only person Wing Biddlebaum will speak with is the young reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, George Willard, who has just finished school and is now considering what to do next. George Willard is the only person to whom Wing Biddlebaum talks.
In the presence of George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum, who for twenty years had been the town mystery, lost something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world. With the young reporter at his side, he ventured in the light of day into Main Street or strode up and down on the rickety front porch of his own house, talking excitedly. The voice that had been low and trembling became shrill and loud. The bent figure straightened. With a kind of wriggle, like a fish returned to the brook by the fisherman, Biddlebaum the silent began to talk, striving to put into words the ideas that had been accumulated by his mind during long years of silence.
On this particular day, after the children teased him, Biddlebaum kept walking nervously, compulsively out to the road to watch for George Willard, who never arrives.
Biddlebaum cannot be too surprised by this since he ended their last encounter by telling a confused George Willard that they could never speak again. After a particularly excited speech, telling George that he has to strike out on his own, become his own man, Biddlebaum does something that doesn’t necessarily shock George Willard but that terrifies Wing Biddlebaum himself:
Pausing in his speech, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.
With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets. Tears came to his eyes. “I must be getting along home. I can talk no more with you,” he said nervously.
George Willard understands that Biddlebaum has something in his past, and that Biddlebaum’s hands played a central role in this. Playing a narrative trick, the omniscient narrator assumes the voice of “the poet” to recount, briefly, Wing Biddlebaum’s secrets, including his real name.
I’m going to go into this here, so if you haven’t read this and are concerned about spoilers turn away now.
A recluse in Winesburg, almost the town idiot, Wing was once a beloved schoolteacher in Pennsylvania. His hands went all over then, as well, and he frequently dealt with his students with touch. One day, a student who loved Wing betrayed him, telling everyone that what they may have always suspected happened. Wing was run out of town, found his new name, and inherited his aunt’s home in Winesburg, where he is also known for his hands, though, so frightened is he of what happened in Pennsylvania, he does not touch anyone.
There is no indication Wing Biddlebaum is a reclusive homosexual, though that is certainly a common inference. There is every indication that he never touched any of his students inappropriately — I know that is a relative term, but I’m going by what I believe were the standards of the time. He’s apparently simply a man who expresses every emotion — including kindness and well-wishes — through his hands. For the last twenty years (the narrator notes Wing Biddlebaum is forty now but looks sixty-five) he has kept mostly to himself, though we are no longer in any doubt that he is well aware of his own feelings and is so concerned with every one else’s that he barely interacts with anyone. His intelligent mind is always racing, hoping that George will come along to help those ideas come out. In any case, Wing Biddlebaum’s life has been shut down in a combination of force and his own fears, and I’m pretty sure I know several people just like Wing, people who have accepted that their town will not accept them and have, thus, retreated. “Hands” is not about any particular nature, like homosexuality; it is about cultural bias and fear, like homophobia.
I want to end by looking at the final paragraph in the story. As I mentioned earlier, George Willard, the only person Wing Biddlebaum ever talks to, did not come down the road this day. Biddlebaum retires into his home:
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.
In far too many stories, an author uses some kind of religious imagery — be it some wine and bread at an Italian restaurant or what have you — to hit hard on the idea of “communion.” Here the allusion’s typical meaning is subverted. Wing Biddlebaum is communing with no one, carrying stray bread crumbs to his mouth, apparently near starvation, though his spirit has long since died. There are many beautifully rendered lonely moments in Winesburg, Ohio; this may be the best.
Next up: Sherwood Anderson’s “Paper Pills,” from Winesburg, Ohio.