This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “Godliness (Parts I and II)” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
The four parts that make up “Godliness” (the first two covered here; the next two in two subsequent posts) stand out in Winesburg, Ohio. Where we’ve been reading small snapshots, and, in the last story, just left George Willard smugly returning home after having sex with Louise Trunnion, in ”Godliness” we get a much larger narrative, and George Willard doesn’t even pop his head in to say hello. Indeed, a couple of these stories don’t even take place in Winesburg, but rather in the surrounding countryside and farmland.
These four parts are also outliers because they stretch out over three generations and many years, giving Anderson a way to discuss the transition from an agrarian society to an industrialized society in the decades following the American Civil War. And, while Anderson may hit you over the head with it a few times, the way these pieces show the transition is very effective, mainly because Anderson doesn’t dwell on the readily apparent changes but rather, employing loads of Biblical imagery, focuses on the spiritual changes in the people living through the transition.
Because of the difference in scope and style, some have argued that “Godliness” was perhaps originally intended to be a novel. Sometimes the argument even comes as a lamentation for what could have been. Honestly, though, I’m glad for what we have here. “Godliness” is not subtle, and we already have an over-the-top, Biblical, generational, interminable novel in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
In Part I we are introduced to the promised land of cheap property and to the Bentley farm, situated just outside of Winesburg. A few generations before the American Civil War, the Bentley’s left New York to settle in the rugged land of Ohio. They established the farm by working all day every day. All there was was work: “Into their lives came little that was not coarse and brutal and outwardly they were themselves coarse and brutal.”
During the Civil War, four of the five Bentley sons were killed. The youngest, the frailest, Jesse, was in Cleveland studying to become a minister when he was called home to take over the farm. The awkward Jesse returned with his young, delicate wife, Katherine. Just like that he was patriarch and the holder of fields and flocks, but the neighboring farms laughed because how could this weak man tend the farm.
But Jesse does. We learn right away (so this is not a spoiler) that he works so hard and demands everyone else work so hard that his wife dies a year later in childbirth, her body simply unable to take the strain.
The bulk of this story takes place in that year before Katherine dies, the year Jesse uses to secure his domain. Jesse notices, perhaps to his own surprise, that he’s successful and that he simply cannot work any harder to get any more. He has God’s hand in his life, yet Jesse is unsatisfied. He has an “indefinable hunger,” and he feels certain God is still withholding something:
As time passed and he grew to know people better, he began to think of himself as an extraordinary man, one set apart from his fellows. He wanted terribly to make his life a thing of great importance.
Like an Old Testament patriarch, Jesse tends to his flocks and fields and, amongst them, prays for bounty, perpetual bounty:
“I am a new kind of man come into possession of these fields,” he declared. “Look upon me, O God, and look Thou also upon my neighbors and all the men who have gone before me here! O God, create in me another Jesse, like that one of old, to rule over men and to be the father of sons who shall be rulers!”
Interesting, at this moment, Anderson takes us away from Jesse’s small world, where so little disturbed that it may be easy to imagine God sitting on a cloud just overhead, and shows the industrial revolution which led to the ability mingle more, to hear the words of other men having different experiences.
We go back to Jesse, though, who is still unconcerned with such things. He sees his neighbors as Philistines and on the evening his wife is expecting to give birth, Jesse is found out in the fields praying for a son, a son who will be another David.
All we know when the story ends is that his wife certainly dies giving birth to a child, meaning “Godliness, Part I” is definitely an introductory piece.
Part II takes us into Winesburg. Jesse didn’t get his David the night his wife died. Instead Louise was born. In “Godliness, Part II,” though, we do not focus on Louise; instead, we skip forward a generation. Louise has married and has her own son, named David. Louise and her husband, John Hardy, make an unhappy couple. She is a now a recluse, probably addled by drink and maybe even drugs. There is not much joy in David’s childhood (in the next story we’ll see a bit better why Louise has become so unhappy and passed that on to her son).
The mother-son relationship deepens, however, one day when David, just a young boy, decides to run away from home. Just a kid, he gets scared pretty quickly and returns home to find the house dark:
When he came home there were no lights in the house, but his mother appeared and clutched him eagerly in her arms. David thought she had suddenly become another woman. He could not believe that so delightful a thing had happened. With her own hands Louise Hardy bathed his tired young body and cooked him food. She would not let him go to bed but, when he had put on his nightgown, blew out the lights and sat down in a chair to hold him in her arms. For an hour the woman sat in the darkness and held her boy.
It’s a miraculous transformation, something David thinks of often, but it doesn’t last. Before he knows it, his mother has returned, and his childhood continues in a rut.
He felt fortunate when, at twelve, his grandfather Jesse invites him to move out of Winesburg and onto the Bentley farm. When Jesse asks Louise, she doesn’t put up the expected fuss: “It is an atmosphere not corrupted by my presence.”
Once at the farm, we see that the people are still afraid of Jesse. He’s much older now and has successfully overcome any adversity his neighbors could throw at him. He’s still unhappy, though hopeful:
He still believed that God might at any moment make himself manifest out of the winds or the clouds, but he no longer demanded such recognition. Instead he prayed for it. Sometimes he was altogether doubtful and thought God had deserted the world.
David’s presence brings back the old conviction, though. He’s certain God, though slower than Jesse would have liked, was now going to give Jesse everything. If he was ever truly disillusioned, the delusions have returned.
But where Jesse was a despicable character in Part I, he’s a bit more sympathetic in Part II. Yes, he’s still arrogant and harsh, and, yes, he still feels he’s done whatever it takes for God to establish a noble race through his loins, but he’s sadder now. I find I don’t want him to get his wish, but it’s sad to see anyone live a miserable life because they expected better. There’s a childish hope that returns to Jesse when David comes to Bentley Farm, and in his old age Jesse’s idea of grandeur seems more harmless. For his part, Jesse loves the farm. He looks at everything with innocent eyes, amazed at the work that goes on and the wonders it creates.
Now, I said just a few sentences ago that Jesse seemed harmless now, and more sad. That’s about to change. One day, Jesse and David are riding in the woods, and Jesse decides it’s time to revisit a once feverishly pursued pastime: demanding prayer. David stands idly by, at first looking at the beautiful sights, when suddenly his grandfather is transformed into some kind of monster.
Gripping the boy’s shoulders, Jesse turned his face to the sky and shouted. The whole left side of his face twitched and his hand on the boy’s shoulder twitched also. “Make a sign to me, God,” he cried. “Here I stand with the boy David. Come down to me out of the sky and make Thy presence known to me.”
David escapes and runs wantonly down a hill, eventually passing out in some combination of a head injury, exhaustion, and shock. He wakes up to find his grandfather holding him, the old, kinder man returned.
David isn’t able to comprehend yet that his mother and his grandfather have different sides to their lives. He’s shocked when either comes out and shows a different personality. It’s a transformation. It’s a completely new person. “Take me away,” he says to his grandfather when he wakes up. “There is a terrible man back there in the woods.”
The story ends with Jesse wondering why God disapproves of him so, but I wanted to think for a minute about the two transformations we witness in this story: Louise from a distant, cold presence into a lovingly tender mother, and Jesse from a loving, doting grandfather into that brutal, insane monster. In each case, it is as if the person’s true nature emerges in a moment of emotional crisis or ecstasy. Sadly, David never seems to get to know the true nature of either person, something that will have severe consequences when we get to Part IV.