This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “Terror (Part IV)” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
This is the fourth and final part dealing with the patriarch Jesse, his daughter Louise, and his grandson David.
David is fifteen and has, as so many of these characters have had, an adventure, one that “changed the whole current of his life and sent him out of his quiet corner into the world.” We learn that after whatever we’re about to read about David left Winesburg for good and “no one there ever saw him again.” After Jesse and Louise have died, David’s father spends a lot of money trying to track his lost son, but to no avail.
Let’s go back to the fateful incident. You may remember that when we last left David he was staying at his grandfather’s farm, and his grandfather had freaked him out by going to the forest to pray. Since then, things have been going better, for both David and his grandfather, Jesse. Jesse now owns much of the surrounding farmland, and the years’ harvests have been great: “For the first time in all the history of his ownership of the farms, he went among his men with a smiling face.” To help out, he’s been purchasing various kinds of machinery. Meanwhile, David spends his days out in the fields.
Now, this sequence of stories is far from my favorite. In the past few posts I’ve alluded to the overt religious symbolism, but I’ve also been able to look past it to some of the more interesting aspects of the stories. Here, though, it kind of goes off the rails. For example, when the other boys are off hunting with guns, David went and made himself a sling. It’s suddenly, for me, too on the nose.
One day Jesse takes David out to the fields where they capture lamb that was born out of season. He says, “I saw it yesterday and it put me in mind of what I have long wanted to do.”
With all the prosperity, Jesse has started to revert to his old ways. He’s again certain the God has chosen him for a special purpose, and that God will speak to him face to face. All that remains is a solemn sacrifice of a white lamb. Jesse, for his part, thinks a message is imminent, and that it will help David: “It is time for the boy to begin thinking of going out into the world and the message will be one concerning him. God will make a pathway for him.” Tragically, Jesse takes David back to the place where David witnessed Jesse’s terrifying transformation, and David begins to shake. I think you can guess what’s coming. An altercation. A sling will be used. Jesse will disappear.
Has God intervened and helped David find his way out into the world? For me, that’s the crux of the story. Whether God is involved, Jesse’s desperate search for God’s favor and glory is the very reason he doesn’t receive it, in the end destroying his family.
It’s interesting, sure, but for me this is the nadir of Winesburg, Ohio. Better stuff has come before and better stuff is coming after this strange interlude with Jesse Bentley and his descendants. Let’s get on to them.