This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “Paper Pills” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
There is something strange and probably deliberate about “Paper Pills.” In many ways, it keeps its secrets. Is this out of respect for its characters and their small moment of happiness? We don’t even get to hear what they say to each other. I’m ahead of myself.
“Paper Pills” introduces us to another lonely man — when the story begins already “an old man with a white beard and huge nose and hands” — Doctor Reefy.
The first paragraph summarizes his life, giving us much the same kind of information we might get if we were to move into Winesburg in Doctor Reefy’s twilight years. It’s a summary account of a brief marriage, hitting on exactly the details that people who don’t know any better might capture and pass along:
Long before the time during which we will know him, he was a doctor and drove a jaded white horse from house to house through the streets of Winesburg. Later he married a girl who had money. She had been left a large fertile farm when her father died. The girl was quiet, tall, and dark, and to many people she seemed very beautiful. Everyone in Winesburg wondered why she married the doctor. Within a year after the marriage she died.
When Doctor Reefy married the young girl, he was already forty-five and that marriage was so brief and is now so far in the past that it is barely worth mentioning. Indeed, “Winesburg had forgotten the old man.” (This isn’t entirely true, as we’ll see in a later story.)
For years Doctor Reefy has sat alone in his office. It’s better to say he’s sat imprisoned in this office. He has never opened the window, since it was stuck one August day years and years earlier, and now it is covered with cobwebs. Alone in this office, “he worked ceaselessly,” but doing what?
It’s a strange thing, actually. All day long he takes little pieces of paper and on them writes “truths.” He then puts the paper in his suit pocket where they roll around and, after a few weeks, turn into little hard balls that he then discards. He’s been doing this for, it seems, his whole professional career, sending his thoughts into oblivion where no one can share them.
For me, “truths” is too abstract, matching the strange abstraction in “The Book of the Grotesque.” I like it more when Anderson says he wrote, “On the papers were written thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts.” He’s got a rich, active inner-life, and no one knows it. Much like Wing Biddlebaum in “Hands,” from Doctor Reefy’s impoverished outer-life, you’d almost assume he has nothing to share, is simply passing the time in obscurity.
However, as the narrator says, there is some sweetness at the core of Doctor Reefy’s life, similar to the sweetness of twisted apples. The twisted apples are the fruits left on the trees when the pickers are harvesting to take apples into the city. Yet these apples, twisted up, have a pocket of sweetness that makes them far superior to the apples going on their way to the city. You just have to know how to find it.
Doctor Reefy’s young wife — I won’t, here, go into how she found him — Doctor Reefy had such a hidden pocket of sweetness that she enjoyed for a season. For Doctor Reefy, the sweetness of his life is that season he spent with his wife, much of that time by her bedside, reading to her his thoughts before they became paper pills.
So far as we know, she is the only person who ever knew what the doctor was writing and, therefore, what the doctor’s deepest thoughts were. The narrator does not even let us in on it. We speed over that season of love as well, but at least we know there were intimacies. That’s enough for us to sense the sweetness of this twisted apple.
Next up: Sherwood Anderson’s “Mother,” from Winesburg, Ohio.