This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “A Man of Ideas” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
After spending four chapters with Jesse Bentley and his heirs, “A Man of Ideas” is a kind of relief, in more ways than one. For starters, its gets us back to what I personally like most about Winesburg, Ohio: the small vignette about one of the town’s “grotesques.” It gets us back in the town itself, and George Willard is back. Perhaps most importantly — and surprisingly — after the four tragic tales (and the others that came before our detour to the Bentley farm) “A Man of Ideas” is the kind of story that can cheer you up, a rare thing in Winesburg.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that until the end of this review, though. After all, the story is set up in such a way that we might suspect an outcome as terrible if not more so than any we’ve had before.
The man of ideas here is Joe Welling, an employee of Standard Oil, someone who does his job well enough (though he may not deserve it — it came from his father, a legislator), but otherwise Joe is a bit of a misfit. People avoid Joe due to his fits of ideas:
He was beset by ideas and in the throes of one of his ideas was uncontrollable. Words rolled and tumbled from his mouth. A peculiar smile came upon his lips. The edges of his teeth that were tipped with gold glistened in the light. Pouncing upon a bystander he began to talk. For the bystander there was no escape. The excited man breathed into his face, peered into his eyes, pounded upon his chest with a shaking forefinger, demanded, compelled attention.
Even while Joe goes about his work quietly and polite, people watch him, prepared to run away, though they do this with mockery in their faces. For his part, Joe seems unaware of his problem, blocking even the thought that people just don’t want to hear his ideas.
It’s been a rough year for Joe. His mother has died, and he’s moved into the Willard house. However, Joe’s natural enthusiasm doesn’t waver. On the contrary, he begins to gain the town’s favor when he organizes the town baseball team and coaches them to success. So great is the town’s still rather quiet admiration that when Joe begins to court Sarah King, everyone is terrified for him.
Sarah and her father, Ed, and brother, Tom, came to Winesburg from somewhere in the south, and the two men have a bad reputation they do little to contradict. Rumors are that Tom killed a man before arriving in Winesburg, and one day in town he struck and killed a dog with his heavy walking stick. There’s just no way that these two rough individuals are going to want a person like Joe Welling working on the only woman in their lives.
And one night it comes to a head, just as everyone knew it would. George Willard goes home after a day’s work for the newspaper to find Ed and Tom King waiting in Joe’s room, Tom with that heavy stick. Joe hasn’t arrived yet.
I won’t go into details about what happens, but, as I mentioned above, this is one of the truly positive stories in Winesburg, Ohio, Joe Welling perhaps its only cheerful characters.