Saturday, May 4, 2019

Hands

Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941)
From Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories

Sweet Pea Mood, July 23, 1917, watercolor and crayon on paper by Ohio artist Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893–1967). Image courtesy of Christie’s.
A century ago, on May 8, 1919, the small press run by B. W. Huebsch, who had previously introduced American readers to D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and James Joyce’s Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published a debut story collection by an up-and-coming writer. Sales of Sherwood Anderson’s first two novels, Windy McPherson’s Son and Marching Men, and his poetry collection, Mid-American Chants, had been poor, and the editors at the firm that had published his first three books didn’t think much of the new stories, finding them “too gloomy.” So the author traveled to New York in late 1918 to find a new publisher and through a mutual acquaintance he met Huebsch, who agreed to issue the book the following year. Huebsch’s literary acumen once again paid off: by the time he merged his imprint with Viking Press in 1924 Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life had gone through five printings.

Later in life, Anderson remembered finishing the interconnected stories of Winesburg, Ohio “in a few months, one following the other, a kind of joyous time for me, the words and ideas flowing freely, very little revision to be done.” In fact, the composition of Winesburg was neither so rapid nor so effortless, and the extant manuscripts show considerable evidence of rewriting. He arranged and on more than one occasion rearranged the stories before submitting them for publication as a book. All told, he may have taken as long as two and a half years—from November 1915 to April 1918—to complete them.

Still, Anderson’s recollection of an intensely creative “few months” only mildly exaggerates the pace at which Winesburg came into being. He began, very probably, in November 1915, with “The Book of the Grotesque”—a metafictional preamble that gave him a working title for the collection—and the story “Hands.” Both selections were published in early 1916 in consecutive issues of Masses, a little magazine edited by Max Eastman and Floyd Dell. By November 1916 he reported he had written fifteen of these “intensive studies of people in my home town, Clyde, Ohio,” out of the two dozen in the published Winesburg.

“They were all grotesques,” Anderson wrote in the introductory section, which conjured an “old writer” working on a book:
All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques. . . .

For an hour the procession of grotesques passed before the eyes of the old man, and then, although it was a painful thing to do, he crept out of bed and began to write. Some one of the grotesques had made a deep impression on his mind and he wanted to describe it.

At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called “The Book of the Grotesque.” It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind.
Anderson later wrote to a friend, “I think the most absorbingly interesting and exciting moment in any writer’s life must come when he, for the first time, knows that he is a real writer.” That moment arrived for Anderson in late 1915, when he wrote “Hands,” and he often retold his account, with varying details, in the years ahead:
I was ill, discouraged, broke. I was living in a cheap rooming house. I remember that I went upstairs and into the room. It was very shabby. I had no relatives in the city and few enough friends. I remember how cold the room was. On that afternoon I had heard that I was to lose my job.

. . . There was some paper on a small kitchen table I had bought and brought up into the room. I turned on a light and began to write. I wrote, without looking up—I never changed a word of it afterwards—a story called “Hands.” It was and is a very beautiful story.

I wrote the story and then got up from the table at which I had been sitting, I do not know how long, and went down into the city street. . . . It must have been several hours before I got the courage to return to my room and read my own story.

It was all right. It was sound. It was real. I went to sit by my desk. A great many others have had such moments. I wonder what they did. For the moment I thought the world very wonderful, and I thought also that there was a great deal of wonder in me.
As with Anderson’s other boasts about the ease of writing Winesburg, his claim that he “never changed a word” in the story is belied by the manuscript’s subsequent revisions, softening and compressing the phrasing or making the descriptions of Wing Biddlebaum’s “handsy” behavior more ambiguous. But the gist of the story remained intact; Anderson would often refer to it as his “first authentic tale,” and it became the opening story of Winesburg, Ohio.

Note: The details about Winesburg’s publication history have been abridged from “The Note on the Texts” in the Library of America edition of Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories.

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Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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