William Faulkner once called Sherwood Anderson “a one- or two-book man.” That was in 1953, twelve years after Anderson’s death, and Faulkner probably felt he was generous to allow room in eternity for a volume of Anderson’s short stories—The Triumph of the Egg or Horses and Men. Anderson’s many books continue to drift in and out of print—novels, stories, assorted tracts, unreliable autobiographies, prose poems—but salvage attempts have not proved very successful. The only book that has never disappeared from view is Winesburg, Ohio (1919), one third of what has come to seem a midwestern trilogy—its Purgatorio perhaps—which also includes Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915) and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Steet (1920). Anderson felt Winesburg was part of a spiritual awakening: “There is a something that broods over our Mid American landscapes that can save us all if we will but give our selves,” he wrote in 1920.
The pared-down prose of Winesburg was inspired in part and blessed by Gertrude Stein, and adopted and groomed by Hemingway till it became little more than a mannerism. The style is effectively at odds with the fidgety insomniac lives of the people of Winesburg that Anderson took as his subject. Inexpressiveness is the major theme of Winesburg. Characters never find the words they want to say, or find them only when they are talking to animals or half-wits or blank walls. It is a moment of release for Anderson’s surrogate, George Willard, when he mutters big words into the dark sky: “Death, night, the sea, fear, loveliness.” Anderson’s peculiar genius was to give the illusion that the stunted bodies of his characters had their own language, one that the sympathetic, all-knowing narrator of Winesburg could understand. His method was to probe the tics and quirks of his characters until their private histories emerged. One of the best, and the first written, of the linked portraits of Winesburg is called “Hands.”
The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name…. The hands alarmed their owner. He wanted to keep them hidden away and looked with amazement at the quiet inexpressive hands of other men who worked beside him in the fields, or passed, driving sleepy teams on country roads.
From Wing’s expressive hands Anderson derives the story of a devoted school-teacher who years earlier was hounded out of a Pennsylvania town, when his wandering but harmless hands alarmed the townspeople.
The sexual candor of Winesburg, with its voyeuristic ministers and exhibitionist spinsters, shocked many reviewers. (“There are more naked women in Winesburg than one might think,” John Updike recently observed.) Certainly Anderson’s sensitivity toward homosexuality in stories like “Hands” was enlightened for its time. Anderson claimed to be dismayed by the rakish reputation he acquired in the Twenties but one suspects he liked it. “Was I not later …