Color as Words, Anderson’s Brand in “Hands”

This essay first sheds light on how Anderson’s background in advertising influenced the climax of “Hands” and secondly, analyzes art’s influence in the shape of the writing. I’ll share how Stein (poetry) and Russman (painting) influenced Anderson, as written in “Words Not Plot Give Form to the Short Story”

Let us acknowledge that Anderson  spent fourteen years of his life as an advertising copywriter. Before we get the chance to start the first sentence, the title commands us to leap into the rabbit hole of associations. What comes to mind when we think of hands? Labor. Craftsmanship. Perhaps something precious, like touching a baby’s head, or carefully performing surgery, or pressing the keys of a piano to create a nocturne.

What of their gestures? To what extent do we realize or attend to the good or evil of our hands? (Lady Macbeth comes to mind). In “Hands”, Wing Biddlebaum is the “angel” and Adolph Myers (Biddlebaum’s previous name) is the “devil”. For Wing, his hands flutter. For Adolph, they touch little boys. For Wing-Adolph, they are horror.

Anderson repeated the word “hands” ad nauseum: the word appears in all paragraphs except three. Anderson uses the word eight times in a single page: HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! HANDS! (which left me thinking to myself: WHAT ABOUT THEM, ANDERSON? TELL ME!) If this isn’t advertising strategy, I don’t know what is. 

It isn’t surprising that Wing Biddlebaum chooses to stay silent and hide his hands. In Ohio, this makes him dear at best and curiosity at worst. In Pennsylvania, at best it makes him an inspiration and at worst, a pedophile. Touch is not a form of love there; it is the perversion of the old corrupting the innocent. The risk and price was too high. Biddlebaum wanted to endow dreams and instead inherited a gang beating and threats of lynching; upon his forced exile, the villagers hurled mud at him as he walked away. Myers left his town in the most shameful way a dreamer could fathom. Nevertheless, he could not hold his trauma forever.

George Willard, the reporter for Wineburg’s paper, was Biddlebaum’s only confidant. In a moment of trust, Biddlebaum broke his silence. “You are destroying yourself. You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams. You want to be like others in town here. You hear them talk and you try to imitate them.” At this point in the story, we do believe he is talking to Willard, but we know by the end that he is talking about himself. He puts his hands on Willard’s shoulders and before he can caress him he “thrust his hands deep into his trouser pockets. Tears came to his eyes.” Memory and action, past and present, become one. The reader experiences, before knowing, what had happened. We are given the intensity of horror and the curiosity as to why exactly this man fears his hands so greatly.

This story is not just on miscommunication and exile but also about confession and the silence that precedes it. Perhaps his hands were so wild because they were trying to escape his secret. To no avail, Myers tries to contain his darkness but his burden is heavy and, who else does he decide to tell but the reporter: a man committed to revealing the truth.

Technically, Biddlebaum never revealed the story of his hands; the narrator told us; Anderson likewise does not reveal his plot neatly. There is no point in the story that tries to “uplift the people [or] make better citizens.” (A.1924) He, in fact, loathed the framework of the typical “American Western” tale where the protagonist, downtrodden, passes through a forest or desert, and emerges a hero. He calls this “The Poison Plot” and dignifies that form, though “altogether more elusive and difficult” rather than plot, should drive the story.

I remember, like Anderson, reading “Tender Buttons” for the first time (and the eighth time) and being blown away by its power and uniqueness. Gertrude Stein created a refreshing new way to write; Anderson’s words put it best: “something purely experiment and dealt words separate from sense.” It is undeniable that Stein helped shape the glittering and experimental form of “Hands”.

Anderson’s second notable influence was an encounter with painter Russman, whose studio was opened to him; Anderson got a backstage, first-hand look into the life of a painter. Having painted myself, I know the magic that lies there: creating, with pigments… smeared around by brushes, something from nothing, is both wondrous and amazing. To paint is to “reveal all of [your]self in every stroke of [your] brush.” (A.1924)
Anderson compares the grandeur of Leonardo da Vinci to the universality of Balzac and credits these impressions to the strokes of their work. Anderson concluded that “words used…bu the tale-teller were as the colors used by the painters. Form…grew out of the materials of the tale and the teller’s reaction to them.” Like a painter, a writer doesn’t quite know what she gets until she writes it. Like an artist, she pushes, thins, concentrates, and shapes it in response to what she sees being produced. Art is not blind. Art, to take form, requires experiment, color, and inspiration.

Here is the full text if you so wish to read it:

“Hands” Sherwood Anderson 1919

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