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Character Sketch of Wing Biddlebaum From Sherwood Anderson's "Hands"

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Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson

"Hands" by Sherwood Anderson

The American writer Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) fascinates me with the protagonist of his story “Hands.” Wing Biddlebaum or Adolph Myers is an uplifting character who implicitly questions the notions of morality in this story. Whatsoever, my topic of concern is the source of his character. Considering my view that Wing Biddlebaum is a reflection of Sherwood Anderson, that he either consciously or unconsciously designed, I will try to provide reasons for my perception in this research paper.

Wing Biddlebaum was an inspiration for young people as he encouraged them to dream big. This characteristic is a reflection of Anderson in his past life. Anderson was an inspiration for his son. While his seventeen-year-old son, John, went away to complete his education, his father sent him letters of advice. In the first one of the two letters that Popova has collected in her article, Anderson told his son how arts as a subject could bring more satisfaction and at the same time how it could give a man an uncertain and difficult life. Initially in “Hands”, Biddlebaum was a schoolmaster in Pennsylvania with the name Adolph Myers, who successfully inspired his students. The way in which Anderson inspired John, Adolph inspired the boys who were on their way to build a future just like him. He used to adore them in a fatherly manner and made them dream to have a brighter future. The way in which Adolph talked to the young boys, caressed their hair and stroked their shoulders, helped them visualize the concept of life and its opportunities that Anderson did in the letters to his young son. Anderson has used the term “dreams” in these parts of the story so that the readers realize the efforts of Biddlebaum and the way in which he created a positive effect on the growth of the minds of his pupils through the understanding of reality.

Anderson was also an inspiration for young William Faulkner. This is evident according to one of Maria Popova’s online articles, where it is known that Faulkner referred to Anderson as his “sole important mentor” and also honored him in a beautiful part of the book, The Atlantic, “Sherwood Anderson: An Appreciation”, which was written in 1953. These attributes that Anderson had received as a mentor or advisor expressed his seniority in his attempt to make the youth more familiar with reality. At the same time, this reflected Adolph Myers’ teaching skills; given that there was a contradiction between the treatments given to Sherwood Anderson and Adolph Myers by the general people of their societies.

Sherwood Anderson was inspired by his father Irwin Anderson and his grandfather James Anderson. According to Rideout’s Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America, Irwin McClain Anderson took part in Civil War when he was to be eighteen years old. During those times, Irwin had experienced many extremes as he had to march and starve and his camp was often under fire; however, the worst was the winter. Moreover, Irwin used to share these experiences with his son in the form of storytelling which was carried down by him from his father and Sherwood’s grandfather. This resulted in Sherwood Anderson’s long interest in the Civil War. James Anderson was a cheerful and honest man who loved to tell stories and always looked forward to positivity in life. He had less belief in money than in the happiness rewarded from living a comfortable and easy life. Therefore, the humor of the storyteller and the complexity of the soldier made up and tied the bag of tales for Sherwood at an early age. It is not possible for a man to inspire youth from his own experiences alone because the art of advising, informing and communicating makes a big difference. However, there are only a few who know the way in which each and every experience and advice shall be communicated, and only for this reason, it is necessary for one to listen and learn from the elders. Since, Sherwood had heard tales from his father and grandfather, and grew up with the art of telling stories and advising young men, he could truly inspire and accordingly formed an inspirational quality within the fictional character of Wing Biddlebaum.

Wing Biddlebaum was an example of a person with high morale. He was humble because he was never seen to be rude or proud about his qualities of good teaching or good berry picking. Therefore, this quality was highlighted by Anderson who valued humbleness over smartness as he said in one of his letters to his son, “Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.” Therefore, his own values and beliefs about an ideal man-made Anderson carve the character sketch of Wing Biddlebaum in a way that represented innocence and modesty.

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Moreover, Biddlebaum’s innocence had always kept him conserved within himself. For this reason, he had never shown aggression towards the people in Pennsylvania who had mistreated him after believing in lies that the half-witted boy had made up against him. Whereas, a man who gets beaten up and thrown away from his hometown due to false accusations is bound to react to it. If not during the moment when he was getting assaulted but maybe afterward in his life by expressing anger, annoyance or outrage in behavior; that Biddlebaum never did. This can either be articulated as quality or deficiency. It can be called quality because it is difficult for a person to hold on to patience after he has suffered maltreatment and thus it is very impressive of Wing Biddlebaum that he had never outburst his emotions even when the young people in Winesburg insulted him by saying, “Oh, you Wing Biddlebaum, comb your hair, it’s falling into your eyes” (55); given that Biddlebaum was rather bald. Similarly, it can be called deficiency because wise men are supposed to stand up against the wrongdoers, which Biddlebaum did not do. Therefore, the formation of such a naïve character is hard to be called a coincidence. So, it can be guessed that Anderson was extremely fascinated by modest personality and at the same time enjoyed perceiving an influential personality to be patient, for example, Biddlebaum; which might have been the result of his past experiences, conversations and contact with certain kinds of people in his life.

Besides, high morale made Wing Biddlebaum a good friend to George Willard. Biddlebaum’s life in Winesburg was melancholic. Yet, with George Willard life was still bearable. He had also inspired and encouraged George Willard as he loved him a lot. He scolded him too so that he did not lose his focus in his dreams by concerning about the townspeople and their opinions. This also enlightened the words of Anderson’s letter to his son, where he said that “Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about.” This signifies the fact that Biddlebaum cared equally for George as he did for his pupils and that he was a true friend to him. Moreover, Biddlebaum never expressed the pain and embarrassment that he had been through in Pennsylvania and instead continued inspiring his friend to dream to live a brighter future.

Biddlebaum was familiar because of his “hands” as he worked with dedication. As Scofield mentioned in his book, The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story, that, “The image of hands is recurring, variably expressive of feelings and desires which cannot be articulated in speech or action, and repression of which often propels the outcome of the stories” (Scofield, 128). “The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands” (55), this line from the story itself is a concern of this topic because it directly involves the protagonist of the story. Also, in the second letter, which Anderson had written to his son, which is one of the two that I have found in Maria Popova’s online article, he said, “Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think of your hands.” By this piece of advice, the relationship between Biddlebaum and Anderson is highly enlightened. This is because, when Biddlebaum had talked and explained his words to anyone, he used his hands. His hands unintentionally touched the one he used to talk to and he continued to touch them and stroke them in a fatherly manner without any further notice. This was the way in which his “hands” became adept to his passion for inspiring people and thus, they had a great contribution to the dreams that he made his pupils look forward to. In this way, Anderson himself influenced the formation of Wing Biddlebaum’s character.

However, in one way, Biddlebaum’s character contradicts that of Anderson’s. In one of Popova’s online articles, she included lines of Sherwood Anderson that William Faulkner had quoted, in which he said, “[…], even if you can’t understand, believe.” This informs Anderson’s strong personality of faith and belief in himself. However, Wing Biddlebaum never expressed his belief in himself or anyone else; instead, he remained afraid and nervous about himself and his hands as he believed that they were the reason for his struggle and pain. Thus, he continued to focus on his new job of berry picking.

Winesburg was proud of his hands because Biddlebaum could pick one-fourth of a gallon of berries in one day. Hence, as a berry picker, Biddlebaum was very dedicated to his work just as he was as a teacher in Pennsylvania. He did not have any special way of doing things rather, he had never lost focus on his current job as he was a berry picker for twenty years in Winesburg. This further explains what Anderson had meant in one of his letters to his son, when he said, “I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity.” Thus, this brings us to the conclusion that he preferred hard work and humility at work. He wanted his son to practice his favorite task and be good at it without any pride. Therefore, this was highlighted in the character of Biddlebaum who despite his success at work did not try to prove his dedication or achievements and neither did he claim justice in the name of his hard work.

Finally, the character sketch of Wing Biddlebaum in light of Sherwood Anderson includes the aspects of inspirational conduct, moral authority and work dedication. Hence, discovering the effects of the past life of the author on Wing Biddlebaum has given me the opportunity to master the importance of connections. Lastly, sewing up the core matter of analysis, the idea that appears is that, short stories are not only simple works of literature that are confined within plots and characters rather they often tend to be the authors’ secret journals for the preservation of their thoughts.

Works Cited

  • Popova, Maria. “Sherwood Anderson on Art and Life: A Letter of Advice to His Teenage Son.”
  • Brain pickings, n.p., n.d.
  • Popova, Maria. “William Faulkner on What Sherwood Anderson Taught Him About Writing,
  • the Artist’s Task, and Being an American.” Brain pickings, n.p., n.d.
  • Rideout, Walter B., and Charles D. Modlin. Sherwood Anderson: A Writer in America, Vol. 1,
  • The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005, pp. 3-5.
  • Scofield, Martin. “Chapter 13- Sherwood Anderson.” The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 132.

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