My favorite short story in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio–one of my favorite stories ever–is titled “Hands.” The protagonist, Wing Biddlebaum, is a social outcast in a small town populated with misfits. Awkward and inarticulate, Wing talks with his hands, which are delicate and nervous: he owes his nickname, in fact, to their quirky fluttering. Wing, it seems, can’t quite control his hands: when he gets upset, he pounds them on any available surface, and when he’s nervous, he runs them through his hair.
Wing, however, is a gentle man who doesn’t get upset much. When he was young, readers learn, Wing Biddlebaum lived in Pennsylvania and was a teacher. In that previous lifetime, he used his hands to show affection toward his students, touching and caressing them as he strove to teach them:
Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads. As he talked his voice became soft and musical. There was a caress in that also. In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster’s effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.
You can see, I’m sure, where this story is headed. Male teachers aren’t supposed to caress their students, and there were rumors and accusations. The man who became Wing Biddlebaum left Pennsylvania in disgrace, arriving in Winesburg, Ohio to serve a kind of exile, changing his name and abandoning his career. The man who once used his hands to inspire young minds ends up living on the outskirts of town, alone and misunderstood. Is the man known as Wing Biddlebaum a poet or a pedophile, an idealist or a predator? Sherwood Anderson never says, leaving Wing’s story open to interpretation. In the story’s final scene, Wing is alone in his empty house, picking breadcrumbs from his kitchen floor with his deft fingers: “The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.”
Our hands say so much, it’s no wonder chiromancers use them to foresee the future. One man’s hands are calloused and worn, with dirt under the nails; another’s are delicate and thin-skinned, with long, elegant fingers. When I myself was a student, I’d regularly spend class lectures watching my teachers’ hands, watching as they underscored important points through gestures and gesticulations. Try as I might, I can’t stop myself from talking with my hands: once one of my high school teachers, in fact, approached me in the hallway between classes, clasped my hands in his, and dared me to say something–anything–while they were immobilized. And indeed, all I could do was laugh, speechless, while the wings of my hands lay helplessly pinioned: a teenage Wing Biddlebaum without a voice.