There are no doubts about Sherwood Anderson’s kindness, the quality of his writing, the gentleness of his message, the goodness of it. I simply find it difficult to listen, pulled aside by the images he chooses for men and women, the one I am assigned and excluded from. The images are disturbing, distracting.
Jeez, being a little petty aren’t you? After all, the guy wrote it in 1943, pretty advanced stuff for his time most likely. Why pick at the edges? Surely you are big enough to see around and beyond the stereotypes!
No. I am not big enough. Raised on the images of being small, living with them, they are mine. I dislike them, I recognize them with distaste, but they are mine. I worry about not recognizing them, a complacence which keeps me small. I am taught to be small and then assumed to be big enough to regard it as no obstacle. And still, I hesitate to mention the smallnesses to which I am sensitive, afraid to be told again they don’t matter.
“ . . . the old woman’s story . . . was simple enough . . . she had married a poor . . . uneducated mountain man. He couldn’t read or write.” I don’t hear her story. And a woman’s caring is expressed in grief over her husband, a man’s for his work. The painters, poets, and scientists are men. They are there, simple stereotypes. I run the risk of being charged with exaggerating their effect by dwelling on them. But to overlook them is to overlook my most urgent dilemmas; I am assumed to be in the story but I see only passivity. I wish to be bigger, not the strongest, just stronger, as strong. I point out the images of smallness not to argue about them but to insist that they influence me. I sit on unqualified praise of this story as blacks sat at the lunch-counter, not because I wish to make trouble, but because the images are so ingrained that to question them inwardly, silently doesn’t work.
I consider women whose circumstances are ripe for action and yet they do not act. They wait to feel more certain, bigger. Their talents wither with the accumulated moments lacking in confidence to practice them. They struggle to know themselves, always feeling on the verge of change, yet they hold back. They wait. They hesitate. With the desire to work for themselves, they continue to work for others. Girls can’t be scientists! They have said it aloud only enough times to believe in the possibility of its falseness. The doubt is still there. They wait for it to go away, chiseling away at it. They watch the men at work, with a willingness to learn from them. But they are assumed to need no further training, to feel a bigness which they don’t feel. Without a recognition that something is missing, they blame only themselves, feeling small, acting small. They wait, passively, following behind, itching for a release from something they cannot yet clearly enough name.
It is for these women, for myself, that I insist on attention to Mr. Anderson’s images, out of a need not simply to contradict them, to argue with them, but to understand just how they contribute to inaction, to understand the discomfort of their familiarity, to understand how they mold, and especially what they deny. Because I don’t know. I don’t know what precisely is missing. Only that these images hit me hard. When I am asked to overlook them, I feel so passed by as to be invisible.