Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Teacher

They are all familiar people. That is what makes so engaging the characters in Sherwood Anderson's collected short stories which make up Winesburg, Ohio. We have known or met them all before.

Winesburg, Ohio is the American Midwest at the turn of the twentieth century. It is peopled by friendly but solitary inhabitants. Their hopes, fears, and dreams are all confided to George Willard, a young reporter for the Winesburg Eagle.

Kate Smith is the teacher.The towns people thought her an old-maid because she was thirty, spoke sharply, and went her own way. In reality she was the most passionate of souls in Winesburg, Ohio. She is also the most enigmatic. She had traveled widely before coming to Winesburg five years ago. She never married, or at least we know, she is not now married. She is sickly though we do not know the cause. She is passionate and yet like all of the characters in Winesburg, she lives a solitary life.

In George Willard, a former student, she tried to bring home some idea of the difficulties he would face as a writer. On a grassy bank at the Fairgrounds, she declared, "You will have to know life." It was said with the earnestness of someone who simultaneously possessed a notion of the boy's creative potential and her own romantic passions. Taking him by the shoulders, she said, "If you are going to become a writer you will have to stop fooling with words."

Words are spoken, words are heard, and what is spoken is not always what is heard. Thus, it was that Kate Smith explained to George the seriousness of life.

It would be better to give up the notion of writing until you are better prepared.Now it's time to be living.  I don't want to frighten you, but I would like to make you understand the import of what you think of attempting. You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.
Of course what Kate says and what she means has two meanings.She is infatuated with George and has romantic notions of an idealistic love. He is at the turn of manhood and understands only the stirrings of lust. Leaning forward, her lips brush his cheek and he becomes aware of her beauty. The event ends harshly as she remonstrates, "What's the use? It will be ten years before you begin to understand what I mean when I talk to you."

Later, a second meeting, a second encounter with romance ends just as badly. In the dark, Kate makes a long lonely walk through the snow to the office where George works. In the warmth of the office her hands again take a hold of his shoulders. The passion blazes in her eyes as she coyly says, " I must be going," she said. "In a moment, if I stay, I'll be wanting to kiss you." For a moment he held the body of a woman next to him before she stiffened. Two sharp fists beat on his face and Kate runs away. George is confused by the conflicting emotions and can not fathom what Kate is thinking about. George stays up reliving the experience in his mind. That night George is the last person in Winesburg to fall asleep.

Sherwood Anderson at the beginning of Winesburg, Ohio called his characters "grotesques". The introductory chapter becomes "The Book of the Grotesques". Anderson goes on to explain that not all the grotesques are horrible. Some are amusing, some almost beautiful. Rather each character possesses a truth. It is the truth that makes them grotesque. For each character tries to live this truth. The character speaks the truth as he or she sees it. But behind the spoken words lies an unspoken falsehood that is revealed to young George.

Every young man has had an infatuation with an older woman. I dare to say that every older woman has been infatuated with a younger man. A teacher finds a spark of genius in a student and a student finds a mentor in a teacher. The emotional conflict is always present. But most often the difference in emotional age renders the pairing impossible. There are exceptions and we read about them in the tabloids or see them in TV exposes, but for the most part the fantasies are fictionalized. They exist in the minds of the players.

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