Piety and Desire in Winesburg, Ohio
I'm currently reading Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and am enjoying it quite a bit. There's a great deal of piety and propriety in that small town, of course, but also strong undercurrents of earthy sensuality which constantly threaten to pull even the devout under. Witness Curtis Hartman, the Presbyterian minister and protagonist of the sharp story/chapter "The Strength of God":
One Sunday morning in the summer as he sat by his desk in the room with a large Bible opened before him, and the sheets of his sermon scattered about, the minister was shocked to see, in the upper room of the house next door, a woman lying in her bed and smoking a cigarette while she read a book. Curtis Hartman went on tiptoe to the window and closed it softly. He was horror stricken at the thought of a woman smoking and trembled also to think that his eyes, just raised from the pages of the book of God, had looked upon the bare shoulders and white throat of a woman. With his brain in a whirl he went down into the pulpit and preached a long sermon without once thinking of his gestures or his voice. The sermon attracted unusual attention because of its power and clearness. "I wonder if she is listening, if my voice is carrying a message into her soul," he thought and began to hope that on future Sunday mornings he might be able to say words that would touch and awaken the woman apparently far gone into secret sin.
Cigarettes, bare shoulders, white throat...yes, sinful indeed. Naturally, Rev. Hartman becomes obsessed with those shoulders and that throat, and before long it isn't only her soul he needs to worry about. The story is nicely followed by "The Teacher" which serves as a rather neat epilogue that explains the woman's situation further and also integrates the omnipresent George Willard who once again finds himself connected, but not always willingly so, to yet another Winesburg citizen's life. Well done.