Seeds by Sherwood Anderson, 1918.
He was a small man with a beard and was very nervous. I remember how the cords of his neck were drawn taut.
For years he had been trying to cure people of illness by the method called psychoanalysis. The idea was the passion of his life. “I came here because I am tired,” he said dejectedly. “My body is not tired but something inside me is old and worn-out. I want joy. For a few days or weeks I would like to forget men and women and the influences that make them the sick things they are.”
There is a note that comes into the human voice by which you may know real weariness. It comes when one has been trying with all his heart and soul to think his way along some difficult road of thought. Of a sudden he finds himself unable to go on. Something within him stops. A tiny explosion takes place. He bursts into words and talks, perhaps foolishly. Little side currents of his nature he didn’t know were there run out and get themselves expressed. It is at such times that a man boasts, uses big words, makes a fool of himself in general.
And so it was the doctor became shrill. He jumped up from the steps where we had been sitting, talking and walked about. “You come from the West. You have kept away from people. You have preserved yourself–damn you! I haven’t–” His voice had indeed become shrill. “I have entered into lives. I have gone beneath the surface of the lives of men and women. Women especially I have studied–our own women, here in America.”
“You have loved them?” I suggested.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes–you are right there. I have done that. It is the only way I can get at things. I have to try to love. You see how that is? It’s the only way. Love must be the beginning of things with me.”
I began to sense the depths of his weariness. “We will go swim in the lake,” I urged.
“I don’t want to swim or do any damn plodding thing. I want to run and shout,” he declared. “For awhile, for a few hours, I want to be like a dead leaf blown by the winds over these hills. I have one desire and one only–to free myself.”
We walked in a dusty country road. I wanted him to know that I thought I understood, so I put the case in my own way.
When he stopped and stared at me I talked. “You are no more and no better than myself,” I declared. “You are a dog that has rolled in offal, and because you are not quite a dog you do not like the smell of your own hide.”
In turn my voice became shrill. “You blind fool,” I cried impatiently. “Men like you are fools. You cannot go along that road. It is given to no man to venture far along the road of lives.”
I became passionately in earnest. “The illness you pretend to cure is the universal illness,” I said. “The thing you want to do cannot be done. Fool–do you expect love to be understood?”
We stood in the road and looked at each other. The suggestion of a sneer played about the corners of his mouth. He put a hand on my shoulder and shook me. “How smart we are–how aptly we put things!”
He spat the words out and then turned and walked a little away. “You think you understand, but you don’t understand,” he cried. “What you say can’t be done can be done. You’re a liar. You cannot be so definite without missing something vague and fine. You miss the whole point. The lives of people are like young trees in a forest. They are being choked by climbing vines. The vines are old thoughts and beliefs planted by dead men. I am myself covered by crawling creeping vines that choke me.”
He laughed bitterly. “And that’s why I want to run and play,” he said. “I want to be a leaf blown by the wind over hills. I want to die and be born again, and I am only a tree covered with vines and slowly dying. I am, you see, weary and want to be made clean. I am an amateur venturing timidly into lives,” he concluded. “I am weary and want to be made clean. I am covered by creeping crawling things.”
* * * * *
A woman from Iowa came here to Chicago and took a room in a house on the west-side. She was about twenty-seven years old and ostensibly she came to the city to study advanced methods for teaching music.
A certain young man also lived in the west-side house. His room faced a long hall on the second floor of the house and the one taken by the woman was across the hall facing his room.
In regard to the young man–there is something very sweet in his nature. He is a painter but I have often wished he would decide to become a writer. He tells things with understanding and he does not paint brilliantly.
And so the woman from Iowa lived in the west-side house and came home from the city in the evening. She looked like a thousand other women one sees in the streets every day. The only thing that at all made her stand out among the women in the crowds was that she was a little lame. Her right foot was slightly deformed and she walked with a limp. For three months she lived in the house–where she was the only woman except the landlady–and then a feeling in regard to her began to grow up among the men of the house.
The men all said the same thing concerning her. When they met in the hallway at the front of the house they stopped, laughed and whispered. “She wants a lover,” they said and winked. “She may not know it but a lover is what she needs.”
One knowing Chicago and Chicago men would think that an easy want to be satisfied. I laughed when my friend–whose name is LeRoy–told me the story, but he did not laugh. He shook his head. “It wasn’t so easy,” he said. “There would be no story were the matter that simple.”
LeRoy tried to explain. “Whenever a man approached her she became alarmed,” he said. Men kept smiling and speaking to her. They invited her to dinner and to the theatre, but nothing would induce her to walk in the streets with a man. She never went into the streets at night. When a man stopped and tried to talk with her in the hallway she turned her eyes to the floor and then ran into her room. Once a young drygoods clerk who lived there induced her to sit with him on the steps before the house.
He was a sentimental fellow and took hold of her hand. When she began to cry he was alarmed and arose. He put a hand on her shoulder and tried to explain, but under the touch of his fingers her whole body shook with terror. “Don’t touch me,” she cried, “don’t let your hands touch me!” She began to scream and people passing in the street stopped to listen. The drygoods clerk was alarmed and ran upstairs to his own room. He bolted the door and stood listening. “It is a trick,” he declared in a trembling voice. “She is trying to make trouble. I did nothing to her. It was an accident and anyway what’s the matter? I only touched her arm with my fingers.”
Perhaps a dozen times LeRoy has spoken to me of the experience of the Iowa woman in the west-side house. The men there began to hate her. Although she would have nothing to do with them she would not let them alone. In a hundred ways she continually invited approaches that when made she repelled. When she stood naked in the bathroom facing the hallway where the men passed up and down she left the door slightly ajar. There was a couch in the living room down stairs, and when men were present she would sometimes enter and without saying a word throw herself down before them. On the couch she lay with lips drawn slightly apart. Her eyes stared at the ceiling. Her whole physical being seemed to be waiting for something. The sense of her filled the room. The men standing about pretended not to see. They talked loudly. Embarrassment took possession of them and one by one they crept quietly away.
One evening the woman was ordered to leave the house. Someone, perhaps the drygoods clerk, had talked to the landlady and she acted at once. “If you leave tonight I shall like it that much better,” LeRoy heard the elder woman’s voice saying. She stood in the hallway before the Iowa woman’s room. The landlady’s voice rang through the house.
LeRoy the painter is tall and lean and his life has been spent in devotion to ideas. The passions of his brain have consumed the passions of his body. His income is small and he has not married. Perhaps he has never had a sweetheart. He is not without physical desire but he is not primarily concerned with desire.
On the evening when the Iowa woman was ordered to leave the west-side house, she waited until she thought the landlady had gone down stairs, and then went into LeRoy’s room. It was about eight o’clock and he sat by a window reading a book. The woman did not knock but opened the door. She said nothing but ran across the floor and knelt at his feet. LeRoy said that her twisted foot made her run like a wounded bird, that her eyes were burning and that her breath came in little gasps. “Take me,” she said, putting her face down upon his knees and trembling violently. “Take me quickly. There must be a beginning to things. I can’t stand the waiting. You must take me at once.”
You may be quite sure LeRoy was perplexed by all this. From what he has said I gathered that until that evening he had hardly noticed the woman. I suppose that of all the men in the house he had been the most indifferent to her. In the room something happened. The landlady followed the woman when she ran to LeRoy, and the two women confronted him. The woman from Iowa knelt trembling and frightened at his feet. The landlady was indignant. LeRoy acted on impulse. An inspiration came to him. Putting his hand on the kneeling woman’s shoulder he shook her violently. “Now behave yourself,” he said quickly. “I will keep my promise.” He turned to the landlady and smiled. “We have been engaged to be married,” he said. “We have quarreled. She came here to be near me. She has been unwell and excited. I will take her away. Please don’t let yourself be annoyed. I will take her away.”
When the woman and LeRoy got out of the house she stopped weeping and put her hand into his. Her fears had all gone away. He found a room for her in another house and then went with her into a park and sat on a bench.
* * * * *
Everything LeRoy has told me concerning this woman strengthens my belief in what I said to the man that day in the mountains. You cannot venture along the road of lives. On the bench he and the woman talked until midnight and he saw and talked with her many times later. Nothing came of it. She went back, I suppose, to her place in the West.
In the place from which she had come the woman had been a teacher of music. She was one of four sisters, all engaged in the same sort of work and, LeRoy says, all quiet capable women. Their father had died when the eldest girl was not yet ten, and five years later the mother died also. The girls had a house and a garden.
In the nature of things I cannot know what the lives of the women were like but of this one may be quite certain–they talked only of women’s affairs, thought only of women’s affairs. No one of them ever had a lover. For years no man came near the house.
Of them all only the youngest, the one who came to Chicago, was visibly affected by the utterly feminine quality of their lives. It did something to her. All day and every day she taught music to young girls and then went home to the women. When she was twenty-five she began to think and to dream of men. During the day and through the evening she talked with women of women’s affairs, and all the time she wanted desperately to be loved by a man. She went to Chicago with that hope in mind. LeRoy explained her attitude in the matter and her strange behavior in the west-side house by saying she had thought too much and acted too little. “The life force within her became decentralized,” he declared. “What she wanted she could not achieve. The living force within could not find expression. When it could not get expressed in one way it took another. Sex spread itself out over her body. It permeated the very fibre of her being. At the last she was sex personified, sex become condensed and impersonal. Certain words, the touch of a man’s hand, sometimes even the sight of a man passing in the street did something to her.”
* * * * *
Yesterday I saw LeRoy and he talked to me again of the woman and her strange and terrible fate.
We walked in the park by the lake. As we went along the figure of the woman kept coming into my mind. An idea came to me.
“You might have been her lover,” I said. “That was possible. She was not afraid of you.”
LeRoy stopped. Like the doctor who was so sure of his ability to walk into lives he grew angry and scolded. For a moment he stared at me and then a rather odd thing happened. Words said by the other man in the dusty road in the hills came to LeRoy’s lips and were said over again. The suggestion of a sneer played about the corners of his mouth. “How smart we are. How aptly we put things,” he said.
The voice of the young man who walked with me in the park by the lake in the city became shrill. I sensed the weariness in him. Then he laughed and said quietly and softly, “It isn’t so simple. By being sure of yourself you are in danger of losing all of the romance of life. You miss the whole point. Nothing in life can be settled so definitely. The woman–you see–was like a young tree choked by a climbing vine. The thing that wrapped her about had shut out the light. She was a grotesque as many trees in the forest are grotesques. Her problem was such a difficult one that thinking of it has changed the whole current of my life. At first I was like you. I was quite sure. I thought I would be her lover and settle the matter.”
LeRoy turned and walked a little away. Then he came back and took hold of my arm. A passionate earnestness took possession of him. His voice trembled. “She needed a lover, yes, the men in the house were quite right about that,” he said. “She needed a lover and at the same time a lover was not what she needed. The need of a lover was, after all, a quite secondary thing. She needed to be loved, to be long and quietly and patiently loved. To be sure she is a grotesque, but then all the people in the world are grotesques. We all need to be loved. What would cure her would cure the rest of us also. The disease she had is, you see, universal. We all want to be loved and the world has no plan for creating our lovers.”
LeRoy’s voice dropped and he walked beside me in silence. We turned away from the lake and walked under trees. I looked closely at him. The cords of his neck were drawn taut. “I have seen under the shell of life and I am afraid,” he mused. “I am myself like the woman. I am covered with creeping crawling vine-like things. I cannot be a lover. I am not subtle or patient enough. I am paying old debts. Old thoughts and beliefs–seeds planted by dead men–spring up in my soul and choke me.”
For a long time we walked and LeRoy talked, voicing the thoughts that came into his mind. I listened in silence. His mind struck upon the refrain voiced by the man in the mountains. “I would like to be a dead dry thing,” he muttered looking at the leaves scattered over the grass. “I would like to be a leaf blown away by the wind.” He looked up and his eyes turned to where among the trees we could see the lake in the distance. “I am weary and want to be made clean. I am a man covered by creeping crawling things. I would like to be dead and blown by the wind over limitless waters,” he said. “I want more than anything else in the world to be clean.”