Joe Welling, a man who works for Standard Oil as a distributing agent and who floods his audience with ideas, a man “who is subject to fits” of such ideas, and who falls in love with the daughter of an unliked man in town, Edward, whose 27-year-old son is a brute who may have killed a man and who was fined $10 for killing a dog with a stick in public. Joe Welling is an oddball, his ideas are absurd, he makes leaps of logic no one could (or should) follow, but his ideas are harmless, though he manages to capture an audience when he goes off on his fits: Winesburg is not exactly rich either in entertainment or in original ideas. Of course he tells George Willard that he would have wanted to be a reporter, that he should have been a reporter. George witnesses what’s expected to be a confrontation between the two King men and Joe Welling, but Welling “was carrying the two men in the room off their feet with a tidal wave of words,” a wave powerful enough to carry all three men out to go meet Sarah, the King daughter, in what appears to be the Kings’ approval of the relationship. Joe Welling is a rare type in Winesburg, Ohio: a happy man, his happiness bred on enthusiasm. Who cares if it’s irrational. Isn’t happiness inherently a suspension of the rational, considering our existential condition? (I have Welty’s Whistle still in my ears.)
The longest so far in the collection, written in a mostly traditional narrative style, “Godliness” is a story of fanaticism, loneliness, a touch of madness in Jesse Bentley–but isn’t that always the case with fanatics–and the effects of an industrializing America. Written in four parts, the story goes multi-generational, from grandfather Jesse to grandson David Hardy, son of Louise Bentley, the unloved daughter of Jesse. He’d wanted a son. The first part is about Jesse, “a man born out of his time and place and for this he suffered and made others suffer. Never did he succeed in getting what he wanted out of life and he did not know what he wanted.” He is a brutal man driven by the fixation of serving god at the expense of ignoring and hurting everyone else around him: a pitifully conventional man in that regard. “It is God’s work I have come to the land to do,” he claims, the typical abrogation of all other responsibilities. God is not love in Jesse’s interpretation, but Old Testament vengeance, wrath and sacrifice. He has a lust for violence and blood. He channels it in his work and his indifferent hatred of those around him, his daughter in particular, who grew up studios, unloved, and ultimately strayed into brief promiscuity in her lunge for a love unrequited by her husband: “You never wanted me there and of course the air of your house did me no good,” she tells her father. “It was like poison in my blood but it will be different with him.” After failing to make him understand what she needs in a year of hills like white elephants, she becomes mean to her husband, at times mad, not much caring for her son as she would have been of her daughter: “It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway,” she said sharply. “Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it.”
The story is framed in the country’s rapid changes and how it affects Jesse:
It will perhaps be somewhat difficult for the men and women of a later day to understand Jesse Bentley. In the last fifty years a vast change has taken place in the lives of our people. A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the inter-urban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America. Books, badly imagined and written though they may be in the hurry of our times, are in every household, magazines circulate by the millions of copies, newspapers are everywhere. In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men. The newspapers and the magazines have pumped him full. Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike innocence is gone forever. The farmer by the stove is brother to the men of the cities, and if you listen you will find him talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all.
The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him. The greedy thing in him wanted to make money faster than it could be made by tilling the land.
But the story fails to convincingly connect Jesse’s increasing materialism with his fanaticism as much as it does to his inability to keep even the closest thing to a person he’s loved, David, close to him. One day when David is 15 Jesse wants to sacrifice a lamb to god. David is frightened by his grandfather rushing him with a knife, though Jesse was only rushing for the lamb David was holding. David runs off and fires a sling shot at his grandfather, knocking him out cold. David, having felled Goliath, thinks he’s killed him. He runs away, never to return.
The story did not appear in a magazine before publication in “Winesburg, Ohio” in 1919.
The wonderful, wondrous story of a country doctor with the knuckles of gnarled apples pickers leave on trees—a beautiful image threaded through the story as it’s continued—and a woman who becomes his wife after taking refuge in his office, after apparently being raped or impregnated against her will. She dies after a year’s marriage.