- No God in the Sky and No God in Myself:"Godliness" and Anderson's Winesburg
Of all the wraiths in Winesburg, none seems lonelier than Jesse Bentley. Alone of Anderson's characters, he seems unable to elicit even the sympathy of his creator. Whereas Anderson delicately balances sympathetic amusement with a most profound admiration for his other grotesques, he seems callously unambivalent toward Jesse. In the raging egocentricity of the Ohio landowner who refashions himself into some Old Testament patriarch while shamelessly indulging gross materialism, Anderson seems to express his generation's bitter condemnation of the new age "love of surfaces," the new "religion of getting on" ("To Waldo Franks" 23). To insert this lengthy lampoon of the Puritan work ethic, Anderson seems to set aside awkwardly not only his artist-hero, George Willard, but also his novel's melancholic ambience, the sense of irresistible yearning for communion that so twists the spirits of his other characters. Examined casually, Jesse does not seem to fit with them. Where they are retiring, he is assertive; where they seem frozen and static, he is a dynamo; where they are lost in self-pity, he crows of his many accomplishments; where they bottle themselves up into tiny chambers, he sees with a vision that encompasses hundreds of acres; where they nurse quiet anxieties to escape Winesburg, he thrusts his roots deeply; where they seem confused and plagued by doubts, he subscribes to a clear, teleological order; where they seem curiously infertile, he begats with Biblical intensity. Indeed, it would seem appropriate that Jesse lives far outside the corporation limits of Winesburg, a suggestion of how removed he is from Anderson's other grotesques.
Yet Anderson takes Jesse far more seriously than he would some throwaway caricature of feverish pietism. Indeed, the tales of Jesse Bentley are by far the longest in the book. In the description of the impulses that drive Jesse, Anderson points out that Jesse is driven half by greediness and half by fear. To understand Jesse's appropriateness, the reader must explore the complexity of these fears rather than the simplicity of the greed. Refusing the harsh caricature of Puritanism that figures in the work of Anderson's contemporaries, among them Dreiser and Lewis, Anderson offers a sensitive reading of the original Puritan vision that accounts not only for the intensity of Jesse Bentley's campaign to tame the Ohio wilderness but also for his place in the ongoing story of the evolution of George Willard.1 [End Page 251]
To understand Jesse Bentley, Anderson cautions early, "we will have to go back to an earlier day" (Winesburg 64). Jesse Bentley reflects Anderson's fascination with the New England consciousness2; in journals and letters Anderson assessed the Puritan legacy, joining other early century writers who, uneasy over the loneliness implicit in the human condition unrelieved even by speculation about a possible union with some divinity, reviewed the fervor of the original Puritans and their dream of seeking the transfiguration possible in a union with God.3
What those Puritans sought (and what: Jesse seeks two hundred years later) was confirmation of the self through communion with some greater whole, an awesome union between creation and creator, between the timebound and impotent and the fixed and omnipotent. Yet because the only dignity opened to man was such a restoration of his maimed soul with a divinity that felt no obligation to indicate its attention, the Puritan heritage often reflects anxious lives spent searching for ways to connect with an all-too-distant God, to fight the holy struggle with doubt, despair, and self-insufficiency that often eclipsed the remarkably successful struggle to coax a community from the Massachusetts wastes.
This spiritual hunger felt by Puritans struck Anderson deeply. Although he emphatically rejected the commercial misappropriation of Puritanism and its corruption into the Victorian "virtues" of sexual repression, dry intellectuality, and material acquisition, he did find use for Puritanism in its expressive hunger for communion, a hunger that so many of his Winesburg characters feel. "To the young man a kind of worship of some power outside himself is essential. One has strength and enthusiasm and wants...