Analysis of Sherwood Anderson’s I Want to Know Why

“I Want to Know Why” is a coming-of-age story by Sherwood Anderson that first appeared in November 1919 in H. L. Mencken’s avantgarde magazine Smart Set and was later anthologized in the collection The Triumph of the Egg, published in 1921. It was reprinted in Redbook in 1937 and was included in collections of Anderson’s short stories published in 1947, 1963, 1982, and 1993. Judy Jo Small suggests that the story grew out of several of Anderson’s own adolescent experiences, citing the author’s personal passion for horses and recalling events that occurred at Saratoga and Churchill Downs racetracks during the 1918 racing season.

In “I Want to Know Why,” a young man, the unnamed protagonist of the story, relates events that occurred a year previously, just before his 15th birthday. Trying to sort out how these events have impacted his life, the boy initially experiences only confusion and desperation in his struggle to comprehend their meaning. In order to get on with his life, he believes he must find the answer to the title question, a query that challenges many teenagers even in today’s modern-day society.

Growing up in Beckersville, Kentucky, the young man is fascinated by horses and horse racing, and despite his father’s prestigious position as the town lawyer, the son dreams solely of being part of the racetrack environment, even trying to stunt his growth by eating cigars in the hope of becoming a jockey. His disappointment at the failure of this effort is evident immediately as the story begins, and the sad mood continues to dominate his feelings as he relates the past events that have so impacted his existence.

Sherwood Anderson/ Imogen Cunningham

Since his jockey dreams seem destined to be dashed, the boy continues to hang around the stables and the racehorses, hoping that his close attention to the scene will serve him well even if he cannot be a rider. As he learns the ropes of horse racing, he especially hones his instinct and appreciation for the animals, initially relying on a black stablehand named Bildad Johnson, who gives the inexperienced and callow youth a deeper awareness of equine beauty and motivates a spiritual appreciation of horseflesh that approaches worship.

The central event of the story occurs when the boy and three of his friends hitch a freight train to see a horse race at Saratoga Downs, New York, where Sunstreak, a stallion, is competing against a gelding named Middlestride. The boy roots for Sunstreak, sensing that the horse represents something in him, a sexual awareness that is simultaneously joyous yet painful.

The stallion’s courage, strength, grace, and vitality become even more moving when the young narrator realizes that his sensitive perceptions about the horse are shared by Sunstreak’s trainer, Jerry Tilford. When the race finishes (Sunstreak’s victory is a forgone conclusion), the narrator desires to be near the trainer, whom he has come to idealize. He seems to transfer his love for the horse, whom he wants to kiss, to the man. Later, however, when he discovers Tilford in an old farmhouse that is really a brothel, the boy is shocked to discover that his heroic figure (almost a surrogate father) treats the prostitutes of the whorehouse with the same sense of awe and admiration that he gave the stallion. For the boy, this seems a real betrayal.

The sensuous but “ugly” and “mean” setting of the brothel is described as “rotten” by the boy, and he is sorely disappointed and disgusted by the lust and blatant sexuality that he observes firsthand as he peeks into the window. He wants to scream and rush into the room and disrupt the proceedings and even kill Tilford. Instead, he retreats into the darkness, and after a night of sleepless unrest, he heads for home, confused and upset by the events he has witnessed. He is no longer an innocent adolescent but has gone through some rite of passage he cannot comprehend.

A year later, as he relates how the past has impacted him, the boy acknowledges that suddenly the air at the tracks now no longer tastes as good or smells as good as it did before. Tilford’s actions reflect the corruption inherent in all men, and the initial magical allure of the horses has suddenly diminished. The racetrack fantasy has burst, and the narrator feels betrayed by a man he had previously admired and with whom he had identified.

The sexual content of the story seems sublimated even as teenage sexual longing must sometimes be repressed. The beauty and excitement of racing and an almost perfect equine specimen are somehow equated with masculine sexual urges, and Sunstreak, while remaining a virile stallion, ironically becomes a representative of a beautiful girl that the narrator wishes he could interact with sexually.

When Tilford’s spiritual appreciation of Sunstreak (a trait he shares with the narrator) is compromised by the sexual lust for the opposite sex that the boy observes in the brothel, the narrator suddenly comes face to face with his confusing feeling about sex and becoming an adult male. Unfortunately, there are no clean-cut, easy answers to this dilemma of adolescence, and the turmoil the boy experiences is merely representative of the complexities he will face when he has left his childhood innocence behind.

Because of the immediacy of its first-person narrative, readers can easily sense the difficulty the speaker has in expressing what he has observed. His vague childish descriptions of what he has seen seem inadequate and even inaccurate; similarly, his confusion of the meaning of life is typical of Anderson’s concern with what it means to be mature. No longer having the option to be naive and inexperienced, the young man can only lament as the story closes: “That’s what I’m talking about. I’m puzzled. I’m getting to be a man and want to think straight and be OK.” By wanting to know the why of what has happened to him, the narrator indicates that even though he struggles to understand, he has begun to face the obligations and realities of adulthood.

The critic Ray White credits Anderson with introducing “the honest use of sex into American literature,” and this story seems especially to stress an expression of latent homosexual longing within males that causes much distress and questioning. Anderson’s biographer, Kim Townsend, relates this sexual confusion to the author’s relationship with his mother, whom he idealized and worshipped, forcing him to direct his brutish sexual desires away from women and toward more masculine figures. Townsend even goes so far as to suggest that Anderson thus sought spiritual communication with men, fearing that his sexual urges would debase and defile heterosexual contact and detract from the purity he saw in the feminine. Shifting his desire to men thus precluded his using women and was a way of finding purity in friendship with no sexual undertone present. Ellis’s reading of the story speaks of Sunstreak as the embodiment of the feminine idea—beautiful and lovely and yet hard all over—suggestive of his masculinity. Since the narrator is attracted to this hardness, says Ellis, a homosexual undercurrent is being explored in the story’s subtext, explaining why the boy expresses a desire to kiss both the horse and the trainer, saying, “I loved the man as much as the horse.”

No wonder then that Ellis concludes that the boy is angered when he sees Tilford in a sexual embrace in the brothel. Identifying the prostitute as like the gelding Middlestroke but “not clean,” the boy is frustrated when his budding sexuality seems rejected by Tilford in favor of the whore and when his affection seems unreturned and his passion somewhat sullied by the choice the trainer makes.

The onset of adulthood and its attendant sexual awakening and confusion creates in the narrator, and perhaps created in Anderson himself, a feeling that male-to-male attraction is unacceptable, despite the ambiguity that presents itself in longing for what is forbidden. Ellis concludes the boy, in true Oedipal fashion, wants to kill his pseudo–father figure since his attraction to Tilford causes distress and engenders the title question that is left unanswered. If this is the real issue of the story, Anderson may be struggling with how to think “straight” and “become a man” even when one’s most primal urge suggests the appeal of the masculine bond and an aversion to the “corruption” men visit upon women by lust. Readers who discover this interest in “I Want to Know Why” will truly understand why the narrator’s questioning only begins in earnest a year after the event, and why the answers to his questions may still be a long time in coming.

Ellis, James. “Sherwood Anderson’s Fear of Sexuality: Horses, Men and Homosexuality.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 4 (Fall 1993): 595–602.
Papinchak, Robert Allen. Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Small, Judy Jo. Readers’ Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.
Townsend, Kim. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
White, Ray Lewis. The Achievement of Sherwood Anderson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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