Anderson, Sherwood. "I Want to Know Why".
The story is told retrospectively by an unnamed first-person narrator, aged fifteen at the time of the events, now about a year older. He explains why he writes the story: ‘I’m puzzled. I’m getting to be a man and want to think straight and be O.K., and there’s something […] I can’t figure out’ (p. 150).
The narrator lives in Kentucky, in a small town called Beckersville. He loves all about thoroughbred horses. He grew too big to be a rider and he cannot become a stable boy either, because this is a job done by black men. He comments: ‘I wish I was a nigger. It’s a foolish thing to say, but that’s the way I am about being around horses, just crazy’ (p. 149). He therefore decides to be a trainer or horse owner. His father shows more understanding for his inclinations than his mother, who would for instance not have him get up early in mornings and walk several miles in order to watch horses training on tracks scattered around the town. The father however lets the narrator go as he likes. The narrator loves these trips: ‘Nothing smells better than coffee and manure and horses and niggers and bacon frying and pipes being smoked out of doors on a morning like that’ (p. 151). He can always tell which horse is the winner because he feels a lump in his throat whenever he sees such a horse.
He tells a story featuring himself and his three friends, Hanley Turner, Henry Rieback and Tom Tumberton, all white boys from Beckersville, somewhat younger than the narrator. They share their love for horses. Henry Rieback’s father is a well-off professional gambler, which is the reason why the other boys are discouraged from mixing with him. The narrator’s father, a lawyer with a modest income, is the only not to say anything against him. The narrator initiates a trip to the big race course for thoroughbred horses in Saratoga Springs, New York. The parents would not allow the boys to go, so they run away and make their way to Saratoga on freight trains. They soon come across an acquaintance, the black man Bildad Johnson, who works as a cook during the racing season, so that he can attend the races, and spends winters working at Ed Becker’s livery barn. Bildad accommodates the boys, feeds them and promises to keep still. The narrator likes niggers more than white men because ‘[y]ou can trust them’ (p. 150).
The boys spent in Saratoga six enjoyable days with fine weather and great horses. On returning, the narrator was received with reproaches from his mother, his father however did not say much. The narrator told his parents all what they asked him, he only kept one thing secret from them. He was the only witness to the incident and it is this very incident that keeps on puzzling him. Unlike the other boys, the narrator went to the paddocks before every race, even though he risked being caught and sent home. He was to the paddocks also before the big Mullford Handicap which featured two potential winners, Middlestride and Sunstreak, both excellent horses but each with different qualities. The narrator discovered that the trainer of Sunstreak was one Jerry Tillford whom he knew from Beckersville. He watched Jerry preparing his horse for the race and suddenly he knew that Sunstreak would win. His eyes met the eyes of the trainer and the narrator saw that Jerry felt and knew the same as he did. Sunstreak won the race, beating the world’s record for a mile, and Middlestride finished as the second.
The night after the race the narrator followed Jerry because he wanted to be near him: ‘I was just lonesome to see Jerry, like wanting to see your father at night when you are a young kid’ (p. 154). He did not hope to spot him at all but he accidentally discovered him and some other men going in a rummy farm house, a whorehouse in fact. The women in there were ugly and unclean, the place smelled rotten and there was rotten talk. The narrator was shocked to hear Jerry bragging about his success with Sunstreak, as if he had won the race and not the horse. He was furious when he saw Jerry looking at one of the hard-mouthed woman with the same sparkle in his eyes which he had when he looked at Sunstreak before. The narrator hated Jerry when he went to kiss the woman. He ran away and could not sleep for what he saw. The incident keeps on haunting him. He still loves all about horses but it is different now: ‘I keep thinking about it and it spoils looking at horses and smelling things and hearing niggers laugh and everything’ (p. 155). The narrator still fails to understand Jerry’s action. He wants to know why.
The experience of the teenage narrator can be seen as a painful transition from innocence to experience. The boy lives in a world which comprises mainly himself and horses, women are not included as yet. The narrator’s frustration with Jerry’s action springs from his ignorance of the workings between men and women. The narrator briefly feels a deep bond established between himself and Jerry on the basis of their shared love and understanding for the winning horse. The bond is brutally broken by the woman who intrudes between them and whose coarseness debases what the narrator felt as an elevating spiritual experience. To the narrator, women are definitely not part of the world of men and horses, which is also manifested in the figure of his uncomprehending mother in contrast to his more lenient and understanding father.
The story offers a notably favourable portrayal of ‘niggers’ as seen through the eyes of the young narrator. The boy associates black men with horses, which is one obvious reason why he likes them. This relation can be developed further in that the narrator sees blacks as trustworthy, natural and without deceit or artifice. Horses can be described in similar terms. The story however does not provide any deep psychological insight into the nature of black people, it is naturally limited by extent as much as by the point of view of the inexperienced narrator.
AuthorAnderson, Sherwood. (1876 - 1941).
Full Title"I Want to Know Why".
First PublishedIn: Smart Set, 1918.
Anderson, Sherwood. ‘I Want to Know Why’. 1918. Antologie americké literatury. Ed. Josef Jařab. Praha: SPN, 1985.