Winesburg, Ohio shifts back to the present day (the early twentieth century). Joe Welling, the Standard Oil agent in Winesburg and the surrounding towns, is manically possessed by ideas and often “pounces” on random bystanders to talk. Despite his small size, the townspeople find his annoying presence overwhelming and impossible to ignore. After Joe’s mother dies, he comes to live at the Willard family’s New Willard House hotel. Joe believes his true destiny is to be a reporter and he is jealous of George Willard because he works for the Winesburg Eagle. He points out the physical decay around town that he is sure George has not noticed, exclaiming that the world is on fire.
Joe Welling’s peculiar nature and off-putting habit of engaging people in long diatribes causes him to be somewhat of a pariah in Winesburg. Rather than forming deep connections with people, he is merely tolerated as his bothersome presence is difficult to avoid. As a result, he is envious of the respected role that George Willard holds in the community. Joe’s conviction that everything around them is decaying reflects the deep and seemingly contagious sense of loss, paralysis, and deterioration that afflicts many townspeople in Winesburg.
Hoping to earn the townsmen’s respect, Joe decides to start a baseball club and coaches the team to a string of victories. He also begins a love affair with a woman named Sarah King that strikes the townspeople as “forced” and “unnatural.” The King family is ostracized in Winesburg due to their dangerous reputation, and Joe and Sarah’s relationship quickly becomes the foremost topic of gossip around town.
Joe’s newfound involvement in the community and his relationship with Sarah King are attempts to be genuinely respected by other men, since up until this point the people of Winesburg have largely dreaded his presence. Joe proves to be an effective baseball coach but his relationship with Sarah has the opposite effect that he intended, as the disparity between the two is an oddity that makes Joe even more bizarre in the eyes of the town.
Joe meets with Sarah King’s brother Tom and her father Edward at the New Willard House. George is terrified of the Kings, but Joe manages to win the men over by sweeping them off their feet “with a tidal wave of words” as he does with everyone else. Joe talks endlessly about a hypothetical doomsday scenario in which all the world’s crops are destroyed while he, Tom, and Edward leave the hotel to meet up with Sarah at the King house.
While Joe seems to win over Sarah’s father and brother, the connection he makes with them is no different than his relationship with other people in Winesburg. Tom and Edward are powerless to resist Joe, but they do not truly respect him or value his company.