Elmer Cowley is the son of the owner of Cowley & Son’s store, a place that Will Henderson once described as “selling everything and nothing.” As a newcomer in town, Elmer is intensely resentful of George Willard and imagines that the young reporter can hear everything being said in his family’s store. He takes out his wrath for George on two traveling men who are making a business deal with his father Ebenezer, pulling a gun on them and demanding that they leave the store. Elmer’s father is left perplexed at his outburst.
The bizarre nature of the Cowley & Son’s store makes the family an oddity in the Winesburg community. Already alienated by his family’s reputation, Elmer Cowley’s outburst and threat of violence in his father’s store makes himself into even more of a spectacle.
Elmer leaves Winesburg to go walking out in the country along the railroad tracks. He passionately declares that he will prove himself to George Willard. Elmer has no reason to hate George but views the young man as representative of the town where he feels ostracized. He believes that George, as the only newspaper reporter in town, must have influenced Winesburg to condemn the Cowleys as strange and unlikable. Elmer, who has made no friends during his first year in Winesburg, assumes that George must always be happy and self-assured.
Elmer’s blind resentment of George Willard is revealed to be rooted in his perception of George as the epitome of Winesburg. Having failed to make friends during his first year in town, Enoch is incredibly lonely and is sure that George has never felt this way. Paranoid that George’s reporting has somehow influenced the community’s lackluster opinion of the Cowley family, Elmer makes him into the de facto object of his hatred.
On his walk, Elmer becomes cold and turns off into the woods to build a fire. He sits in the warmth for two hours and then makes his way out of the underbrush to find that he has come upon the farm where he grew up before moving to Winesburg. Elmer convinces Mook, his family’s old farmhand, to sit by the fire and listen to him rant about his frustrations. Elmer complains about his family’s “queerness” which makes them stand out in Winesburg and wishes that he could return to his simple life on the farm where he did not worry about what other people thought of him. Again, he pins his angst on George Willard and vows that he will stand up to him.
Elmer’s encounter with his family’s old farmhand serves as a point of connection with his past. This conversation, however, only leaves Elmer feeling more distraught at the alienation he experiences in Winesburg compared to the peaceful, contented life he led on his family’s old farm. As a result, his unfounded rage toward George grows deeper and he vows to seek justice.
Back in Winesburg, Elmer marches into the Eagle office and demands that George follow him outside. The two boys walk through Winesburg and George (unaware of Elmer’s secret resentment toward him) is delighted that he finally has the opportunity to befriend the newcomer whom he has been curious about. Suddenly, Elmer turns on George, yelling at him to leave him alone. He spends the next three hours wandering through the streets, feeling defeated and furious that he could not stand up for himself.
The blind hatred that Elmer feels toward George prevents him from ever realizing the ironic truth that George is actually the one person in Winesburg who does not preemptively judge him and his family. Whereas George innocently hopes to befriend him, Elmer’s resentment stands in the way of the connection he so desperately desires.
Elmer, distraught over his failed confrontation, robs twenty dollars from his father’s store and decides that he will run away from home. He plans to hop a train to Cleveland and start a new life there, free to work and make friends without his family’s “queer” reputation hanging over him. Inspired with newfound hope and confidence, Elmer decides that he will challenge George (and, by proxy, all of Winesburg) before he leaves.
Like several of the other teenagers in town, Elmer believes that escaping Winesburg is his only means of finding happiness and fulfillment. His vision of finding a job and making friends in a new city suggests a deep desire for independence and a fresh start away from the preconceived notions attached to his family name.
Elmer goes to the New Willard House hotel and demands that the night clerk wake George and send him downstairs. Again, Elmer is too flustered to speak his mind and instead confesses to George that he robbed his father’s store and hands over the money. In a fit of rage, he attacks George, relentlessly punching the boy until he is “half unconscious.” Elmer then hops on a passing train and leaves Winesburg, full of pride and assuring himself that “I ain’t so queer.”
Although Enoch finds pride in the fact that he was finally able to stand up for himself, his robbery of his father’s store and violence toward George are senseless acts. While he believes that beating up George proves that he is respectable, his underlying motivations are not clear to anyone but himself.