THE LONELY VOICE #11: Eudora Welty, Total Bad Ass

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Greatest American short story writer? Ever? For me, it’s not even an interesting question. Welty in a landslide.

Why is she so magnificent? This is the best I can do: Eudora Welty is so good she can’t even be imitated. Consider all the Hemingway imitators, the Carver imitators, the Denis Johnson imitators, the Foster Wallace imitators, and so on. I’ve never read a story and thought, with the exception of Munro[1], here’s a writer writing under the influence of Eudora Welty. This is because Welty, shows us how to see – and not, thankfully – merely how to write in a certain distinct way.

Welty doesn’t even imitate herself, and show me a writer, even the best of writers, who doesn’t, at times, fall into this trap. Welty’s stories, even when they are set in the same place, among the same people, are always utterly distinct, each one its own completely separate universe. Most important: every one of her characters is an individual, irreplaceable and unforgettable. Think of Virgie and Snowdie MacClain in The Golden Apples. Think of William Wallace in “The Wide Net.” Think of Bowman in “Death of a Traveling Salesman.” Think of the assassin in “Where is The Voice Coming From?”

Still, I wonder if in spite of her legions of beloved readers and her worldwide fame, there doesn’t still hang about Welty something genteel. She’s that cute little old lady drinking tea on her screen porch in Jackson, Mississippi, writing her quaint stories. Oh, Eudora Welty, I know her! She wrote that story about that lady who lives in the Post Office. That one seriously killed me!

Young Eudora Welty

Writing about someone you worship too much is never a good idea, and I plead guilty of loving Welty too much. I should stop now. Yet, I’m going to forge ahead because I woke up this morning with an essential and inconvertible truth roaring in my ears: Eudora Welty is a total bad ass.[2]

Yet today’s Lonely Voice wouldn’t exist had not the managing editor of the Rumpus, the Maxwell Perkinseque Isaac Fitzgerald, called and asked me to write a new column. Asked? Fitzgerald begged. He said, If you could see my knees, they’re on the carpet buddy, for you, for you. What choice did I have but to come up with something fast? The man was desperate.[3]

But here’s my problem. I find myself in an unusual situation. At the moment, I’m on a remote island in South Carolina without a book of stories to my name. How is this possible you ask? The Lonely Voice without stories? Has he too gone over to the dark side where people only read (and write) novels because conventional wisdom (and certain major publishers) says short stories don’t sell?

The truth is I had a book of stories – an achingly beautiful one – Harvey Swados’s Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn.[4] I left it on the plane. I tried the goddamn 1-800 number for Delta’s lost and found division (a subcontractor with no link to Delta) about sixty times and got nothing but the recorded message.

So I’m here, in this undisclosed island location in the cradle of the confederacy, living in a house. It’s a very beautiful house, surrounded by tidal salt marsh. In the morning, I sit with my coffee and watch the blue herons make footprints in the clay. It’s also an extremely literate house. It contains many many shelves of books. Each room, more books. There are biographies, history books, Russian novels, some very interesting and scholarly works on the plants and birds of Low Country.  And not a collection of stories in sight. Not even an old underlined high school copy of Dubliners forgotten, dusty, having fallen behind a bookshelf in 1977.

So, dear Isaac, for you I had to do what I had to do. I’m writing this one based on shaky memory. If I make mistakes and misremember and thereby do injustice to my hero, my humble apologies to all my three readers (many thanks to Tony Donahue who has been a loyal reader of this column since the beginning) and the ghost of Eudora herself.[5]

***

I’m newish to the south. Yesterday, I visited the remains of a plantation. I took the driving tour. It was fascinating and I really enjoyed the loblolly pines and the palmettos (State Tree) and the many birds – the pine warblers and the yellow-throated warblers – and, like any good Yankee, sat through the whole thing with a scowl, annoying my host, and waiting for some tangible evidence of the slavery that built the place. It came near the exit. I quote from my guidebook:

To the right of the information kiosk, you will see the chimney of a slave house, the remains of one of many such dwellings that once dotted the property. We hope you’ve had a pleasant visit and hope to see you again soon!

This got me thinking about a story. I’m less prone to having an actual experience than I am to relating something I’m seeing to something I’ve read. Am I alone here? Needless to say some people find this habit very irritating.

So I looked at this forlorn, cabinless chimney squatting there in the dust, ringed by a chain link fence so people didn’t steal any of the loose bricks, and I didn’t think of the generations of women who might once have cooked meals in this very spot. Instead, I thought of Welty’s “The Burning.” It was if I needed Welty to help me see what I was seeing. Do you know what I mean?

“The Burning” is in her last full-length collection, The Bride of Innisfallen. Although the book contains some of her very greatest work, it got mixed reviews when it came out. Some people wanted to know where’s that quaint little Eudora of Why I Live at the P.O.? Because this shit is hard.

Hard, and also, the stories are, at times, brutal. Few stories about slavery have whacked me as much as “The Burning.”[6] It’s a chaotic story, set toward the tail end of the Civil War. Welty captures – in real time – how it feels to suddenly live in world that is utterly unlike the way it was yesterday. And so what we see is what her character’s see – which is, at least on a first reading, almost complete bedlam.

I wish I had a copy of the story in front of me but here’s what I still see in vivid colors: A union soldier riding a horse through the front door of a plantation house. That’s the first image in the story. This is followed by a crowd of newly emancipated slaves trailing the horse and rider into the mansion. A young girl, also a former slave, but still allied with the two matrons of the house – dances up to the front of the line with a message for Miss 1 and Miss 2. (I can’t remember their names.) The former slave’s name though, I’m sure, is Delilah.[7] What Delilah’s message was, I don’t know. What happens next is a confused tumult made more difficult by Welty’s giving us what’s happening from Delilah’s perspective.

The upshot is that the union soldiers have ridden into the house because they have orders from General Sherman to burn it down. Miss 1 and Miss 2 politely, daintily, refuse to leave. The soldier then gets off the horse, hands the bridle to Delilah, and proceeds to chase around Miss 2, the younger, prettier one. Then, right there in the drawing room, he either rapes her or attempts to rape her. Again, I could be literarily wrong about this, and I remember thinking, did what I think just happened happen? Because the language is all a jumble. Delilah is either shell-shocked by what she’s seeing or has, literally, no words to describe it. But I do know this for sure: the soldier falls upon Miss 2 and then we get her forehead banging against the floor. And I remember a description, after this, something along the lines of:

Miss 2 is asleep somewhere but not in her eyes.

Strange and oddly funny dialogue comes next, as Miss 1 attempts to revive Miss 2 after what the two might have simply called a “ravishing.” This is the uncomfortable thing about this story, and much of Welty’s work, you don’t want to laugh, you do laugh, you have to laugh. In this, Welty is Kafka’s true peer. And nowhere do I want to laugh less than “The Burning” and yet I always laugh. Delilah is hilarious – and this world is so off-kilter, even at times, wacky, you might think, if you miss what’s actually happening, that it’s solely a comic story. Ultimately though that’s exactly what it might be, depending on one’s definition of comedy.

But nothing here is quaint and the rape, or near rape, of Miss 2 conjures images of all the black women who were so often raped during (and after) slavery. Welty herself suggests this by having Miss 1 offer Delilah to the soldiers since she’s heard they like that sort of thing.

Now those soldiers aren’t kidding. They’ve got to get back to business. They’re going to burn the house to the ground on General Sherman’s orders. And I might say, Yankee that I am, burn it the hell to the ground. Only there’s a problem. Once Miss 1 and Miss 2 leave the house (Delilah herself is dragged) and the soldiers move toward it with their lit torches, it becomes alarmingly clear that someone is still inside the house. A baby, Miss 2’s – Phinny – who for some reason is always kept hidden out of sight upstairs.

The house, it burns.

In the second half we find Miss 1 and Miss 2 and Delilah wandering the smoking ruins of Jackson, Mississippi, which, like their house, has also been torched to the ground by Sherman.[8] The three of them point out landmarks, what had been at this corner, what had been across this street. Hey, there’s where the customhouse used to be! There’s where Miss Audrey’s house was! At this point in the story though, Miss 2 begins mourning Phinny. Delilah says maybe he didn’t even die, maybe he escaped. But Miss 2 knows this couldn’t be true. Then Miss 1 says something like, ‘Have you forgotten that our Phinny was black?”

Phinny: the great family secret. Miss 2 had a child with a slave. And it was better to let that child burn than suffer the humiliation of that truth in front of Union soldiers.

Miss 2’s response is deluded and comic and sick at the same time. There is, Welty seems to say, something inherently and terribly funny in the lowest possible human degradations. These lines I may actually be I’m quoting correctly:

He was white. He’s black now.

What concerned Welty above all was the essential humanity of her people – even at their most inhumane moments. Neither Miss 1 or Miss 1 are caricatures. Nor is Delilah. Welty couldn’t have written a caricature if she tried. Think about her great southern kinsman, Flannery O’Connor (who Welty herself admired). O’Connor, at times, seems to have the opposite problem. She couldn’t help but write caricatures, and they were often good ones. But Welty – never. She always gives us individual souls on the page. But you want Southern gothic, try this story.

I’m going to allude now to the ending so stop reading this if you don’t want to know it. “The Burning” concludes with an image so searing it almost makes you forget that amazing horse marching in through the front door. Yet if a story is re-readable, as all great ones must be, what’s it matter? Anyway, each time I read it, the end still surprises me.

All pretense of humor falls away in the last few pages – and yet, in its way, somehow, god only knows how – it’s still goddamn funny. It’s not only funny that Miss 1 and Miss 2 can’t live without power (such as any women had power in those days), it’s funny that neither of them can’t exist in a world they don’t recognize at all. It’s also funny that now they can’t even live with themselves given what they allowed to happen to Phinny. And, finally, it’s funny, that these two ladies can’t even kill themselves without having to climb up on Delilah’s back in order to reach the noose that Delilah, doing their bidding, has already hung from the high branch.

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[1] Munro, who rarely writes non-fiction, once wrote a tiny appreciation of Welty that appeared in the Georgia Review years ago. All she could do was throw up her hands and quote.

[2] And she makes other story writers with bad ass reputations look almost domesticated by comparison. Jesus’ Son? Solid, loved it, and I like my drugs as much as the next guy. But there are times I got to have it in the gut, when I need to know what its truly like to live in the brain of another person, and so, Welty.

[3] I lie. Isaac didn’t call. He texted. And what he said, translated from text language, was, Orner, you got any of those short story ditties lying around? We’re running low on content, need some filler. (Hey Isaac? Is there any way to do a footnote of a footnote?) Because this isn’t true either. What he wrote was, We’re actually fine on content, we have more than enough content, the Rumpus is on a serious roll, but there are times we need to run original content at off times… I’ll take what I can get. And besides, I need the cash, and at the Rumpus, as you know, the pay’s good.

[4] I highly recommend this book. Swados was of the greats, and a real live socialist to boot. The title story alone (not about socialism) is worth the book. Maybe, if I ever get that call back from Delta’s subcontractor, I’ll write about it.

[5] By the way, no Internet or computers on this uncharted island either. A handwritten version of this column was delivered to the Rumpus via a network of unidentified couriers who made their way across the country to San Francisco via a fleet of black Econline vans. Also, I don’t know about you, but I can’t seem to read fiction online. I need that flesh made paper in order to feel anything.

[6] Right now I can only compare the experience of reading about slavery in “The Burning” to certain novels: Faulkner’s Go Down Moses, Johnson’s The Middle Passage, Morrison’s Beloved, and Jones’s The Known World.

[7] I remember this because of that lady on the radio, Delilah, who makes you feel better about your love life and plays a song that will help you face tomorrow with a smile on your face. You know who I mean? Plays a lot of light rock? Last time I read “The Burning,” I thought, right, Delilah, like that lady on the radio…

[8] By the way, I’m told by my host that Sherman didn’t burn Charleston, South Carolina because he had a Confederate babe there.


Peter Orner’s most recent book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and was named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal. 2014 will mark the 5th year of the Lonely Voice column on the Rumpus. More from this author →