Eudora Welty, “The Optimist’s Daughter” (1972)

In Eudora Welty’s final novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, she remains in the realm of memory and the legacy of family relations, the focus of most of her novels.  Rather than the sprawling, institutionalized families of Delta Wedding and Losing Battles, this novel is written on a much smaller canvas.  Welty is interested primarily in how on woman, Laura McKleva Hand comes to terms with her father’s death, his remarriage to a sexually aggressive (and to Laura threatening) woman Fay, and her past.  Again, like the other two major family epics Welty wrote, this one is uses a family event as its setting.  Here it is a funeral that allows the major character to revisit her family history and memory.  We again find a central tension between the family (represented by Laura) and an outsider (here represented by Fay).  It is more complicated in this novel than in Losing Battles, where the outsider, Judge Moody, was clearly outside of the group.  In The Optimist’s Daughter, Fay was brought in by the family patriarch.  While Laura and many other attending the funeral assume Fay is an outsider and treat her as a golddigger, we learn that their terse rejection of Fay is based much on class prejudice and probably the sexual threat Fay poses.

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Part one of this short novel covers Laura’s return to the South from Chicago to aid her father through a relatively minor eye surgery.  There she meets her younger step-mother Laura, who she immediately dislikes in large part for her seeming disinterest in her father’s well-being, which only reinforces the narrative Laura constructs of Fay as a gold-digger.  Laura cares for her father during his recovery but he dies.  Part two covers the family reunion brought on by the funeral.  The central part of the novel, stretching into part three covers Laura’s deep nostalgia for the past.  Here we are in familiar territory, again navigating the suffocating past.  For Laura it is a bit more innocuous and distant than it was for characters in Welty’s other novels.  Laura can always return to Chicago.  She can appreciate her past but always return to Chicago without the visceral tyranny that family history can so often bring to our lives in the form of memories, personal obligations, family expectations and traditions.  Laura has escaped and this makes her harsh rejection of Fay rather disingenuous.  The family mocks her and even assumes that her rapid return to her hometown in Texas involved among other things sex with other men (disgracing the memory of Judge McKleva).  Fay, who actually lived in the home, navigated the relationships, and was the Judge’s companion since their marriage, might have a stronger claim to membership than the more distant Laura.  Laura can take in nostalgia like a tourist, without many of the psychological burdens.  Laura will return to Chicago more conscious of who she is, with a deeper appreciate of her family, but she seems to have lost her claim as a member of the family.

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Laura even works to help destroy some of the memories of her father.  She burns some of his letters, but in the next page scolds Fay for damaging her mother’s breadboard.  Fay’s response is properly liquid, “Who wants an everlasting breadboard?” (987)  When Laura repeats and expands her attack to include the entire house that she “desecrated,” Fay correctly points out that Laura has no claim to the house and its memories.  Gold-digger or not, Fay had made that house her own.  Laura, however, is unwilling to accept her position as a tourist.

In her final thoughts, Laura essentially comes to agree with Fay and correct her nostalgia to be in line with her actions.  She is, after all, having this debate about who owns the rights to the house at the same time that she is returning to her home.  “Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.” (992)

Perhaps it is here that we can find a proper solution to the oppression that family, tradition, and nostalgia impose on us.  Any claim that memory and the past has to control us is ultimately a lie.  Any such control is self-imposed.  Memory is there to serve us, not to dominate our actions and emotions.  The lesson I am going to take from reading Welty’s novel is not that far from my conclusions to The Robber Bridegroom.  That novels’ power rested in its flexible use of folklore and tradition.  By remaking a Grimm tale into a frontier American setting, Welty undermined the ability of folklore to control our interpretations of the past.  Our families and our own minds constantly craft new folklores all the time.  The mistake we make is in assuming that a permanence and transcendent power to those tales.

 

 

Eudora Welty, “Losing Battles” (1970)

Losing Battles works as a mirror image of Delta Wedding in some fascinating ways.  Eudora Welty is still working within the tradition of Southern literature’s family drama.  In both novels, a private family gathering becomes a introduce the complex relations within a community of related people as well as their family culture, traditions, values, and idiosyncratic tendencies.  The family here, the Beecham and Renfro clans, is economically marginalized in contrast the Delta Wedding‘s Fairchilds, who were members of the Southern aristocracy.  Welty shows that it does not matter what side of the class line you sit on.  Family can always be an oppressive force in your life, stamping out individualism.  In both tales, the inward perspective of the family has a purpose to protect the family.  Being at the top of the social hierarchy, the family in Delta Wedding‘s obsession with purity and maintaining the integrity of the unit seems odd.  The Beecham’s, a family under real threat, carefully protects itself, creating a political narrative of their victimization.  They go so far as to defend incest within the family from the attack of powerful outsiders.  On the surface, the Beecham’s are more sympathetic than the Fairchilds, but nevertheless, we are reminded by Welty that family is the source of our identity and one of the hardest shackles to free ourselves from in our search for freedom.

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The situation is a family reunion concocted to celebrate the 90th birthday of the family matriarch Elvira Jordan Vaughn.  Almost immediately we know we are in the realm of poor whites.  We hear about the installation of new tin roofs, we see girls wearing homemade clothing that is passed down from older sister to younger sister (identified by the fading colors), and women working at home maintenance.  In Delta Wedding all the real work was done by the background characters identified only as “the Negroes.”  It is a more delightful and alive setting.   “Now there was family everywhere, front gallery and back, tracking in and out of the company room, filling the bedrooms and kitchen, breasting the passage.  The passageway itself was creaking; sometimes it swayed under the step and sometimes it seemed to trembled of itself, as the suspension bridge over the river at Banner had the reputation of doing.  With chairs, beds, windowsills, steps, boxes, kegs, and buckets all taken up and little room left on the floor, they overflowed into the yard, and the men squatted down in the shade.  Over in the pasture a baseball game had started up.  The girls had the swing.” (444)

The central couple in this tale is Jack Renfro, Gloria Renfro, and their 2 year old daughter Lady May.  Jack is scheduled to get out of jail the day after the birthday party, an unacceptable proposition, so he flees his confinement and returns home a day early, again breaking the law.  Jack feels he was unjustly punished by the Judge Oscar Moody.  Gloria turns out to be Jack’s cousin.  Their daughter, who Jack had not seen until this day, shows none of the signs of genetic defects that encouraged the state to ban such marriages.  The clan is much bigger, with many stories to tell, but the Renfro couple provides enough for us to see that this is a family that is in opposition to the law.  They have their own way of working in the world.  In a sense, they function like the intentional communities that were so popular in U.S. history (something I have not yet had much reason to write about).  The worrying thing is that although transgressive in respect to the external legal authorities, such organizations tend to be internally quite oppressive.

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Jack returns in triumph in time for the reunion and tells a story of how he helped a man free his car from a ditch.  Jack learns that this man was Judge Oscar Moody.  Jack returns to the road to undo this act or take back the good act.  The plan goes awry and with some comic splendor, Welty describes how Moody’s car ends up stuck on a roadside sign.  They are unable to get the car down of receive any help.  Jack eventually invites the Judge over to the home.  This sets up the main tension in the novel, which is the encounter between the legal realm of the state government and the moral economic realm of the Beecham/Renfro clan.  While the rest of the family is not happy about the invitation, they can use Judge Moody and his wife’s arrival to complain about how their family has been mistreated by the powers that be.

As we learn in Lexie Renfro’s story about Julia Mortimer, the clan can be very oppressive to individual expression and even cruel when faced with the suffering of an outsiders.  It is in this sense that they are not so unlike the Farchilds, aloof to anyone outside of their community.  Lexie was taking care of Julia in her final days but abandoned her to attend the reunion (Julia’s funeral is the event that brought the judge to the town).  Before this, Lexie physically and psychological abused her patient.   More troubling is the acceptance and even tacit approval given by everyone else for Lexie’s abusive actions.

In the final sections of the novel we hear more stories from different members of the family, but we also see the voice of the state (Judge Moody) express himself.  While embracing the strict objectivity and legalism we would expect from a servant of the court, we also learn that his position allows him to empathize with outsiders to the clan (such as the scorned and abused Julia Mortimer).  While the family insists that Jack was wrongfully convinced and that they had the correct narrative of the trial, we have real reason to doubt their objectivity.  Their approach is subjective, as we suspect are the internal logic, history, and policies of all large families.  The Judge, in a sense, is less a voice of the state than a possible perspective on a universal morality.  In the last section of the long novel, when asked about her religion, Judge Moody’s wife says: “I’m neither one [Methodist or Baptist], and gladder of it every minute.” (847)

I am not sure this is an easily resolved tension.  I do think it is likely that without some form of legal apparatus, we are likely to descend into clannish or tribal mentalities.  This is not a defense of the state, as much as it is a criticism of whatever it is that leads us to create oppressive or Byzantine systems at the local level.  I, for one, find the logic at work in families like the Beechams, Renfros and Fairchilds horrifying.

Eudora Welty, “The Ponder Heart” (1954)

While Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding was set in a rather odd subculture of an elite Southern family, the Fairchilds, and seemed to function by its own absurd and sociopathic rules, the much shorter The Ponder Heart actually exists within social institutions.  The Ponders are no less wealthy than the Fairchilds, but the story exists on a larger canvas despite its smaller size.  The plot covers Daniel Ponder’s attempt to give away all of the family’s wealth and the resistance to these acts by the Ponder’s family.  In order to struggle against Daniel Ponder’s spendthrift ways, the Ponder’s rely on social institutions, most notably the asylum, marriage and the courts.  We can thus read this novel in a pretty straightforward fashion as a discourse on the use of these social institutions by those of power to maintain their wealth.  The novel is a brief comedic sketch of the various failures of these efforts, but the reality of elite use and misuse of such institutions is not at all funny.

 

The narrator is Edna Earle Ponder, who is one of the people trying to restrain Daniel’s good heart so it is not clear what motivated Daniel’s generosity.  From the perspective of the narrator, Daniel is a simpleton, insane, or simply incapable of restraint.  He is however, presented as a good person.  “Still the sweetest, most unspoiled thing in the world.  He has the nicest, politest manners — he’s good as gold.” (341)  Essentially, she sees him as a child. Only a child would make such foolish choices with the family fortune.  Daniel seems to have progressed in the opposite direction from a corporate kleptomaniac.  While the contemporary thief may start small (thieving wages from employees, sneaking money from the tip jar) before moving onto the bolder plans that involve hostile takeovers and government bailouts, Daniel started by giving away small things.  What worried his family was that he started to become interested in giving away big things, “property.”  “Grandpa was getting plenty old, and he had a funny feeling that once property started going, next might go the Ponder place itself, and the land and the crop around it, and everything right out rom under Uncle Daniel’s feet, for all you could predict, once Grandpa wasn’t there to stop him.” (343)  It is likely that his desire to give away his wealth was a product of his intense sociability.  This is Edna’s first observation about her uncle Daniel.

Daniel is, however, wealthy.  He can give away money without concerns for the consequences because he has plenty more to surrender to friends and acquaintances.  Charity, generosity, and the social power they provide for philanthropists are themselves products of income inequality.

When private means of securing wealth fail, the Ponders turned to the typical institutions of control for help.  The successive failure of these efforts is the comic material at the heart of the novel.  The asylum picks up the wrong Ponder.  The attempt to marry Daniel Ponder to a widow (who will presumably help keep an eye on the family’s wealth) fails because Daniel instead marries Bonnie Dee Peacock, “a little thing with yellow, fluffy hair.”  (352)  By putting Daniel on an allowance, the banks are able to prevent him from exercising too much generosity.  Still, this marriage finally kills off Sam Ponder (Grandpa).  The final attempt to confine Daniel’s generosity comes after the unexpected death of Bonnie Dee.  The trial ends with an acquittal and Daniel gives away all the money.

Welty clearly sees these social restraints as ineffectual as they are systematically defeated – not trough Daniel’s skill as it seems to be witless – by their own incompetence.  Daniel bumbles his way to victory because of the more epic failures of those around him.  While this is a bit too optimistic in my view.  Courts, asylums, banks, marriage and other human institutions have done a very good job of sustaining an inequality in wealth and preventing just the very thing that Welty imagines (a wealthy person of conscious and generosity).

 

Eudora Welty, “Delta Wedding” 1946: Nostalgia, Family and Freedom

Eudora Welty’s novel Delta Wedding is a focused examination of the Fairchild family, members of an elite clan in Mississippi, brought together by the wedding of Dabney and Troy.  Through a variety of points of views, we actually get a fairly complete picture of this family despite the narrow setting and focused canvas that Welty works through.  The feeling of nostalgia runs strongly throughout the entire novel and like the characters the reader cannot help but come to the conclusion that family relations, family expectations, and family history is one of the most significant barriers to human freedom.  Only one character, George Fairchild, has proven capable of breaking out of these binds.  While most of the other characters are selfish, stuck in a rut, or obsessed with former memories, George is open and more projetural.  However, following all of the characters, their relationships, and their histories was difficult.  I am not sure if the idea of the novel is to make the reader feel as overwhelmed and claustrophobic as the characters seem to be.  We are existing in a feudal realm, where individual happiness takes a second seat to the family’s honor, social status, and pride.  It is actually amazing anyone is acceptable to bring into this insane group of self-centered and obsessive people (I almost wrote “individuals” but with few exceptions they barely qualify).  They even take on a similarity that works to separate them from everyone else.  “All the Fairchilds in the Delta looked alike — Little Battle, now, pushing his bobbed hair behind his ears before he took up a fresh drumstick, looking exactly like Dabney the way she would think at the window.  They all had a fleetness about them, though they were tall, solid people with “Scotch legs” — a neatness that was actually a readiness for gaieties and departures, a distraction that was endearing as a lack of burdens.” (102)

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The centrality of the Fairchild family (indeed, it is bordering on solipsism)  is suggested in the way the narrator discusses the black servants who surround the Fairchilds.  They are referred only to as “the Negroes.”  Even when looked at in a bit more detail, they are still given to us without fully developed identities that they can call their own.  The Fairchilds exist in their own realm and any outsider exists only to serve them (and to be wary of as with Troy).  They are, of course, heavily dependent on others, but I doubt many of these characters would admit that dependence.  “The whole family but Papa and Mama, and ten or twenty Negroes with us, went fishing in Drowning Lake.” (107)  Troy, an overseers of sorts, working with the field hands has a closer awareness of the black workers on the plantation.  It might be for this reason that the Fairchild’s are a bit hostile to him.  With a few exceptions they are in the background.  “All the windows were full of black faces, but the family servants stood in a ring inside the parlor walls.” (300)

Dabney certainly would like to escape this velvet prison.  “Sometimes, Dabney was not so sure she was a Fairchild–sometimes she did not care, that was it. . . . It would kill her father — of course for her to be a Fairchlild was an inescapable thing, to him.” (120)  Only George provides a clear model as he has saw more of the world, married against his family’s wishes, and was able to avoid even looking like a Fairchild.  At one point Dabney even idealizes her Uncle George  just by observing how he sat.  “She saw Uncle George lying on his arm on a picnic, smiling to hear what someone was telling, with a butterfly going across his gaze, a way to make her imagine all at once that in a moment he erected an entire, complicated house for the butterfly inside his sleepy body.  It was very strange, but she had felt it.  She had then known something he knew all along, it seemed then–that when you felt, touched, heard, looking a things in the world, and found their fragrances, they themselves made a sort of house within you, which filled with life to hold them, filled with knowledge all by itself, and all else, the other ways to know, seemed calculation and tyranny.” (121-122)

We are thus in this clear dilemma between the family culture (“calculation and tyranny”) and individual liberty.  What is clear is that in the world of the Fairchild’s it is not really possible to have both without basically becoming like Uncle George, who all see as a bit of an outsider due to his decisions.  Is there a solution?  I simply do not see it at least not for this psychopathic culture of the ruling class, seen through the eyes of these Fairchilds.  It is unfortunate that we can only observe this world through their eyes.  It made the novel almost unreadable for me.  It seems, I cannot even visit the minds of people like the Fairchilds without the feeling of nausea.  Maybe the families of the non-elite, less obsessed with boundaries, family history, or status, can be more open.  Delta Wedding is a good gift to give someone desiring to marry into wealth.  It will remind them that it is simply not worth it to navigate such psychopathy.

Eudora Welty, “The Robber Bridegroom” (1942)

 

 

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Another week, another Library of America volume.  I picked at random someone I never read before, Eudora Welty.

There is something worthy of respect in re-telling folklore for a new time.  Folklore tends to provide fated characters who are doomed to follow the same path with each re-telling.  As often as we invent new contexts for the story the main trajectory of the characters is bound.   It takes some real creativity to manage to stay true to the story while also retelling it in a fresh way.  The way Eudora Welty does this with The Robber Bridegroom is by combining the classic German tale with American folklore.  The story is of a young naive woman, kidnapped by robbers, who escapes only after witnessing the brutal murder (and literally consumption) of another woman.  When she is able to retell the story when the robber returns to collect his finance, she is able to retell what she saw, providing evidence in the form of a severed finger and golden ring, the robbers are put to death.  This story is unlikely to get a Disney version, but Welty does give it an American version by placing it in the U.S. South in the eighteenth century and filling it with mythical figures, most notably Mike Fink – the great riverboat pilot.   I could not help notice the inclusion of a “innocent planter,” which I am certain was also a mythical figure of American folklore although perhaps Welty was not conscious of it.

Mike Fink

Mike Fink

Another tall-tales of the United States.  The kind and benevolent planter.

Another tall-tales of the United States. The kind and benevolent planter.

Welty borrows much that is familiar from readers of the Grimm tale: bandits in the wood, cruel and jealous stepmothers, doting and loyal fathers, the repetition of tales, the intervention of animals with inside knowledge, and naive young women.  It is all placed in a identifiable American setting.  I do not know if this is a testament to Welty’s brilliance or a reflection on the structural similarities in folklore (a Jungian approach), or maybe a deeper influence of Germanic story-telling in American folklore.  In any case, it is a captivating and entertaining tale.  The effect is that we can be truly surprised at the outcome even if we are familiar with the source tale.  It also breaks free of the deterministic trap in the retelling of such stories.

Welty is able to cram a lot of story into this short novella.  In the opening chapter, the planter Clement Musgrove, stays in an inn, sharing a room with two men who turn out to be Mike Fink and Jamie Lockhart (who turns out to be the famous “Bandit of the Woods” but sustains an alter-ego as a respectable man).  Lockhart saves Musgrove from Mike Fink’s attempt to murder and rob them.  In response Musgrove helps secure Lockhart’s passport and tells him his story.  After a brutal Indian attack, Musgrove’s son, wife, and friend die.  He remarrys to his friends surviving wife, aptly named Salome.  His true love is for his daughter Rosamond.  In the next chapter (harnessing Grimm) we find Salome brutally exploiting her stepdaughter on a daily basis.  While out collecting herbs, Rosemond is attacked by the Bandit of the Woods, who steals all her clothing.  Observing this is Goat, a local dimwitted man who Salome bribed to kill Rosemond.  Musgrove finds Lockhart and asks for his help in rounding up and killing the Bandit.  In the center of the novel are several conflicts that need to be resolved.  Rosemond fascination and love for Lockhart along side her observations of the horrible acts of his gang, Goat’s love for Rosemund and attempts to take Jamie’s place, and the rise of Little Harp – the most brutal member of Lockhart’s gang all complicate the central act of the novel.  The force that forces a resolution are the Indians.  It is a very American plot device that pulls us out of the Grimm-style tale and return us solidly to American folklore.  To make this even clearer we see Mike Fink return at the end, outcast for his earlier failures.  He returns Rosemund to reality by telling her that Jamie Lockhart has died.  This seems to be read as the famous bandit, for the respectable persons (“a gentleman of the world in New Orleans”) survives and fathers twins of his own.

Welty tests the limits of the moral absolutism of the classical fairytale.  While in the original tale, the robber bridegroom is completely odious and finds a well-deserved death at the end, Jamie Lockhart is redeemed.  Even Mike Fink finds a degree of salvation despite his boorish and thieving introduction.   Far from becoming a classical morality tale, Welty’s version of The Robber Bridegroom contains plenty of frontier-era moral ambiguity.  As Clement Musgrove says when coming to terms with his capture by Indians. “Wrath and love burn only like the campfires.  And even the appearance of a hero is no longer a single and majestic event like that of a star in the heavens, but a wandering fire soon lost.  A journey is forever lonely and parallel to death, but the two watch each other, the traveler and the bandit, through the trees. . . . Massacre is hard to tell from the performance of other rites, in the great silence where the wanderer is coming.  Murder is as soundless as a spout of blood, as regular and rhythmic as sleep.” (69)  Whatever we are supposed to make of this, it is not a message of moral certainty.  When hesitating to kill the dualistic Jamie Lockhart Musgrove says: “But since in addition [to being a bandit] he loves my daughter, he must be not the one man, but two, and I should be afraid of killing the second.  For all things are double, and this should keep us from taking liberties with the outside world, and acting too quickly to finish things off.  All things are divided in half–night an day, the soul and body, and sorrow and joy and youth and age.” (61)

A final thing I would like to say about Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom is the importance of names.  Several of the names have symbolic significance.  Characters, especially Mike Fink and Jamie Lockhart are easily offended when others fail to recall their names.  Mistaken identities play a role in at least one plot point.  I would need to revisit the Grimm tales, but I recall many nameless figures and archetypical stock characters (the villainous stepmother for instance).  Perhaps in translating these tales to the more individualist and democratic United States, she had to insist on the importance of individual identity.  I am not sure how this ties into the more flexible moral universe of the novel.  Perhaps given the democratic, frontier, morally-ambiguous world Welty is trying to present, our name is the only solid thing we have.  Even Mike Fink finds himself expelled from his group and temporarily losing his status as folk hero.