Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Curtain of Green by Eudora Welty

Source of book: I own this.

Interesting fact: Eudora Welty lived in the same house in Jackson, Mississippi. from the time her family moved there around when she finished high school until her death at age 92. (She did move out for part of her college education, but returned.) That’s pretty rare these days. 

A Curtain of Green is Welty’s first collection of short stories, published in 1940. I noticed immediately that her writing resembled that of Flannery O’Connor, another Southern short story writer. I looked it up, and Welty predated O’Connor by nearly a decade. (Inquiring minds want to know this sort of thing.) I also noted some resemblance to the small town tales of Sarah Orne Jewett, who wrote in the late 1880s. All three had an eye for personal relationships, the countryside, and the beauty, truth, and occasionally terror of the small town life. (Jewett wrote about New England, thus potentially influencing Robert Frost.)

Even more than that, Welty is one in a long line of authors that wrote short stories that might be called “local sketches,” as my wife put it. It wasn’t just women, although many were. Mark Twain, Guy de Maupassant, and in his own way, Edgar Allan Poe wrote in this vein. In addition to her short stories, Welty also wrote longer works, winning the Pulitzer for The Optimist’s Daughter.

There are some rather dark stories, but also some that are humorous (“Why I Live at the P.O.” for example) and others that give a kind portrait of decent people. Welty’s South isn’t really the South of the rich yet decayed plantation - it’s the impoverished South, complete with unemployment, racial tensions, and making do. The darkest tale, “Flowers for Marjorie” is almost a reverse portrait of an O Henry relationship, where the couple turns against each other during hardship rather than coming together.

Another theme that runs through the stories is that of the outsider. I was surprised at the number of characters which suffer from some sort of mental or physical disability. In “Lily Daw,” a mentally slow woman is alternately encouraged to enter an asylum and to marry the man that desires her. Welty does an excellent job of portraying the callous way we tend to treat those we view as “retarded.” She had a keen ear for the sort of dialogue by which we dehumanize the disabled.

I also loved the portrayal of the African American jazz musician “Powerhouse,” in the story that bears his name. Again, she is able to bring out the nuances of conversation, the realities of show business and of segregation, and uses minor incidents to show personality. 

I can't help but imagine Louie and his larger-than-life stage presence as a model for Powerhouse.

There are many examples of creative word pictures and descriptions. One that I particularly liked was in “The Key.”

He looked home-made, as though his wife had self-consciously knitted or somehow contrived a husband when she sat alone at night.  

Not only does this evoke a particularly idea of the man’s appearance, but it also hints at the relationship as it emerges later in the story.

One more note on this. Welty would be an excellent example for aspiring writers of which details are important, and which are not. I think she does an exceptional job of making every small item described important to either plot or character. Nothing is wasted.

It’s interesting when an author writes about his or her own writing process - or how they came to write. Thus, it is intriguing to read “A Memory,” in which (assuming the story is true and not fictional) Welty describes how she first began to see people as the characters she would later write. Welty does not glorify this awakening. Rather, she is harsh - almost brutal - on her younger self for her complete lack of compassion.

I was at an age when I formed a judgment upon every person and every event which came under my eye, although I was easily frightened. When a person, or a happening, seemed to me not in keeping with my opinion, or even my hope or expectation, I was terrified by a vision of abandonment and wildness which tore my heart with a kind of sorrow. My father and mother, who believed that I saw nothing in the world which was not strictly coaxed into place like a vine on our garden trellis to be presented to my eyes, would have been badly concerned if they had guessed how frequently the weak and inferior and strangely turned examples of what was to come showed themselves to me.

Later in this story, she describes being at a local beach, and seeing this group of strangers:

Sprawled close to where I was lying, at any rate, appeared a group of loud, squirming, ill-assorted people who seemed thrown together only by the most confused accident, and who seemed driven by foolish intent to insult each other, all of which they enjoyed with a hilarity which astonished my heart. There were a man, two women, two young boys. They were brown and roughened, but not foreigners; when I was a child such people were called “common.” They wore old and faded bathing suits which did not hide either the energy or the fatigue of their bodies, but showed it exactly.

Throughout the story, these people revolt Welty, and yet her revulsion disturbs her greatly. This does appear to be the germ of her particular genius. Many of her characters are unsympathetic, and yet, she has learned empathy in those years since her childhood. She still notices the quirks, the physical and emotional unattractiveness, the unkindnesses they often show each other. Yet, she views with love more than disgust. I think particularly of the last story in the book, the one that is probably the best known, “A Worn Path,” which misses no line and crease, and yet is a compelling portrait of self-sacrifice.

This sense of compassion is also apparent in Welty’s photography. She worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, and her photographs of Southern rural poverty during the Great Depression dovetail nicely with her writings. Both give a sympathetic while highly realistic and perceptive view of her native Mississippi and its inhabitants. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post! One of my in-town book clubs picked The Optimist's Daughter (for some reason I keep saying Optometrist's Daughter) in July, and it's nice to read this before I start it.