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I said I wasn’t going to read criticism until I’d been all the way through Welty’s work at least once.  This doesn’t count, though, because it is an essay she wrote herself.  In my mind, it’s most definitely in the “her work” column.  It also offers interesting insight into her story “A Worn Path.”

 

She says this question of whether the grandson might be dead is the one she’s received the most from students and teachers.  Sadly enough, teachers are like that.  They all tend to talk about the same things.

Lucky for us, Welty got fed up enough to give us the answer to the question, which is a question in itself, “Why does it matter?” 

 

In her mind, she says, the child is not dead because everything we know about him we know from his grandmother, and the grandmother believes him to be alive.  Shouldn’t that suffice?

 

It’s an intriguing response.  I think it is even more interesting that she says it doesn’t matter if he is dead or not because either way the story doesn’t change.  I see her point, though I’m not so sure about that.  She also tells us, “The emotional value is the measure of the reach of the story.”  How the reader feels about it is what matters.

 

In that case, I’d say the reader might feel quite different about the story knowing the child is dead.  Phoenix’s laborious walk would certainly seem creepier to me.  Her reliability as a filter for the story would also be in question along with her sanity.  However, I do see what Welty means.  That’s not what this story is about.

 

The story is about Phoenix, not about the child.  It’s about her journey.  It’s about her love and dedication.  It’s about the hardship she willingly and methodically endures to provide for the child she loves.  It’s about the fact that she keeps going despite the odds for the sake of her love for this child.

It’s about lots of things, but it’s not about whether the child is dead, so says Miss Welty.

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This is the last story in A Curtain of Green.  I’ll be moving on to The Wide Net in the next few days.  I’m sure both of you who said you were going to buy a book and follow along will rush right out at that news.  Either way, there it is.  The Wide Net is next.

 

As for “A Worn Path,” this is one of those stories everyone uses to teach description.  It’s the narrative example in countless books, and for good reason.  If you are even thinking of taking up the pen, you need to read it and stand, sit, or lie prostrate in awe.

 

For example:

 

Her eyes were blue with age.  Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illuminated by a yellow burning under the dark.  Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper.

 

Top that.  Just try.  And to think it’s only the second paragraph.  It gets better from there.

 

Thus, it’s in all the composition readers.  The point is not to hold it up to say, “Look how good this is.  You could never hope to do the same.”  It’s more like, “Emulate this.  Come on, try.  Really try.  If you can approach this level of detail, and this level of wit in the sharing of it, you will have written something special.”

 

This is why I am a Welty devotee.

 

I’ll talk about the characters and events in this story later.  For now, just savor the words.

I’m not reading these stories for the purposes of literary analysis.  I’m reading them out of personal admiration.  But I did spend many years as an English major.  It’s possible something resembling analysis creeps in from time to time. That’s just not what I want to talk about today, not analysis from a literary critic’s perspective.  As much as I identify myself as a reader, I probably identify myself more as a writer, and Welty is rich in details for the writer’s eye.

 

This story, for example, has an interesting shift in point of view. 

 

There is a third person narrator throughout, but third person narrators are characterized by their distance to (1) the main character, and (2) the events in the story.  They can be marginally outside the character’s head, well outside the character’s head, marginally inside the character’s head, or well inside the character’s head.  Good writers tightly control this relationship and don’t go willy nilly disrupting the flow by suddenly having the narrator know what the character is think if that narrator hasn’t known all along. 

 

Welty’s writing is good.  She didn’t do anything willy nilly.  She didn’t disrupt her narrative, but she did change it partway through.  The narration starts out at a distance from Powerhouse and then moves closer in as if it is a camera lens zooming in.  We never go inside his head, but we do get a good picture of what he’s thinking from the dialog.  It’s as if we continue moving closer to him, becoming more intimate with him as the story progresses until we believe we can imagine what he is thinking.

 

Like a camera zooming in.  That’s what the technique reminds me of, and I’ve noticed it in several of her stories.  It intrigues me.

The salesman is dead at the end, though I had to read the last few paragraphs twice to trust my own judgment on that.  I thought Welty was trying to trick me and had just been ironic with her title.  Alas, I believe that while I might have been tricked, the salesman is indeed dead.

 

His heart gives out in both literal and metaphorical ways.  We are told at the end “his heart began to give off tremendous explosions like a rifle, bang bang bang.”  Since it has been jumping like a trout and setting off like rockets throughout the story, this is no real surprise.  Bowman is weakened by the flu.  He did well to make it as long as he did.

 

The “bang bang bang” nudges us toward the irony we know is there.  It’s reminiscent of the Civil War battles and a stark reminder of the discomfort Bowman has felt in the presence of Sonny and his Confederate jacket.  Sometimes, though, the only thing to fear is fear itself, and it isn’t Sonny or his prematurely old wife who hurts Bowman, but his own heart.

 

His heart is weakened by his illness and by his life of social disconnect.  He’s spent fourteen years moving from one rented room to another and “a month in which nothing had happened except in his head and his body.” Sonny and his wife life in isolation and live as remnants of another time, but they do have each other, and their human connection his more than Bowman can bear.

 

There is a sinister tone to this story, to Bowman’s suspicions, that leads to reader to suspect that his death will come through the ill intentions of these creepy Confederate leftovers rather than from his own heart—despite the fact that we are told continually his heart is out of control. 

 

I keep thinking Welty is verging on something that could be called Southern Gothic, but she stops short.  The South does have its freaks, but often they are harmless, she seems to say.  It’s the regular stuff that belongs to everyone we have to worry about.  Fear.  Loneliness.  Jealousy.  The fact of being human.  That’s what will kill us in the end.

It’s inauguration day, and I’m in my office listening to the radio.  I’m shuffling around at paperwork and the like, but I must admit I’m neglecting Welty in my inaugural distractions.

 

I don’t want to neglect her entirely, however.  My next story is “Death of a Traveling Salesman.”  I’ll probably blog it tomorrow.  For today, I just want to take a moment to admire Welty’s use of simile.  Like is a prevalent word in her stories, and this one is no exception.

 

A few examples from “Death of Traveling Salesman”:

 

–“Every time Bowman stuck his head out of the dusty car to stare up the road, it seemed to reach a long arm down and push against the top of his head, right through his hat—like the practical joke of a drummer, long on the road.”

 

–“He saw that his car had fallen into a tangle of immense grapevines as thick as his arm, which caught it and held it, rocked it like a grotesque child in a dark cradle, and then, as he watched, concerned somehow that he was not still inside it, released it gently to the ground.”

 

–“Then all of a sudden his heart began to behave strangely.  Like a rocket set off, it began to leap and expand into uneven patterns of beats which showered into his brain, and he could not think.”

 

–“Inside, the darkness of the house touched him like a professional hand, the doctor’s.”

 

She did have a unique way of seeing the world.  Next time I do a simile exercise for a writing class, I’m calling on her.

 

P.S.  My apologies to Mark Cox for using the title of one of his poems for the title of this blog post.  You should be able to read Mark’s poem here.

There isn’t much charity in this story.  The 14-year-old Marian goes to visit the “home for old ladies” to earn points as a Campfire Girl.  She carries a potted plant that one old lady calls a “pretty flower” and another calls “stinkweed.”  The nurse refers to it as multiflora cineraria.  In my ignorance, I had to look this up.  You can view a picture of multiflora cineraria here, and decide for yourself whether the debate as to stinkweed vs. pretty flower is justifiable.

 

Regardless, the act of required charity in visiting the old ladies only frightens Marian, and she ends up running out.  Not much of a plot twist there.  She goes.  She hates it.  She leaves.  The crux of the story, however, is in the interaction between the ladies.  They bounce off of each other, one continually negating anything the other says.  They turn what could be ordinary and boring into a visit that seems downright sinister to the girl. 

 

And in keeping with the irony of the uncharitable visit of charity, one of the ladies asks Marian for a penny before she goes.  Marian just shrugs away and runs, truly disturbed by the whole encounter.

 

There is nothing dangerous about these ladies.  They are just old, cranky, perhaps only semi-lucid, and frightening to the young girl who is left alone with them.  They certainly do nothing to inspire Marian toward a life of charitable acts.

 

I see Marian growing up to become charitable in the way the women of “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” are charitable—self-interested, worried about appearances, taking credit but not really allowing charity to absolutely impose on her.  In that way, I see the story as a comment on human nature, an ironic view of what charity means to more people than we might like to admit. 

 

That and a comment how frightened we are by old age as a society.  These old ladies are tucked away in a dark room Marian thinks of as a cave as if they are freaks of nature rather than simply old.  That’s the truest and saddest part of the tale.

Finally, in my daily reading I’ve arrived at the title piece of Welty’s first collection of stories.  The “Curtain of Green” is an overgrown garden, but like Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths” the garden is more than a garden.  I said I would try not to compare so much, but that one just slipped in.  My apologies.

 

At any rate, “curtain of green” could also describe Mrs. Larkin’s particular emotional miasma, which is in itself overgrown and perhaps over-tended in a peculiarly unproductive manner (at least by appearances) like the tangled garden she devotes herself to.

 

A widow who watched her husband die and who has shut out the town’s curious efforts toward consolation, Mrs. Larkin very nearly becomes a murderer.  Nearly, but not.  This is what I love about Welty.  The potential violence doesn’t have to come to fruition to make a good story, and it’s better, I think, when it doesn’t.  This is a story about grief that cannot be made orderly.  The fact that the widow lifts the hoe and considers dropping it on the head of the one person who still helps her in a moment in which the very nature of life and death makes no sense to her is enough. 

 

We would still sympathize with her if she had behaved violently in that one moment, but we can feel her sense of loss (and being lost) so much more acutely when she’s confused even by her own impulses.  We are told “and so helpless was she, too helpless to defy the workings of accident, of life and death, of unaccountability.”

 

We understand that violence could so easily be born from this kind of helplessness.  Then the rain starts, and she puts the hoe down.  That rain could be seen as cleansing, but it could also be seen as feeding the garden, the disarray of plants and emotions that are already beyond her control.

 

Mrs. Larkin has a long way to go to be done with this grief, but for now, one potential horror has been avoided.  That might be the best she can hope for.

 

The story is really a wonderful observance of human nature.  People tend to reach out to the grieving to make themselves feel better.  When they are pushed away, or when the grief refuses to become manageable, they tend to back off and quit trying.  That’s what’s happened here.  Mrs. Larkin isn’t letting anyone feel better—not herself and not the town.  Thus, the town is watching from distance, commenting on her oddities, but no longer participating in her sorrow.

 

All of this Welty manages to convey as she leads us through a description of the garden.  Once more, I can only say beautifully done.

Here we move from a story about a man who likes to read tales a terror to a story about a man who lives a tale of terror.  I find the flow from one story to the next in A Curtain of Green as compelling as anything.  I also find myself admiring Welty’s gift for the short story more and more.

 

In Howard, we find a character who does an absolutely horrific thing, yet we are still able to feel sympathy for him.  That isn’t easy for any writer to accomplish.

 

I don’t want to give the game away for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but Howard stabs the pregnant Marjorie to death.  I’m not even certain why he did it or if he understood what he was doing at the time.  It’s easy enough to gather that he’d been drinking, that he was out of work and out of options, and that he felt extremely pressured both by the fact that his wife was pregnant and that she was talking about his need for work.  The stabbing was impulsive at a point when his frustrations had reached their limit, when he was likely not in his right mind through drink or whatever else.

 

In the initial conversation when Marjorie starts talking about how Howard doesn’t want the baby, I first thought this would turn out to be reminiscent of “Hills Like White Elephants” with a little less anis.  As the conversations drifted into the couple’s desperation in having a baby with no means of supporting it, I thought it would become a tragedy more in keeping with Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.  Now I wonder if I should quit trying to compare every story I read to something else.  This one is wholly its own.

 

It isn’t even quite like the other Welty stories.  Unlike “Old Mr. Marblehall,” something definite happens.  Unlike “The Hitchhikers,” the act of violence profoundly changes the life of the protagonist.  Yet like other Welty stories, there’s no real moral judgment.  It is what it is.  He does what he does.  Whether he knew what he was doing or not when he plunged the knife into her chest, Howard does understand by the end that nothing can change the horror of her death.

 

And like other Welty stories, the craft is in the subtle ironies.  Marjorie picks a flower for herself at the beginning of the story.  At the end, Howard lets the roses he’s won trail behind him on the street for the neighborhood children to take as he leads the police officer back to Marjorie’s body.  It almost doesn’t matter if you can explain what that means.  You still have to admire the symmetry.

“Clytie” makes me want to break my self-imposed rule of not reading any criticism before I blog these stories.   I want to save the criticism for later after I’ve thoroughly immersed myself in Welty and formed my own opinions.  I do find myself wondering what others have said, though.

 

This is a suicide story, but it’s not so much suicide as it is a twist on the Narcissus myth.  Clytie kills herself staring into her own reflection in the water.  She does more than that in actually plunging her head into the barrel of rainwater, but it starts out as feeling mesmerized with her reflection.  Unlike Narcissus, she isn’t in love with herself.  She’s equally repulsed and fascinated.  She’s fascinated with her own face the same way she’s fascinated with everyone else’s, the difference being simply in degrees.  Her face is “the face she had been looking for, and from which she had been separated.”

 

This is Clytie’s mental illness, her obsessive fascination for faces.   I find it fascinating that Welty, who spend so much time focused on photographing the faces of the Depression, would have written this story.  There is a thin line between art and madness sometimes.

This story offers us some absolutely fantastic descriptions.  I love the image of the young girl holding her fingers up to her eye as a frame so that she might see the world as a painting, her daydreams of a boy she knows best from having touched his wrist in passing on the stairs, her observations of the people on the beach. 

 

This might be my favorite:  “She wore a bright green bathing suit like a bottle from which she might, I felt, burst in a rage of churning smoke.  I could feel the genie-like rage in her narrowed figure as she seemed both to crawl and to lie still…”

 

“A Memory” is really about the contrast between a child’s imagination and the reality of the world she must observe.  It’s about a memory rich enough in detail that it intrudes on her imagination, takes up permanent residence there whether she wants it or not.

 

Having read the stories in A Curtain of Green in order, this one is also interesting to me for the narrative structure.  It’s only the second story in the collection with a first person narrator, and she’s quite different from the other.  “Why I Live at the P.O.” is told from the point of view of a working class adult in a tiny Mississippi town.  It doesn’t leave the sense that a lot of time has passed between the events of the story and the telling of them.

 

“A Memory,” on the other hand, is told from the point of view of a child from a more privileged class, and it is told by her adult self.  This adult narrator is aware of the shortcomings of her youth. 

 

She says, “I was at an age when I formed a judgment upon every person and event which came under my eye, although I was easily frightened.”  She tell us this right away, so we know when she thinks the family on the beach is common and when she wishes they would die that these are the judgments she so easily made at that age.

We know she’s outgrown that kind of judgment over time, else she would not be aware of it to make the comment on her child-self.  We know too that this instance of feeling so uncomfortable on the beach probably helped her grow into a more self-aware adult.  It was important not for what happened but for what it taught her about herself.

 

We can all only hope to be so observant of both our inner and outer worlds.