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In this story, we meet Jenny, who is violated, ruined, etc, etc, by a young man named Billy Floyd who is only passing through and for whom she feels a great and mysterious love.  Everything happens around the time of her grandfather’s death, which serves to heighten the poignancy of the story.  Like all else Welty, however, the real draw is in the language—the absolute lyricism, the pure, sharp insight into the human spirit.


Consider this passage:


She walked in the woods and around the graves in it, and knew about love, how it would have a different story in the world if it could lose the moral knowledge of a mystery that is in the other heart.  Nothing in Floyd frightened her that drew her near, but at once she had the knowledge come to her that a fragile mystery was in everyone and in herself, since there it was in Floyd, and that whatever she did, she would be bound to ride over and hurt, and the secrecy of life was the terror of it.


Jenny hangs on to this deep thoughtfulness about her love despite Billy Floyd never showing much in the way of consideration for her.  When he moves on, she follows him after a time.  The story ends with her waiting for him, a smile on her face the likes of which make children ask if she is dead.  No doubt nothing good can came from that.  I’m not sure Jenny will be deterred either way.  She seems willing enough to love with no encouragement or assurance.  She seems pulled that strongly toward the mystery of it all.


These are random lines from the short story “Livvie.”

This was the way he looked in his clothes,
a different and smaller man, holding
his Bible. Like somebody kin to himself.

He was the same to her as if he was dead,
far away in his sleep—small, relentless,
and devout. Outside, the ground
scarred in deep whorls, every vestige
of grass patiently uprooted.

Even old men dreamed
about something pretty.

Like a commotion in the room,
the frogs sung out. In Solomon’s face,
came an animation that could
play hide and seek, that would dart
and escape, had always escaped.

The mystery flickered in him,
invited from his eyes, frightened her
a little, as if he might carry her
with him that way,
when he might be going to die.

She could be so still she could not
hear herself breathe. She did not think
of that, tasting the chicken broth
on the stove, gently as if not to disturb
some whole thing he held round
in his mind, like a fresh egg.

Now I lay eyes on a young man,
Old Solomon far away in his sleep,
walking somewhere where she could
imagine the snow falling.

The lady in the purple hat is a mystery, an institution, a ghost at the Palace of Pleasure in New Orleans.  We know this because the fat man at the bar tells us so.  We know he’s seen her killed three times. We know he’s seen her series of young men, who always seem to be the same young man, over a period of decades.  We know the hat is ancient and fascinating, that she always wears the same one, and that it and fashion have no purchase with one another.

We know so much.  But we don’t know if she’s really a ghost because the fat man says at the end he’s going to tell us that tomorrow.

Fun story with lots to talk about.  Is this Welty’s version of the Gothic?  She said didn’t appreciate being called gothic, but she seems to have had some fun with New Orleans style myth-making in this story.

Is the fat man a reliable narrator?  That, children, is a good question.

The Asphodel Meadows in Greek Mythology were the underworld home of the indifferent.  In Welty’s story, Asphodel is a ruin whose one time occupant, believed to be dead, is spotted alive, ancient, naked, and herding goats.  Don McInnis was an unfaithful husband.  That probably qualifies him as among the indifferent.  The three old ladies who tell the story of his marriage and supposed death through their conversation are picnicking at Asphodel.  That and the goat herding probably qualify it as a meadow.  So in this story we find a quirky little tribute to the Greeks.  Classic.

So a preacher, a murderer, and an artist go down the Natchez Trace…

And from there we get three views of the same still moment, the beauty of three men with three purposes stopped by the presence of one snowy heron.  Until, of course, the bird-watcher Audubon shoots the heron so that he can attempt to draw it more precisely.


James Murrell, the outlaw who would have murdered the preacher but is instead left behind by the other two men after the killing of the bird, thinks, “he was proud of the dispersal, as if he had done it, as if he had always known that three men in simply being together and doing a thing can, by their obstinacy, take the pride out of one another.”


Audubon, the bird-watching, bird-killing artist, thinks:  “He knew that even the sight of the heron which surely he alone had appreciated, had not been all his belonging, and that never could any vision, even any simple sight, belong to him or to any man.  He knew the best he could make would be, after it was apart from his hand, a dead thing and not a live thing, never the essence, only the sum of the parts; and that it would always meet with a stranger’s  sight, and never be one with the beauty in any other man’s head in the world.”


And from Lorenzo Dow, the itinerant preacher, we get this:  “He could understand God’s giving Separateness first and then giving Love to follow and heal in its wonder; but God had reversed this, and given Love first and then Separateness, as thought it did not matter to Him which came first.  Perhaps it was that God never counted the moments of Time; Lorenzo did that, among his tasks of love.  Time did not occur to God.  Therefore—did He even know of it?  How to explain Time and Separateness back to God, Who had never thought of them, Who could let the whole world come to grief in a scattering moment?”


One moment, three experiences.  And that’s what this story is about.

I’m calling this “Part 2” as if there had actually been a part one.  I like it that way.  I’m doing it.

Yesterday I mentioned that this is one of the funniest stories ever.  It is.  And like Welty’s “Petrified Man,” another of the funniest stories ever, it all comes down to the dialogue.  The woman just had these people pegged.

William Wallace Jamieson and his friend Virgil engage in a steady flow of lines like “What she knows ain’t ever killed her yet” and (in reference to why Hazel might have drowned herself after her husband stayed out all night) “she was waiting to take advantage.”

Even innocuous lines like “I was always scared of the Malones…too many of them” had me laughing. There are a lot of Malones around here, you know.

Then there is the wise doctor who, when Virgil notices that William Wallace is enjoying dragging the river for his potentially drowned wife, says, “The excursion is the same when you go looking for your sorrow as when you go looking for your joy.”  And there it is…our nugget of meaning we’re left to ponder in the wake of the humor.

Maybe we’re even meant to ponder like Edna Earle of Welty’s Ponder Heart might.  She enjoys a sidebar moment in “The Wide Net” when Virgil says, “She’s a lot smarter than her cousins in Beulah…And especially Edna Earle, that never did get to be what you’d call a heavy thinker.  Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the ‘C’ got through the ‘L’ in a Coca-Cola sign.”

Good stuff.  Funny stuff.  As previously suggested, read it!

This first story in the collection The Wide Net is about a boy who watches Aaron Burr as he dances and conspires his way through Natchez in the days leading up to his trial, a trial from which Burr escapes at the last minute by disguising himself in part with the boy’s boot polish. It’s one of those “what happens off stage in history” stories. It’s intriguing to imagine how a charmer like Burr might have been seen by the boot polishing boy in a small river town.

I’m as intrigued by how Welty sees the river. She has some great lines about it:

“The Mississippi shuddered and lifted from its bed, reaching like a somnambulist driven to go to new places; the ice stretched far out over the waves.”

“There was one hour when the river was the color of smoke, as if it were more a thing of the woods than an element and a power of itself.”

And so on…

If I were feeling a little less lazy this morning (and if I’d had a little less cold medicine) I would look up when this story was written in relation to The Robber Bridegroom. Welty obviously went through a time of fascination with the territorial days of Natchez. We can all be grateful.

May 2020