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Friendship and Sympathy: Communities of Southern Women Writers.

Edited by Rosemary M. Magee. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. 326 pp.;

Recent work in American Literature has Added an element of self-consciousness to any discussion of regional writing, particularly when such a discussion is crossed with issues of gender as well. These titles, published by the University Press of Mississippi and Louisiana State University Press, will become part of the ongoing conversation about gender, region and literary canons; they place writing by Southern women against larger American or European traditions, or they argue for more complex definition of the tradition of Southern letters. While none of these volumes engages very deeply the connections of race, gender, and region, all of them offer insights into the significance of place in the writing of fiction and all provide opportunities for us to rethink the meanings of Southern literature.

Taken together these volumes indicate the variety of writing by Southern women and some of the ways their fiction resists neat categorization by gender,

region, or style. The conversations with Elizabeth Spencer reflect on topics as various as her relationship with Eudora Welty, her residence in Montreal and in Europe and its effect on her work, and her recent experience as a playwright. Friendship and Sympathy shows us the multiple connections among various Southern women writers from Ellen Glasgow to Ann Tyler. Miles Orvell's critical study of O'Connor and Brian Rosenberg's study of Mary Lee Settle place these writers in European as well as American literary traditions. Writers as cosmopolitan as Spencer and Settle and as deeply dyed in Catholic theology as O'Connor challenge any simple definitions of Southern literature and any simple characterization of women's writing. Yet these studies show how all these writers perforce have made their way in a context that calls attention to region and gender.

Orvell's Flannery O'Connor: An Introduction and Rosenberg's Mary Lee Settle's Beulah Quintet, when taken together, allow us to chart the continuity of these concerns with gender and region at the same time that they reveal the changes in critical paradigms since the 1960s. Orvell's study was first published by Temple University Press in 1972 under the title Invisible Parade, and it remains a thoughtful and just reading of O'Connor's work. Rosenberg wishes to provide for Mary Lee Settle the same critical service and defense that Orvell provided for O'Connor -- he wishes to explicate her major themes and forms, to place her work in the context of various traditions, and to urge its significance. Intent on these goals, Rosenberg nevertheless engages theoretical questions about the nature of historical fiction and explicitly attends to the complexities of canon formation. These issues themselves point to shifts in critical practice since Orvell first published his study of O'Connor twenty years ago.

Orvell's study of O'Connor, like O'Connor's own work, essentially vas developed within the parameters of New Criticism, generously understood. It concentrates on central thematic and formal elements of O'Connor's work, though its concluding chapter discusses O'Connor's relationship to her audience with the aid of Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction. Orvell remarks in the new preface to his book that O'Connor herself came to understand fiction within New Critical assumptions: "Coming of age at a time when the premises of the New Criticism very largely held sway in academic literary culture, Flannery O'Connor -- herself a product of a graduate writing program -- wrote stories and novels that are exceedingly (sometimes excessively) well made. Each of her works, as she declared, has a |central meaning and design,' and it was her habit |to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design.' Because of this extreme authorial control, the texture of an O'Connor story -- despite the casually witty, at times even artless storytelling voice of the narrator -- is often bristling with pointed significance" (p. x). Orvell clearly delineates the central meanings and designs of O'Connor's novels and stories, and thus his book remains one of the best introductions for readers and students new to O'Connor's fiction.

From the point of view of critics of Southern literature, who by now have repeatedly encountered the central meanings of O'Connor's small canon, Orvell's rhetorical discussion of O'Connor retains a lasting interest. Were he to rewrite this study in the 1990s, Orvell might well plunge more deeply into reader-response criticism, but his rhetorical approach as it stands highlights the issues raised by O'Connor's theology for readers of her fiction. Orvell observes in his introduction that he was doubly an outsider as a reader of O'Connor -- an agnostic and not a Southerner. And yet Orvell contends, rightly, that this gave him a useful perspective on O'Connor's fiction, not least because she herself was something of an outsider in the Southern culture of the 1950s.

With attention to the design of O'Connor's fiction, Orvell asks good questions about its designs on us. What are its demands, particularly its dogmatic demands? Where does O'Connor's design create resisting readers? Orvell isolates these. points of resistance in terms of O'Connor's assumptions about life and morality:

When we balk, as readers, at accepting the image before us, it is usually because

O'Connor has violated too deeply certain ingrained assumptions about man's life

in attempting to direct our judgment of a character or situation. One does not necessarily

have to be an atheist to resist some of these occasions, and I will state baldly

what I think arc the premises underlying them: first, the belief that death can be

a good thing for a person; second, the belief that a character who toes not believe

in Christ cannot, with any consistency, perform "good" deeds; and third, the belief

that a character who believes in the devil (who accepts, in other words, the theological

election, though not himself necessarily of the right party), regardless of the

evil he does, still has a certain saving grace. Let me add that I am positing these

views not as elements of Catholic doctrine or necessarily as formal articles of O'Connor's

faith but drawn from the fiction. (p. 177) Though Orvell might have avoided doctrinal arguments by omitting the term "election," he points clearly to the problems for many readers in stories like "The Lame Shall Enter First." And he describes the strength of O'Connor's best work as being achieved within the ambit of New Critical virtues. O'Connor's best work balances "plausible realism" with the paradoxes and mysteries of her belief. In these instances "the form is not overly contrived, the irony is not overly obvious, the satire is not overly strident" (p. 180).

While he is attentive to the ways readers might resist O'Connor's doctrines or assumptions about good and evil, Orvell is less concerned with the ways race, or gender, or class might create other points of resistance for other readers than himself The growth of these concerns in the last twenty years was evident for me in my response to Orvell's language; an occasional passage brought me up short and made me realize how accustomed I have become to a more gender-neutral language in critical writing. Who is writing here, I wondered, when Orvell observed that "|Parker's Back' evinces a confidence in handling that is indicative of the writer who is sure of himself and his materials" (p. 171). Were he writing in the nineties, of course, a somewhat different sense of his own audience might have impelled Orvell to a different critical language and to an even lengthier consideration of reader responses.

Orvell alludes in his new introduction to Alice Walker's essay on O'Connor, "Beyond he Peacock" (collected in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens and in Rosemary Magee's Friendship and Sympathy), and it is interesting to place Walker's responses to O'Connor beside Orvell's. In many ways it is precisely O'Connor's "outsider" status that makes her work valuable for Walker. Walker agrees with Orvell that the "essential O'Connor is not about race at all, which is why it is so refreshing, coming, as it does, out of such a racial culture. If it can be said to be |about' anything, then it is |about' prophets and prophecy, |about' revelation, and |about' the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don't have a chance of spiritual growth without it" (Friendship and Sympathy, p. 181). At the same time, Walker records her early pleasure in O'Connor's demystifying depiction of Southern white women. "When she set her pen to them," Walker writes, "not a whiff of magnolia hovered in the air (and the tree itself might never have been planted), and yes, I could say, yes, these white folks without the magnolia (who are indifferent to the tree's existence), and these black folks without melons and superior racial patience these are like Southerners that I know" (Friendship and Sympathy, p. 180). Walker distinguishes O'Connor's early from her late work, not on the basis of its structure, but as reflecting an ever greater distance from racial stereotypes; O'Connor, Walker argues, becomes reluctant to depict the "inner workings of her black characters," and so she "leaves them free, in the reader's imagination, to inhabit another landscape, another life" (Friendship and Sympathy, p. 180).

As orvell's and Walker's reading experiences attest, O'Connor's work at its best both directs our judgments of human limitation and leaves our imaginations a space outside the work. As Walker vividly imagines it, O'Connor herself was inside and outside the Southern culture of her day: "I can imagine O'Connor at a Southern social affair, looking very polite and being very bored, making mental notes of the absurdities of the evening. Being white [and middle class] she would automatically have been eligible for ladyhood, but I cannot believe she would ever really have joined" (Friendship and Sympathy, p. 175).

As Brian Rosenberg presents her work, Mary Lee Settle is also an insider and an outsider in Southern culture. Both through her extended periods of residence abroad and through the choice of genre and form in the Beulah quintet, Settle resists convenient canonical, historical or "gendered" categories. As she says in the interview Rosenberg presents as an appendix, "you cannot call me a southern novelist; you cannot call me a women's novelist. I like that" (p. 154). Moreover, Settle takes European fiction as crucial to her sense of her work. "Essentially," she told Rosenberg, "I began to write with a European sensibility. Although there are American works and European works, to me they're all the same. I don't care what county you write about, whether the county is Surrey or Albemarle" (p. 154). Settle's subject and her language reveal complex origins. Settle experiments with the historical dimensions of language in her quintet, casting the story in Prisons for example as much as possible in the idiom of the seventeenth century.

Interestingly, Rosenberg's interview with Settle reveals a mix of British and American idioms in her own speech. Settle acknowledges that, like many writers, she avoids reading work that influences her while she is writing. The tradition Settle names reveals the European roots of her work and the impact of British English on her language. "I've too keen an ear," she says. "It scares me how easily I could pick up stylistic tricks. I read in between books. . . . I'll read a whole favorite writer just for the pure pleasure of it. All of Conrad, who is my favorite, my |grandfather.' And Hardy. I tend to like nineteenth-century novels. Some twentieth-century. I've read Proust over and over again. Maison Rendezvous of Robbe-Grillet to me is a model for what I'm working on now. The almost unbearable intensity in that book is just marvelous. But a lot of times what you learn from isn't necessarily what you like especially, I would have to avoid every one of those when I'm working, lest I imitate them" (p. 152).

While he briefly discusses Settle's connections to Hardy, Rosenberg is more interested in arguing for the place of the Beulah quintet in the context of English and European historical fiction. He wishes to describe the historical vision and passion with which Settle connects person, family, politics and region, and he repeatedly compares her historical interests and her intellectual and moral earnestness to that of George Eliot. Rosenberg acknowledges that such earnestness is either out of fashion or does not comport well with recent critical vocabularies -- a Lionel Trilling or a George Henry Lewes, he argues, might have believed Settle's concerns of obvious importance; to many contemporary critics, Rosenberg argues, her moral vision is simply irrelevant.

Rosenberg's most interesting work here, apart from his thematic and formal discussion of the novels, is to locate the ambiguous position of the historical novel in the United States and to show how Settle's novels demand a place that does not exist. While Orvell discusses how O'Connor's work furthers the traditions of American romance, Rosenberg discusses the ways Settle's historical fiction resists it. Contrasting Scott with Cooper and Melville, Rosenberg discusses how American romance traditions can deny the contingencies of history, the concrete and specific past. The romance eschews historical contingency in part to argue for the break between the old world and the new, in part to elide those aspects of America's past which are more violent than heroic. In American historical fictions, those we commonly think of as associated with the romance tradition, "historical setting functions to separate the hero from familiar man by locating him in the past and to authenticate him through association with actual events and culture." But in American romances as opposed to European historical novels the actual events lose their detail; the events of 1797 are less important to Billy Budd than the Highland uprisings are to Scott's Waverly novels. In this century, American historical fiction has had a divided course which, again, cannot reach the compromises of the European historical tradition. Rosenberg concludes: "at a loss for how to distinguish between history and fiction" American writers "have opted to write historical fiction that either openly proclaims or utterly disguises its fictionality. Writers who subordinate fact |to a mythic or highly personal view of history' and who grow naturally out of the nineteenth-century mythic tradition include Faulkner, John Barth, John Hawkes, Doctorow, and Thomas Pynchon." At the other extreme Rosenberg locates John Dos Passos, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Truman Capote, who record history "with as much accuracy and as little imaginary embellishment as possible" (p. 40). Between these two poles is the tradition of the European historical novel, Settle's tradition.

Rosenberg does not deal explicitly with the possibility that taking up this older tradition may implicate Settle as a kind of anachronism in the minds of her contemporary -- or postmodern -- readers. But Rosenberg does discuss at length the ways Settle resists both American ways of writing historical fiction and the European tradition as well. He argues, "If one keeps in mind that the beliefs and methods of classic historical fiction have rarely been brought to bear on American experience, that these methods have almost always been used in the service of a conservative ideology, and that many novelists in this century have called into question the viability of historical fiction itself, then the quintet must appear, at the same time, both unusually responsive to tradition and unusually resistant to the pressures of expectation and convention" (pp. 40-41). In fact, Rosenberg contends, Settle recreates European and fundamentally conservative traditions of historical fiction from an American perspective, a perspective repeatedly analyzing the relationship of individual to culture, and the relationship of freedom and revolution. Settle insists on research, on fact, to avoid both historical relativism and "the mythologizing that is characteristic of both American historical fiction and the cultural memory of the American south" (p. 42). Rosenberg traces these concerns in the novels through Settle's allusions to the story of Antigone and Creon. Settle's fiction examines the relationship between the two as the balance between freedom and order. Settle "focuses more on the forces of rebellion than on the forces of control," but not to extol the rebel as a "great man," instead to evaluate again and again the price and the meanings of freedom.

Rosenberg's work is admirable in its seriousness and the breadth of its historical and critical analysis. Occasionally the analysis could be more subtle in its treatment of British antecedents, distinguishing for example between early and late Carlyle or between Eliot's historical thought and that of Carlyle or of Ruskin. In his discussion of contemporary fiction, Rosenberg might have expressed more optimism about the canonical space for Settle's kind of historical fiction had he considered the generally positive critical reception of George Garrett's Death of the Fox: A Novel About Ralegh or Richard Powers's Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance. On balance, though, Rosenberg's treatment of the conventions of historical fiction and his discussion of the evolution of Settle's work should go some distance among scholars in enlarging Settle's audience and enhancing her critical reputation.

Elizabeth Spencer has not had the same difficulties finding a sympathetic audience as Mary Lee Settle, and Peggy Whitman Prenshaw's collection of interviews with Spencer indirectly illuminates the reasons why. Spencer's discussions of her own and others' fictions reveal the ways she values common language and experience and at the same time attends to matters of craft. Though Spencer, like Settle, suffered to an extent from readers identifying her with her early work, especially The Light in the Piazza, she has developed and retained a significant critical and popular following.

Spencer's attentiveness to community and to friendships emerges clearly in these interviews as does her commitment to communication. Like Settle, Spencer began not by reading Southern writers but with reading Dickens and Dumas and Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Austen, Twain. Her only early connections to stories were as much intellectual as oral, her mother and her mother's brother particularly encouraging her early reading in nineteenth-century American and European classics. It was not until her graduate work at Vanderbilt that, other than Welty's early work, Spencer had occasion to read or think much about Southern literature. Then the discovery of Faulkner was tremendously important, though not in a direct sense an influence on her work. The literary South as constructed through the tradition of the Fugitives was still important at Vanderbilt, in the person of Donald Davidson, but Spencer recalls that she and the other women students were never admitted to the "inner circle" as the men were. Nonetheless, Spencer recalls her time in Nashville as a reporter and as a student as a heady escape from Mississippi and the confines of family, religion, and the intricate web of social expectation.

As she began to write Spencer experienced the inevitable comparisons to Faulkner and, because of the European setting of The Light in the Piazza, to James. She was also negotiating an identity as a woman writer. In an interview with the Paris Review Spencer recalled how she had at once admired and been "put off" by writers like Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. "I thought both were over-lyrical, not nearly tough enough," she says. "So I tried to get a natural bent to lyricism . . . out of my style, to develop a plainly-stated hospitable style," (Conversations, p. 127). A similar response underlies Spencer's reaction to Faulkner and Joyce. Finnegan's Wake, with its involvement in word play, and late Faulkner, with its long sentences, are for Spencer "a violation of that kind of wonderful middle ground of writing, which communicates" (p. 20).

The theme that emerges most clearly from these interviews is Spencer's consciousness of her work as a prose stylist. In response to a direct question about her style, she replies: "Well, most of the time I'm leaving the language alone. I used to say to myself that Hemingway, whom I loved to read, kept language back, hobbled it, restrained it, while Faulkner inflated it. But I thought there must be a midstream, a beautiful spine of language, that would work for you if you left it alone. I think the style I've developed can reach toward a lyricism or an eloquence on one end, and then can become very colloquial and racy at the other extreme" (p. 60).

Both in her writing and in the language of the interviews, Spencer seeks that "beautiful spine of language," not through Settle's strategy of historicizing her idiom but through molding a contemporary English that suits her communicative purposes.

The communicative qualities of fiction and the analysis of communities have been important in Spencer's work. Certainty her literary friendships have been significant to her sense of both. The story of her early and long-standing friendship with Eudora Welty is a familiar one, but the critical imagination still delights at imagining the scene when Spencer as a college senior invited Welty to speak to the Belhaven College literary society in Jackson. Such connections are the premise of Rosemary Magee's Friendship and Sympathy: Communities of Southern Women Writers. While the connections Magee delineates may stretch the meaning of community in some ways -- by including equally mutual acts of reading as well as literary influences and friendships -- her effort has brought together for the first time a significant cross-section of the comments by twentieth-century Southern women writers on each other's work.

Many of the writers Magee includes had some version of Elizabeth Spencer's experience. Spencer recalls, "My own family and I went through many struggles because they were ambivalent toward my work. They never wished to have a daughter who would become a writer; I think few southern families would. When my books started coming out, I think my parents were a little embarrassed. Their hope was that I would get married and give up writing . . . This was my personal experience, but I think southern families in general try to over-dominate their children. They try to mold their lives according to family and community expectations rather than letting the children reach out for things that might be different" (Conversations, p. 59). Magee identifies a similar pattern of ambivalence in Southern women writers' relationships to literary canons and institutions. Although the writers Magee discusses were mindful and appreciative of their tradition and though their primary relationships were often not with each other, it is notable how much these writers "supported one another." "It is as if," Magee argues, "they all acknowledged quietly to themselves and to one another what Caroline Gordon wrote in sympathy to Katherine Anne Porter about John Crowe Ransom: |He can't bear for women to be serious about their art.' Despite differences in lifestyle and literary style, they shared a perspective on a world as insiders and outsiders at the same time" (Friendship and Sympathy, p. xvi).

Magee's collection usefully assembles book reviews, introductions, essays, and transcripts of panel discussions in which Southern women writers comment on, analyze, or praise each other's fiction and in which they compare their experiences in becoming writers. Such exchanges as the one among Ellen Gilchrist, Gloria Naylor, Josephine Humphreys, and Louise Shivers (at Furman University in 1988) reveal both the personal dimensions of the writer's life and the ways contemporary women writers continue to support each other. While the miscellaneous nature of this collection and the necessary limitations of the look review make Friendship and Sympathy a difficult book to read straight through, this collection will become a valuable and handy reference for readers who are curious about just what sorts of things these writers have indeed said about each other. Read in small portions, Friendship and Sympathy provides many delights.

Taken together these four books provide an interesting look at problems of canon formation and at the continuities as well as the differences in the work of Southern women writers. Two general issues that should command more critical attention emerge from these studies.

First, I believe it would be useful for critics to attend more closely to questions of writer and audience. How are new books, particularly books by women, to be understood, especially books that attempt as Spencer's do to find a "middle ground of language" that communicates to the semi-mythical "general reader"? Do writers, Southern women writers in particular, go in fear that critics will find them less than serious? Rosenberg discusses the ways Settle's work has had to find a place as "serious" fiction in a marketplace that lumps Southern historical fiction by women with the traditions of Gone With the Wind and of "historical romances." More generally Southern women writers may be plagued with the perennial implication that if a woman is "popular" she must not be "serious." Women writers' subject matter and the significance of women and girls as the majority of the reading audience for all fiction make the evaluation of Southern women writers problematic for a critical establishment that, male and female, often adopts androcentric norms. Is Elizabeth Spencer as significant and serious a writer as Walker Percy? Are judgments on such questions implicit -- in critical attention, in publishing decisions, in all the forces constituting literary reputations?

That an uneasy negotiation between popularity and critical judgment is particularly significant for Southern women writers is revealed in Louise Shivers's anecdote about commiserating with Josephine Humphreys. Shivers recalled in 1988, "I remember one day, about a year and a half ago -- maybe I shouldn't tell this -- bu Jo and I were really feeling in the pits about the books that we were writing. I either called her or she called me and we just talked to each other. She said, |God, this young adult novel I'm writing!' And I said, |Well, I'm writing this stupid romance novel.' It helped just to know she was there" (Friendship and Sympathy, p. 326). Implicit in this comment is the concern, not that Shivers or Humphreys was truly writing formula fiction, but the concern that the fiction, because of its subject matter, would be perceived as less than truly "serious." The significant national popularity of many Southern women writers in recent years might invite something of a sociological view of who is reading what and why, and it suggests too that the critical parameters of seriousness, as always, merit examination.

A second issue raised by these volumes is the articulation of connections between white and African-American women writers who are from or who write about the South. More attention is devoted in these volumes to connections between Southern white women and men writers than to the links between white women and women of color. Other than Alice Walker (and Gloria Naylor's place in the Furman panel discussion), there is virtually no extended discussion of African-American women writers. One wonders, for example, how Rosenberg's discussion of the American historical novel would look if he included in his purview Margaret Walker's Jubilee, Sherley Ann Williams's Dessa Rose, or Toni Morrison's Beloved. What would form the friendship and sympathy, the communities of women for African-American women who have lived in or who write about the South -- say, Paule Marshall, Marita Golden, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange? As contemporaneous novelists who have written memorably about Charleston, what would Humphreys and Shange have to say about each other's work.

As these reviews, interviews, discussions, and critical analyses indicate, Southern white women are often invited to talk about -- or volunteer to talk about -- race, but little discussion is initiated that brings together African-American and white women writers on issues of style, form, literary influences, historical vision. How would a canon look that truly joins rather than severs the work of African-American women and Southern white women? A glimpse into the difficult history of this question is provided by the interview between Alice Walker and Eudora Welty reprinted in Friendship and Sympathy. Their conversation, recorded in 1973, is both poignant and painful, demonstrating the intensities of constructing friendship, sympathy, and literary canons across racial lines.

In the twenty years since Orvell published his study of O'Connor and since Alice Walker inter-viewed Eudora Welty, much has changed in the South and in Southern literature. And yet there persists the question of how we are to understand the "seriousness" of women; there remains the difficulty of putting together the racially divided halves of what Alice Walker calls "the whole story."
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Author:Gibson, Mary Ellis
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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