Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

On Optimists' Sons and Daughters: Eudora Welty's the Optimist's Daughter and Peter Taylor's A Summons to Memphis

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

On Optimists' Sons and Daughters: Eudora Welty's the Optimist's Daughter and Peter Taylor's A Summons to Memphis

Article excerpt

--for Seetha Srinivasan and Hunter Cole

READING THE OPTIMIST'S DAUGHTER (1972) and A Summons to Memphis (1986) together makes good sense because not only do these two novels have much in common but so do their authors. Both works focus on the crisis caused in a Southern family's middle-aged children by a widowed father's remarrying (or plans to remarry). They also both feature main characters who have left the South to live in larger Northern cities and who return home with some ambivalence, for the journey back raises difficult and dramatic questions for the protagonists about buried family history and the meaning of the past. In the words of The Optimist's Daughter, equally applicable to Taylor's novel, "parents and children take turns back and forth, changing places, protecting and protesting each other." (1)

Though Welty and Taylor are not usually discussed together, they often have their strengths defined in similar ways, emphasizing their mastery of the short story form and the fact that they are both famous for their ear for speech and for emphasizing how a sense of place and memory--Welty's Mississippi and Taylor's Tennessee--shapes character and family history. (2) Taylor and Welty were also friends who followed each other's careers with admiration. Taylor once claimed with great pride (though not strict accuracy) that in 1937 they both published their first story in the same issue of the Oxford, Mississippi, literary journal River--thus in effect beginning their careers at the same moment. For her part Welty has remembered fondly that the Southern Review gave a home to many of their early stories, and she has said she admires his writing "enormously." (3) The finales of their careers also show some parallels, with a shift to emphasizing well-received and ambitious novels dealing in part with their own childhood and family histories, though Taylor had a burst of productivity in the years before his death in 1995, including A Summons to Memphis in 1986, while Welty has published no new fiction since The Optimist's Daughter in 1972. Welty has so far received more critical attention, but commentary on Taylor's work in the 1990s is increasing exponentially, and many readers agree that these two writers must be included together in any grouping of important American authors active in the last sixty or so years.

In the following essay I would like to build on fine work already done on The Optimist's Daughter and A Summons to Memphis and explore what insights can be gained by a comparative reading. In particular, I would like to focus on the roles the narrators play. The power of the first-person narrator in A Summons to Memphis makes Phillip Carver's struggle with the meaning of his family's past and present history the central drama of the novel through which all others are mediated, and readings of the book have reflected this. With The Optimist's Daughter the role played by the narrator has been much less the focus of discussion. The novel's economical structure and style in comparison to Losing Battles's plethora has been rightly stressed, as has Welty's adroit balancing of "choral" scenes done mostly via dialogue with reflective sections focusing on the journey back into memory made by the novel's protagonist, Laurel McKelva Hand. (4) Both Taylor's and Welty's main characters have gone home ostensibly to defend their parents' past against the depredations of the present, yet they find that their own attitude toward what they are defending is more mixed than they reckoned. Both dramas also appear to turn on the forgiving of parents and a dramatic reimagining of what family inheritance means. But Taylor's method to some degree encourages us to become skeptical about the conclusions that his protagonist draws, while Welty's narrator seems to strive to do the opposite, to use all her resources to encourage us to interpret the action from her main character's point of view. I would like here to offer readings of these novels that explore some of the results of these different narrative strategies. …

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