Queer Welty, Camp Welty

By Nissen, Axel | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Queer Welty, Camp Welty


Nissen, Axel, The Mississippi Quarterly


Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. (1)

Eudora invented camp. (2)

I.

No MATTER WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW, wish we knew, or in future hope to discover about Welty's own sexual and romantic life, we can be certain of one thing: Eudora Welty spent a substantial amount of time, particularly during her artistically formative years, surrounded by a loving circle of gay men. Though the legacy of these men's lives and experiences only surfaces intermittently in Welty's works, their spirit and their humor--which Welty shared in and contributed to--is frequently found in her fiction and often in places where one would least expect it. There is a fun-filled, fabulous, fascinating story still to be written about Eudora Welty's lifelong love affair with gay men. (3) This essay is not such a narrative, as my focus will be textual rather than biographical. Instead of focussing on the author's lived experience, I want to examine the manifestation in Welty's works of two elements of her and her gay friends' shared sensibility that have hitherto received scant critical attention. I call these closely related aspects of Welty's "essential self" the queer Welty and the camp Welty. (4)

I recently suggested that one of the futures of Welty studies lies in a gender-oriented, new historicist approach that would not only put Welty's stories into juxtaposition with other fictional narratives but that would also discuss her writings alongside the contemporaneous texts of American sociology, sexology, psychology, women's rights, race theory, and Southern historiography. (5) This essay is an attempt to show what such an approach might look like in practice. I will explore two examples of the queer and the camp Welty by giving readings that place her literature in new contexts. In the first example, I will juxtapose Welty's short story "The Hitch-Hikers" (1939) with Nels Anderson's classic sociological study The Hobo (1923). In the second reading, I will discuss the circulation of meanings between two seemingly very, different products of the 1960s: Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" (1964) and Welty's short novel The Optimist's Daughter (1972).

II.

What happens in "The Hitch-Hikers"? What is "The Hitch-Hikers" about? Those are the two deceptively simple questions I want to address in a reading that will take us into a part of the Welty country we have not visited before, at least not in an academic setting and in mixed company. "The Hitch-Hikers" first appeared in the Southern Review in August 1939. After quite extensive revision, it was included as the eighth and longest of the seventeen stories in Welty's first collection, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. In the story we encounter a thirty-year-old traveling salesman, Tom Harris, who picks up two tramps on a drive through the Mississippi Delta towards Memphis. The one called Sanford, who carries a yellow guitar, is gregarious; the other, Sobby, is "bogged in inarticulate anger" (6) and says very little. While Harris is checking in at a hotel for the night, Sobby strikes Sanford over the head with an empty beer bottle. As Harris waits to hear whether the man with the guitar will live or die, he joins a party given by his friend Ruth and meets Carol, a young girl who claims to have met him before. Sanford dies during the night, Sobby confesses to what is now a murder, and Harris drives on.

This is a story in the classic Hemingway mode, largely in dialogue, moving along by suggestion and implication. Welty's most cinematic story, "The Hitch-Hikers" consists of nine scenes with temporal ellipses of varying lengths in between. The point of view is what we would traditionally call "limited third-person," with Harris as the only internal focalizer. That the story is also Hemingwayan in its focus on "men without women" is perhaps no coincidence. The literary antecedents of "The Hitch-Hikers" may be found in Huck Finn's meeting with the Duke and the Dauphin, in several stories by Jack London, and in particular in Hemingway's early story "The Battler," from 1925, in which Nick Adams encounters the boxer-turned-tramp, Ad Francis, and his African-American sidekick, Bugs. …

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