This Crooked Narrative Way

By Roberts, Terry | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

This Crooked Narrative Way


Roberts, Terry, The Mississippi Quarterly


I think religion is dangerous. I really do. I think it can almost poison human relations.

This idea ... of "community" is a kind of ancient theme as well. The ... mystical issue of just who your brothers and sisters really are. It occurs over and over again in religious writing. All the central characters in my [work] do seem to have that problem-finding out where they belong ... and who they belong with.(1)

In the past ten years, Elizabeth Spencer's reputation has begun to climb back toward that status she enjoyed in the late 1950s and early 1960s just after the publication of the critically successful and popular The Voice at the Back Door (1956) and The Light in the Piazza (1960). Partly because of the success of her collected Short Stories (1981), Spencer is only now beginning to receive the scholarly attention that her more sophisticated but lesser known novels - The Crooked Way (1952), No Place for an Angel (1967), and The Snare (1972) - deserve. These three novels are alike in that they are all ambitiously experimental books that in some way or other failed to match critics' preconceptions of her work and eventually passed out of print, leaving her reputation to fade until recently.

This Crooked Way is also particularly interesting because, in it, Spencer attempted for the first time a narrative structure to complement her thematic concerns. The novel centers upon the life of an ambitious Mississippi planter names Amos Dudley. Dudley is a religious fanatic but not in a public, proselytizing way. Rather he seeks from adolescence to prove through the pattern and visions of his life that he has been especially blessed by God. His self-obsession alienates him from family, lovers, friends, even his wife - leaving in him a moral crookedness that he does not recognize until the end of the novel. Spencer narrates Dudley's story in a crooked fashion that captures the dangers of his obsession both to himself and to others. Spencer has called it her "most original book"(2); it is a daring and, in some ways, difficult novel.

In narrative structure and plot, This Crooked Way is similar to two major Faulkner novels. Its multiple narrators bring to mind The Sound and the Fury, while Amos Dudley's rise to power suggests that of Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! Although Spencer denies any conscious reference to Faulkner, his novels form an instructive context. In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner creates a hero who is tragically larger than life, a man, Thomas Sutpen, who is transformed into myth before the reader's eyes. Spencer reverses the process with Amos Dudley; he is reduced in the last section of This Crooked Way from myth to mere humanity and so saved from destruction. Spencer manages this transformation through reversing another Faulknerian pattern, the narrative progression of The Sound and the Fury. Where Faulkner resolved a series of fragmented first-person narratives with the omniscient final section centered on Dilsey, Spencer resolves her fragmented tale by shifting the point of view inside the main character. In doing so, she reveals to the reader that Amos Dudley is a member of the human community that he had for so many years spurned.

Amos Dudley is saved by God from drowning when he is sixteen years old. "God had," Amos considered, "snatched a knot in him" in order to warn him, both of the dangers of impudence and the power of prayer.(3) From that moment Amos had felt himself "a child of God," marked for special achievement. He parlays this simple faith and years of backbreaking labor into a thriving plantation and an affluent marriage.(4) To those who would emphasize his similarity to Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen, Spencer has replied that "Amos Dudley didn't want the trappings of success so much as the literal proof that he was a God-directed man" (Personal Interview). His forty-five-year search for this proof not only alienated him from his friends, wife, and children, but it also came perilously close to destroying all of those around him. …

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