Toward the North Star: Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" and the Slave Narrative Tradition

By Moberly, Kevin | The Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Toward the North Star: Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path" and the Slave Narrative Tradition


Moberly, Kevin, The Mississippi Quarterly


IF THERE IS A COMMON THREAD THAT RUNS THROUGH EARLY CRITICAL readings of Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," it is the conspicuous absence of any discussion of the race of the story's protagonist, Phoenix Jackson. Neil Isaacs, for example, goes to extraordinary lengths to account for Welty's use of hue and color, but does not address the fact that the text contains as many references to black as it does red, gold, green and silver. Similarly, Saralyn Daly's careful paraphrase of Phoenix's first-paragraph description omits one word: Negro (134). Subsequent attempts to use Greek or Egyptian mythology to interpret the story also gloss over the racial significance of many of the story's incidents. Frank Ardolino, for example, reads Phoenix's encounter with the hunter as an allusion to the Persephone myth (5). While Ardolino is correct in stating that the encounter is structured around a motif of death and rebirth, his focus on Greek and Egyptian mythology leaves out the fact that Phoenix is an African American woman struggling to negotiate the wilderness of the depression-era South, and that in doing so, she is confronted by a white hunter who levels his shotgun at her in an obvious allusion to Jim Crow racial violence.

While later readings of Welty's story are more racially sensitive, many tend to apologize for Phoenix's treatment by the white citizens of Natchez, or to universalize her experiences, celebrating Phoenix's December journey as a triumph of her humanity rather than her race. Nancy Butterworth's "From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race Relations in Welty's 'A Worn Path'" is typical of this treatment. Although Butterworth acknowledges the racial significance of many of the story's incidents, she is suspicious of attempts to use Phoenix's race to understand the story. In particular, she criticizes the race-centered readings of Weky's African American characters that John R. Cooley offers in his book Savages and Naturals: Black Portraits by White Writers in Modern American Literature and that John Hardy offers in his article "Eudora Welty's Negroes." Faulting both critics for "frequently [falsifying] Welty's portrayals of black-white relations in earlier eras" (166), she accuses them of revisionist criticism, arguing that "[s]uch polemical demythologizings conflict with Welty's persistent refusal to use fiction as a platform, particularly for political or sociological issues, as well as her down-playing and even disavowal of racial implications in her stories" (166). (1) To address these concerns, Butterworth offers her own interpretation of the story's racial incidents--an interpretation that invariably serves to exonerate the story's white characters. She argues, for example, that the hunter's treatment of Phoenix "can be explained in terms of accepted social behavior of the rural South in the 1930s and 1940s, which would have allowed a young white man--a simple 'red neck' hunter--some degree of domineering byplay with the curious old black woman" (170). She then states that the hunter is guilty not so much of deliberate racism as of simply of "fail[ing] to comprehend the dire necessity of [Phoenix's] mission, mistakenly believing she is merely going to see Santa Claus" (171). In thus rewriting Phoenix's encounter with the hunter so that he appears "not ... so much malicious as insensitive" (171), Butterworth engages in what is arguably her own brand of revisionist criticism. She rewrites the racism Phoenix encounters so that it does not appear as a systematic, political strategy designed to disenfranchise African Americans but as an unconscious, almost quaint failure on the part of a handful of individuals, the white characters in the story who, according to Butterworth, "evince at least degrees of insensitivity toward Phoenix, but seemingly more out of callous incomprehension than deliberate cruelty" (172).

In this regard, Butterworth echoes the work of critics like Elmo Howell and Grant Moss, Jr., who also discount the significance of Phoenix's race. …

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