Fish Stories: Revising Masculine Ritual in Eudora Welty's "The Wide Net"

By McWhirter, David | The Mississippi Quarterly, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Fish Stories: Revising Masculine Ritual in Eudora Welty's "The Wide Net"


McWhirter, David, The Mississippi Quarterly


REPLETE WITH FETISHIZED OBJECTS AND PLACES (MASKS, SWEAT LODGES AND sitting spots), pseudo-tribal rituals (hunting, dancing, drumming, initiatory wounds), and a symbolic mapping of "the deep masculine" that consists of, among other things, "wild men," "inner warriors," "Zeus energy," and the "cosmic, life-engendering phallus," the mythopoetic men's movement of the 1980s and early 1990s, popularized by Robert Bly in his 1990 bestseller, Iron John, would seem an almost irresistible site for cultural criticism. (1) But while women's and, increasingly, men's studies scholars have offered substantial analyses of various aspects of this now largely defunct movement, one of Iron John's more revealing characteristics, namely, its demonstrable roots in the intellectual matrix of literary modernism, has gone largely unremarked. Bly and other leaders of the men's movement drew heavily on a whole array of key modernist tropes (myth, ritual, archetypalism, and primitivism, and their attendant appeals to deep structure and identity) in founding what proved in the event to be a highly lucrative enterprise. The kind of modernism articulated by and through the thinking of figures like Joseph Campbell, T. S. Eliot, Northrop Frye, and Carl Jung, hasn't, as it turns out, died; it has just migrated to the middlebrow. (2) The mythopoetic movement's intellectual and cultural indebtedness to modernist myth criticism may help explain why Eudora Welty's 1942 story "The Wide Net" can profitably be read as a proactive invention and deflation of Iron John some fifty years before Bly discovered the sales potential, if not, regrettably, the retrograde politics, of this strand of modernist sensibility. (3) At the beginning of a 1958 review of Virginia Woolfs Granite and Rainbow, Welty wryly comments that "an editor who sent out a new book called Men Without Women to [Woolf] knew what he was doing" ("Uncommon Reader" 120). In this essay, I argue that Welty knew what she was doing when, in "The Wide Net," she wrote her own story about men without women that both parodies and revises the rituals of masculinity, ubiquitously explored by her male modernist predecessors and contemporaries, that constitute the prehistory of the mythopoetic movement.

In successfully reestablishing Welty as a major figure in American literary modernism, feminist critics have also made us aware of the extent to which Welty's stories self-consciously engage and revise key modernist texts by men. A list of such intertextual readings might include Patricia Yaeger's study of "Sir Rabbit" as a dialogue with Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" ("Fire"), Rebecca Mark's interpretation of "Music from Spain" as an "answer" to Joyce's Ulysses (175-231), and Peter Schmidt's analysis of "Asphodel" as a systematic send-up of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (129-35). (4) In the same vein, Welty's comic tale of the portentously named William Wallace Jamieson, a confused young husband who returns home after a boys' night out to find that his pregnant wife Hazel has left a note announcing her intention to drown herself in the Pearl River, and who subsequently gathers the men of Dover, Mississippi, to help him drag the river with the "wide net" of the story's title, can be profitably read as a riposte to the ritualized hunting and fishing expeditions that focalize canonical modernist works by writers such as Eliot, Faulkner, and Hemingway. (Welty's protagonist's name, presumably a gentle poke at Faulkner's "lost cause" Scottish genealogies, now inevitably evokes for me the literally spectacular masculinity displayed in Mel Gibson's 1995 film Braveheart.) (5) In my view, however, "The Wide Net"--although it is almost certainly in direct conversation with Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River"--is less a rewriting of a specific male intertext than a general response to the anxious, beleaguered masculinity that pervades The Waste Land, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, "The Bear," In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms. …

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