Making a Spectacle: Welty, Faulkner, and Southern Gothic

By Donaldson, Susan V. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Making a Spectacle: Welty, Faulkner, and Southern Gothic


Donaldson, Susan V., The Mississippi Quarterly


By the time Eudora Welty published A Curtain of Green and Other Stories in 1941, the term "Southern Gothic" had become something very like a synonym--or a cliche--for modern Southern literature. Louise Bogan even titled her review of Welty's collection "The Gothic South."(1) Other reviewers of A Curtain of Green tended to use the catch-all category of Southern Gothic interchangeably with the grotesque--or in the words of the reviewer for Time Magazine, "the demented, the deformed, the queer" (quoted in Peterman, p. 107). No doubt these reviewers were reassured in their easy reference to the term Southern Gothic by Carson McCullers's remarks in her 1941 essay, "The Russian Realists and Southern Literature," in which she declared that Southern writers shared with nineteenth-century Russian writers a vision of "the cheapness of human life" and a strikingly similar technique for vividly evoking that vision--"a bold and outwardly callous juxtaposition of the tragic with the humorous, the immense with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of man with a materialistic detail."(2)

Considering the stereotypes and the cliches associated with Southern Gothic and the whole host of myths defining the image of "the benighted South," as George Tindall aptly calls it, I think it's quite understandable that Welty herself has often resisted being categorized as a writer of Southern Gothic. "They better not call me that!" she abruptly told Alice Walker in an interview.(3) Following her lead, Welty scholars, Ruth Weston most recently, have often argued against placing Welty in the same category of Southern Gothic as Carson McCullers or the Faulkner of "A Rose for Emily" and As I Lay Dying.(4)

I would like to take issue with this reluctance to couple Southern Gothic and Welty in the same breath and with our tendency, for that matter, to take those hoary old terms Southern Gothic and Southern grotesque for granted--terms, we often argue, that were all too readily applied to William Faulkner himself in the 1930s when critics found themselves perplexed with works ranging from "A Rose for Emily" to As I Lay Dying. Patricia Yaeger has already undertaken the task of examining versions of the grotesque in the writing of modern Southern women writers. Her series of essays on O'Connor and Welty and her forthcoming book Dirt and Desire promise to recast our whole conception of the grotesque in Southern literature in distinctly feminist terms. And if we take heed of the wealth of scholarship emerging on the gothic and gender in the last twenty years, we might learn in particular that the peculiar propensity of modern Southern writers to evoke the gothic, the macabre, and the grotesque might very well have a good deal to do with regional anxiety about rapidly changing gender roles in the first half of the twentieth century. Anxiety about the New Woman in the South--and the way both Faulkner and Welty responded to the implications of her presence--might also tell us a good deal about the intertextual relationship between Faulkner's frieze of gothic women in his short fiction of the 1920s and 1930s--especially "A Rose for Emily," "Dry September," "There Was a Queen," and "That Evening Sun"--and Welty's own parade of monstrous women in A Curtain of Gram What we discover, I think, is something like an intertextual debate on women and the disruption of tradition in the twentieth-century South. Half sympathetic toward and half horrified by the spectacle of women betwixt and between tradition and change, Faulkner creates short stories about dangerous women who serve as disrupters of male narratives and as signifiers of the breakdown of cultural narratives of traditional manhood and womanhood. Welty's gothic heroines, though, suggest not so much the fragmentation of traditional narratives as the emergence of narratives to come--female stories about hysterics whose bodies provide expression in the absence of appropriate language. …

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