Inside/outside the Tent: Native Americans and African Americans on Display in Eudora Welty's "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden"

By Claxton, Mae Miller | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Inside/outside the Tent: Native Americans and African Americans on Display in Eudora Welty's "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden"


Claxton, Mae Miller, The Mississippi Quarterly


THE 1930S WERE A TIME OF REVIVAL TENT MEETINGS, TRAVELING CARNIVALS, fairs, and movies, a society of spectacles as the public desperately sought distraction from the Depression. Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Eudora Welty enjoyed a variety of these performances. She describes going to the Century Theatre in her memoir One Writer's Beginnings.

I'd be sitting beside my father at this hour beyond my bedtime carried totally away by the performance, and then suddenly the thought of my mother staying home with my sleeping younger brothers, missing the spectacle at this moment before my eyes, and doing without all the excitement and wonder that filled my being, would arrest me and I could hardly bear my pleasure for my guilt. (Stories 860-61)

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1929, Welty admits that she moved to New York City "so I could go to the theater every night" (Personal Interview). In 1931, when she returned to Jackson, she and her friends entertained themselves by creating "tableaux vivants." She explains that they would all dress up, "And everybody came, you know, we came as somebody, like parties in Vanity Fair, people like Lady Abdy, and the Lunts, all the people that Cecil Beaton photographed doing things at parties" (Photographs xxi). Fresh from New York, the young Jacksonians were anxious to create representations of themselves as the cultural, if not the social, elite.

At the other end of the social spectrum, Welty also enjoyed photographing parades, carnivals, and fairs attended by people from all walks of life. In the interview in Photographs, she comments: "Oh, I love crowds to take pictures in. I photographed everybody. I always did love the fair and circuses" (xix). Once or twice, she went down to the fairgrounds to photograph the carnival workers setting up the tents and rides (xix). Her images capture the wonder and amazement of the people who were lifted from the ordinary to the extraordinary by their visits to the fair. She was especially interested in the sideshows. Many of her photographs display the freak posters advertising various sideshows, but she did not take pictures of the actual shows. She explains, "My taking the freak posters--not the human beings--was because they were a whole school of naive folk art. And, of course, totally unrelated to what you saw inside the tent" (xix). Welty's images suggest the contrast between the performance (sideshow) and the text representing that performance (the freak show posters). Her photographic texts become yet another representation of these "performances."

Another text emerged from her preoccupation with fairs and carnivals. Welty heard the anecdote she used in her story "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden" from a man building a booth at a county fair when she worked for the Works Progress Administration in 1936 (Marrs, Eudora 52-54). She explained to Robert Van Gelder, "He told me the story that I used in 'Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden'--about a little Negro man in a carnival who was made to eat live chickens. That's the only actual story I've used. I guess if you read it you must have known that it was true and not made up--it was too horrible to make up" (Conversations 5). In Welty's story, Little Lee Roy, a disabled African American man, was kidnapped as the fair passed through Cane Springs, Mississippi. He was put into a sideshow called "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden" and made to growl like an animal and eat live chickens when the carnival barker Steve announced the next "show" through the megaphone. Just as Welty created a series of layered images in her photographs of the fair posters, she creates a similarly layered text in "Keela," which examines the whole spectrum of Southern history through her character Keela/Little Lee Roy. Many scholars have discussed Welty's depiction of race in the story, but they have not fully examined the representation of Little Lee Roy, an African American, as an "Indian Maiden" in the sideshow. …

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