DECEMBER 12, 2015
I HAVE TWO “firsts” in my life of which I am inordinately proud. One is that my first concert was The Carpenters. (It was the ’70s, and I was a strange child obsessed with AM radio and collecting 45s.) The second is that the first formal author reading I ever attended was that of Eudora Welty. I was a college student taking my first creative writing class, at the University of North Carolina, and my teacher was the late, great fiction writer Max Steele. “Eudora Welty is reading at Duke,” he told a few of us, “and you’re going. I’m taking you.” I knew who Eudora Welty was, of course, but I had not, I am sorry to say, read any of her work at that point. Nevertheless, I obeyed — I was naturally in awe of Max and I tried to do everything he told me to do.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I knew what an “author reading” was before that evening. At Duke, Miss Welty (Max was acquainted with her, and referred to her as Eudora) was introduced, whereupon she emerged from the wings, smiling, but walking slowly, an elderly, big-boned, white-haired woman, Eleanor Roosevelt-ish, somewhat stooped and wearing a plain calico print dress (the kind I remembered my rural-dwelling grandmother and great aunts always wearing to church) and clutching a sheaf of white paper. She made her way to the podium, murmured a couple of gracious thank yous into the microphone in her soft Mississippi drawl, and then proceeded to read, in its entirety, her short story “The Wide Net.” That was it: there was no self-indulgent preamble, and there was no post-reading Q and A. She simply finished her story, gathered up her paper from the podium, and turned and walked off as she had approached, slowly, hardly registering the thunderous applause that accompanied her exit, merely heading for the wings as though she were just going into her kitchen for a glass of water.
Commonplace duties, all in a day’s work, I suppose, when you’re a literary eminence; but for most of Max’s students, the ones he had invited and the ones who had come, all fledgling and aspiring fiction writers and children of the South, the evening had been anything but commonplace. And for this child of the South in particular, Welty’s reading that night amounted to nothing less than a seismic shift. So that’s what it means, I thought, to tell and to write stories — stories that connect with a reader, or an audience. That’s what it means to write a story using your eyes, ears, nose, and tongue (why is it so hard for beginning writers to remember to use the senses?) That’s what it means to have a voice.
On the way back from Durham to Chapel Hill, we wondered aloud if the story was autobiographical; it seemed so important to know the answer to that! Max told us, almost as if in rebuke but in his own soft drawl, that that was a question one must never ask a fiction writer. I understood immediately; whether Miss Eudora had uncovered that story from her experience or discovered it with her imagination or a combination of both made no difference. She had written the story and she had read it to us that evening at Duke, as no one else could have, and that was all that mattered. She was, after all, Eudora Welty, the preeminent Southern teller of tales, and that night, she became my treasured new literary heroine.
I relate this anecdote here because Margaret Eby’s South Toward Home, subtitled “Travels In Southern Literature,” has had an effect on me not unlike Proust’s proverbial madeleine — would the Southern equivalent be a moon pie? Reading it has stirred up a flood of memories of my own first encounters with the works of many of the legendary Southern writers that make up her colorful, and very real, cast of characters. Eby’s idea was to travel the highways and byways of the mostly deep South (she is herself a native Alabamian) to the hometowns — and in some cases, subsequent writing and teaching towns — of these storied scribes, investigating their lives like a literary Nancy Drew and searching their birthplaces for clues that explain not only the writers’ own personalities, quirks, and peccadilloes, but how those particular personality traits found their way into the writers’ work. In Eby’s introduction, she refers to her journey as “an odyssey of sorts through a pocket of the South that I grew up in and learned to understand through reading” and then sensibly defends her choices of authors in this way: “The ten writers on this journey are an idiosyncratic group, but they are the ones who spoke to me most insistently as I tried to figure out what it meant to be from the South, to answer that echoing question, What is it about this place, exactly?”
Call it an investigation of inspiration: CSI: Milledgeville.
And even though Eby surely knows that most readers will mourn the exclusion of their own personal favorites, as I fleetingly did here and there, who could legitimately argue with a study of Southern writers that includes chapters on Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, not to mention Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Richard Wright, Harry Crews, John Kennedy Toole, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown? Admittedly, I wondered why Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams in particular were MIA in these pages, but I realize that’s an unfair complaint; like most of us, Eby knows her own literary passions, and she makes no apology for either her inclusions or omissions.
Eby is too young to have known most of her subjects, and even too young to have ever had the chance to meet them, which makes her mission all the more admirable. Since all but one of Eby’s writers are dead, she could not conduct live interviews, and, anyway, South Toward Home is not that kind of a book. (Eby’s singular opportunity at a personal encounter with one of her subjects, the still earthly Harper Lee, makes for one of the book’s most charming and poignant moments.) The first chapters — Eby’s first stops on her investigative tour — are at the homes and stomping grounds of titans: to Mississippi for Welty and Richard Wright (both Jackson natives), then to Oxford for Faulkner, and on to Georgia for O’Connor. As book subjects, these four authors in particular have — collectively and individually — experienced no shortage of ink spilling; therefore, Eby takes a less-travelled road in her investigation. At Miss Eudora’s lifelong Jackson home, Eby wanders through the author’s well-preserved, charmingly cluttered rooms but makes her most unique discoveries in Welty’s locally famous gardens, which the author herself wrote about in diaries and in drafts of One Writer’s Beginnings, and which served, alongside the writing of fiction, as the other great passion in her life. Eby comes to understand that:
Indeed, there was something botanical about Welty’s work. The delicacies of her prose trick readers like [critic Diana] Trilling into ignoring the deep roots, the hidden thorns, the sheer gumption. Her writing process was inextricable from her gardening.
Perhaps understandably, Eby maintains a most respectful distance for her chosen giants. Yet, while still afoot in Jackson, she takes pointed, if respectful, aim at a city that, as she points out, has always bent over backward to celebrate Welty and her legacy but hasn’t managed to show equal appreciation for Richard Wright, the African-American author of such landmark works as Native Son and Black Boy. As Eby notes, amid a very fine overview and summation of Wright’s work that amounts to something like a mini-critical reappraisal:
[I]n his home state, Wright’s success was not widely celebrated […] Where Eudora Welty was hailed as a hero, Wright was denounced as a pariah. Welty’s house is a National Historic Landmark; Wright’s was bulldozed. It wasn’t until after Wright died that the state began to recognize his achievements and embrace him as one of their own.
And even when duly celebrated, the landmark homes are sometimes treated oddly. Faulkner’s antebellum homestead, Rowan Oak, a crown jewel among the University of Mississippi’s buildings, today seems more cannibalized by the town and gown than lovingly preserved. To wit:
On any given visit to the grounds, you’re likely to find a half-dozen sorority sisters jogging […] and one or two bored-looking lit students on work-study ushering people in for a self-guided tour. Before football games, professors and Oxfordians gather in front of Rowan Oak to grill burgers and drink beer.
Perhaps Bill might not have minded, but the respectful reader nonetheless shudders at this description.
Eby uncovers a wealth of factoids about all of her subjects, and her writing about them is frequently penetrating, and never less than perceptive; she is sympathetic, too, even when excavating some of their uglier habits like Faulkner’s devotion to the whiskey bottle (Eby quotes his pithy line “Civilization begins with distillation”), or their quirky ones like Flannery O’Connor’s obsession with peacocks. Much has been written, of course, about O’Connor’s curious penchant for those ill-tempered Technicolor creatures, though Eby, reporting from her pilgrimage to O’Connor’s farm Andalusia, makes the case that they were an inextricable part of the author’s personality and her art. “Captured in these birds,” she writes, “is also something of the public perception of O’Connor as an outsider. She seemed an exotic creature living in a humble environment, someone whose stark, sharp, odd voice punctured the pleasant myths that Southern writers swathed themselves in.”
In a book that, somewhat daringly, stacks the middleweights up alongside the giants (fairly or unfairly), it is interesting to note that Eby’s most probing passages are reserved for her lesser-known subjects. In her chapter on John Kennedy Toole, known almost exclusively for his posthumously published A Confederacy of Dunces and its unforgettable protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly, Eby exerts her most potent (and personal) firepower. And why not? Toole’s story, including his meticulously executed, almost gentlemanly suicide, which followed on the heels of an argument with his mother Thelma, is as fascinating as his semi-autobiographical, most famous work, if not more so. In any case “John Kennedy Toole’s Hot Dog Carts,” allows Eby’s multitasking journalistic skills come to full, thrilling fruition. Not only does she find inroads into the psyche and personality of a mysterious, elusive author, but she also lays bare the aspects of the city — New Orleans, where else? — that was both Toole’s inspiration and his doom, the birthplace of his outrageous talent and the scene of his sad, perhaps inevitable, self-destruction.
And Eby is surely aware of the delicious poetic injustice she uncovers in her portrait of Toole’s mother — his “mama,” I should say — the woman who, against all odds, got her dead son’s book published and made him famous in the bargain. Thelma, it must be said, comes across as more fascinating than her gifted offspring, emerging in these pages as a whacked-out, deep-fried magnolia, made not so much out of steel as she was of grit, guts, and absinthe. One gets the idea that she would have no problem with how Eby treats her here, missing the author’s implied critical slant, and thrilled once again to hijack the spotlight from the son she purported to be promoting. (Think of the near-maniacal, fatally stagestruck Mama Rose at the end of Act One in Gypsy, mapping out a show business life for her daughter Louise through which she, Rose, can live vicariously.) Eby nails Mama Thelma like so:
Thelma Toole, by all accounts, had prepared for fame her whole life and spent much of Toole’s childhood priming him for greatness. When the fame at last arrived, rewarding her grief and toil, she was not humble about it. Thelma assembled an entourage of friends to squire her about town, introducing herself as “mother of the scholarly and literary genius John Kennedy Toole.”
Memo to film actresses of a certain age: Option this.
Eby’s remaining chapters deal with a trifecta of literary bad boys, Harry Crews, Larry Brown, and Barry Hannah, and I will admit to growing a bit restless with her devoted recounting of their many (and, after a while, indistinguishable) drunken exploits and barroom brawls. Hard-scrabble lives matter, of course, as do those of high-grade geniuses, and Eby seems to feel compelled, perhaps understandably, to make more of a plea for their literary legacies than she does for those of Welty, Faulkner, O’Connor, etc., the immortals who don’t exactly need her to burnish their reputations this late in the game. It’s a noble stance to take, and Eby is clearly a great fan of all three men, yet I began to lose track of CrewsBrownHannah, at least in the context of the book, with their alcohol-fueled exploits, their macho man/bad boy path-crossing and close-hewing literary terrain. In fact, in spite of Eby’s atmospheric descriptions, I had to work a bit harder than seemed worthwhile to keep their shenanigans distinct, a task made particularly arduous since Brown and Hannah are the dual subjects of one chapter.
But to each her own favorites. If I am more a fan of those well-tended gardens, and peacocks, and lurid tales of literary licentiousness in the French Quarter, then so be it: that was more than enough to make South Toward Home worth the ride. For like most well-cultivated Southern hosts, Eby knows how to lay out a feast where the offerings are not only tasty and well-seasoned, they are also arranged with style, care, and a meticulous eye for detail. It’s up to us party guests to know our own appetites, and to express appreciation for the generous spread before us.