Dear friends, I’ve been dawdling today- going for a leisurely walk in the park, relaxing in my easy chair with books and coffee, enjoying a late breakfast al fresco (don’t you love eating outdoors? it’s one of my favorite things to do!) But I have been reading this week – quite a lot, as a matter of fact – and I have some thoughts to share with you. Let’s sit outside on the porch, shall we? I’ve just plumped the cushions on that wicker rocking chair, so it’s fresh and warm from the sun. Welcome to the Sunday Salon.
It’s been a long time since I was in college – 26 years to be exact – but I still remember quite well the way my literature professors would shudder whenever anyone used their knowledge of a writer’s life as a means to interpret their work. “Art is art,” they would scold, “and life is life, and never the twain shall meet.”
I know it’s “wrong,” but I don’t always buy into that. I’m interested in author’s stories, their true life stories, and I admit to being fascinated by the way those stories become intersected with their work. This week’s reading included Eudora Welty’s memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, and her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, and if ever life intersected with art, these two books are a prime example.
The novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, is commonly referred to as “Welty’s most autobiographical work.” It’s the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, a young widow, as she confronts her past following the death of her father. The memoir originated as a series of lectures Welty delivered at Harvard in April 1983. While I had read both these books before, I had never read them concurrently – and what an interesting experience that was! For there were times when I was reading virtually the exact passages in both books – as if Welty had copied verbatim from herself.
Like this, from the novel:
When she was fifteen years old, Becky had gone with her father, who was suffering pain, on a raft propelled by a neighbor, down the river at night when it was filled with ice, to reach a railroad, to wave a lantern at a snowy train that would make a stop and take them on, to reach a hospital.
In the city of Baltimore, when at last they reached the hospital, Becky entrusted the doctors with what her father had told her: “Papa said ‘If you let them tie me down, I’ll die.'” It turned out he had suffered a ruptured appendix.
Two doctors came out of the operating room, to where Becky stood waiting in the hall. One said, “You’d better get in touch with whoever you know in Baltimore, little girl.” “But I don’t know anybody in Baltimore, sir.” “Not know anybody in Baltimore?”
And this from the memoir:
…she went with him on the frozen winter night when it was clear he had to get to a hospital. The mountain roads were impassable, there was ice in the Elk River, but a neighbor vowed he could make way by raft. She was fifteen. The neighbor managed to pole the raft through the icy river and eventually across it to a railroad. They flagged the train.
Mother had to return by herself from Baltimore, her father’s body in a coffin on the same train. He had died on the operating table of a ruptured appendix. The last lucid remark he’d made to my mother was “If you let them tie me down, I’ll die.” The surgeon had come out where she stood waiting in the hall. “Little girl,” he’s said, “you’d better get in touch now with somebody in Baltimore.” “Sir, I don’t know anybody in Baltimore,” she said, and what she never forgot was his astounded reply: “You don’t know anybody in Baltimore?”
There as numerous passages and events like this between the two books – descriptions of Laurel’s summer trips “up home” to her mother’s family were identical to Welty’s memories of visits to her maternal grandparents home in West Virginia. The collection of Dickens books which Laurel peruses in her father’s library, the books her mother saved from destruction by running into a burning house to retrieve them – same as the Dickens collection Welty recalled so fondly from her childhood home, books that were saved in a similar fashion by her own mother.
The juxtaposistion of events between these two books – one fictional, the other biographical – was astounding. So how we can disregard the events of an author’s life, when they were obviously so deeply influential? Doesn’t every experience we have influence us to some degree, even when we’re writing clearly fictional stories about clearly fictional characters?
You’ll probably tell me I’m committing a cardinal sin of literary interpretation, looking for the way a writer’s life intersects with their work – but sometimes I just can’t help myself. It adds a dimension of interest for me, one I enjoy pursuing.
So tell me – what are your thoughts on this subject?