The Sunday Salon – Life v. Art

The Sunday

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?


14 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon – Life v. Art

  1. My thoughts are that it’s time to hurry up, hurry, and read some Welty. I’ve just read a few short stories and that was some time ago.

    The biographical interest only seems like a problem when the reader tries to reduce everything in the fiction to some imagined reportage based on personal history, and that is not what you have done here. This pairing is about insight into the writing process and not about treating writers like movie stars.

    I recently read a book by Victorian bestselling author Margaret Oliphant, and her biography fleshed out the plot and characters, on account of all the similarities between the fiction and her personal history. It was a matter of seeing the origins of literary ideas, something extraneous to the fiction, but nevertheless engaging. It does make me want to read her autobiography, however.

  2. As a writer, I totally agree with you AND with the previous poster. You can’t reduce everything, as she says, to the author’s personal history; but it’s also ridiculous to say the two are totally separate. i remember when I was in writers’ workshops in graduate school, and it always cracked me up to hear fellow students’ interpretations of MY work. I’d be thinking, “No, no! That’s not at all what I meant–that’s not what happened!!” but then I would realize that the magic of writing had happened: that what I wrote was being interpreted differently by different readers. It’s quite interesting. Anyway, I think that writers’ own lives don’t necessarily show up in ALL their works, but certainly some of their experiences are revealed here and there in their writings.

  3. I also write stories and find a lot of my life in them – friends, settings, moments which seem to repeat themselves in some form across multiple stories. I am only two years away from college, and I actually learned that it was vital to know of the author’s life and experiences to fully understand the texts. Personally, I’m in the middle; I see the value of what you’ve done here, but I also have fun interpreting stories based on what I get from them rather than what I was meant to get from them. (Does that make any sense?)

    In any case, I don’t remember the word for these ideas, but there are words for them. I’m referring to the idea of taking the piece of literature for what it is, ignoring the author’s life, and the concept of being unable to do it justice without knowing anything about the writer. I learned that, too, in college, but clearly it didn’t stick. 🙂

  4. That surprises me to know that your professors told you that you couldn’t take an author’s life into consideration when interpreting a book. I didn’t take any literature classes in college, but in my mind, some books need to be understood in a particular context. Especially when reading classic novels that describe a society we don’t live in anymore, knowing the context of when the author wrote, what was important to them makes the book easier to understand.

  5. I’m in agreement with you. Knowing about the author adds depth to their work. The few stories I’ve written have included a great deal of myself in them. That right there tells me how much I can get from knowing about the author’s time and place in history.

  6. It seems they must have been trained in the Liberal Humanism approach that argued that great literature is …news which stays news… (Ezra Pound) so the only meaning of the text is in the text itself. So trying to understand books and writers social political context or conventions of genre or their autobiographical details are irrelevant. I would be the first to say that you do have to look at the narrative and the writing skills but to ignore other factors are limiting. The polar opposite to this approach is at the wider level knowing how the economics of book production and distribution work give you an idea of how whole genres and authors get life. But then knowing the circumstances of the readers gives you similar insights. This political reading is wider then looking at the class relationships in a novel which is an other way of “reading” a book.

    My criticism of both approaches is that any single reading is only that and both tend to ignore(as others had said) that I the reader is part of the creative process. In organizational theory an approach called imaginization asks the question what if this organisation was like…machine, organism, brain, prison and so on . By asking these questions a more complex and live understanding of how the organisation works emerges. In literary terms, I like do a simlar thing by taking(if I can understand them!) the different critical approaches to see what insights they offer in the round….but the litmus test is did I enjoy it!

  7. Having just read both books myself, I think we can certainly trust Welty’s own description of the interaction between her characters and herself, her books and her life. What your college professors shuddered over as a fallacy was/is one of many intellectual fashions, and fashions have their limitations.

  8. Ugh, I must have gone to college at the same time as you, because that “fashion” is what made me decide not to be an English major. Not only does knowing something about the author’s life, not to mention the broader cultural & historical context, add immeasurably to the experience of reading the book, but it goes both ways. Reading the book adds to our understanding of the author’s life. When I am reading I am always, on some level, aware of the author behind the book, and that connection is very important to me. It’s why, I believe, I’ve never been able to enjoy works that have multiple “authors” (like movies), or books that have co-authors, to the same extent.

  9. I suspect a lot of the problem here stems from the ridiculous way in which University preferments are made. You have to be seen to be better than the next fellow and that often means taking up a stance that is diametrically opposed to his so that you can show what an idiot he is. The result of this is that academics have had a tendency to take up entrenched and extreme positions when the ‘truth’, such as it is, is somewhere in the middle. It’s one of the reasons I’m glad I no longer hold a tenured position.

  10. I think you’re right. Knowing a bit about the author adds another dimension of interest. It’s difficult to divorce one’s self from one’s past. It almost certainly bleeds into the work.

  11. I know I go on about her a lot, but you should read Joan Acocella’s collection of essays on artists in which she magnificently draws together the life and the work in ways very similar to the one you use here. I think most writers draw on their own experience to write and so there is undeniably fascination in seeing what they do with the raw material. And yes, I too, MUST read some Eudora Welty!

  12. I love this topic (forgive me for being late to the discussion!). As a writer myself, I think it is impossible not to let some of the writer’s life seep into the fiction. Even when I don’t think I’m doing that, I find later (when I go back and read something I’ve written a long time ago) that sure enough – a piece of my life is there…perhaps hidden or subtle, but there non-the-less.

    Writing, in my opinion, is often an unconscious process for the writer. A story or character may be nagging him or her, and finally the writer gives voice to it…and discovers the story is an exploration of things in their own life. I am reminded of an interview I once read with John Irving. The interviewer pointed out that in Irving’s novels there always seemed to be a boy without a father, or looking for his father, or seeking out a father figure…and Irving admitted this was an issue he himself had worked through in his life – seeking his father.

    Thanks for the great discussion here!

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